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Book explores ‘staggering panorama’ of celibacy

By Elizabeth Abbott
Scribner, 430 pages, $30


Anglican author Elizabeth Abbott used to think celibacy was unnatural. But since her divorce, the author of A History of Celibacy surprised herself with the realization that leading a celibate life isn’t so unnatural after all.

After completing six years of research into the phenomenon of celibacy and virginity throughout the world and throughout history, Abbott is now leading a celibate lifestyle herself. During her research, she scrapped her initial scorn for celibacy and realized that celibacy is “a staggering panorama of reality, involving humanity everywhere and always.”

From ancient Greek goddesses who maintained lifelong vigilance over their virginity, to contemporary groups such as Power Virgins and Athletes for Abstinence, from the celibate Jewish Essenes to Buddhist monks and nuns, Abbott found that the phenomenon of celibacy loomed everywhere she looked. And she has looked almost everywhere. Her book reflects a growing interest in celibacy and premarital virginity in recent years as a byproduct of “the sexual revolution’s legacy of skyrocketing teenage pregnancies, staggeringly high rates of abortion and illegitimate births, and raging STDs, including AIDS.”

Abbott is careful to distinguish between voluntary celibacy, which she believes can benefit people spiritually, and involuntary celibacy, which is dehumanizing. A chapter devoted to examples of “coerced celibacy” includes stories like that of two young Chinese lovers who were executed for having premarital sex on a collective farm during Mao’s cultural revolution in China in the 1960s. Ironically, Abbott observes, China’s modern draconian birth control policy of one child per couple has created a shortage of women that may create as many as 80 million bachelors in the future because Chinese couples have killed unwanted female babies.

Also described are the plights of Christian women who were once sent to live in convents against their will, of Hindu widows who were once expected to commit suicide when their husbands died, and of Middle Eastern women who are still killed today as punishment for adultery or premarital sex.

On the male side, Abbott recounts examples of eunuchs who were castrated against their will in China, the Ottoman Empire, Italy and India.

Despite her personal epiphany regarding celibacy, Catholics reading her book will soon recognize her critical, almost mocking attitude toward celibacy in the Christian church. The revelation of the sexual abuse of children by Christian Brothers in her native Canada was one of the events that prompted Abbott to begin her research into celibacy. Unfortunately, Abbott’s focus on the unhealthy ascetic practices among some Catholic celibates living hundreds of years ago and her failure to mention all but a few healthy examples of other Catholic celibates is a serious flaw in her otherwise engaging book.

Her book would be more informative if she had included information about successful Christian celibates such as Mother Teresa, Mother Katherine Drexel, Fr. Edward Flanagan of Boys Town or Archbishop Oscar Romero. This would have balanced out some of the other randy tidbits of information that found their way into her book, such as her assertion that, in addition to novices, “female donkeys were other favorite targets of monkish lust.”

Abbott, who is dean of women at Trinity College at the University of Toronto, has a critical feminine perspective on the early Christian writers. She accuses these early Christians, and later reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, of disliking women because their writings often portrayed women as being temptresses and more vulnerable to sin than men. Whether women have been depicted unfairly in Christian writing is an important issue of justice that needs to be addressed, but her claim that early Christians championed celibacy and virginity primarily because they disliked women is too simplistic. These men had many other reasons to embrace the virtues of celibacy and virginity.

Early Christian men insisted that Christian men and women not be forced to marry against their wills, helping to change the idea of marriage in the Western world. Their insistence was met with much opposition, because arranged marriages were often the norm at the time. As Abbott herself notes, the option of celibacy for women in Christian and Buddhist cultures had a liberating effect on women because it allowed them to pursue work and educational goals they never could have pursued as wives. Early Christians also saw celibacy as a way to liberate themselves from the sinfully oppressive political structures existing during their time, which included forced military conscription by tyrannical rulers. There is little mention in this book of the heroic opposition of early celibate Christians to the violence, war and the sadistic entertainments that pervaded Roman society at the time.

It is ironic that Abbott, who is keen to point out that the Western world “has lost its balance about the nature and value of eroticism,” seems to focus her book primarily on the physical and sexual aspects of celibacy and not on how Christian celibates transformed Western society with their work and with their ideas. There are many examples of how the church has upheld human rights in history by adamantly opposing forced marriages, polygamy, male castration, female genital mutilation, pederasty and prostitution.

Despite its substantial flaws, Abbott’s book contains much interesting information. Catholics can only hope that she will publish a revised second edition that will not ignore most of the positive contributions that Catholic celibates have made to the world.

Michael Ted Bradley lives and works in Scottsdale, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000