In Depth

“Song of Songs” and the crisis of celibacy

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Anthony Egan SJ recently gave a series of lectures on Old Testament literature and became intrigued by the sexualised language of Song of Songs. Reading it more closely, he posits that this text provides an appropriate and timely reflection on celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood. Celibacy, he says can be both a path to deeper union with God or a distraction to spiritual growth and maturity.

Recently I had the unlikely opportunity to teach a course on “Old Testament Prophets and Wisdom Literature” to undergraduate theology students at St Augustine College of South Africa in Johannesburg. It was unlikely because I am not a professional biblical scholar, an opportunity because it gave me the chance to read extensively on a subject I had not seriously researched since ordination a few – okay, quite a few! – years ago.

I made it clear to academic colleagues and students that I was not going to focus on the complexities of Hebrew grammar (much to the relief of the students, I suspect) but on the historical contexts, ethics and spirituality of the texts, and dived deeply into many commentaries and scholarly monographs to prepare my lectures.

When it came to the Song of Songs, I was surprised to find two apparently diametrically opposed bases for its interpretation. I should add here that it was not one of the Wisdom texts I’d studied in any great depth before. One school of interpretation, in both Jewish and Christian traditions, reads it as an allegory of the love of God for (inter alia) Israel, the Church, Christians or humanity in general. This is by far the dominant school historically – and, I discovered, the Song was the most commented upon book in the Hebrew Bible in the European Middle Ages. The other school, drawing on a careful but more literal reading, sees it as nothing less than erotic love poetry – a rare genre in ancient Hebrew literature but not uncommon in the wider literatures of the Ancient Near East.

One school of interpretation […] reads it as an allegory of the love of God for (inter alia) Israel, the Church, Christians or humanity in general.

The fact that the Song of Songs, which has few if any references to God, was immensely popular probably led to its inclusion in the canonical Hebrew Bible – but at the ‘cost’ of making it an allegory of divine love. And, as I’ve noted, it was taken up into the Christian Old Testament in a similar manner.

Song of Songs in the context of Judeo-Christian attitudes to sexuality

As a historian and ethicist I was struck immediately by the text’s significance in a number of areas. Historically, its presence in Scripture and its reception and interpretation pose questions for us about the complex history of Judeo-Christian attitudes to sex and sexuality. To sum up, albeit at the risk of simplification, based on the findings of a large body of research on this subject, the short answer might be: a history of profound Christian ambivalence.

In the realm of Christian ethics, particularly Catholic ethics, the picture is equally complex. Sex is good within the bounds of marriage, for the sake of strengthening marital love and the procreation of children. Outside this, it is – shall we put it gently – problematic. The complexity is further intensified by the emphasis on celibacy, first in monasticism and the religious life, but later extended to all clergy.

It is also worth noting that the historically dominant Christian interpretation of the Song of Songs emerges out of the study of scripture by celibates: monks and religious and clergy. Could it be that    they embraced the Jewish allegorical interpretation out of a sense of cognitive dissonance?

The historically dominant Christian interpretation of the Song of Songs emerges out of the study of scripture by celibates: monks and religious and clergy.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term. It is defined as “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change”. I think we can see how this might work for our traditional interpreters. Faced with a biblical text that celebrates interpersonal love, passion and sex, how could this square with a calling to celibacy? This becomes even more acutely dissonant when the readers and interpreters are a group whose calling is to the ministry of priesthood, but not necessarily celibacy, a celibacy which has never been understood as a theological doctrine but as a rule of discipline for diocesan clergy.

How might all this fit into the crisis of celibacy?

I was tempted to say “crisis”, implying that it is an apparent rather than actual crisis. Some might even say a “crisis’’ invented by the ‘politically correct’ or those who somehow wish to ‘attack’ or ‘undermine’ the Church. As a historian, however, having sifted through all the rhetorical flourishes and even a vast literature of anti-Catholic propaganda on the subject, my judgment is that the crisis of celibacy is real.

The historical evidence of a crisis – from the 11th Century when it was finally imposed on Latin-rite Catholicism until today – is overwhelming. While many priests have lived exemplary celibate lives over the centuries, many have not. Those who have not range from parish priests to bishops and popes. In many cases, the historical evidence suggests abundantly, some have not even bothered to keep their behaviour discreet.

While many priests have lived exemplary celibate lives over the centuries, many have not.

Many others have struggled with it, some ‘lapsing’ and returning to its practice, often with little regard for the other persons involved in their liaisons. Others live it imperfectly, ‘sublimating’ their desires for love and sex with other pursuits, whether sensual (food, alcohol, nice clothes etc.) or through pursuit of power, knowledge or success.

Please don’t misread this. I am not saying that every priest who likes good food, enjoys the odd Scotch, dresses well or tries to succeed in life is a frustrated celibate. There is nothing wrong in seeking a reasonably good life – and pursuing excellence in one’s work is something to which all should aspire. Nor, too, am I hinting that married life is mediocrity. What I am saying is that these phenomena, particularly taken to extremes, may be danger signals of loneliness and disconnection, an attempt to compensate for the absence of a significant human other.

These phenomena, particularly taken to extremes, may be danger signals of loneliness and disconnection, an attempt to compensate for the absence of a significant human other.

Nor am I suggesting that celibacy is inherently wrong. For many people celibacy is the only way they can truly serve God without distraction. I shall even suggest below that for some celibacy is itself a kind of ‘sexual’ union with God. But let us look to Church History for an answer to this puzzle.

Celibacy was the preserve of men and women who embraced monasticism, whether as solitaries (the so-called Desert Fathers and Mothers) or in community. This trajectory in the Church expanded over the centuries into the great religious orders and congregations of men and women who have so enriched the Church. In the early Church they were the minority. In towns and cities clergy (including many bishops) were married with families.

