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To: breakem
Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 2, Feb. 6, 1999


Part 1


Celibacy is the state of being unmarried. Chastity is the avoidance of all sexual activity outside the married state. As far as Rome is concerned, any attempt to distinguish between celibacy and chastity in the priesthood is an idle exercise in semantics. Priests who marry (without a dispensation) violate the law of the Church and the divine law of chastity. Throughout the first part of this paper, then, we will be using the word "celibacy" according to the definition proposed by theologian Leonard Weber:

"Celibacy here means not simply the fact of not being married…celibacy is here understood as the unmarried state chosen in the light of the Christian faith, and in particular as one of the duties of the state in life of the clergy of the Latin Church by which they are forbidden to marry and obliged to live in total continence." (Weber, 1975, p.178)

However, later in our paper, we hope to demonstrate that, even though celibacy (renunciation of marriage) and abstinence (renunciation of extra-marital sexual activity) have come to be identified in Roman Catholic hierarchical and populist thinking, they proceed, in fact from two separate ideologies, one born of power, the other born of sex negative asceticism. By twinning and identifying celibacy and abstinence, the Roman Catholic Church had found the perfect formula for controlling the lives of its ordained.

One common misunderstanding (evidenced by the way people speak, e.g. "He broke his vow and married") is that celibacy is a vow taken by ordained priests of the Latin Church. Celibacy is not a vow. In Roman Catholic theology, a vow is a promise made directly to God. Celibacy is an obligation imposed by the institutional Church. We notice the use of "obligation" words in the most recent Code of Canon Law where no reference is made to celibacy as a vow:

“Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and, therefore, are obliged to observe celibacy." (canon 277) And, again:

"...loss of clerical state does not entail a dispensation from the obligation of celibacy." (canon 291) (Code of Canon Law: 1983. pp. 97 & 103)


Celibacy was not part of the Hebrew tradition. The command "Be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28) was taken literally and seriously. In Israel, a large family was a divine blessing, (Genesis 22:17; Psalm 127:3-4); sterility was a terrible curse (Genesis 30:1; 1 Samuel 1:6-8); virginity was a cause for mourning (Judges 11:37). Rabbis, especially, were expected to be models of observance of God's command to "be fruitful and multiply."


As we said in the previous section, celibacy was not an integral part of the Hebrew tradition. It would seem, however, that there were groups of ascetics in Israel who renounced marriage and sexual activity. These groups were outside the mainstream of Jewish society and lived in a remote region near the Dead Sea. There is no evidence to suggest that celibacy was a requirement for membership in the Qumram community of the Essenes. A review of the available evidence makes it impossible to support the popular image of the Essenes as an all male celibate community. Philo states that the Essenes refrained from sexual activity (Hypothetica 11:14). Yet, according to Josephus, there were married and unmarried Essenes (JW 2.8, 2 and 13 #120. 160). Three of the unearthed manuscripts, (classified CD, QM and IQSA), believed to be from the community's library, refer to the presence of women and children in the community. The skeletal remains of women were found in the community's cemetery (Brown, Raymond, 1968, p.554).

The most that can be said, then, is that the Qumram community of Essenes was composed of married and unmarried males and females. Therefore, when the Church holds up the Essenes in support of celibacy, as an example of "our ancient tradition" of celibacy, we should know that for one thing, the evidence points to the Qumram community as having a membership of married and unmarried, and, secondly, that there is no evidence at all that MANDATORY celibacy was a requirement for membership in the Essene community.


Groups who took temporary vows were known as Nazarites. The Book of Numbers (6:2-21) lays down specific instructions for Nazarites: they were to abstain from alcoholic drink, even wine, they were to avoid all contact with corpses and they were not to cut their hair. We mention the Nazarites here because some historians stretch the data to make a case for celibacy. Henri Daniel-Rops, for example, writes: "And the Nazarites would vow celibacy or at least continence for a given length of time." (Daniel-Rops, 1962, p.116) The Book of Numbers gives no instructions about sexual abstinence for Nazarites and Henri Daniel-Rops quotes no source for this assertion. The same author is even more outrageous when he refers to female Nazarites (again, giving no source): "It is probable that some young women even took a vow of virginity, either for life or for a certain time. Our Lady's reply to the angel of the Lord has often been interpreted as meaning that the future mother of Christ had made a promise of this kind." (ibid. p. 397).

Although we know that Nazarites existed at the time of Jesus (Matthew 15:5; Mark 7:11), there is no evidence that they were either celibate or sexually inactive and no evidence that celibacy was mandated for Nazarites. Therefore, the practice of taking Nazarite vows was not linked to marriage in any way.


