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Channeling Desire: A Theological Vision for Celibacy and Sexuality

Celibacy. No sex. At all. Talk to most people today about celibacy and you’ll probably get one of two reactions, possibly both:

  1. It’s impossible. Anyone who claims to be celibate is lying, or will be soon.
  2. It’s unhealthy. Sex is an essential part of being human that you shouldn’t just give up.

And, to support their convictions, many will appeal to the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years. “See,” they’ll say. “Those priests tried to give up sex and they failed because it’s just not possible.” Or they’ll argue, “Look what happens when you try to give up such an essential part of being human. It’s just not healthy.”


Protestants seem particularly fond of such arguments, pointing at clerical celibacy as one of the more absurd aspects of Catholic dogma.

But, as Sarah Coakley points out in her article, “Taming Desire: Celibacy, Sexuality, and the Church,” a real theology of desire requires much deeper reflection. Coakley argues that if we look at how people respond to both clerical celibacy and homosexuality, we’ll find several, deeply-rooted problems.

1. There is both a widespread pessimism that celibacy is even possible and a shared consensus that certain forms of sexuality should never be expressed. So, we maintain that (clerical) celibacy is impossible, and at the same time we tell “sexual deviants” that they should remain celibate.

2. There is a focus on issues surrounding homosexuality and a corresponding neglect of the problems that plague so many heterosexual relationships. So, we spend considerable time discussing gay clerics, but devote surprisingly little attention to divorced clerics.

3. There is a tendency to view celibacy and marriage as opposites: one involving no sex, and the other as much sex as possible.

Coakely uses these three to demonstrate that popular sexual thought is deeply conflicted.

She then turns to an interesting discussion of Freudian sublimation. Unlike the common notion that Freud viewed all sexual sublimation as repressive and unhealthy, she points out that Freud’s more mature thought saw sublimation as a necessary channeling of energy toward other ends. So, even Freud could be a champion of celibacy, as long as it was a healthy redirection of energy and attention toward worthy goals.

Having dispatched the supposed anti-celibacy champion, Coakley turns her attention to Gregory of Nyssa as an example of a Christian thinker who saw sexuality as something that could be channeled toward a greater purpose. Referring to Gregor’s “On Virginity,” she says:

Indeed, what is truly interesting about Gregory’s treatise is the image that lies at the heart of the argument. It is the metaphor of the “stream” of desire, and of its right direction, use, and even intensification in relation to God. In this task, Gregory says, both celibates and married people are equally involved as a life-long ascetical exercise (“ascetical,” of course, here referring to the practice of disciplining and training one’s body, of learning, in other words, self-control).

It might be thought that Gregory intends this intensification of desire towards God as mutually exclusive with a sexually-active life in marriage. But interestingly, he repeats the same metaphor of the stream precisely to explain how sex in marriage can be a “good irrigation” provided it, too, is ordered in relation to God and so made “moderate” in comparison with the intensified and unified stream that desire for God demands.

It is not, then, to suppress passion that Gregory’s treatise is written, but actually (as stated by Gregory at the very outset) precisely to “create passion” for “the life according to excellence.” And so Gregory lauds virginity, not on account of its sexlessness, but because of its withdrawal from worldly interests.

So, she argues that “Gregory’s vision of desire as thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified through its relations to God…represents a way beyond and through the false modern alternatives of ‘repression’ and ‘libertinism’.” Placing the discussion in a much broader theological framework, we can see that sexual desire is not an end in itself and break free from the constraints of modern sexual discourse.

When it comes to specific ethical issues, I’m sure that Sarah Coakley and I would differ significantly. But, she has done a great job here identifying the weakness of our modern notions of sexuality. We consistently reduce it to particular forms of sexual expression/repression. Instead, we need “to re-invest the debate with a theological and spiritual wisdom too long forgotten.” She is well-aware that this will not make the arguments go away, they are too complex for that, but she’s right to argue that this is a necessary step forward.

If you’d like to read further on some of the issues involved in developing a theological vision of sexuality, here are a couple of other posts on the subject:


The Pope, condoms, and the principle of double effect

While I was at ETS, some of our ThM students were discussing theological ethics and the principle of double effect (PDE), a way of thinking through complex moral situations in which a single act has both a negative and a positive consequence. (See Chris Smith’s post on Double Effect and the Ethical Dilemma.) Since I was not able to participate in the discussion, and since I don’t want to look stupid in front of my students, I thought it would be a good idea for me to work on my own understanding of this principle. So, it was with interest that I dug into a recent post by Katie over at the Women in Theology, arguing that the Pope’s recent statements about condom use can be analyzed using PDE.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the upcoming book in which Pope Benedict XVI apparently condones the use of condoms in certain situations, particularly when used to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS among prostitutes. At first glance, this seems rather surprising given that for Catholic theologians, condom use necessarily results in the bad effect of separating the the sexual act from its unitive and procreative act. Although this is an unpopular position in modern culture, this view underlies the traditional Catholic rejection of contraception in general. But, as the Pope has pointed out, condom use also has the intrinsically good effect of preventing the spread of a deadly disease. Thus, we have a situation in which a single act (condom use) will result in both a good effect (preventing disease spread) and a bad effect (separating the sexual act from its divinely intended purposes).

