Celibacy: Neither healthy nor helpful for the future of vocations

It may be the only issue on which conservative, moderate, and liberal young Catholics unite: few of us seem to want to make a life-long commitment to celibacy.

Though it has been documented that more traditional religious communities are maintaining higher numbers of recruits, even those who initially join these orders aren't guaranteed to stay committed. Half of the men and women who have entered religious life since 1990 left before taking final vows, according to a recent study conducted for the National Religious Vocation Conference.

Cardinal Franc Rodé would have us believe that the decline in those seeking to make a commitment to religious life can be blamed on Vatican II, which, he says, was "rich in experimentation but poor in robust and convincing mission."

In fact, dozens of studies conducted in the past 40 years call Rodé's statement into serious question. Research conducted by sociologists Dean Hoge and Andrew Greeley as early as the mid-1970s demonstrated that more people left the church due to a lack of changes rather than because of the changes that took place. Many withdrew in the years after the Council because they felt that the promise of change, particularly in the area of sexual ethics, never materialized.

This frustration on the part of the faithful concerning matters of sex and sexuality arose because Vatican II was not the only sweeping change to take place during the 1960s. I realize that this is obvious to most of us, but we live with a Roman Catholic hierarchy that continues to lead as if the women's movement, the sexual revolution, and the fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians never took place. There is no doubt that these movements deeply affected vocations because they generated a radical shift in relationships, most especially marriage.

The late 1960s shattered male and female roles: one's gender ceased to dictate a person's role in society. Large numbers of women began to seek higher education and the career of their choice. They were no longer relegated to living solely for the caretaking of their husbands and children. Men, too, gradually became more independent and could feasibly stay single longer, if not permanently. In short, men and women no longer depended on one another for the ability to function in day-to-day life. Marriages were almost entirely for the sake of love and personal fulfillment; the partners in the relationship were no longer wholly dependent on one another, as, for example, my grandparents were (and every other generation that preceded them).

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For the church, the ancient notion that virginity and/or celibacy is superior to married life has always been paramount. This idea existed centuries before the time of Jesus (who recognized that few were called to the life of the "eunuch" but was Christianized and exalted most significantly by St. Augustine and St. Jerome (both of whom were dead by 430 CE). Augustine and Jerome found support for this idea in Paul's indelible advice to the unmarried: "It would be well if they remain as they are, even as I do myself; but if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. It is better to marry than to be on fire" (1 Cornithians 7: 8-9). Paul, of course, thought that the return of Jesus was around the corner. So even the most blazing of fires wouldn't have to burn for too long.

These understandings of sex prevailed in the church from the 4th century through the time of Vatican II. Though Lumen Gentium teaches that all Christians, whether married or celibate, are called to holiness, the enduring celibacy requirement for priests, nuns, and brothers demonstrates the dominating power of this conviction.

But today's young adults (in the United States and Europe, at the very least) did not grow up in a culture that exalted virginity and promoted a fear of sex. In fact, we were formed in a culture that was far more obsessed with sex than repressed about it. However, just because young people do not wish to make a life commitment to celibacy does not mean that they are over-sexualized, hedonistic, and enslaved to a culture of moral decay. It simply demonstrates that newer generations have been formed in the idea that loving, committed, sexual relationships can and do cultivate one's personal, emotional, and spiritual growth.

If the leaders in the Roman Catholic church are looking for proof of the waning value of mandatory celibacy, they needn't look much farther than the lives of young adults who are strong defenders of traditional and conservative Catholic teachings. Most of these hardliners, many of whom reject the changes of Vatican II (that they didn't live through), have stayed away from the seminaries, too. Even they see value and holiness in committed sexual relationships. Though they insist sexual relationships should only exist between one man and one woman, and are only to be expressed in marriage, they are not much more drawn to a lifelong commitment to celibacy than any other young adult. So, if even the church's "children of light" aren't inclined toward this counter-cultural lifestyle, could there be something deeper at work here than the weakness of Vatican II's mission?

Though we inherited the goodness of greater equality for women, gays, and lesbians, as well as an enlightened, healthier understand of sexuality, young adults in the United States were also born into a culture that has become increasingly individualistic. The communal model in which our parents were raised, where members of their families, parishes and neighborhoods were not only a daily presence, but also a large influence over one's identity and life choices, has gradually vanished. Nearly half of those born in the last 30 years have parents who divorced. Few of us grew up surrounded and supported by our extended families. Living in a milieu filled with broken relationships and individualism has led to unparalleled levels of depression and anxiety, accompanied by struggles with abandonment and loneliness. So, the desire and the need for a family of one's own is in many ways more urgent for newer generations.

So many gifted young people who have excellent potential to pursue a religious vocation are turned away because they also want to experience the possibility of falling in love and having a family. They should not be made to feel any less faithful, committed, or capable of sacrifice because of that aspiration. They are simply people born in the wake of unmatched social and culture change and their desire for this type of relationship is healthy and holy.

I am not suggesting that celibacy is wrong or unhealthy. For some individuals, this choice is very life-giving. My concern is with the idea that one can only consecrate one's life to a religious vocation if they commit to celibacy. Banning everyone who seeks a healthy, loving, committed sexual relationship from devoting her or his life to the service of the gospel creates shame about sexuality. It suggests that any sexual expression is an obstacle to being fully and authentically committed to bringing the life of God into the world.

Young adults, I believe, have the vision to see that both paths have equal potential for holiness, and one needn't be exclusive of the other. They are simply seeking wholeness in every aspect of their lives. They do not believe that one must choose between the love of God that becomes present in a loving, sexual relationship and the love of God that emerges in a life of service and sacrifice to the work of God.

[Jamie Manson received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School where she studied Catholic theology, personal commitments and sexual ethics with Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley. A writer based in New York, she is the former editor in chief of the Yale magazine Reflections. As a lay minister she has worked extensively with New York City's homeless and poor populations. She is a member of the national board of the Women's Ordination Conference.]

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