Thinking about an odd thing that I think anybody engaged in discussion about life issues or morality will find familiar: the unshakable, heart-felt belief that celibacy and sexual self-control are not possible. For many people, it is a core, foundational belief that, for a healthy human being, chastity in any of its forms is delusional and harmful. People who promote it are insane, and only the psychologically imbalanced could ever practice it.
If you truly believe this, then all those Catholic people, especially priests and nuns vowed to a life of celibacy can be nothing other than horrible lying hypocrites or sexually tortured lunatics. Or both.
Here’s where reality has no chance of breaking through – this belief becomes a filter, so that nothing that might contradict it is allowed to enter the mind. So, for example, among my friends are many happily married couples who have been faithful to each other for decades, even some who practice Natural Family Planning (meaning: they practice a particularly challenging form of sexual self-control: sharing a bed with a desirable and licit spouse with whom you have agreed to refrain from sex for a week or so at a time, for decades on end). There are evidently millions of couples around the world like this – and, in my unscientific sample, they are among the happier people on earth.
The True Believer, most often revealed in comments such as: “sex is natural, like breathing or eating”, has got to quibble with or out and out deny that this state of fulfilling and voluntary delayed sexual gratification is 1) possible, and, more important, 2) that it is desirable. The character of uptight sexually repressed bigot is as much a stock character in the comedy of the true believer’s life as Harlequin is to comedia dell’arte. More important, there is simply no place in their world for happy chaste people.
This makes conversation, let alone agreement, difficult. Like anyone who has spent half a century around all different kinds of Catholics, I’ve come across some bad ones. However, I’ve also been blessed to know dozens of happily celibate priests and nuns, and dozens of chastely married people. Some are just blessed – celibacy or chastity is not all that difficult for them, just as resisting greed or sloth or gluttony isn’t very difficult for some people. Others fight the good fight, and fight it and fight it until, exhausted, they die. But theirs is a noble martyrdom, not a waste. I’m thinking of those priests and nuns I’ve know with the energy level of a nuclear power plant – there’s some mighty sublimation going on. On the whole, even the ones who find it hard are not sexually tortured – they still laugh and smile and enjoy the company of people.
Now, this is of course anecdotal and personal, but it explains why, even as I struggled to behave well sexually, I never believed is was impossible, and, more important, I believed that chastity is a good thing. And I think many Catholics share this experience.
So, when we are challenged (I almost wrote ‘taunted’) with the claim that no sane person denies themselves sex any time they can get it, we think not of some white-knuckled fanatic with forehead veins throbbing, but we think of our friends, our brothers, our sisters, our aunts and uncles and so on – and we know, first hand, that chastity and celibacy are worthy goals, and that many good and sane people succeed in them.
Unless this issue is addressed, I don’t see how conversation is even possible between, for example, many pro- and anti-abortion people. If one side believes that sexual self-control is, while difficult sometimes, completely within the capacity of normal men and women – and a good thing – and the other believes that sexual self-control is out of reach for healthy men and women, and a bad thing in any event – that’s your quandary, right there.