To determine whether PDE applies to this scenario, we must see if the scenario meets the following conditions:

  1. The Nature of the Act: The act in question must be at least a morally neutral act (i.e. it cannot be an intrinsically bad act).
  2. Means-End: The bad effect  cannot be the means by which the good effect is accomplished.
  3. Right-Intention: The bad effect cannot be that which is intended by the actor.
  4. Proportionality: The good effect must be equivalent to or greater than the corresponding bad effect.

And, as I see it, the condom-use scenario meets all four conditions.

  1. The Nature of the Act: It seems to me that even for Catholic theologians, condom use is a morally neutral act. In and of itself, using a condom has no moral consequences (e.g. using it as a water balloon). It is one  particular result of using a condom (preventing conception and, consequently, separating the sexual act from its procreative function) that is instrinsically wrong.
  2. Means-End: As in most PDE scenarios the good effect and bad effect are inseparable. Wearing a condom during the sexual act (assuming that the condom does not malfunction) necessarily results in both consequences. But, it seems clear that the bad effect in this situation is not the means for accomplishing the good effect – i.e., a person does not seek to separate the sexual act from its intended purposes as a means to preventing the spread of a deadly disease. The two consequences are inseparable, but the one is not the means for accomplishing the other.
  3. Right-Intention: This is critical. For this situation to come under PDE, the actor must intend the good effect and not the bad one. So, in this scenario, the person using the condom must intend to stop the spread of a deadly disease and not to prevent procreation.
  4. Proportionality: The benefit of preventing the spread of a deadly disease must outweigh the drawback of separating the sexual act from its procreative function. As with most PDE scenarios, there is a strong element of subjectivity in this final step. But, it is certainly not obvious that this scenario violates this condition.

So, it would seem to me that this scenario is amenable to analysis using PDE. And, the Pope’s conclusion seems warranted, assuming that you agree with the application of condition 4 and the use of PDE in general.

That is my best attempt to explain how PDE works and how it applies to a situation that most Protestants would not necessarily see as involving a significant moral quandry. But, it demonstrates how PDE might be applied to other scenarios with more existential angst for us. And, it also highlights some of the weaknesses of the approach: the often opaque appeal to intentions, an ambiguous understanding of what qualifies as an “act”, and the necessarily subjective judgment required by the proportionality condition. At the same time, though, I like the way that PDE forces us to acknowledge how difficult it can be to make moral judgments in the midst of a broken world in which sometimes there are no “right” answers.

    The sexual human: sexualizing the image of God

    Megan DeFranza, a doctoral student at Marquette, presented an excellent paper yesterday titled, “Sex and the Image of God: Dangers in Evangelical and Roman Catholic Theologies.” Her paper discussed the recent trend toward understanding the human person and the imago Dei primarily through the lens of human sexuality. Although she thinks that there’s a lot to be appreciated about this approach, she also identified a number of concerns that she has with this development.

    DeFranza began by explaining the historical process that led to the current situation. She points out that Christian thinkers have historically neglected gender and sexuality in understanding what it means to be fundamentally human. And, like many, she points to Barth as the key turning point. Barth identified the imago Dei with being created “male and female” and introduced the notion of gender-based relationality as fundamental for being human. To be fully human is to be in community.

    This relationally-oriented anthropology, which DeFranza calls the relational imago, though, has developed even further in recent years. Unlike Barth, many contemporary theologians argue that it is not simply relationship that makes us human, but sexuality itself. And, this develop corresponds to developments in secular fields of study that also view human sexuality as fundamental to being fully human.  And, it’s this most recent set of developments that DeFranza is concerned about.

    To explain this development further, DeFranza focuses on two representative figures: Stanley Grenz and John Paul II. According to DeFranza, Grenz sees the sexed nature of humanity as leaving human persons with a sense of their own incompleteness and a corresponding drive toward bonding with other(s), which finds its ultimate fulfillment in God himself. Thus, human sexuality isn’t fundamentally about procreation or even marriage, but about the innate yearning for completeness and bonding that grounds all human relationships and pushes toward God.

    For John Paul II, sexuality is fundamentally about the human capacity to express love, an act in which the human person becomes gift, and thus realizes the ultimate purpose of being human. And, for John Paul II, this is best expressed and realized in marriage. In this approach, marriage itself becomes paradigmatic for true humanity, and even celibacy, which John Paul II still wants to affirm as a vital (and even higher) mode of human existence, is viewed through the lens of marital union.

    So, for both Grenz and John Paul II, sex is now viewed as the lens through which we view all forms of human interaction. We discover our humanity through our sexuality.