Jamake Highwater writes: "Of course, Jesus did not invent celibacy. It existed among Jews, such as the strictly ascetic Essene sect of Palestine as well as the Therapeutae monastic groups in Egypt. But such celibate Jews were considered extremists by the majority of their fellow Jews." Having stated that Jesus did not "invent celibacy", Highwater adds: "Though trained in Jewish tradition Jesus himself was responsible for radically changing traditional attitudes about celibacy." (Highwater, 1990. pp. 112, 113).

Elaine Pagels would appear to agree with Highwater that Jesus did introduce a revolutionary approach to celibacy in spite of having been reared in the strong Jewish tradition of marriage/fertility/family: "by subordinating the obligation to procreate, rejecting divorce, and implicitly sanctioning monogamous relationships, Jesus reverses traditional Jewish priorities, declaring, in effect, that other obligations, including marital ones. are now more important than procreation. Even more startling, Jesus endorses -- and exemplifies – a new possibility and one he says is even better: rejecting both marriage and procreation in favor of voluntary celibacy, for the sake of following him into the new age." (Pagels, 1988).

There are some "heavy" words in the statements of Highwater and Pagels that we take issue with. We disagree with Highwater that Jesus "radically" changed traditional attitudes about celibacy. We find nothing to suggest that Jesus, after his death, left behind a Jewish people engaged in heated debate over the new issue of the day, celibacy. We disagree with Pagels that Jesus proposed celibacy as a better choice than marriage. Jesus saw celibacy as a legitimate option and one that could be used in the service of the kingdom. His cousin John the Baptizer had chosen that option. But, after praising his celibate cousin, Jesus added: "Yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is." (Matthew 11:11). Jesus does not make celibacy the measure of spiritual greatness.

We agree that Jesus recognized celibacy as a legitimate option, provided it were chosen for the right reason: ."...there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:12). And, we agree that Jesus did not mention procreation as one of the purposes of marriage. We find his omission of any mention of marriage-for-procreation much more significant than his acceptance of the celibate lifestyle. The Jewish people knew about the Qumram community and, taking their strong tradition for marriage /family into account, probably regarded these desert inhabitants as "oddballs', or as sinners who did not carry out God's command to "Be fruitful and multiply." Jesus, always the champion of those on the fringes, was calling on people to be tolerant of those who were different, especially when their intentions were honorable. Therefore, as we stated, we find it much more surprising that Jesus mentioned the unitive but not the procreative purpose of marriage. But, really, this should not be surprising either because, when speaking of marriage, Jesus referred back to the original purpose of marriage in Genesis where the unitive purpose ("not good to be alone") was stated before the command to be fruitful.

To return to the question before us: is there anything in the preaching of Jesus that would support MANDATORY celibacy? We answer with a definite no! His qualifying remark makes that clear: "Let anyone accept this who can." (Mt. 19:12).


The Christian Church has worked with the presumption that Jesus never married, never engaged in sexual activity. Roman Catholic theologian Joan Timmerman, speaking of that presumption writes: " ... the tradition of Jesus' celibacy derives from later devotional rather than biblical or theological sources authoritative in the early communities. Timmerman concludes: "Scholars also point out the obvious, that to argue from omission is weak. On both sides, those who assume Jesus' celibacy and those who argue for a more conventional lifestyle for his time, all that can be gathered is supposition, not fact." (Timmerman, 1992. pp. 29 & 30).

Taking this a step further, another contemporary Roman Catholic theologian, Rosemary Radford Rueter, suggests that behind the image of Jesus-the-celibate-male lies an imbedded sexism that seeks to support a social system that affords men dominance and privilege. Consequently, the gospel is not seen as a protest but merely as having "social symbolic significance in the framework of societies of patriarchal privilege." "The protest of the gospels", she writes, "is directed at the concrete sociological realities in which maleness and femaleness are elements, along with class, ethnicity, religious office, and law, that define the network of social status." (Ruether, 1983. p.137).

Once a connection between sex and sin had been established, the thought of a non celibate Jesus was anathema to the Church Fathers of the first centuries. Jesus, after all, was not only a priest, he was the High Priest. As St. Ambrose wrote: "The ministerial office must be kept pure and unspotted and must not be defiled by coitus." (St. Ambrose, "Duties of Clergy" 1, 258).

Iranaeus (d. 202) held that Adam and Eve were banished from Eden for copulating, and that Jesus redeemed the world by not copulating. (St. Iranaeus, "Against Heresies" 5, 19, 1)

These early theologians found support in various Greek philosophies (Stoicism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism) that regarded the (pure) soul as a prisoner of the (vile) body. Body negative philosophies, coupled with sex negative theologies, created a climate of thought that made the marriage of Jesus unthinkable. The Gospel of Phillip from the second century, which refers to Magdalen as the spouse of Jesus, is dismissed as apocryphal.

