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Celibacy and Sexual Capitalism

Ever since I first came across Grant Kaplan’s essay on “Celibacy as Political Resistance”, I’ve been musing over his central thesis. Although his subject is an ostensibly sexual one—celibacy—it’s one of the best short essays I’ve read in political theology during the past year, and I think it deserves to be much more widely read.

Kaplan’s central claim is that both papal primacy and clerical celibacy function as spiritual declarations of independence for the modern Christian citizen.” Both of them “preserve Catholic identity, not by petitioning the state for rights but by mounting a theological counteroffensive against the pretensions of the modern nation-state.”

Clerical celibacy in particular “fosters an eschatological imagination.” It focuses sexual energies on the building up of the heavenly city—that Jerusalem which is above, and free, and our Mother (Gal 4:26)—and therefore relativizes the importance of the earthly city, resists the pretensions of the secular power to assume control over the entirety of our public reality, and provides a bulwark against the ever-present temptation to subordinate ecclesial identity to national identity. Celibacy is not merely a private spiritual discipline. The use celibacy makes of the body is a political statement that points to the existence of a polity that puts “national boundaries and loyalties in their proper context.”

I was reminded of Kaplan’s thesis recently while reading some of the work of Diana L. Hayes. Hayes is a womanist theologian (womanism, for those unaware, is a philosophy and theology grounded in black women’s intersecting experiences of gender and racial oppression). Unlike Kaplan, Hayes is not interested in being a standard-bearer for clerical celibacy, arguing that “honest, open discussions within the church on homosexuality, optional celibacy and married priesthood as well as women’s ordination are desperately needed.” Hayes is, however, celibate herself, and quite passionate about the value of celibacy today:

To be single and celibate … in today’s world is to be seen as something of an anomaly, someone out of sync with the times. The sexual revolution is usually interpreted as giving persons the freedom to engage in sexual intimacy without guilt or the fear of disapproval from others. As a vowed celibate laywoman, I believe, however, that that freedom has too often not just been interpreted as providing a sexual license to engage in any and all forms of sexual intimacy but, in actuality, as setting forth a mandate or demand that one must engage in sexual relationships or be labeled a puritan or prude. This overemphasis on “having” sex has too often forced us to overlook some of the more negative side effects to the sexual revolution.

Like the capitalist system that undergirds it, Hayes criticizes the way in which the sexual revolution provides an illusion of “freedom” while at the same time funneling sexual activity into narrow, predetermined channels that militate against communal flourishing:

Young people are constantly bombarded with media depictions of the “joys of sex”; they listen to music which is graphic in its depiction of sexuality and almost pornographic in its negative and derogatory depictions of women … Little information is provided in schools other than on how to use a condom, which most can’t afford or be bothered with. Nothing is said about alternate styles of life which uphold and promote humanity while providing a positive outlet for feelings with which many young people are still grappling.

Like capitalist consumerism as a whole, the specifically sexual consumerism of the post-1960s sexual revolution gradually enslaves people by producing an increasingly large amount of the same desire that it alone purports to be able to satisfy, yet only satisfying that desire in increasingly diminished proportions. Instead of the straitjacketed view of freedom offered by the sexual revolution, Hayes proposes celibacy as a witness to a genuinely “responsible freedom” in the use of one’s own body and in one’s disposition toward the bodies of others “in today’s world of instant gratification”:

I take my status as a vowed celibate laywoman very seriously … For me, the celibate state provides, not a selfish freedom of self-indulgence and irresponsibility, but a responsible freedom to live a life of service … The ethic which guides my life is the response to the question cynically raised by Cain to God after he slew his brother Abel. “Am I my brother’s (and sister’s) keeper?” My answer is an unequivocal yes … My single state has freed me not only to assist family members when in need [ … but also] to work on behalf of others, to develop loving and close friendships with both men and women without the tensions that such relationships too often bring when the possibility of sexual intimacy is present. It has also required me to live with loneliness and to feel, at times, unloved and forgotten … [But] for me, and I believe many others, a sexual ethic of singleness built upon the foundation of celibacy is a viable way of being in today’s world, open to God’s call, and free to respond often with very short notice.

Hayes is not the only writer to have hinted at the potentialities of celibacy as politics in a post-sexual revolution capitalist milieu. Queer theorist Benjamin Kahan’s 2013 monograph Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life is probably the first study to focus solely on celibacy within the field of queer theory. Kahan criticizes queer theorists for ignoring celibacy or seeing it as merely a “closeting screen” for sexual identity, rather than itself constituting a coherent identity and set of practices. Through an investigation into the lives of an assortment of pre-sexual revolution bohemian figures, Kahan attempts to re-situate celibacy within a history of “radical politics, of feminist organizing, of black activism, queer citizenship, and other leftist interventions.” Instead of ceding celibacy to “the Right,” Kahan argues, leftists should reclaim “the radical political potential that nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists and activists found in the practices of celibacy.”