    DeFranza has no problem with the social imago and the emphasis on love, relationship, and community for understanding humanity. But, she’s quite concerned about the more recent move toward what she calls the “sexual imago” (Grenz) and the “spousal image” (John Paul II). And, she offers a number of reasons for this concern.

    Uncovering hidden dangers:

    1. The conflation of sex, gender, and sexuality. She seemed particularly concerned with Grenz here. Although she recognizes that Grenz did not use terms like sexual and sexuality to refer to sexual intercourse, she still thought that his interchangeable use of these terms led to an ambiguous presentation that necessarily confused and conflated terms that are importantly different. DeFranza seemed perfectly willing to say that gender is fundamental for being human, but was concerned about extending that conclusion to sexuality in general.
    2. The sexualization of divine love. Although evangelicals and Catholics would certainly not refer to the divine love as sexual in the sense that there is actual intercourse among the divine persons, they are, nonetheless, willing to speak of the divine love as sexual in the sense that it involves different persons with a drive toward one another in bonding and love. But, since DeFranza thinks that using the language of sexuality to describe this love, their approach almost inevitably leads to the conclusion that sexual expression has now been given divine significance.
    3. The weakening of traditional sexual ethics. If human sexuality is grounded in divine “sexuality,” what parameters can we give for how this sexuality is properly expressed? While most evangelicals and Catholics want to continue affirming monogamous, heterosexual intercourse as the norm, others have not been so restrained. Why not homosexual love (since the Father and Son are both male) or sex with multiple partners (since there are three persons)? And, she’s also concerned that this approach is used to support adultery and divorce. What if you are in a sexually unfulfilling relationship? Would it not be better for one or both parties to find other partners with whom they can more fully express their humanity and experience the divine love?
    4. The undermining of celibacy. DeFranza routinely expressed concerns that the sexual imago and the social imago ultimately undermines the legitimacy of celibate lifestyles, particularly those who are involuntarily celibate. Such persons seem to be missing out on something fundamental for being human and an important experience of the divine love itself. She recognizes that both of the thinkers she reviews would reject this conclusion (John Paul II goes out of his way to affirm the importance of celibacy), but she still thinks that the concern is legitimate.
    5. Concern for the sexually dysfunctional. DeFranza is also concerned about what the sexualized imago will mean for those who experience significant sexual dysfunction. Once again, their essential humanity and their experience of God himself seems at risk.

    So, DeFranza concludes that we should hold onto the positive aspects of the social imago, while avoiding the dangers that she thinks are inherent to the sexual/spousal imagos. She thinks we can do this by doing the following.

    1. Develop better readings of Genesis 1-2 that affirm the social nature of humanity without resorting to a sexualized notion of humanity.
    2. Clearly differentiate between the social and the sexual/spousal. The former does not entail the latter and should be an important part of any anthropology.
    3. Clearly differentiate between the sexual and the spousal. She thinks some of the dangers could be avoided if we recognized that spousal love involves far more than sexual love, so distinguishing them can help us appreciate the rich depths of spousal love. But, even with this distinction, she argues that we should not view spousal love as paradigmatic for all human relationships. It is one of many expressions of the social imago, not its essence.

    I really enjoyed DeFranza’s paper. One particularly interesting element was when she addressed the ways in which the works of people like Grenz and John Paul II have filtered down to more popular level writings, and in ways that both thinkers would find highly inappropriate. I could be wrong, but I got the distinct impression that many of the concerns she raised came from her interaction with these works. While some might argue that it is not entirely fair to criticize Grenz and John Paul II for the ways that other people use their ideas, especially when those people use the ideas in ways that these thinkers would have disapproved, it does raise the interesting question of how much responsibility thinkers have for the trajectory that their ideas take after them. At the very least, if a concept or idea consistently leads others to inappropriate conclusions, the concept or idea should be seriously re-evaluated.

    And, that gets me to my one real criticism of the paper. I think the paper would have been considerably stronger if DeFranza had distinguished between what Grenz and John Paul II were clearly trying to do and the ramifications that she thinks their ideas have had or might have. For example, she routinely critiqued Grenz’s approach for making sexual intercourse essential to humanity. But, Grenz himself did no such thing. I think he is very clear in his writings that he was not talking about intercourse at all, but the sense of incompleteness that results in a drive toward bonding. Whenever Grenz used terms like “sexual” and “sexuality”, it was this broader notion that he had in mind and not actual intercourse. Even if DeFranza thinks that this is an unfortunate use of language that conflates gender with sexuality and necessarily misleads others into concluding that sexual expression is fundamental to humanity (which, again, is a legitimate critique), I would have liked to see a clearer explanation that this was not Grenz’s actual position.

    Nonetheless, it was a fascinating paper. And, it has caused me to re-evaluate my own use of terminology. Like Grenz, I have had a tendency to use gender, sex, sexual, and sexuality rather interchangeably when talking about the human person (e.g.,“Sexuality: Theological Perspectives on Being Gendered”). While I know what I’m trying to say, I probably need to be more aware of how this language might be (mis)heard and (mis)used by others.