We can only conclude that those who hold that Jesus lived the celibate life are going on a presumption with no facts to substantiate that position. On the other hand, those who propose that Jesus was non celibate are also reliant on presumption. So, to present Jesus as a model for celibates is to go beyond what the facts allow. We agree with Joan Timmerman that the celibacy or non celibacy of Jesus is a matter of "supposition, not fact."


"The zealot of celibacy was the Christian disciple Paul," writes Jamake Highwater (op. cit. p.113). We find the word "zealot" somewhat extreme since zealots are not known to be tolerant of options. Paul was not a man to exclude options. Referring to his own celibate state , Paul said: “I should like everyone to be like me" but, in un-zealot fashion, adds: "About remaining celibate, I have no directions from the Lord." (1 Corinthians 7:7 and 7:25) Reay Tannahill claims that: "He (Paul) was perhaps the first thinker in Western history to equate spirituality with sex." We dispute the word "equate." If he equated spirituality with sex he would not have encouraged bishops to be faithful to their wives (I Timothy 3:1). How much more direct could Paul be than when he wrote: “But if you marry, it is no sin."? (I Corinthians 7:28). Roman Catholic theologian, Dick Westley, believes that the Church so focused on I Corinthians 7, which could be accommodated to suit Stoic values, that it downplayed the call for equality in Ephesians 5. "It was a costly move for which Catholics are still paying," writes Wesley, “for it laid the foundation for what we called earlier in this book the church's rather crude and primitive understandings of natural law. What is so ironic about the whole thing is that although it has become 'the Catholic tradition,' in reality it isn't 'Christian,' but Platonic and Stoic in origin." (Westley, 1984. p.174).

Paul did not connect sexuality and sin as is clear from his statements about marriage. However, it could be argued that he connected sexuality and grace by building "a holiness pyramid" with sex as its base: sex with Temple prostitutes is unholy; the marriage of Christians is holy; virginity and celibacy are holiest. Virginity and celibacy he regarded as charisms, not possessed by everyone, not even by everyone ordained (as the law of MANDATORY celibacy presupposes). "I should like everyone to be like me, but everyone has his own particular gifts from God..." (I Corinthians 7:7) Commentators, like Stephen Sapp, believe that what Paul has to say about celibacy must be interpreted in the light of Paul's eschatology. Paul was pre-occupied with the End Time which he believed was imminent. In effect, Paul was saying: "The End Time is at hand. Be prepared. If you are married, stay married. If you are single, stay single. Don't complicate your lives because the Lord is about to return." As Stephen Sapp puts it: "Paul's thought was largely determined by his very strong eschatological expectation of the imminent return of Christ. (Sapp, 1977.p.69). Nothing that Paul says supports the law of MANDATORY celibacy.


ST. JEROME (331-419) was the most ardent advocate of celibacy. Henry Charles Lea surmises that Jerome, who was familiar with Buddhism, may have been influenced by its religious folklore, especially by the story of Maya and her husband taking a vow of chastity so that she might give birth to the Buddha in purity. Jerome, according to the same author, regarded Peter as a lesser saint that John because Peter was married and John wasn't. (Lea, 1966. p. 26 ff). Jerome considered marriage an invention of Satan and encouraged married couples who converted to Christianity to renounce their marriage vows: "How many there are who, by consent between themselves, cancel the debt of their marriage, eunuchs of their own accord through the desire of the kingdom of heaven." (Goldberg, 1958. p.186).

ST. AUGUSTINE (354-430 AD), after living a robust sexual life, became a strong advocate of celibacy. "Augustine imbibed the dualistic metaphysics of Gnosticism, splitting body and spirit, this world and the other world. Sex was always tainted, even in marriage, because the sin of Adam was passed on by intercourse and conception. Concupiscence was a punishment for the Fall. The only way to redeem oneself was through abstinence (Feuerstein, 1989, p.89). In order to be true to his own logic, Augustine had to be an advocate of celibacy since he considered an erect penis a visible sign of man's inner revolt against God, and the ordained must stand humbly before their God at all times. Interpreting Augustine's thought, Foucault writes: " in erection is the image of man revolted against God. The arrogance of sex is the punishment and consequence of the arrogance of man." (Foucault, 1985)

When the teachings of Jerome and Augustine became the dominant sexual ethic of the Western Church, the foundation was laid for the introduction of MANDATORY celibacy.

13 posted on 02/15/2002 8:35:46 PM PST by breakem
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To: breakem
Very interesting. I have always wondered why the Catholic Church insisted upon celibacy. The Eastern Orthodox are not celibate, are they? And, I'm Episcopalian (Anglican) priests were allowed to marry at least since Henry VIII.
27 posted on 02/16/2002 4:12:20 PM PST by The Right Stuff
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