Going a little further back, secular feminist Sally Cline’s regrettably little-read 1993 book Women, Celibacy and Passion opens with a statement that defines an anti-capitalist agenda for contemporary celibacy and echoes Hayes’s fears that the sexual revolution is less about creating freedom than about “setting forth a mandate or demand” to engage in sex:

Celibacy raises eyebrows because it is an act of rebellion against the sacred cow of sexual consumerism. This is a consumer society. An assumption built into it is that we should all be eager consumers of sexual activity.

Cline focuses on the way that the sexual revolution creates false consciousness (although she doesn’t use the Marxist term of analysis). Though it masquerades under the banner of “freedom,” the sexual revolution has ushered in an era of “compulsory genital sex” backed up with a veneer of objectivity by the jackboots of experts who churn out allegedly unbiased scientific studies exalting both the psychological and physical “benefits” of regular sexual activity and the purported physiological harms and emotional strains of sexual abstinence (a view very different from ancient medicine, which tended to see maximum retention of sexual energies as the key to robust health). We are no longer, she argues, “in the realm of sexual freedom, we are in the arena of sexual oppression”—particularly for women:

Masters of manipulation have managed successfully to portray the sixties as a time of freedom for women, when in fact it was not freedom as such but freedom to have more sex more often provided it was pointedly directed towards male pleasure … It gave men more access to women’s bodies, it justified male promiscuity and power, and it encouraged a separation between body and emotion, or sexual behavior and loving feelings. It may have been male sexual liberation, but for women it must more aptly be named Genital Appropriation.

Cline notes, wryly, that even sexual activities once considered perverse  are increasingly accepted not because, as we like to tell ourselves, we live in a more open and tolerant society—we are just as censorious as ever about sexual practices of which we disapprove—but rather they “are tolerated on the grounds that they at least involve genital activity.” Any form of sexual activity between consenting adults helps to reinforce the prevailing mythology of sexual freedom and the cult of compulsory sexual activity created by the confluence of the sexual revolution and modern capitalism.

I am not particularly interested in defending the practice of celibacy within the Catholic Church merely as—as it currently is—a disembodied disciplinary norm for clerics. But I am interested in, and disturbed by, the process that has led to its being disembodied.  The reason celibacy no longer makes sense even to most Catholics does not really have that much to do with—as some conservatives allege—the post-1960s progressive thirst for novelty. It results from a much deeper (and frankly more insidious) process within recent Catholic history during which the praxis of celibacy has become disengaged from its social and political contexts—and therefore disengaged from any robust moral foundation—and instead presented merely as a pious personal practice that helps clerics to perform more effectively in their “job.” Contemporary Catholic celibacy is frankly almost unrecognizable when compared to the vision outlined by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, and this vision, along with the celibate life of Jesus, must surely be the source to which the Church continually returns in every age when thinking about celibacy.

As so many patristic scholars have shown, the high regard for celibacy in the early Church was not a matter of individualistic piety—of being “married to Jesus”—but a form of political re-configuration. Just as Kaplan points out that the discipline of celibacy puts “national boundaries and loyalties in their proper context,” for the early Christians celibacy functioned as one mode of resistance to the Roman insistence on subordinating the body to the state, and on a cult of compulsory reproduction for the sake of the allegedly eternal Roman fatherland. With a few exceptions made for Vestal Virgins and eunuchs, those who refused to reproduce were penalized by the state, just as those who refuse to subscribe to the prevailing sexual orthodoxy are increasingly subject to some form of penalty in our own times.

In this age of rapacious capitalism and of compulsory sexuality, there is potential for celibacy—and not just for clerics and religious—to make sense as political praxis more than at any time in Christian history since the reign of Constantine. But a restoration of the proper respect due to celibacy will require fewer pious platitudes and a deeper attention to both the Christian Tradition and to the social and political contexts in which Christians find themselves today.


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  • This is really exciting work. Thank you!

  • Thomas Storck

    “I am not particularly interested in defending the practice of celibacy
    within the Catholic Church merely as—as it currently is—a disembodied
    disciplinary norm for clerics.”

    I think you may be on to something here. I don’t know about Europe or Latin America (or elsewhere), but in the U.S. it seems that religious faith for most people is based on a sort of cultural religiosity which increasingly appeals and has meaning only within what we call conservatism, i.e., a politico-cultural outlook which actually is a form of liberalism and is absolutely dissociated from nature, including human nature. For the most part, apart from this conservative cultural outlook, all forms of Christianity seem culturally irrelevant, not so much untrue as meaningless. And for most Catholics, not only the commandments of the Church but those of God as well are seen as isolated commandments, disembodied, as you note, from life as a whole. Of course there are exceptions, but they tend to be of intellectuals who are drawn to the Church because of philosophy or history or the arts.

