Why Celibacy Matters

How the critique of Catholicism changes and yet remains the same.

The rhetoric of anti-Catholicism, whether its sources are Protestant or secular, has always insisted that the church of Rome is the enemy of what you might call healthy sexuality. This rhetorical trope has persisted despite radical redefinitions of what healthy sexuality means; one sexual culture overthrows another, but Catholicism remains eternally condemned.

Thus in a 19th-century context, where healthy sexuality meant a large patriarchal family with the wife as the angel in the home, anti-Catholic polemicists were obsessed with Catholicism’s nuns — these women who mysteriously refused husbands and childbearing, and who were therefore presumed to be prisoners in gothic convents, victims of predatory priests.

Then a little later, when the apostles of sexual health were Victorian “muscular Christians” worried about moral deviance, the problem with Catholicism was that it was too hospitable to homosexuality — too effete, too decadent, too Oscar Wildean even before Wilde’s deathbed conversion.

Then later still, when sexual health meant the white-American, two-kid nuclear family, the problem with Catholicism was that it was too obsessed with heterosexual procreation, too inclined to overpopulate the world with kids.

And now, in our own age of sexual individualism, Catholicism is mostly just accused of a repressive cruelty, of denying people — and especially its celibacy-burdened priests — the sexual fulfillment that every human being needs.

The mix of change and consistency in anti-Catholic arguments came to mind while I was reading “In the Closet of the Vatican,” a purported exposé of homosexuality among high churchmen released to coincide with the church’s summit on clergy sexual abuse. The book, written by a gay, nonbelieving French journalist, Frédéric Martel, makes a simple argument in a florid, repetitious style: The prevalence of gay liaisons in the Vatican means that clerical celibacy is a failure and a fraud, as unnatural and damaging as an earlier moral consensus believed homosexuality to be.

The style of Martel’s account is fascinating because it so resembles the old Protestant critique of Catholic decadence. Instead of a tough-guy Calvinist proclaiming that Catholicism’s gilt and incense makes men gay, it’s a gay atheist claiming that the gays use Catholicism’s gilt and incense to decorate the world’s most lavish closet. Instead of celibacy making men deviant, celibacy is the deviance, and open homosexuality the cure. Celibacy used to offend family-values conservatism; now it offends equally against the opposite spirit.

The book is quite bad; too many of its attempted outings rely on the supposed infallibility of Martel’s gaydar. And yet anyone who knows anything about the Vatican knows that some of the book’s gossip is simply true — just as the other critiques of Catholicism have some correspondence to reality.

How Male Theologians Ruined Parenting

A pastor and a rabbi talk about kids, poop, and tearing down the patriarchy in institutional religion

The Bible is a man’s book. It was mostly written by men, for men, and about men. The people who then interpreted the text have also been predominately male.

No wonder there’s not much theology preoccupied with weird-colored poop and the best way to weather tantrums. Throughout history, childcare has largely been considered women’s work—and, by extension, not theologically serious.

.. What in theology is traditionally associated with women? There’s this whole realm of human experience to which our texts are oblivious—they’re not considered important because they’re not on the radar screen of the people who are traditionally writing theology.

.. And there are times when a critique is necessary, like with mikvah. There are some traditionally misogynistic undertones in the way it’s been framed and deployed throughout history. Yet, to throw out the baby with the bathwater didn’t feel right either, because it is actually probably the closest thing to magic that I’ve ever experienced. I think we can do feminist work to grapple with and reclaim, on our own terms, some of the more problematic aspects of Judaism for women.

.. one day the question popped into my head, “I wonder how many theologians throughout history have been mothers?” The answer is, of course, almost none.

.. I’ve never been big on what you call atonement theology: An angry God demands a bloody sacrifice of his beloved child. But the fact that if I said that to a kid it would give them nightmares and make them hate and fear God—that gives good reason to think of another understanding about what Jesus is all about.

.. There’s certainly a place in the tradition for folks who have vowed to be celibate to speak about intimacy and love and childbearing. If there are men who are doing the good work of parenting while doing other things, then I think, certainly, they could be bridge-builders, too. But you’d really want folks who know what they are talking about.

 .. I look at them and think, “Wow, you exist, and I’m not really sure how”—technically, yes, but not really. When I go down deep enough into my love for them, I feel like that can take me everywhere. That’s as much a portal to the holy as it was in those moments when I was in my 20s and blissing out in prayer by myself and having deep powerful meditations at three in the morning and crazy mystical experiences and all of that. I think God is at least, if not more, present in all of my interactions with them.
.. There’s sometimes been a sense that evangelical Christians were more concerned about your marriage and your kids and your family, and the more liberal, mainline Protestants were more concerned with civil rights and social justice, and those were sort of separate entities.