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Re-enchanting Celibacy

On celibacy capable of making saints.

Over the past few years British feminists have developed some interesting views on sex and sexuality, and I am not using the word “interesting” in its authentic British sense, as a euphemism for “utterly deranged.” Among the reactionary feminists—a term coined by the journalist Mary Harrington—is Louise Perry, who writes in her book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution that changes in sexual mores since the 1960s have brought with them a raft of negative consequences, downplayed if not outright ignored in public discourse and borne primarily by ordinary women. Perry’s defense of monogamous marriage and skepticism about the widespread use of contraception have won her the approval of many Moderately to Severely Online Catholics, who praise her Christian-adjacent (and sometimes more than adjacent) lines of reasoning and often turn the comments section under her podcast videos into a flickering candle-stand of prayers offered for her putative future conversion. But in their efforts to affirm and encourage reactionary feminists, Christians are missing an opportunity to be challenged by them—particularly on a topic which, at first glance, has nothing to do with the reactionary feminist manifesto at all: celibacy.

How is Christian celibacy connected to feminist ideas about sex? I’ll begin my answer with Perry’s thesis that sex in the post-1960s West has been, as she puts it in her book, “disenchanted.” This is a development of an argument made by Aaron Sibarium in an essay about the Netflix series Cuties (do we all remember Cuties? If not, it’s most certainly for the best) in which he defined disenchanted sex as that which “has no inherent value beyond what consenting adults assign to it.” Following Sibarium, Perry argues that modernity has redefined sex as a merely functional act which carries no meaning beyond whichever extrinsic, pliable one we might choose to fit on it—and, moreover, requires no particular level of psychological maturity to practice. But reality can only stretch so far to accommodate this idea. As she observes in an interview on the subject of sexual disenchantment, those who hold to it firmly and consistently “generally make [themselves] miserable and make other people miserable.”

Not all reactionary feminists use this terminology, but most have a case against the disenchantment of sex and a case for its re-enchantment. Sex, they argue, has a value which orders it (and us) towards specific goals and which we ignore at a cost. Now, clearly there is an opportunity here to make a solidly and unapologetically Catholic argument for this sexual re-enchantment. But first we must engage in a little soul-searching. Every criticism of the disenchantment of sex made so articulately by reactionary feminists and affirmed by Catholics can also be applied to our own understanding of celibacy, which has itself been subject to a process of disenchantment similar—though quieter and subtler—to that undergone by sex, and over the same period of time. 

Celibacy makes little sense to modern society. But the way we speak about it within the Church suggests it now makes little sense to us either. There are various answers we might give when asked why priests and religious practice celibacy. It’s what Jesus modeled in His earthly life; it frees up more time for ministry and intense prayer; it allows a person to be moved more easily between apostolic and parochial assignments. While none of these are untrue, they are insufficient unless they help us to answer another question: how priests and religious should practice celibacy. This question only makes sense if we understand celibacy as more than functional. It requires us to acknowledge celibacy as an active spiritual discipline, one in which human sexuality is not suppressed but re-integrated, reformed, and re-ordered towards its ultimate goal: union with God. But if we wish to believe that celibacy is actually nothing more than a passive state characterized by the privation of sex, then the question of how to practice celibacy well is not only unanswerable, but nonsensical. It is impossible to talk coherently about practicing a passive privation well or badly, unless we redefine “badly” to simply mean “not at all.” 

The question of how to practice celibacy well has no place in a Church in which celibacy has been instrumentalized and despiritualized—or, in a word, disenchanted. But disenchanted celibacy, like disenchanted sex, is an incredibly difficult fiction to maintain in the long term. There will come a time in the life of all celibates where their practical rationale for celibacy begins to crack under their feet, and when they put out a hand to steady themselves, there had better be something solid and objective there to meet it. If not, they will discover that disenchanted celibacy is remarkably quick to self-destruct. After all, if celibacy is just Father keeping his pants zipped for the good of the parish, then it might one day cross his mind that the parish would actually continue to function quite well if he were to quietly and surreptitiously stop; or else he might discern that his inner logjam of unmet psychological and spiritual needs is not caused by badly practiced celibacy, but by celibacy per se

And who is to say he is wrong? Within the logic of disenchantment, jettisoning celibacy is no great loss either for the individual or for the Church as a whole, since it has no meaning outside its subjective usefulness. Only if we see celibacy as an objectively valuable spiritual gift can we begin to comprehend the tragic and unnecessary wound that its disenchantment inflicts on us all as the Body of Christ. Then, perhaps, we can work to recover an understanding of celibacy which sees it not as blandly functional, but replete with meaning, and designed to draw the human person in their entirety—sexuality and all—to the heights of holiness. 

Re-enchanted sex, for reactionary feminists, is sex worthy of civilization. If Catholics like this idea, they might consider that the next stage in this re-enchantment is celibacy capable of making saints.