Why Celibacy? A Comparative Perspective

Sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century Initiative
and by the Comparative Theology Area at Boston College


March 25, 2003
Boston College


The practice of celibacy is an age-old, multi-religious practice to which men and women, desiring to serve a higher power by joining religious orders, commit their lives. To laity, a life of celibacy traditionally signifies an elevated yet somewhat mystifying commitment that is difficult to understand and which has become, at least in contemporary Catholicism, the subject of much critique. In a unique opportunity, on March 25th, attendees of the lecture: Why Celibacy? A Comparative Perspective, were given three perspectives on celibacy by Rev. Howard J. Gray, S.J. from the Roman Catholic perspective, Swami Tyagananda from the Hindu perspective, and Geshe Tsetan lectured from a Buddhist perspective. While attendees undoubtedly learned much about each individual religious practice, discussing celibacy across religious lines illustrated both similarities and differences found between religious frameworks philosophically and, economically, how each views their celibacy in commitment to their own religious practice.

Howard Gray, S.J., former director of the Center for Ignatian Spirituality at BC and current Rector of the Jesuit Community at John Carroll University, began the discussion from the Roman Catholic perspective. Above all, Gray emphasizes, celibacy for clerics is their connection to the historical Jesus and the paramount goal to be like Christ. The goal of which is to freely dedicate themselves to God for the sake of the kingdom of heaven to better serve God and human kind. According to Gray, there are three devotional assertions that underlie the 1983 Code of Canon law: Canon 277, which binds clerics to observe celibacy. Beyond Canon law, the first devotional assertion of celibacy involves celibacy as a symbol for living for the kingdom of God. The second is recognition of the calling. Thirdly, celibacy is a witness to action of the spirit that draws humans to prayer and devotion. A problem develops however when celibacy becomes isolated as a symbol, which, in turn, makes reality, become abstract. Gray warns that renunciation can become negative when only held to symbol and it is imperative that celibacy must be Christ like in how it unites a community in presence and service and aims to bring humility to adherents by stressing the participation as part of the bigger part of Christ.

Gray also states that there are equal demands in the life of the laity to contribute to Christian unity. The public and private must be joined together in harmony. Gray recognizes that the trust that is necessary for this harmony has been wounded recently in the Catholic Church and there is a need to readdress what celibacy does and what it means. This includes, for Gray, an effort to look at how the people of God observe chastity and how celibacy and chastity are linked to how to "live in this culture in light of the Kingdom of Christ and the best way to serve our brother's and sisters." He calls for a viewing of the issues of celibacy to be seen within a wider cultural context in the triad of poverty, obedience and celibacy or chastity. Finally, Gray states that celibacy (as the church rends) is a gift from God that takes a lifetime to unpack - many lifetimes beyond Catholicism that aims ultimately to fuel the gift of love.

Swami Tyagananda, a Hindu monk who is the Director of the Ramakrishna Vedanta society in Boston, begins by unpacking his name, which was given to him during his final vows. "Swami" is a term used for monks and carries the meaning "to be master of one's self." "Tyagananda" is a combination of meaning: "Tyaga" meaning detachment and "letting go" and "Ananda" meaning bliss. Therefore the name represents much about celibacy for a monk; it is the practice of self-mastery and the bliss that is realized in the joy of detachment or letting go. Swami explains that there is a historical difference between monks and priests Hindu tradition. Historically, Monks take vows of poverty and celibacy and are exempt from most public ceremonies and focused instead on prayer and meditation focusing on the contemplative side of the Hindu tradition. Priests on the other hand do not have to be celibate and are responsible for the public ceremonies in the Hindu faith. Over the last 100 years however, the public roles between Monks and Priests have started to change and now some Monks function within the social structure in needy areas of society.

