Holy Half-Wits: Celibacy

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“The pretense of chastity is available with a $30 purchase of a silicon hymen, which releases a red dye when subjected to pressure. What’s interesting is that some females are born without hymens, and others who have them don’t always bleed from them when they are ruptured. Thus, the possibilities for abuse are abundant in the world’s male-dominated societies.”Skip Eisiminger

Skip the B.S.

By Skip Eisiminger

Nuns on the beach (Photo: Getty).
Nuns on the beach. (Photo: Getty)

“While figuring the odds of an afterlife,/Bastiano forgot to take a wife.

Dank air greets the mother as she arrives/to visit Bianca in the archives.” —The Wordspinner

Sterling (Skip) EisimingerCLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—June 2017—Strolling in Rome many years ago, I followed a bevy of elderly nuns past some shops near the western end of the Palatine Bridge. As they passed a bridal-shop window, I noticed that several nuns glanced at the manikins, resplendent and beguiling in brocaded silks and veils of their own. I could not see the nuns’ faces, and they paused only briefly to look, but I had to wonder what they were thinking or if they spoke of the decision that had made them “brides of Christ.” Had they ever felt any remorse since taking those vows that, in part, echo the requiem mass? Face down before some stony altar, they lay, “dead to the world . . .  hidden in Christ” henceforth and forever after.

In a personal letter, Helen Hunt Jackson was frank to the point of rudeness with her friend Emily Dickinson when she wrote, “When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy.” Of course, if Miss Dickinson had married and had children, it’s unlikely we would have the many great poems of hers we have. However, the man who retires to a male-exclusive residence like Mount Athos to spend his days primarily in prayer is guilty of what Shakespeare might have called “a waste of spirit in an expense of shame” or what I call a rebuke to life.

In a letter to seminarians across the world posted in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI defended Catholicism’s celibacy requirement following the Boston pedophilia scandal, first reported in 2002. Despite the abuses, which many blamed on celibacy, the pope saw the requirement as a way for priests to attain “an authentic, pure, and mature humanity.” When I read that as a man committed to the same woman for over 50 years with two children and four grandchildren, I asked myself how anyone might regard the sexual choices my wife and I have made as inauthentic, impure, and immature.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps Benedict simply means that a celibate’s choice and mine are parallel choices, both leading to the same ends. However, for the life of me, I cannot regard my choice to marry and have children as equal to a monk’s choice to isolate himself on Mount Athos, parallel as they might be. The monk has every right to a life of prayer but, until I find him on a higher heavenly plane than his brothers and sisters who teach and nurse, I cannot equate his choice with theirs or mine.

Though Catholic bishops, cardinals, and popes had been celibate since 692, I find it troubling that the church did not institute the celibacy requirement for its priests until the 12th century, roughly 1,100 years after its founding. The church’s decision was based partly on the realization that it was losing money when a married priest left an inheritance to his family. Without a wife and children, “Father Brown’s” savings would remain in the church when Brown died, which smacks of avarice on my palate.

“The Washing of Christ’s Feet,” Peter Paul Reubens, 1615.
“The Washing of Christ’s Feet,” Peter Paul Reubens, 1615.

I’ve long been puzzled by the church’s justification of celibacy given:

  • God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply”
  • Mary’s union with Joseph and their several sons and daughters
  • Jesus’s friendship with Mary Magdalene
  • Peter’s mother-in-law
  • several other wives and children of the apostles
  • and Paul’s wife, who apparently died young

Robbed of having and rearing children since 1139, nuns, dubbed “enemies to their own flesh” by Kathryn Harrison, once were advised to dandle Jesus dolls to compensate for their losses.