    • In the Roman-Catholic part of the Church, priests had (and has) to liven in celibacy even if they were not monks. This had practical reasons. Such is, at least, common knowledge. It seems to me that it has to be *this* part of celibacy that Aaron describes as »disembodied disciplinary norm for clerics».

      For monks, then I guess they stil are celibate »for the right reason”, so to speak. Although the demand to live in celibacy simply in order to become a priest perhaps has lead to a higher number of munchs than otherwise would have been the case.

      The distinction between celibacy as a virtue and celibacy as simply cheaper for parish to pay for than a priest and his wife (plus children …) is certainly an issue to be aware.

      • Thomas Storck

        What I meant and what I thought the writer probably meant, was that having an unmarried clergy is now understood by most Catholics simply as a disciplinary rule, isolated from any theological context or effort to show forth any aspect of our life with God, to be a sign to the world. I am not opposed to a celibate priesthood, simply that the meaning of the discipline should be focused on if it is to be a sign to the world today.

  • Dylan Pahman

    Very interesting. Are you using “capitalism” and “consumerism” interchangeably here? How do you define them?

  • Jennifer Roback Morse Phd

    I have been saying for some time that the Sexual Revolution leads to a consumerist view of sex itself and of one’s sex partners. I used to say it in my “sex talks” all the time. I would call it “consumer sex” or sometimes, “Walmart Sex.” You get to have all the sex you want at low cost to yourself, without ever considering the wider consequences of what you are doing. My book Smart Sex lays out the whole argument. available at the Ruth Institute on-line store…

  • jay kay

    Could you elaborate on celibacy as a resistance to Rome? Your second-last paragraph seemed a bit thin. Yes, celibacy does mark resistance to the status quo–but was it pursued as part of a strategy of resistance to the Empire, or was it demanded for some other reason, and required disciplined resistance to maintain in the face of Rome?

    I completely agree w/ the need to have a fuller conception of celibacy, and having churches that support celibate individuals. (I say this as a low-church Protestant, where we have *no* living models of celibacy, not even misinterpreted priests.) Of course this would mark those individuals and communities, and, yes, it would run counter to our culture, resisting it, and require active resistance. However, I don’t think we nor the early Christians pursue celibacy for the sake of resistance. It seems rather that there’s a political aspect to what is first an ethical precept (to draw a bad distinction). Yes, there are political criticisms that will only develop when we improve our understanding and practice of celibacy; but it seems like celibacy drives these, rather than serving as a moment of critique.

    (Think I’ve overdrawn my criticism here. Was really just a bit dissatisfied about that penultimate paragraph.)

  • mg

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, LARGE families are as counter-cultural as celibacy is. Are penalized by some states, do not subscribe to rampant promiscuity and can form small domestic churches/communities.

  • Mark

    I’m glad you’re not interested in defending a disembodied discipline of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests. I understand the idea that institutional as opposed to just individual has the effect of shielding the Church from political co-optation…but I think much more often these days it’s the other side of that coin that should worry us: the cutting off of the clergy from normal ties in their own enclave or hothouse, where their greatest social loyalties lie with other clerics. The clergy is not the Church, only a part, and it is the Church as a whole, not just the clergy, which we want to be a polity “in but not of” the World. Mandatory celibacy for all priests but only for priests I fear creates a clergy that is “in but not of” the Church itself! That might even be okay for monasteries, but the secular priesthood isn’t supposed to be consecrated religious life which also requires communal living, etc. The attitude that clerical celibacy protects catholic identity also makes it sound like appearance is more important than reality, since for many priests their celibacy is a sham, more about not being married/in a public relationship than about actually being chaste or avoiding even secret relationships. But of course the “identity politics” effect of institutional celibacy remains valid whether or not priests are actually chaste, just as long as the facade is maintained in enough people’s minds (which it isn’t anymore anyway). But should we really be supporting a political effect whose effectiveness is more dependent on keeping up appearances or hypotheticals than on real substance? It seems to me the “keeping the Church independent from the World” effect depends mainly on the official story that priests are celibate, whether or not that story is true in practice, and that gives me major pause.

    My proposal has always been to adopt a more “Mormon” model of clergy: ordain many married men from the parish (and perhaps divide parishes into lots of small groups of only ~200 that might share a central archparish church building but then meet in the smaller groups in houses). Make it a “part-time, volunteer” office where most clerics only do church on Sundays, but then also take one day a month to do their “temple duty” and provide the full liturgy (mass and office) in the central main church. And make the training only a two year night-and-weekend school thing, rather than the six year institutionalization of seminary. Some celibate men might still be full-time and salaried and do the full-time administrative duties of the archparish, but otherwise have lots of men from the parish be “priests simplex” at least on the model of permanent deacons.

    I think we’d see a massive revival in liturgy and in people’s investment in and involvement with the church.

  • Arianna

    What is the image you have used?

    • Michael Bradley


      It’s a 7th-century icon of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, who were 3rd/4th-century Christian soldiers (d. ~303) and are recognized as martyrs in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Hope this helps!