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Priesthood, Celibacy, and Being Onely January 14, 2009

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, Food for Thought, Heteronormativity, single and happy, Your Responses Requested!.
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Christina recently pointed me to this very interesting article from the BBC about a priest reflecting on his choice to remain single. Father John Abberton explains that his decision to become a priest was a “positive thing not a negative thing.” In fact,

When I was sixteen and was thinking ahead to what my future would be, I certainly had images of myself as a married man with children. I don’t remember ever struggling with the denial of that. It was a progression into an attitude where I saw myself as being available to as many people as I could be available to and giving myself to the church.

Like many single people, Father John has chosen an admirable occupation and has devoted himself to work that he is passionate about and through which he can enhance the world around him in some very positive ways.

But then Father John’s tone changes slightly, as he compares himself to others who are single (but, ostensibly, not priests?):

I am single for a purpose and my feeling is in someway or another everyone who is single should be single for a purpose. I know there are some people who remain single because they say that is what they want. Although I don’t want to judge people, I think there is a worrying trend in some quarters of society towards a selfish single state.

Oh, so Father John’s not willing to give up the possibility that others who have not devoted their life to helping others (and serving God) are possibly acting as “selfish[ly] single”. As though those who are married are rarely selfish. And as though it’s easy or even ethical to dictate what work should and should not be considered “selfish.” Would Father John ever find it appropriate to generalize about large numbers of coupled people who don’t devote themselves to the service of others? For some reason, Father John’s sense of who should (and/or who has the time to?) embody a life dedicated to social justice/community service seems to be limited to single people. According to this logic, married/coupled people either a) don’t have time to dedicate their lives outward because they must be focused inward – due to their special coupled status, and/or b) have automatically devoted their lives to social justice simply by being married…

Doesn’t make much sense to me (well, unless you’re Catholic, in which case that whole “sacrament” hierarchy may justify his logic sufficiently – but this would lead us to a whole history of patriarchy/heteronormativity in Western religion, which is a problem for us to tackle at another time). But my point is, even Father John can’t escape the heteronormative perspective – for him, all roads (even his single road) lead to marriage of some kind. You see, Father John has a surprise. On his left ring finger. Oh yeah, it’s a wedding ring:

I am single in the eyes of the world, but in a very spiritual way I am committed to the church and married to the church. Some people would have a ring with the name of their loved one inscribed on the inside. I decided to wear the ring with the word ‘church’ on it as a reminder to myself of the commitment I made 27 years ago.

So there you go. All roads, even for single people, ultimately should lead to coupling … of some kind. By no means do I want to disparage the good work that many priests and religious organizations actually do, but I do want to disparage the heteronormative perspective that allows people like Father John to assume that single people don’t do much with their lives — and who subsequently speak as though “doing much” can only be defined in narrow, limiting ways.

It’s late, and I know there’s more to be said. We are loving our reader comments recently — so, dearest readers, what else do you have to add? And what is it we “do” that’s Father John should acknowledge as valuable, even if we’re not “married” to something so noble as the church? (And why, pray tell, should being single for the sake of being single not be understood as “selfish,” as Father John suggests?)

— L


1. lori - January 15, 2009

This single=selfish notion drives me fruit-bat-crazy. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been quite responsible not having children I neither wanted nor could afford; or that I show up to my job each day and am available whenever a client, friend or family member is going through some drama- I’m the selfish one merely because I didn’t marry (I would have but he didn’t love me enough to ask-that’s not selfish, that’s just life) or breed? It simply does not make logical sense but I hear it often and friends in similar situations have recently shared the same frustration.

One case in point: my sister has several kids. We both had the same surgeries in the last two years; I took care of her for almost two weeks at my home while she recovered; she came to visit me twice when I was laid up. I could help because I’m single and childless; she couldn’t because she was unhappily married with kids.

Secondly, a friend just stopped by my office and was talking about the boyfriend (& father of her baby) who recently left her, and how “everyone” is telling him he is selfish and needs to grow up. I understand all the arguments that I could open up here, but this is a man who went into the relationship clearly stating that he didn’t want marriage or kids. Who was selfish? Him for following his known nature, or her for getting pregnant and insisting he live a life he doesn’t want?

And who decides what is noble? In this line of thinking, only single doctors and nurses and clergy and teachers and Greenpeace volunteers are exempted. Nonsense. A whole swath of the population works and volunteers in a helpful capacity- married or single. And if anything, single & childless people are better able to serve their communities in ways that their married counterparts are not. Which brings us back to the priest above who sounds like he is justifying his choice against the accepted norm with his own conflicted state coming to the surface in the backhanded slap at Selfish Singles.

2. onely - January 15, 2009

Nicely put, Lori! Thanks — and I thought I was the only one! (no, really, I didn’t, but you know what I mean) 🙂 — L

3. Rachel - January 15, 2009

I don’t quite see what kind of purpose Father John’s being single has. There are plenty of pastors/priests in other religions who do similar work just fine while being married. Plus, why does being single have to have a purpose? We’re not going around asking married folks what the purpose of their marriage is (especially if they don’t have kids)…

4. onely - January 15, 2009

I know he’s a priest and everything, but I still want to b&tch-slap him. –CC

5. Alan - January 16, 2009

Strange that they should focus on priests.

The focus of the priesthood isn’t being single, but being celibate.

If singlehood was the focus then priests wouldn’t be different than unmarried clergy of other religions.

6. Mary Ann - January 18, 2009

Interesting article. A friend sent me the link due to our having discussed a book called Being Sexual & Celibate by Keith Clark, also a priest. I agree with Father Abberton’s comments about love and creativity and giving. I see that he chose a path that allows him to honor his ideals for love and creativity and giving in ways he is happy with. It is the church, mistakenly or otherwise, that has steered people into marriage, and I think that was because they didn’t otherwise know how to control people’s sexuality. And who is “they” ? Not only the church, but each of us, and our not having explored the sexual and spiritual part(s) of our natures in much depth. That’s what is so wonderful about Keith Clark’s writings – he has thought deeply on these aspects of being. He, too, however, does not question the value of marriage. I guess marriage as somehow a high service to society or God is a teaching that these men of the cloth must accept in order to continue receiving whatever it is their orders provide them for their work. I recall reading that nuns are said to marry Jesus, not the church.

7. Bella DePaulo - January 19, 2009

What terrific analyses! Thanks to everyone. Maybe enlightenment really is on the way.


8. onely - January 20, 2009

Mary Ann…. “It is the church, mistakenly or otherwise, that has steered people into marriage, and I think that was because they didn’t otherwise know how to control people’s sexuality.” Interesting! This reminds me a lot of the theory that the beauty industry has evolved to corral and control women’s sexuality, now that marriage is not as reliable as a means of control. –CC

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