The ends to which humans will go to avoid procreational sex are astonishing:

  • One hermit monk had himself handcuffed and bricked in a tomb. Israeli archaeologists discovered his bones about a thousand years after he was interred.
  • The Cathars, Christian revivalists in 14th-century France and Italy, were chaste vegetarians because the animals humans ate were products of sex.
  • In Russia, 18th-century males in the Skoptzy cult had themselves castrated while the women mutilated their breasts and genitals because Jesus had said, “Blessed are the barren.”
  • Disciples of Tantric sex practice a Hindu variant in which foreplay is permitted as long as there is no orgasm because a man’s seed belongs to the gods.
  • The Jains of India deny themselves the pleasures of sex and just about every other pleasure imaginable, which sometimes results in starving themselves to death.
  • Though married, Gandhi tempted himself for years by sleeping with nubile girls but never had sex with them. It is not known what psychological damage this caused his sleeping partners or his wife.
  • Anorexics may starve themselves, in part, to remain children incapable of sex.

When all of nature proclaims, “Procreate or suffer the death of your species!” it’s worth exploring the motives of one celibate group, the Shakers.

This Christian sect was founded in the 1770s by Ann Lee, whose Quaker parents had arranged her marriage as a way of weaning her from the celibate Wardley sect she had joined in 1758. But after each of Ann’s four children died in infancy, she and a handful of followers emigrated to America and founded one of the most successful communal societies in US history. As long as there were plenty of orphans to rear following the Civil War, the Shakers’ numbers grew. With a passion born of her own failed marriage, Ann had convinced her followers that the deaths of her children were a punishment for her “concupiscence,” or lust. But as Artemis Ward, a 19th-century social critic and down-east humorist, said of this sect who shared everything but their bodies, “Here you air, all pend up by yerselves, talkin about the sins of a world you don’t know nothin’ of.” As of February 2017, two Shakers remain.

Two subcategories of celibacy might be designated: “enforced” and “pretended.” Both are rumored to have been designed by the Marquis de Sade. For $150, a parent or spouse may purchase a lockable, metal “envelope” that fits snugly at the base of the scrotum and covers the entire male procreative organ with the exception of a narrow slit for urinary purposes. carries belted female versions ranging from $312 to $25. Presumably, the objective of these devices is to enforce sexual loyalty, come drought or flood.

The pretense of chastity is available with a $30 purchase of a silicon hymen, which releases a red dye when subjected to pressure. What’s interesting is that some females are born without hymens, and others who have them don’t always bleed from them when they are ruptured. Thus, the possibilities for abuse are abundant in the world’s male-dominated societies.

Where did the belief among Christian ascetics arise that pleasure is sinful? My answer is located in Genesis 3, where the serpent successfully tempts Eve with an unnamed but God-forbidden fruit. She, in turn, tempts Adam with this fruit, plucked from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.”

Traditionally in the Western visual arts, this fruit has been an apple but, given the Fertile Crescent’s climate, the fruit was more likely a pomegranate, date, or fig. Whatever the author or authors of Genesis had in mind, it was rare, and it was sweet.

Understand that many passed their lives without experiencing the sensation of sweetness since sugar cane and sugar beets were unknown in the Middle East in pre-Christian times. Since sweetness is a pleasurable sensation to most human palates, and since an agent of Satan advocated taking this first taste, it followed that pleasure of any kind must be sinful. It was, then, a short step on a slippery slope to the belief that if one wished to return to Eden for eternity, one must renounce the pleasures of this world. Indeed, Jesus and later Paul imply that marriage ranks second to the “gift of celibacy.”

From the knee-burnished floors of ancient monasteries to the Purity Pledges of the 21st century, celibacy and abstinence have never been the basis of effective and widespread birth-control policies. Indeed, the majority of teens who take the pledge will still have sex before marrying and are less likely to use contraception. Exceptions that allow or mandate abstinence, of course, may be made for sex offenders, the elderly, and victims of venereal disease but, simply put, humans are not “sexual camels.” One may trellis passion, but to poison its roots is unnatural and unhealthy.

Note: The image above of nuns on the beach derives from Getty, and was used in “Where’s The Outrage Over Nun Beachwear?” by Barbie Latza Nadeau, July 21, 2016, The Daily Beast.

To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522.

Skip Eisiminger's Letters to the Grandchildren

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)


  • Anita Sullivan

    Thanks, Skip, as a lapsed Catholic, and the celibacy thing being one of the reasons, I’ve been mulling over this issue for many decades. As always, I learn much from reading your pieces.