Charles Taylor on Celibacy I: “Mutual Fragilization”


Religious Sisters in Taylor’s Native Quebec

Whenever the New York Times makes clerical sexual abuse a front-page story, it becomes something of commonplace among loyal Catholics to point out that sexual abuse is at least equally common among Protestant pastors and married rabbis and agnostic soccer coaches; yet, the failings of non-celibates receive comparatively little attention.  It’s right, of course, to decry selective reporting on the failures of Catholic celibates.  Yet, for all the prejudices that the Times may harbor, it seems to be responding largely to market forces.  Stories of clerical abuse, for instance, almost always become the most accessed and e-mailed articles of the day.  And though the seemingly endless parade of disgraced priests is not a little discouraging, it also reminds me that the world is strangely interested in the lives of celibates.  Reading chunks of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has, moreover, given me a better language for explaining why.

Taylor is almost unique among prominent public intellectuals in treating celibacy as an important existential question for the contemporary West.  This surely has something to do with Taylor’s Catholic penchant for thinking in centuries (for many of which the practice of celibacy was taken for granted).  It may also have something to do with the history of Taylor’s native Quebec, a region that—on the eve of the Council—boasted more women religious relative to the general population than any other region in the world (nearly 50,000 relative to a total population of 6 million!).  But I think Taylor aims at something deeper than nostalgia.  He presents celibacy as a sort of proving ground for the claims of two rival and beleaguered worldviews: creedal Christianity and exclusive humanism.

Protesting against common narratives of secularization, which envision the serene and ineluctable triumph of exclusive humanism over religious belief, Taylor prefers to describe the interplay between between these worldviews as that of “mutual fragilization”.  Orthodox Christianity is clearly unconvincing to many Westerners.  However, Taylor also insists that exclusive humanism is every bit as menaced and “pressured” by common human experiences:

The salient feature of Western societies is not so much a decline of religious faith and practice, though there has been lots of that, more in some societies than in others, but rather a mutual fragilization of different religious positions, as well as of the outlooks both of belief and unbelief.  The whole culture experiences cross pressures, between the draw of narratives of closed immanence on one side, and the sense of their inadequacy on the other, strengthened by encounter with existing milieux of religious practice, or just by some intimations of the transcendent.

The United States fits Taylor’s description well.  Doctrinaire atheists and fully creedal Christians are perhaps equally rare, but neither is an unfamiliar voice.  Most Americans—feeling the tug of each side—end up hedging their bets by declaring themselves “spiritual” rather than “religious”.  However, the spiritual-but-not-religious position is almost necessarily unstable, defined as it is by opposition to the more consistent extremes.  Moreover, since neither committed atheism nor traditional Christianity enjoys taken-for-granted status, denizens of the modern West nowadays feel an acute need for religious assurance.

The successes and failures of celibates become sources of assurance–for believers and disbelievers, respectively– precisely because celibacy affronts modern sensibilities.  Not only is it a religious discipline.  It is also the kind of religious discipline that challenges one of our most cherished modern achievements: the “affirmation of ordinary life.”  Taylor coined this phrase to designate the

cultural revolution of the early modern period, which dethroned the supposedly higher activities of contemplation and the citizen life, and put the center of gravity of goodness in ordinary living, production and the family.  It belongs to this spiritual outlook that our first concern ought to be to increase life, relieve suffering, foster prosperity.  Concern above all for the “good life” smacked of pride, of self-absorption.  And, beyond that, it was inherently inegalitarian, since the alleged “higher” activities could only be carried out by an elite minority …

Once Christians (and then non-Christians) began to assign somewhat exclusive value to “ordinary life”, celibates necessarily came across as uppity.  Their very existence seemed a slur on the lives and interests of normal folk.  Moreover, according to the popular narratives of the Reformation and Enlightenment, all such spiritual ambition was bound to end in self-delusion.  Celibates became seen as so many Icaruses flying too close to the sun.  Hence, when media outlets dutifully record the subsequent “plash” into the sea, they see themselves as offering an important public service.  Catholics, experiencing these “cross pressures” intensely, often doubt celibacy’s value.

But not all is quiet on the frontiers of exclusive humanism either.  Paradoxically, the more the values of “ordinary life” gain the upper hand, the more they are experienced as oppressive rather than liberating.  An endless stream of Hollywood movies dedicated to suburban despair (e.g., American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Little Children) indicates that the drive toward transcendence, self-sacrificing heroism, and immortal glory goes deep.  And without tangible evidence of spiritual transformation, which joyful celibates uniquely provide, our days become grim indeed.

If Taylor is right, then celibacy presents a unique evangelical opportunity.  Believers are nagged by the narrative of “closed immanence”, and disbelievers are nagged by its dreariness.  In this context of “mutual fragilization,” so much rides on the lives of those who have staked all on transcendence (to be continued …).

8 Responses to Charles Taylor on Celibacy I: “Mutual Fragilization”

  1. Adam says:

    great insightful article

  2. Joe Johnson says:

    Awesome as usual

  3. James says:

    thanks that is wonderful! cheers

  4. […] I explained (very skeletally) in my last post, when it comes to sex and renunciation, Charles Taylor considers both exclusive humanism and […]

  5. Curtis says:

    Great article. I love Taylor too. I just finished “Sources of the Self” not long ago and it was fantastic. “A Secular Age” was great, too. Very broadening and humanistic, in the best sense.

    I think the secular world looks at a celibate and thinks “If he pulls this off, we’re doomed”, in the sense that if you can give up that much natural pleasure and happiness and still “live well”, the secular humanist vision of the world is more-or-less trashed.

    Thus, for the worldly, there is a certain Schadenfreude, but also a little existential relief, in the stories of fallen celibates. By showing the celibate life to be fraudulent and hollow, it justifies the via media they have chosen for themselves.

    Likewise, by principle of opposite effect, it brings Catholics terribly close to the abyss of despair, by chipping away our confidence in the basic notion that living for God alone is a worthwhile life, an ideal incarnated by the celibate.

  6. […] dilemma is less insightful than his presentation of it as a humanist dilemma (see parts I and II).  Nonetheless, since most Christian believers are rather more influenced by sociological […]

  7. […] fragilization,” which he develops extensively in A Secular Age (recently discussed on this blog here and here)—especially as it touches on sexual ethics. To wit: though secular humanists find many […]

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