To Marry or To Burn: The Question of Celibacy

These are revised sections of chapter two of Properties of Blood, Part II.  I realized, in working over the two chapters on marriage, that I had written too much on history and not enough on basic questions.  I had also too much followed the devices and desires of my own heart, which is not much sympathetic to the celibate life.  I beg my readers forbearance in reading these extracts and ask them to recall that it is part of a far-ranging survey of marriage customs whose object is to put Christian marriage in the broader context.

The whole chapter has to be revised--which I am in the process of doing--but I think I shall move on to the Household, to get some relief from marital difficulties.

To Marry or To Burn

One basic question faced by early Christians was whether nor not to marry at all.  St. Paul praises celibacy but grants marriage as an indulgence to the weak.  It is understandable that Christians who expected Christ's imminent return might regard marriage as pointless.  Despite his relegation of marriage to a secondary status, Paul does not approve of a man living with his wife in celibacy.  Celibacy represents an ideal of perfection, but marriage is for most of us a necessity that both enriches our lives and protects us from sin.  The opening of the 7th chapter of I Corinthians captures much of his thought.

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.  Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.

Note the phrase every man.  Marriage is not to be the rare exception but the norm.  The celibate life is best, but marriage, which is preferable to fornication, imposes duties of both kindness and sexual intercourse.  In his “Epistle to Polycarp,” St. Ignatius follows Paul’s lead, in praising celibacy but celebrating marriage as a true union to be solemnized in the presence of a bishop.  Once a marriage was made, it was not to be broken off lightly or treated as a legal fiction.  

Every movement, whether political, intellectual, or religious, develops factions and sects, some of which derive their peculiar teachings from external sources.  Christianity was no exception.  From almost the beginning, the Stoics’ opposition to non-rational pleasures and their advocacy of self-control and chastity had impressed itself upon Christian moral theology.  Major Stoic thinkers were agreed that sexual pleasure was a moral problem--it was not to be actively pursued by a wise man, but they differed on  the manner of solution.  The sect’s founder, Zeno, argued for promiscuity and nudity as a means of escape, while later Stoics more practically taught moral restraint and chastity. On the other hand, the eclectic Stoic Hierocles advocated marriage, in general, as the practice adopted by wise men.

It is sometimes said that the early Christian emphasis for celibacy reflects the influence of some puritanical Judaic sect, such as the Essenes, who are said to have banned marriage and denigrated women, but this is simply speculation.  Our best sources for the Essenes, Pliny the Elder, Josephus, and Philo, agree that celibacy was required  and women were excluded from the community, though Josephus, writing in the first century A.D., also knows of an Essene group that strictly regulated but did not prohibit marital sex. (BJ II.8}:

Moreover, there is another order of Essens, (8) who agree with the rest as to their way of living, and customs, and laws, but differ from them in the point of marriage, as thinking that by not marrying they cut off the principal part of human life, which is the prospect of succession; nay, rather, that if all men should be of the same opinion, the whole race of mankind would fail. However, they try their spouses for three years; and if they find that they have their natural purgations thrice, as trials that they are likely to be fruitful, they then actually marry them. But they do not use to accompany with their wives when they are with child, as a demonstration that they do not marry out of regard to pleasure, but for the sake of posterity. Now the women go into the baths with some of their garments on, as the men do with somewhat girded about them. And these are the customs of this order of Essenes.

The Essenes were hardly alone in viewing sex—and even marriage—as impediments to sanctity.  A number of Middle Eastern cults encouraged or required the castration of priests, and, in the early Christian centuries, a variety of “Gnostic” sects enjoined celibacy.  Celibacy was also either demanded or advocated by influential heretics such as Marcion, Tatian, and Montanus, and even among orthodox Christians there were many who viewed the body itself as shameful and sexual acts as disgusting.  In Pagans and Christians, Robin Lane Fox, in surveying these excesses, warns against the tendency to see them as normative, sensibly pointing out “most Christian authors did remember that the highest ideals did not apply to everyone but to each according to his capacity,” adding, “We must do justice to this range of opinion, which was headed by Paul himself.”

