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Celibacy in an intensively sexualised world is a curious anomaly

Sunday 10 March 2013

It’s all very well to demand that churches bring themselves up to date but then we’d miss their lesson in the mutability of things

Jeremy Seabrook

guardian.co.uk, Monday 4 March 2013

Pity the Catholic clergy, of whom are demanded forms of abstinence and self-denial, which were, in less enlightened times, widespread, but which have been superseded by the altered sensibility of our time. The modern world knows that sex is the mainspring of all human activity; that it is something to get, to have and to search for; a commodity a bit like money, in that no one can ever quite obtain enough of it.

This knowing is socially constructed, despite the claim that we are uniquely privy to the fundamental nature of humanity, and that this is duly reflected in the social arrangements to which we owe allegiance. It is difficult to argue that the insights solely vouchsafed to this generation of privilege might be nothing more than a temporal imperialism, the triumph of a here-and-now that will eventually be swept away.

Yet we should, with humility, understand that the enthronement of sex at the heart of a culture is only one way of interpreting the world; and that there are other ways of living and making sense of human life, which do not give the same supremacy to this particular – although very powerful – aspect of our existence. Indeed, the very persistence of a belief in celibacy testifies to the changeability of our own culture, for it recalls a time when it was not considered eccentric or disordered, but was a freely chosen – and respected – way of life.

When incontinent desires becomes the norm – and in a society which is founded upon intensive consumption and the necessity of selling more and more things to people – restraint and abstinence become outlandish features that separate the weird and eccentric from the acceptable. When insatiability is naturalised, some strange pathologies are bound to develop; and those who are burdened with archaic commitments to celibacy or any other repudiation of self-indulgence will inevitably find themselves in conflict, not only with the prevailing social ideology, but also within their own heart.

Within living memory, sex itself has changed from an intensely private – even secretive – aspect of life, to an object of public display and celebration. My mother’s 11 siblings, born around the turn of the 20th century, shared rooms and even beds, boys with girls sleeping top to toe, since this was felt to minimise the chances of unseemly contact; they grew up knowing nothing about sex, with results for a majority of them that were disastrous.

And although this now seems laughable, it is perhaps useful to recall the fine line between ignorance and innocence. The knowingness of contemporary life is not the same thing as wisdom. Patterns of sexual unknowing still exist in many parts of the world, even though under the impact of the insomniac global media, this is now changing. But we are sufficiently close to societies that subordinated sex to other social purposes, to realise that our version of "reality" is not quite the "natural" and inevitable consequence of development, enlightenment or knowledge we imagine it to be.

This is not to make any argument in favour of the repression of the past. The shift we have lived through ought perhaps to be seen not as a journey from stupidity into light, but as veering from one extreme (the cover-up of sexuality, to which it seems too many of the church hierarchy apparently still pay homage) to another, where sex is the primary purpose of our relationships and to claim otherwise is to be deluded or hypocritical.

That there should have been such a spectacular shift in attitudes within our lifetime ought to provide some insight into the act of faith that both responses demand – secrecy and silence on the one hand, and an uncontained explicitness on the other; and that the beliefs engendered by one age or another, exist in response to the wider context in which humanity makes sense of its sojourn on earth.

For instance, when industrial labour was the destiny of more than two-thirds of the people in Britain, discipline, self-denial and abnegation were absolutely necessary for the machinery of production to function. With the removal of those stringent demands and the transformation of the economy, so that almost three-quarters of activity depends upon shopping and buying, it is inevitable that the popular psyche will change.

There is something poignant in the position of those caught in the transition from one epoch to the other; among them priests and others forbidden by ancient dogmas to express their sexuality. For them, "temptation" was seen as something to be resisted all costs; where for the majority, temptation exists primarily to be yielded to, and to make us do so is the objective of cohorts of advertising and publicity companies.

It seems that for societies to function smoothly, their peoples must generally lack significant insight into how they function, and to believe that their set of conventions represents something fundamental and universal. Thus, the way we live now is perceived as a consequence of progress and a deeper understanding of the nature of humanity, when the way we live is in large measure an expression of the nature of society, customs and practices we absorb unreflectingly, and values – poor orphaned things that we adopt and make our own – as though these testified to an ultimate truth about human life, and were not simply adventitious ideas blown in by the breezes of the age in which we happen to live.

Celibacy in an intensively sexualised world is a curious anomaly, for it represents the passage of one set of frozen beliefs into another time, where they appear outlandish and irrelevant. It is all very well to demand that churches should bring themselves up to date, get real and show they are part of the modern world; but if they were to do so, we would miss their quaint object lesson in the mutability of things, and would fail to recognise the arbitrary, changing nature of all that we hold, if not exactly dear, at least to be an unalterable, necessary part of the scheme of things.

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