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Celibacy and Utilitarianism | Catholic Life

Celibacy and Utilitarianism

The odd thing about conservative Catholics and celibate marriage is that they so quickly dismiss it for reasons that are eerily similar to those that “liberals” and non-Catholics give when criticizing the celibacy of priests and religious. The complaint is that the point of marriage is to have sex and children, so it would be just wrong for a couple to choose to give their lives to Christ in a way that excludes conjugal intercourse.

This complaint is the result of the same utilitarian misunderstanding that causes people to suggest that the important thing is to do good for others, and it there is no point in being good unless it accomplishes something. Conservative Catholics can then support priestly celibacy because they understand it from a skewed utilitarian perspective: married priests couldn’t give themselves over to the Church completely, and the Church requires 100% of their energy. The celibacy of active religious is also appreciated, since it allows them to do great work- after all, can you imagine a married Mother Teresa?

But we completely miss the point of giving oneself entirely to Christ. And so we view cloistered religious life as quaintly lovely–though certainly not a vocation for our daughters or friends! And celibate marriage is completely nonsensical. It does not matter what its status is in Canon law and Tradition! It does not serve an obvious utilitarian purpose, so it cannot be right.

The problem is, of course, that Christianity is not utilitarian.

You must break the alabaster jar of your life.

But it could have been sold and the money given to the poor! That would clearly be so much more virtuous!

And they could have conceived children! That would clearly have been so much more godly! It simply is the way that things are supposed to be!

But Jesus is not the LORD of Utilitarianism. And following Christ just does not work that way.

Many are called but few are chosen. There is no shame in not being chosen, but there is shame in castigating others simply because we do not understand their calling. So please respond to upcoming posts on celibate marriage and certainly let me know if you think that I am wrong about something. But please also take great care in your comments to not insult those who have chosen to embrace Christ differently than you.

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20 Responses to “Celibacy and Utilitarianism”

  1. Frugal Librarian 31. Aug, 2010 at 6:39 am #

    Please provide, other than Mary and Joseph, some theology for this POV. I have only encountered this one other time.

    • Rae 31. Aug, 2010 at 7:40 am #

      I am going to do a series of posts. I just don’t want people slamming something just because they don’t understand it. :-)

  2. Katie 31. Aug, 2010 at 8:00 am #

    “But please also take great care in your comments to not insult those who have chosen to embrace Christ differently than you.”


    • Rae 01. Sep, 2010 at 3:46 pm #

      Thanks. :-)

  3. practicinghuman 31. Aug, 2010 at 8:56 am #

    I think this discussion about how celibacy enters into partnered relationships is important. So much of the time we can treat marriage as a license to have sex, missing in large part the meaning of the mystery. Even the view of procreation is totally utilitarian in this regard. Where do we have the laying down of one’s life for the other? Where do we have making manifest the kingdom of God? How do we understand marriage as the foundation of a familial life, both in terms of biological and spiritual children?

    Additionally, we do not have a category for celibate relationships so people who are “supposed to be celibate” in the church generally received a very constrained picture of meaningful relationships. Celibacy, for all of its acceptance in religious vocation, is still seen as really weird for lay people.

    • Rae 01. Sep, 2010 at 7:04 am #

      All very good points! I like to imagine that some Orthodox retain a better understanding of sexual abstinence in marriage, but there is still so much missing for the average couple. And if you really pry, most people aren’t actually that accepting of celibacy, even as a religious vocation.

  4. alison 01. Sep, 2010 at 7:49 am #

    Am still trying to wrap my head around this and maybe I’m taking this out of context but when you wrote

    “Many are called but few are chosen. There is no shame in not being chosen, but there is shame in castigating others simply because we do not understand their calling,”

    are you referring to celibate marriage? Just wondering because if you say many are chosen to this vocation, then how would the human race continue? Maybe some are called, but I might hesitate to say “many”.
    I’m guessing your post about if a couple can forever postpone children and still be in the ‘right’ was a prelude to this series. If so, I wonder if a celibate marriage is premeditated, then is it be valid, since children aren’t being “lovingly accepted from God”? Anyway, I also hesitate to say that a celibate marriage would be ‘holier’ than a consummated one, as you seem to be implying, since that goes more with the puritan view that sex is ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’.
    Yeah, now that I’m thinking about this I have a ton more questions – such as why marriage and not the single life, so, I guess I’ll wait and see what else you write…

    • Rae 01. Sep, 2010 at 5:16 pm #

      I was referring to celibacy in general. And I said “many are called, but *few* are chosen” which is a way of expressing the fact that a great good is open to many, but not many can actually live it. So I don’t think there will ever be a problem with so many people embracing celibacy in any form that we’ll have population issues. :-)

      The post on forever postponing children made me post the follow up post about canon law, but I’ve been working on a post about celibate marriage for over a year. The problem is that before I didn’t have access to the right books, and now that I do have access, I also have less time to do the research for citations.

      “Validity” is strictly an issue of canon law, which from my reading is clear that choosing celibacy is not an impediment to marriage.

