Thursday, August 1, 2013

Chastity, Celibacy, Continence

Somebody at RISU either has one whale (or elephant) of a memory, or the link is deceiving. Today in its "Society Digest" RISU put up an article from First Things entitled "Celibacy in Context" by Maximos Davies, who is or was a monk of Holy Resurrection Monastery, a monastic community back then under the jurisdiction of the Byzantine Catholic (Ruthenian) Eparchy of Van Nuys, California. The impression is that the article is from an August 1, 2013 edition of First Things, but the link takes one back to December 2002.

No doubt the editorial staff of RISU (if this is indeed an old article) wishes to contribute to the debate on what is demanded of priests in the Latin Church by repeating this article on the Byzantine contribution to how the lives of all of the baptized contribute to helping the Church live out its sanctity. The fundamental question for me would be whether Maximos Davies faithfully represents the fullness of the Byzantine tradition on asceticism as lived out specifically by different categories of baptized persons. Sadly, Maximos is one more writer who misrepresents or shortchanges the Latin or Roman Catholic tradition concerning chastity. I think he does so for lack of rigor in his own thought and failure to initiate discourse from common ground. In the Western world three words have dictionary definitions and if you want to carry on common discourse/dialogue with ordinary folk, Catholic or not, you have to start with those definitions:
1. Chastity: Chastity is sexual behavior of a man or woman that is acceptable to the moral standards and guidelines of their culture, civilization or religion. (Wikipedia)
2. Celibacy: The English word celibacy derives from the Latin caelibatus, "state of being unmarried", from Latin caelebs, meaning "unmarried".
3. Continence: The words abstinence and celibacy are often used interchangeably, but are different. Sexual abstinence, also known as continence, refers to abstaining from all sexual activity, often for some limited period of time.

Very simply, Maximos cannot rightly use the notion of "celibacy" as overarching; by doing so he denies common usage. The overarching term, both by common usage and by long-standing Christian tradition is "chastity" and chastity, for all walks of life, certainly has an ascetic dimension. By mixing up his terminology or insisting that he can depart from common dictionary parlance, Maximos in the end does a real disservice to the Byzantine tradition of married clergy. Celibacy, I am sorry, is not a monastic trait; chastity, proper to the life of one wholly consecrated to the Lord, however, indeed is. Celibacy is the chosen Western form of living out that chastity expected of priests and bishops of the New Covenant.

Maximos comes closer to an appreciation of the fullness of the undivided tradition of the Church from all times when he speaks about sexual abstinence by priests and their wives, as by other Christian married couples, during the Lenten Season or in preparation for certain solemn feasts. The point is that the Church's tradition, undivided and from Apostolic times, would speak rather of "continence" as the primary characteristic of the priest doing that one work which truly defines him, namely celebrating the Holy Eucharist. If you wish, the difference between East and West is only in the length of the fast. Celibacy in the West denotes lifelong continence. The shorter length of the "fast" required of married men ordained to the priesthood in the East would be that which distinguishes us. Priestly continence antedates the great monastic traditions of East and West, but priestly celibacy finds its motivation or inspiration most certainly in monasticism.

We can each be proud of our tradition; we compliment one another. I just wish Maximos had consulted his dictionary before trying to write something for ordinary folk.

Perhaps RISU was drawn to the article by its closing paragraphs which hold a most significant insight for our day and time:

"It is only because of the loss of this general ecclesial culture that the loss of the more specific clerical culture is so serious. Clergy are less and less distinguishable by their dress, their way of life, how they speak, and how they relate to one another and the hierarchy. Almost certainly the same was true of the early Church, and even to some extent the Church of the patristic era. The difference was that in those days what set the Church apart from the world was its own distinctive ascetical and mystical ethos. Can we not do more to recover this ethos today?

In short, the laity cannot justly complain that their priests do not keep the law of celibacy while at the same time demanding that they themselves be subject to no ascetic discipline. Until the laity begins to accept the need to fast, to be mindful of what we wear, how we speak, how we relate to each other—in short, until the laity accepts its baptismal vocation in all its radical other–worldliness—there is no hope that the clergy will find the strength to do so. Only a Church of mystics can realistically expect their clergy to be saints."

Personally, as a Latin celibate, I'd be more inclined to quote the great saying "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the faith". Regardless of how unfaithful our lay people are, regardless of the crisis strangling Christian matrimony and family life today, regardless of the decadence of consecrated life today, I am gifted by God and called to stand firm, not to conform to the spirit of the age.

Pope Francis, a dynamic and very Western celibate, just challenged the priests of Brazil, Latin American and the World to go out, to reach out... I cannot help but think of the good old message of the Christophers: "If everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be." My faithfulness is paramount; Christ will do the rest; He rules.


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