Understanding celibacy within the Hindu tradition is impossible without understanding the Hindu worldview. Thus, Swami Tyagananda gives a brief overview of the Hindu world whose ultimate reality is Brahman. Brahman for the Hindu is not a person or a class - it is that which is vast: pure consciousness, objectively as itself: undivided and all-pervading, "being" one with existence, consciousness and bliss - both ultimate and present reality. Monks therefore see themselves as ordinary humans and thus suffer the same problems as ordinary humans. The human is not Brahman because they are ultimately blocked (obstructed) by the body and mind which is material. True identity of the Self (Atman) is hidden from humans and only reached when the experience of enlightenment and dwelling in Brahman breaks from the body and mind as they are limiting and obstruct enlightenment. Spiritual life, therefore, is a voluntary journey in which every hurdle needs to be addressed and overcome. Human identity needs to overcome body and mind (false-self) on its journey to the self (true-self, Atman). Human thoughts (e.g. hunger, sex) throughout the day keep us busy, occupies, and attached to body and mind. Sex, Swami indicates, is often a stronger attachment and plays an important part in life. For those whose goal is to reach enlightenment however, the ideal is celibacy through which individuals work towards non-indulgence of speech and thought of sex.

In the Yoga tradition, the benefits of celibacy points to the power of the sexual impulse which, if unused, can be converted into strength which can be used for greater devotion that makes one healthier and provides nourishment and vigor to the brain. Swami recognizes however that the idea of celibacy has its own challenges and pitfalls; the challenges must be addressed head on so the pitfalls can be avoided. Therefore, to keep celibacy untarnished, Swami proposed five qualities that must be recognized. The first is motivation: celibacy should not be about what one should do (i.e. the laws of an institution) but about what one wants to do - it must come from within. Second, celibacy should be a spiritual ideal, a longing to commune with God for with the love of God in one's heart, nothing is impossible. Third, detachment - one must look deeply at what is essential and non-essential and the spiritual seeker must learn to detach the material. Fourth, moderation or self-restraint is necessary. And finally, higher creativity is important to keep celibacy untarnished is learning to take the portion of creativity which is generated by sex and learn instead to turn it into creativity which can further one on their path to enlightenment.

Finally, Geshe Tsetan, a Tibetan Buddhist monk from Ladakh, India and founder of the Siddhartha School Project, brought a Buddhist perspective to the question of celibacy across traditions. Giving a background of Buddhist belief, Tsetan explains that Buddhists believe that all living beings have the freedom and opportunity to become enlightened (the ultimate enlightened state of which is becoming Buddha). Humans are bound by kleshas (attachments) which cause us to suffer and keep us in the cycle of beginningless time under the control of ego (self). Tsetan explains that according to Buddhist philosophy explains that humans have the freedom to choose but our mind controls us (with attachment to things like ignorance, attachment, and anger) which leads to human beings to continue in the cycle of existence (and therefore not reach the ultimate goal of enlightenment). A Buddhist monk therefore aims to destroy the attachments to the world in their path toward enlightenment and therefore use the vehicle of ethics and vows to get there. Therefore, the three main goals to reach freedom are the following: to escape suffering, gain freedom from emotion, and finally, to reach enlightenment through a luminous mind.

To reach these goals, one can infer that a celibate lifestyle is critical to leaving behind a world of attachment in ones path to enlightenment. Tsetan then talks about the vows that Buddhist Monks and Nuns must adhere to two hundred and fifty-three vows while laity must adhere to five vows. The reason for these vows is to "give up many things to be a good soldier, you need strong weapons to shoot the ego in order to cut the root of the cyclic existence." A celibate lifestyle is undoubtedly one of the necessary vows to be able to destroy the ego and sever the attachment to cyclic existence. Monks and Nuns therefore must have a certain kind of renunciation and devotion and being celibate gives you more time and energy to focus on the path to enlightenment that will allow one to better work for the benefit of others.

To summarize, Gray spoke of the similarities he saw between the three traditions. He observed that there are ties between asceticism (surrendering to God's esence), mysticism (unity with God) and conduct (the way we treat others which leads you to love them). Swami Tyagananda pointed out that across the faiths, if celibacy is valued in different traditions, the key is to figure out what is it that should motivate the person and suggests analyzing what it is that people who are celibate get over and against people who are not celibate. In addition, Tsetan adds a key emphasis in the Buddhist tradition is the power of the vow and the importance of maintaining that vow which gives great power toward enlightenment. While there are many differences in the philosophical and theological structures of Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, all have a tradition of celibacy whose aim is to allow the Monk, Priest, or Nun to focus their attention beyond human attachments in an aim to serve their path in recognition of a higher power. It is certain that this discussion both enlightened and opened many new paths for the speakers and for the listeners.

Ellen Ryan (M.A. student, Boston College)

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