Celibacy, chastity are undertaken for different reasons

I’ve heard you say that a spiritual gift is not chosen, precisely because it’s a gift. So then, would you consider chastity a gift? This has been bothering me. Because when people give up on love, are they not in some way choosing the gift of chastity? Think I am missing something here. Relationships take a lot of time and energy. As they should. And there are times in life when (sexual) energy is just not available. (For better or worse!) So, does that mean when a person is giving up on sex they are giving up on love? I can’t believe you are just talking about sex? How are you defining love? I don’t mean to be dismissing the importance of sex. Not in any way, shape or form. Just that I was considering sex in the context of a relationship. Which, FYI, I think is the only way to seriously consider sex. — N.W., Las Vegas

You have some disparate threads here of some themes about which I’ve written and spoken. Not your fault. I often talk with one leg knee deep in Christian theology and the other in the social sciences. Let me try to sort through those themes and clarify.

The Christian New Testament describes “the gifts of the spirit.” The charismata. By definition, a gift is not chosen. We don’t decide to get a gift. The gift is given. The only decision left to the individual pilgrim is how and whether we will assume stewardship of our gifts. We can use our gifts responsibly and faithfully. We can exploit them. We can ignore our gifts. We can waste them.

Strictly speaking, it is celibacy — not chastity — that is a “gift of the spirit.” Celibacy, in the Christian tradition, is the God-given ability to foreswear sex in principle in service to a particularly consuming vocation and ministry (e.g., monasticism). Sex is not foresworn because it is bad or wrong; rather, sex is foresworn because one’s life’s work does not allow for the time and energy required by a faithful, married life partnership. Sexual energy is redirected (Sigmund Freud would say “sublimated”) into creative congress in the world.

Let me be clear: Celibacy is not the foreswearing of sexuality! Rather, it is the foreswearing of sexual interaction. I emphasize this for many good reasons, not the least of which is that it is impossible to foreswear being sexual. Though, heaven knows some people try. It is never a good idea to dodge your discomfort about sex by dressing that discomfort up in religion and the pretense of piety. That always ends badly. Pathological denial is not the same as the authentic gift of celibacy.

Properly understood, a celibate is not holier or better than a noncelibate. Just different. Monasticism and marriage are merely different Christian vocations. And mutually exclusive. If a husband or wife were, after years of marriage, to simply announce to the mate, “Oh, by the way, God has given me the gift of celibacy,” … well, I’d have some rather critical questions about what was really going on there.

Chastity, on the other hand, is the decision to foreswear sex until and unless certain criterion are met and realized, making sex (for the pilgrim in question) something that abides and thrives only in certain “values contexts.” For example, for some that means sex can only be right in the context of marriage, or at least striving for that ideal. Others would say it as you have said it: “The only way to seriously consider sex is in the context of a relationship.”

So chastity is not a gift. Rather, chastity is a values-based discipline of piety. We choose chastity. Or not. Depending on what we value and why.

As an advocate of healthy marriage, what I said is what I’ll continue to say: If you are married, it’s not OK to simply and unilaterally give up on sex, then smile kindly and say, “Just because I’m giving up on sex doesn’t mean I’m giving up on love.” If you are married to someone with any measure of self-respect, you should rightly expect some energetic protest. Because this fundamentally changes the “marriage contract,” no less than if you were to announce your acquisition of a lover across town, then smiling kindly and saying, “Just because I’m giving up on sexual exclusivity doesn’t mean I’m giving up on love.”

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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