      I did not intend to imply that a celibate marriage is holier than one in which the couple engages in chaste conjugal intercourse. That said, it is actually a Protestant heresy to assert that consummated marriage is as “blessed” as remaining in a state of virginity or celibacy. It is not that sex is dirty or impure, it is that giving oneself entirely to God to the extent that excludes conjugal intercourse is always better. This is difficult for me to explain correctly without demeaning marriage which is a great GOOD. But Catholic tradition from the example of Jesus and the Pauline epistles, to the early Church fathers, to the Council of Trent to John Paul II’s theology of the body all clearly assert that celibacy is better than not. This does not, of course, mean that celibacy is the right choice for most people.

      • alison 01. Sep, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

        Ahh, very interesting. I don’t want to just say “I don’t believe you” because I haven’t read up on this yet, but I’m struggling to understand how if a married couple denies children intentionally from the beginning of their marriage through contraception or NFP or celibacy without grave reasons for the duration of their marriage, that constitutes a valid marriage. I guess I’ll have to go back and re-read your other post.

        • Rae 02. Sep, 2010 at 5:01 am #

          Well, in the other post I was trying to distinguish between validity and consummation because validity in CatholicSpeak is simply a question of law. Perhaps you are thinking of the term in the generic English sense and marriage without sex does not seem as whole or real to you?

          The thing is, celibacy is not a denial of children. It is a complete gift of oneself to God. And there are many ways to be open to children.

          • alison 02. Sep, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

            I meant valid in terms of Church teaching, although I guess a couple who uses contraception also has a valid marriage although they’re not open to children…that’s just an issue of sin? I’m bad with the terminology.
            I guess I meant, a consequence of celibacy is a denial of children, no? So as long as a celibate married couple plans on adopting/fostering/etc., they aren’t breaking this part of the vow? Celibacy may be a gift of oneself to God, but married people are to “accept children lovingly from God”.

            • PresterJosh 02. Sep, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

              “a consequence of celibacy is a denial of children, no?”

              No. :-) Joseph and Mary had a celibate marriage.

              But even in the life of ordinary believers, refraining from sex doesn’t constitute a denial of children*. If it did, then using NFP to avoid/delay conception could never be “open to life.”

              * At least not in the sense that the Church is concerned with.

              • alison 02. Sep, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

                yes but mary and joseph still had an adopted child :) that’s my question.

                • PresterJosh 03. Sep, 2010 at 12:45 pm #

                  Well, here’s one way you can look at it. Accepting children isn’t the same as intending to have children. You can see this in the case of Mary and Joseph, who accepted Jesus even though they apparently weren’t intending to have children.*

                  Likewise, an ordinary couple can be open to the possibility of children without possessing a positive intention to have them. Does that help some?

                  One other thing to consider, is that for Catholic theology and law, Mary and Joseph are the paradigmatic example of true marriage. A theology which would treat their form of marriage as “guilty till proven innocent” probably needs to be rethought.

                  * The biblical texts surrounding the annunciation suggest that Mary was intending to remain celibate in marriage even before the annunciation. Augustine (and other Church Fathers) brought out this point.

            • Rae 04. Sep, 2010 at 12:33 am #

              I am wondering if this calls for another post for a more extended discussion. Because I don’t follow how your objection could apply to celibate marriage but not also be a problem with NFP. I’m confident that I am missing something, but not sure what.

              Also, having Jesus was part of what made Mary and Joseph’s marriage the perfect model, but it is not what made it valid. And celibate couples are not under any special obligation to adopt, though obviously it would be a good thing.

    • Savio 25. Mar, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

      It’s funny that you should ask, “Just wondering because if you say many are chosen to this vocation, then how would the human race continue?”

      St. Augustine writes in his awesome treatise, “On the Good of Marriage,” specifically addressing this VERY question by saying the following:

      “But I am aware of some that murmur: What, say they, if all men should abstain from all sexual intercourse, whence will the human race exist? Would that all would this, only in “charity out of a pure heart, and good conscience, and faith unfeigned;” much more speedily would the City of God be filled, and the end of the world hastened. For what else does the Apostle, as is manifest, exhort to, when he says, speaking on this head, “I would that all were as myself;” or in that passage, “But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remains that they who have wives, be as though not having.””

      Doxa sto Theo! Glory to God!

  5. Marc Cardaronella 01. Sep, 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    I love this idea of being vs. doing. Existence vs. usefulness. There really is a tendency in all of us to look for the value in the effect. It’s so ingrained. Is it a product of our society? Or something deeper related to the Fall? We don’t value what does not have some type of quantifiable usefulness.

    But the celibate, cloistered nun has meaning and worth in her very being. In her body, she manifests a sign of the eschatological reality that we are all destined for…complete and total union with Christ. Bridal, spousal union. Where no one is married or given in marriage and the spousal fruitfulness is spiritual! She exists and is a sign, and her fruitfulness is spiritual in this life. And that has worth!

    • Rae 02. Sep, 2010 at 5:02 am #

      Great explanation!


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