Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Celibacy as Political Resistance

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Celibacy as Political Resistance

Article excerpt

Just weeks before the 2012 election, in a discussion held in the gymnasium of a small Midwestern Catholic college, the college's president asked everyone to stand, turned to the large American flag hanging from the rafters, and asked the crowd to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with him. For him, such a gesture seemed the natural or obvious thing to do. But will, or, more importantly, should the next generation of Christian leaders share the same zeal to affirm American civil religion?

In increasing numbers, American Christians have come to realize that the ethos and ends of the American government often undermine Christianity and its institutions. Like other Western, secular states, the United States now seems antagonistic to religious institutions, threatening their capacity to form their members and to engage in the practices they need to grow and flourish. It seems more plausible now than in the recent past that Church and state will be locked in a long struggle.

Christians, however, have too often failed to recognize that we're frequently swayed by the deep, romantic national identity that America fosters so well in its citizens. It and not the Church often sets the agenda. The calls for religious freedom very quickly focus on the rights of conscience, reinforcing an individualism that downplays the importance of the freedom of the Church to occupy public space on her own terms.

In response to the government's decision to force Catholic institutions to comply with the new health care law, for example, one might have hoped for a strong, prophetic, and theologically serious response from a Catholic leadership that feels especially besieged by the Affordable Care Act. Instead, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gave us the feeble "Fortnight for Freedom." In name ("Freedom"), time (concluding on Independence Day), and icon (the Statue of Liberty), the USCCB merged American mythology with Christian history. The bishops' rhetoric suggested no inherent incompatibility between being American and following the gospel. If the new health care law were only more American, there would be no need to protest.

We need to use more than the weapons of modern political culture-the language of rights, for example-to make a cogent defense of the Church. Christians need to understand-on the Church's terms, not the world's-the challenges they face. Discipleship makes claims on the follower that differ from those made by the nation on the citizen. This is a lesson taught by the Catholic understanding of papal primacy and, perhaps unexpectedly, of clerical celibacy.

Both function as spiritual declarations of independence for the modern Christian citizen. Both preserve Catholic identity, not by petitioning the state for rights but by mounting a theological counteroffensive against the pretensions of the modern nation-state.

Mandatory clerical celibacy became a topic of heated discussion between traditional Catholicism and the enlightened spirit of reform in eighteenthand ninteenth-century Germany. This debate belonged to a broader dispute over how to modernize German Catholicism. Enlightened reformers deemed harmful the veneration of relics, worship in Latin, and the promotion of miracles. Critics also suggested that mandatory celibacy was a needless, unnatural alternative to conjugal life, which should be regarded as normative for human flourishing. Of course many Catholics objected to these arguments, but many others found them persuasive.

The debate about celibacy went from simmer to boil in 1828. Two Catholic laymen from the University of Freiburg-Karl Zell and Heinrich Amann- penned a Denkschrift (opinion piece) arguing that the Church needed to set aside the discipline of celibacy for priests. The authors handed out hundreds of free copies to influence literate townsfolk and university students. They appended letters to the Baden parliament, Archduke Leopold, and the archbishop of Freiburg. …

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