I forgot to post it on the blog, but I had a new piece up on The Federalist last week. It’s a critique of an article by Kylee Zempel in which she argues that Christians today are idolizing marriage. My response was essentially that marriage really is the higher calling for those who aren’t called to celibacy (i.e. the vast majority of the human race), and we ought to treat it that way. But it’s only natural that my own critique attracted criticisms of its own. Here are some answers to the most common objections:
People shouldn’t marry because some marriages turn out badly! Especially for [men | women]!
Sure, but a well-lived life is one that takes risks on behalf of goodness, truth, and beauty. It’s the nature of risk that it sometimes turns out badly. When you lie alone on your death-bed, you’re not going to find much satisfaction in the mere fact that you never got hurt.
This is not intended to trivialize the pain of those who have actually suffered through horrible spouses. It is, rather, intended to point out that as dark as our suffering sometimes is, God’s goodness always shines brighter—we should always hope in the latter rather than despair in the former.
“Be fruitful and multiply” only made sense when there were only two people. Now that there are so many people in the world, we can feel free to disregard it. After all, humanity isn’t going to go extinct.
My favorite thing about this argument is that it was made almost 500 years ago at the Diet of Augsburg—back when there were only half a billion people on the planet. The Roman delegation argued that the earth was already too full, so God’s command doesn’t apply anymore. The additional 7 billion people put this foolishness in perspective.
My second favorite thing about this argument is that one of these guys talked about how China was forced to implement its one-child policy as evidence for his contention. It would, of course, be more accurate to say that they are now forced to abandon it due to the easily predictable consequences of said policy.
But ultimately, it’s wrong because its presumptuous. It suggests without any evidence that the only reason God told us to be fruitful and multiply is merely so that we won’t go extinct. And against that pile of absolutely nothing we have to weigh the fact that God designed us for sexual reproduction in the first place, that He gave us a sex drive that still persists when there are a lot of people, that there are additional New Testament commands to marry after the threat of extinction had passed, that Scripture treats children as categorical blessings, and so on, and so on. Gee, I wonder which way the scales will tilt…
If you want to marry; fine. If you don’t want to marry; fine. But keep your nose out of everyone else’s business because marriage isn’t the be all and end all of human existence.
At the end of the day, I believe this represented most of the criticism—which is pretty sad.
This attitude is as normal in our society as it is incompatible with Christianity. After all, where does it put the entire locus for the decision of whether or not a person should marry? It begins and ends with personal wants. Do what you want, and don’t complicate the matter further by considering compelling arguments.
But “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” is the ethic of literal Satanists like Aleister Crowley, not of Christianity. For Christians, personal wants are considered when we make decisions, but they’re a much lower priority than things like God’s explicit commands, biblical wisdom, godly discernment, love for neighbors, etc.
And as a consequence of this, when we speak of reasons to marry or not, we speak of objective reasons that inevitably inform the decisions of other Christians—or of anyone whose concerns extend further than their own personal wants. To those who follow the Satanic ethic, this seems like butting into someone else’s business. After all, one person’s subjective wants truly have no jurisdiction over another person’s subjective wants. But Christians shouldn’t allow Satan to set the guidelines for our speech, and so we speak of more than mere desire.
Like it or not, there are always going to be women called to celibacy in the Church, and you need to give us the recognition we deserve!
First, I’ll note that this doesn’t affect my argument. It’s a true observation (one that I also made), but does not change the fact that these callings are the exceptions rather than the norm.
That said, let’s also look at the substance of this complaint. Does the Church need to make more of an effort to recognize single women? Well, it depends on exactly what you have in mind for “recognition” because we can understand that in two different ways.
The first way of understanding recognition is as accolade—as in, “Look upon all the mighty works that single Christian women have done! Do you not owe us your praises for these things? Stop pretending that creating and loving new human beings is somehow more important than my career and give me my due!”
I’ll be frank: this is precisely the sense of vainglory I get out of most of these calls. There was even a strong element of this in Zempel’s original piece. After all, it starts off with her description of how wonderfully and thoroughly she studied transgenderism before expressing her irritation that someone who appreciated those studies and took the time to say so also suggested that motherhood was a still mightier work. Likewise, she goes on to talk about how the wisdom of her own pursuits is better and more universal than pursuing marriage and family. There’s a powerful attitude among many single Christian women that they are the unsung heroes of the Church and that voices need to start being raised—stat.
There’s no need for me to address demands for this kind of recognition because Jesus has already done so, and I have nothing to add to His words:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
It’s just one more reminder that the concerns of feminism are not the same as the concerns of God.
But can one put a better construction on some of these calls? I do think it’s possible to understand “recognition” in terms of “office” rather than “accolade.” In other words, recognizing single Christian women can mean widely embracing celibacy as an uncommon but legitimate social role to be filled—one permanent enough that there’s no perceived need for anyone to change out of that role. And to be fair, Zempel had notes of this understanding in her piece as well (specifically the irritation that anyone would express hope for her aspirations to change.)
Well, if this kind of recognition can be fulfilled simply by acknowledgment of celibacy, many people already do this—including myself in that very piece. But if it needs more than that, Christians have traditionally done this through monasticism—in which Christians would take vows of celibacy and permanently join a like-minded community that is recognized by everyone as being set apart from the norm. After all, I suspect very few people ask nuns whether or not they have a boyfriend yet.
The thing is, the protestant churches have largely abandoned this concept—and for good reason. It always came with a unhealthy does of elitism—the belief that monks and nuns were on a higher spiritual plane than the “mundane” Christians who were actually fulfilling God’s commands. They generally involved ungodly vows and the elevation of man-made traditions above the Word of God. And more to the current point, the record will show that a great many monks and nuns did not actually have the gift of celibacy at all—sexual licentiousness wasn’t exactly uncommon in many historical organizations. It’s not that monasticism never offered anything positive, it’s rather that the practical negatives proved too problematic for too many.
The Roman and Eastern churches still maintain monastic traditions, of course. Once could look to those as examples. I can’t say much about them because I’m not familiar with contemporary norms in those traditions. All I can say is that the error of spiritual elitism is, unfortunately, still part of Rome’s theology. And if all the scandals surrounding Rome’s priesthood are any indication, I suspect the not-actually-having-the-gift-of-celibacy issue is probably still around to some extent as well. I know even less about the Eastern traditions.
Ultimately, the call to “recognize” celibate women as holding a kind of special office is going to be a call to reestablish something akin to monasticism. I say this for a few practical reasons. First, it has to be something that is sufficiently organized, visible, and set apart to provide adequate recognition for those who belong to it. Second, it has to have something akin to vows to provide sufficient permanence—otherwise, it just changes the irritating questions of hopeful parents and friends to “hey, when are you going to finally leave the organization and find a boyfriend?” You might be able to trade cloisters and convents for more civic vocations, but many of the key elements are still going to have to be there for it to be functional.
Can this be done without falling into those same historical problems? (Or at least mitigate the problems adequately–it’s not exactly fair to expect perfection in any earthly institution.) The historical endurance of those problems makes me dubious of that. So does the scale of our society’s sexual licentiousness. So does the pervasiveness of single women’s demands for the vainglorious version of “recognition.”
In light of these considerations, maybe the better questions to ask the celibate are these: 1) Are the occasional recommendations to marriage that you receive really so hurtful that it’s worth courting these sins? 2) If the recommendations really are that hurtful, is it possible that you’re a little more insecure about your own calling than you’d like to admit?