Friday, October 01, 2010

Men, women, religious life, celibacy, Luther

The article I quoted in the previous post, the interview with the vocations director, goes on to say:

Q: You have three brothers that are priests. Do you think there is a different strategy for discerning and fostering the vocation of young women than for young men? In what ways?

Sister Hopkins: My experience has been that, in general, men take a lot longer in the discernment process, whether it regards marriage or religious life. Once a woman has “conviction” she is usually impatient to begin a process.

I wonder if men tend to intellectualize it in the beginning, whereas most women religious begin intuitively and very privately. They may struggle longer before admitting they are considering the idea, but once they discern, it is very much a matter of the heart and they are propelled past fears and natural ties to offer that gift of self without reserve....

Both men and women need to know that a desire to enter into the married state is not only good, but is even necessary if one is considering religious life. The absence of such natural desire may signal a problem of selfishness or difficulty in giving or receiving love. Such an emotional handicap would make happiness in the religious life impossible.

   That last paragraph contrasts with a Protestant view I heard on a Focus on the Family radio broadcast.  It was a show about marriage, and the question came up of a call to celibacy.  The two women doing the show said they believed that God intends you for the single life if you're "wired that way", if you're just not interested in marriage.  That's more or less the view I remember hearing at youth group years ago when the subject came up, but I now think it's a truncated understanding of religious celibacy.  Jesus spoke of forgoing marriage for the sake of the Kingdom, not forgoing marriage because you don't want it anyway.

   Anyway, that view apparently traces all the way back to Martin Luther.  He was a priest and an Augustinian monk who declared his own vow of celibacy illegitimate, married a nun, had six children, and wrote this, a letter to several nuns:

. . .You are correct that there are two reasons for which life at the convent and vows may be forsaken: The one is where men's laws and life within the order are being forced, where there is no free choice, where it is put upon the conscience as a burden. In such cases it is time to run away, leaving the convent and all it entails behind. . .

. . .The second reason is the flesh: Though womenfolk are ashamed to admit to this, nevertheless Scripture and experience show that among many thousands there is not a one to whom God has given to remain in pure chastity. A woman has no control over herself. God has made her body to be with man, to bear children and to raise them as the words of Genesis 1 clearly state, as is evident by the members of the body ordered by God Himself. Therefore food and drink, sleep and wakefulness have all been created by God. Thus He has also ordered man and woman to be in marital union. Suffice it to say that no one needs to be ashamed over how God has made and created him, not having been given the high, rare mercy to do otherwise. All this you will amply learn and read and hear proper sermons about when you come out. . .

   It strikes me that Luther's second reason for ditching religious vows could be used to ditch marriage vows too, under certain circumstances.   That notion that we're not in control of our bodies, that we can't (with God's help) live chaste lives whether married or single-- I was going to call it "unchristian", but I think even the ancient pagan philosophers would have thought it beneath them.  The many monks and nuns in Europe in Luther's day were a witness to the fact that although we have animal appetites, we're also higher than the animals.  It's not a "high, rare mercy" to forgo sex; it's just one aspect of subordinating our physical lives to our spiritual lives, something everyone needs to do.  Whether or not we're called to lifelong celibacy, we all have to be celibate at certain times-- like when you're single, or when your spouse is sick or traveling, or when you absolutely can't risk getting pregnant.

   Though Luther didn't intend it, I think his denigration of the possibility of a chaste single life was a step down the road that ended in our century with the widespread feeling that everyone's entitled to sex and teaching chastity is domineering and intolerant.  I've spoken with two different Germans in the past few years about Catholicism, and it was interesting to me that priestly celibacy was the very first objection that both of them raised to the Catholic faith. The spirit of Luther lives on!  So many objections these days have to do with what Mark Shea calls "the pelvic issues"-- that the Church says that contraception and divorce and masturbation and pornography and sex outside of marriage are all mortal sins, and on the other hand the Church allows people to take vows of chastity, and all this seems inhuman and repressed to the modern mind.  It makes me wish that Luther could have seen it; he'd have been horrified.  Maybe he'd have rethought his strong views on the impossibility of forgoing sex.

1 comment:

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

Something that I'm learning slowly now in postulancy