There is an article in the Guardian today entitled ‘Life without sex-it’s better than you think.’ This is a surprising piece to discover in a liberal secular publication.
We are encouraged, even pressurised today, to celebrate a diversity of sexual preferences and sexual orientation is now a topic as inflammatory as race. Yet despite our obsession with “raising awareness” there is one lifestyle choice which still breeds ignorance and suspicion. After all, the author of the Guardian article has chosen to remain anonymous. This prompts the question, how many people would feel comfortable coming out as celibate?
There are understandable reasons why people may feel embarrassed. The obvious fear is the assumption that celibacy is not a choice but a consequence of rejection. And there is something to be said for anonymity when writing about sexuality. We have become too vocal about this subject to the point that people, especially celebrities, are commonly defined by their sexuality. We are encouraged to see someone who is “bisexual” or “straight” before we see a human being.
The politicisation of sexuality means that we are rightly encouraged to speak with great sensitivity and respect. People who make sweeping generalisations about sexual orientation or draw silly causal links are promptly criticised and risk igniting a social media storm.
However, celibate people are rarely afforded the same sensitivity as other sexual minorities. Whenever the topic of sex abuse in the Catholic Church arises the topic of priestly celibacy is sure to be named prime culprit. When Melanie Phillips, a journalist for whom I have great respect, was asked on Question Time in March last year about the sex scandals of the Catholic Church, she said: “I do think there is something very unnatural about expecting human beings to live in a state of chastity… while that cant entirely explain the phenomenon of paedophile priests I do think it’s a very significant part of it.”
Phillips’ comments did not provoke one murmur of outrage from audience members, nor was she asked to qualify this link by pointing to the academic studies which link celibacy with paedophilia. It seems that our obsession with “raising awareness” does not extend to society’s understanding of the celibate minority.
Sadly it is Catholic priests who often become the focus when the media investigates celibacy but journalists rarely remember to talk to single people in the Catholic Church who are called to the same lifestyle. When I recently debated the introduction of married Catholic priests on Woman’s Hour I pointed out that for the many Catholics striving to remain chaste before marriage, priests provide heroic witness. They are a constant reminder that you can live a full and above all, loving life without sexual intimacy. In a conversation beforehand with a BBC producer she told me that the introduction of married priests would mean a more worldly laity and this assumption that sex somehow makes you less naïve is not uncommon. Priests such as Father Frans van der Lugt who chose to stay and serve the people of Syria as if they were his own children, even when civil war broke out, was forced to confront the very worst of the world. But we easily forget why heroes such as him served the world and the Church through his commitment to celibacy.
It was encouraging then to discover an article about Phin Lyman, also featured in the Guardian. He is an eighteen year-old boy who is celibate and has written a book entitled ‘The Value of Virginity.’ Perhaps Phin’s generation will begin to challenge the sexualised culture which they have inherited. In the meantime, the deviant celibate minority in this country should be afforded equal sensitivity and respect as everybody else. Hopefuly brave men such as Phin may one day live to hear the mantra: “Some people are celibate. Get over it.”