It seems that when experts make recommendations regarding how to prevent the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, priestly celibacy often comes under fire. The Australian Royal Commission would even recommend that such celibacy become voluntary. (An interesting choice of words given that vows taken against one’s will are indeed null and void.) Church praxis surrounding celibacy could change; it is not at the level of a dogma. However, could we be in a moment in Church history when celibacy is a value particularly worthy of promoting?
I’d like to share an insight in this regard I gained from reading René Girard’s “Violence and the Sacred,” and it may be clearer if I share my context first.
My initial thinking about the logic linking sex and spirituality developed while reading the Theology of the Body texts of Pope John Paul II, in which sexuality is explored as a great good willed by the Creator. “Love and Responsibility” discussion groups were hugely popular in my milieu. The vision of the union of man and woman in the garden, fulfilled in the Apocalypse wedding feast of the Lamb gives a deep and idealistic meaning to the language of human sexuality and the call to marriage. In this line of thinking, the idea of a celibate vocation is deeply imbedded in the metaphor of a mystical marriage, as a transcendent yet real form of nuptial (read marital) love.
In sum, in this ideal, sexuality is linked to tenderness, self-gift, life-giving. Its fulfillment comes at the cost of virtue, commitment and love. It has two concrete expressions: marriage or committed sexual continence. What could go wrong?
Mystical marriage is a valuable paradigm used by the Fathers and Mothers of the Church. But it’s not without obscurity, especially if one considers the individual person living out their calling. Do they ever ask themselves, “I am a priest in the image of Christ the bridegroom—how may I act out this role with my metaphorical bride?” or “I am now consecrated as an image of the bride of Christ, and yet there are 5 of us together on this day of consecration, and how is this different than a heavenly harem?” These hypothetical questions are wide of the mark of what is meant by Christ the Bridegroom and Church as Bride. Yet even Theology of the Body has been used as an excuse for abuse, in ways we won’t get into here. Something about the marriage metaphor does not always work and can even be exceedingly frustrating for those searching for meaning in a celibate calling.
Enter René Girard and his understanding of the link between sexuality and violence:
“In refusing to admit an association between sexuality and violence—an association readily acknowledged by men over the course of several millennia—modern thinkers are attempting to prove their broadmindedness and liberality. Their stance has led to numerous misconceptions. […] It is also worth noting that the shift from violence to sexuality and from sexuality to violence is easily effected, even by the most ‘normal’ of individuals, totally lacking in perversion. Thwarted sexuality leads naturally to violence, just as lovers‘ quarrels often end in an amorous embrace. Recent scientific findings seem to justify the primitive perspective on many points. Sexual excitement and violent impulse manifest themselves in the same manner. In both instances, the majority of discernible bodily reactions are identical.” (Violence and the Sacred, pp. 35-36)
This text sharply contrasts with a typical “Theology of the Body” treatment of sexuality which is concerned with original innocence, not primordial violence. The quotation is part of a hypothesis making the case that violence plays a role (if not the role) in generating primitive religious practices and that sexuality has something to do with that violence. Girard presents sexuality as a pervasive reason for rivalry. He examines at length why rivalries develop between persons (mimesis theory), and how they escalate to involve whole communities. Put simply: When what is desired is found to be in limited supply, violence results. When violence escalates to threaten the life of a community, the group will survive if it finds an outsider against which it directs its fury; otherwise it self-destructs. This outsider becomes the scapegoat that saves the community from its own anger. This is a pattern found in many primitive religious rites.
For Girard, Jesus breaks the violence cycle. For the first time the history of this pattern is overturned and written from the perspective of the scapegoat-victim. Christ is the model for a new way of living in communion with others and with God. Girard sees two ways of imitation: “On the one side are prisoners of a violent imitation, which always leads to a dead end, and on the other adherents of a non-violent imitation, who will meet with no obstacle.”
Jesus’ election of sexual continence could be understood as deeply consequential for his identity and mission. “There is no acquisitive desire in him” (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, p. 410). Jesus in his humanity does not have something of his own that we cannot also share—neither property, nor a wife, nor a cathedra in the synagogue. In this way of looking at things, sex is not some great good that he sacrifices, but sex is linked to a logic of acquisition and therefore violence. And for the disciple who follows him? “He who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). For some, even following the non-violent logic of Christ’s “dispossessive” sexual continence will have sense.
This type of “non-violent celibacy” has a prophetic voice to speak to a world of broken promises and sexual insanity where marriage metaphors are difficult to make. Sexual continence lived honestly and authentically, with all its questions, is a great good in the Church. Seeing it as a way of non-violence is not opposed to the mystical marriage metaphor. One is the path, the other is the pole star. The star may be hidden from sight for many, but the path is still one way to follow Christ to his Kingdom.