Charles Taylor on Celibacy III: The Catholic Dilemma


Though Taylor is a gifted sociologist of religion and a perceptive intellectual historian, he is not a profound theologian.  Consequently, his presentation of celibacy as a Christian 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 “cross-pressures” than by fine theological distinctions, his reflections still retain a certain value.  They at least get at some of the “uneasiness” that most folks feel about the Catholic tradition of sexual renunciation—and they may well describe one of the deeper cultural obstacles to promoting non-ordained, celibate vocations.


In Sources of the Self, Taylor observes that it was once relatively easy to describe the purpose of celibacy by reference to the Church’s “economy of mutual mediation.” Celibates stood in relation to married folk much as the sacred stood in relation to the secular:

The celibate life under vows had been seen by both Protestants and their Catholic opponents as part of the economy of the sacred in the Catholic Church. (That this was a theological misperception doesn’t detract from its sociological truth.)  This was partly because of the connection between priesthood and celibacy, and partly because of the role of religious in an economy of mutual mediation: monks and nuns prayed for everyone, just as the laity worked, fought, and governed for the whole.

Taylor suggests that a gradual sacralizing of the celibate state ultimately resulted in a “degenerate, hierarchical understanding of the monastic life,” such that—by the time of the Reformation—both

traditional Catholic and Protestant reformers shared the (mistaken) view these vocations supposed a hierarchy of nearness to the sacred, with the religious life being higher/closer than the secular.  There was an intense consciousness of the dependence of laypeople on the life of prayer and renunciation of religious through the mutual mediation of the church, but the reciprocal dependence was lost sight of.  The result was a lesser spiritual status for lay life, particularly that of productive labor and the family.

As Taylor sees it, the hierarchy of states of life ended up sorting the crew of Peter’s bark into “fast” (celibates) and “slow” (married) rowers.  Because this arrangement appears to relegate marriage to a “lesser spiritual status”, Taylor considers it “degenerate.”  Moreover, the push-back of the Reformation suggests to Taylor the “multi-speed” approach was not altogether satisfactory.  Class resentments inevitably boil over.  And there lies one horn of the dilemma.

In their reactionary zeal, the Reformers jettisoned hierarchical mediation.  Every Christian was now required to “row his or her own boat,” and to do so at the same “speed” as his or her fellows.  According to Taylor, this arrangement brought its own problems in train.  To avoid the appearance of laxity, the Reformers introduced stringent religious disciplines into the heart of married life.  He thinks this may have freighted “ordinary flourishing with a burden of renunciation that it cannot carry,” thereby giving rise to the suspicious and conflicted attitudes toward sexuality commonly called “Puritanical.”  There lies the dilemma’s other horn.

By criticizing the extremes, Taylor seems to favor a new relationship between the states of life: non-hierarchical mediation.  Marriage and celibacy may occupy different sides of the galley, but  they row at the same “speed”.


As usual, Taylor frames the problem well.  His implied solution, however, is open to criticism on at least two counts.

First, though Taylor gives a largely descriptive account of the dilemma of celibacy, he smuggles in theological judgments as soon as he calls hierarchical complementarity “degenerate”.  One could mount a strong case, however, that this arrangement was and is Catholic orthodoxy.  Theologians have long claimed to find a preference for celibacy in the Gospels and in St. Paul.  The language of “superiority” (praecellentia) is still used at Vatican II and beyond (Optatam Totius ¶10; Vita Consecrata ¶18).  Canon Law still seems to understand celibates as uniquely “sacred persons,” insofar as it imposes the penalty for sacrilege against one who “uses physical force against a cleric or a religious out of contempt for the faith” (CIC 1370).  (One must always keep in mind, of course, that the Church has always applied the language of higher/closer to the celibate state–never to the celibate).

Second, I wonder whether Taylor’s middle course is feasible even at the sociological level.  In other words, doesn’t a “separate-but-equal” option alongside marriage and family life ultimately prove redundant?  The question becomes especially acute for non-ordained celibates, who cannot point to the sacraments as a unique ecclesial service.  Before the modern rehabilitation of “ordinary life,” celibates understood themselves to be promoting holiness by entering the “state of perfection”.  Though the language may seem unforgivably elitist, it  does attempt to answer an important question frankly.  For if the celibate state does not constitute a qualitatively higher/fuller/more universal role in the divine economy, why renounce the obvious goods of marriage for it?  One might appeal to God’s sovereign “call”, but such a call comes across as sadistic and arbitrary in the absence of supporting reasons.

Functional presentations of celibacy are no more convincing.  True, celibates do provide dedicated and affordable staff for Church institutions, perhaps with round-the-clock availability and better education to boot.  But in all these regards celibates are replaceable, at least in principle, by more money and more non-celibate staff.  Again, only a qualitatively different (higher/closer) role in divine economy can justify the renunciation of a good as great as marriage.  And unless an order can articulate this difference in a straightforward manner and ritualize it in dress and custom, it will probably receive few non-priestly, celibate vocations.

In sum, Taylor identifies well the “horns” of the dilemma from a Christian perspective.  However, I’m not sure that his middle course really manages to escape them either.


One Response to Charles Taylor on Celibacy III: The Catholic Dilemma

  1. therese says:

    I never thought of this as such a complicated topic. I was taught that a vowed celibate was a higher calling than married life bc the religious was married to Christ (or his body, the Church). That made sense to me bc I could easily see that, without priests & nuns, we’d be sunk as a Church. That said, I’m reminded of the quote from some priest who said that he’d look awfully silly processing by himself, (i.e., without the faithful behind him).

    I guess it would be the stuff of “class warfare”, as you say, if it wasn’t just as easy for a layperson to get to heaven as a celibate…maybe not declared a saint by the Church, but to attain heaven, we’ve all got a pretty level playing field!

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