Why did this all change? There are a number of reasons. One was a sense of rivalry: the monks, nuns and solitaries were seen as the truly holy ones, the great spiritual directors and confessors. Perhaps the question went around the rest: what do they have – or don’t have – that we don’t? A special vocation became over time a mark of ministry itself.

Later, too, the question arose as to who owned parish churches – the parish priest, in many cases. And who inherited these churches after they died? Their widows. Thus celibacy became a way to consolidate ownership of church property.

Above all, I think, the Church’s deep ambivalence to sexuality was a key factor. In the early Church, beliefs about sexuality were often formed less by careful reflection on Christian sources (Scripture and Tradition) than in reaction to those around them. The Roman milieu was highly sexualised and very decadent. Other religions and fragmentary Christian sects, like the Gnostics, had very diverse views on sex. Some renounced all sexual contact. Others were sexually insatiable. At least one Gnostic sex combined libertinism with strict contraception – since they believed bodies trapped souls, making more human bodies was for them a serious sin. Responding to all this, the Church – historians tell us – adopted sexual attitudes in reaction to their world. (Need I say that reaction is a very dangerous, often short-sighted, way of developing any policy?)

In the early Church, beliefs about sexuality were often formed less by careful reflection on Christian sources than in reaction to those around them.

The idea of sex as something good and holy (which can be found in the Hebrew Bible and remains a current in Judaism) slowly died the death of a thousand qualifications – and created the spiritual mind-set that made celibacy an integral part of the discipline of priesthood.

What then can the Song of Songs say to this dilemma, particularly given its two dominant interpretations?

Song of Songs as a response to dilemma over celibacy

My suggestion is that a reading of both interpretations of the Song of Songs offers us a biblical way out of our dilemma over celibacy.

Let’s start with the literal reading. The text is a celebration of romantic and sexual love. It resonates with anyone who has ever been in love – the longings for the beloved, the excitement of anticipating the beloved’s presence, the joyous passion of union. It also expresses the risks one takes, and the fear of loss, in pursuit of the beloved. All very human, written in language that shies not an inch away from powerful sexual imagery – often written, as the best of poetry is, in language that is rich in metaphor. Yet few who read it can miss what these metaphors are saying. And what it is saying is sexy, very sexy.

Now let’s shift to the Song as allegory. For many Christian commentators, ancient and modern, this erotically charged text is an expression of God’s love for God’s people. In many and varied Christian spiritualities we find the two-way movement of longing, anticipation, passion and union – of God for us, of us for God. This is the lived experience, written down and shared, of the great Christian mystics like St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. It is the act of abandonment of self to the loving presence of God, an experience which for many not only replaces human love but makes the latter irrelevant, a distraction and even an act of infidelity.

It is the act of abandonment of self to the loving presence of God, an experience which for many not only replaces human love but makes the latter irrelevant.

This is glorious stuff for those who experience it.

Not everyone does.

In fact most people do not experience God in this way. For most Christians – including I would suggest most priests – God is encountered sometimes in the humdrum daily existence, in encounters with other people, in nature for some, and in moments during prayer and the Eucharist.

To put it in psychological terms, the profound ‘sexual sublimation’ of mystical union – echoing the allegorical reading of Song of Songs – is not for everyone. By extension, one could argue that the claim that prayer always substitutes for human love and intimacy does not stand. Similarly, I would suggest that any claim proposing that the latter obstructs love for God is not only wrong but contradicts our Christian understanding. Human love does not block one off from God – if that is so all we say about sacramental Christian marriage is a lie.

If we read the two interpretations of Song of Songs together, what might we find? Though each point needs further analysis, I would suggest the following. First, the Song celebrates the natural beauty and inherent truth of human love, including its sexual dimension. Indeed given the eroticism of the text, we can say that sex is an inherent, profoundly important part of love. Second, the allegorical reading of the Song makes it clear that God loves us in a manner akin to the passion of interpersonal love. Indeed, third, human love is a metaphor for God’s love – and is in fact at its best an expression in the life of most people of God’s love. That is, once we get over the all too common Christian sense that sex is dirty, sinful and an obstruction to union with God.

What is an obstruction to God, however, is a mind-set where obsessing over sex, over longing and loneliness and the desire for physical intimacy so preoccupies a person that s/he can’t focus on God.

Should celibacy be a requirement for the priesthood?

With regard to the question of clergy celibacy, I would suggest that this is the case. For those who are truly called to it, celibacy is the only way to union with God. For the rest it is a distraction from growing deeper into God – a growth that a stable, faithful and faith-filled relationship would possibly facilitate.

What is an obstruction to God, however, is a mind-set where obsessing over sex […] and the desire for physical intimacy so preoccupies a person that s/he can’t focus on God.

The arguments made against keeping celibacy as a requirement for priesthood in the Western Latin-rite Catholic Church are many. Some have more validity than others: the shortage of candidates for the priesthood as it exists today; the historical failure of many to live it with integrity; the problems of cultures where not being married and a parent makes one an outsider. Even the rather pathetic argument that married clergy would reduce the risk of child abuse – a sweeping piece of rhetoric, but offering the possibility that clergy-strapped bishops might have a bigger pool to choose from, and hence not be tempted by emergency to accept candidates whose personalities might display risky tendencies. All of these arguments are to varying degrees pragmatic.

I would suggest that a closer reading of the double understanding of the Song of Songs offers an explicitly theological case for a revision of church discipline. For those who worry that any change today would be a capitulation to worldly and practical pressures, it may offer a sense that re-embracing the idea of what would probably become quickly a majority married clergy is of the Spirit.       

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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“Song of Songs” and the crisis of celibacy