The celibate life has been the highest Christian ideal from the beginning of the Church, but in time it became clear that a communal life requiring celibacy and communal property was only possible for the dedicated minority willing to take monastic vows.  As the concept of the sacraments developed, marriage was elevated to the sacramental level.  Sex even within marriage, however, was not given an unqualified license.   Abstinence except when children are intended was the ideal, though it is, nonetheless, not wrong to pay the marriage debt.  In his De bono coniugali, (6)  Augustine says that excessive demands, which reflect incontinence, should not be made, but even in such a case the sin is venial.  Augustine praises the mature couple whose affections grow once they have decided to abstain from intercourse.[9]  In the early centuries of the Church, sex even within marriage was typically looked upon as an irrational and even degrading passion and impediment to sanctity. The most careful exposition is given by St. Thomas, who argues that sexual acts can be without sin if performed in a manner that is rational and consistent with nature.[Summa Th II-III , 153 .]  


Although the revolution did not take place all at once, the Christian doctrine of "one flesh" influenced virtually every aspect of marriage.  Celibacy remained the highest ideal in the Middle Ages, but marriage was an institution created by God for the procreation of the human race, though the pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake was condemned even in marriage.  Since most of the information on the secondary status of marriage and the sinfulness of conjugal pleasure comes from clerics, one may well doubt how representative such opinions were in any other class.  The most generous interpretation of marital intercourse is offered by St. Alphonsus dei Liguori,  a 17th century casuist often regarded as the most comprehensive moral theologian of the Catholic Church.  St. Alphonsus wrestles mightily with the question of whether marital copulation for the purpose of pleasure is illicit.  After surveying the authorities in painful detail, he makes several distinctions.  He concludes that such pleasure is sinful only if the sole purpose is pleasure, because it is a perversion of nature to put means (pleasure) before the end or purpose (procreation), but it is not a sin if pleasure is merely anticipated by a couple that wishes to have children.  But, even in the cases where marital relations are sought only for pleasure, the sin is venial.  

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

18 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    How would today’s “natural family planning” as well as the story of Onan fit into this?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    As you know, the sin of Onan was to use contraception to frustrate justice, namely to produce an heir to his brother’s estate. Somewhat similarly, NFP is designed to frustrate the just ends of nature. Far from condemning such practices, I have a good deal of sympathy, but I find their rhetoric immoral and in many cases disgusting.

  3. Dot says:

    The first thing I thought of was the Shakers. This group will eventually become extinct because of their marital way of living a separate and celibate life. Their furniture will be the only reminder of their faith.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I believe there is only one small community of Shakers left–somewhere in Maine.

  5. Raymond Olson says:

    Sabbathday Lake, Maine. There are two fine CDs of Shakers singing Shaker songs, both on the Rounder Records label. Another on the Erato label is Simple Gifts, performed by the Boston Camerata, the Schola Cantorum of Boston, and the Shaker community of Sabbathday Lake as of 1995–all six of them.

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    ,”have a good deal of sympathy, but I find their rhetoric immoral and in many cases disgusting.”
    I don’t know what their rhetoric is as I don’t and never did pay much attention. I do know of the work of religious orders in India which has been quietly helpful to many without rhetoric. But I am sure they would find yours,ours and others disgusting too if they listened very often .

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I have attended Catholic conferences at which husbands and wives gave talks about the most intimate aspects of their erotic lives. It was absolutely shameful. Pornography–the depiction or description of lewd acts performed for hire–is bad enough, but there once was a time when men did not talk about their wives as sex objects. Like most things in the modern world, an act that might be a simple gesture of sacrifice or chastity is turned into a fad. As I said in response to a comment, I have some sympathy with the aims of programs for limitation of family size, but the business of turning the marital bedroom into a sex clinic–and the overheated descriptions provided by sine if the leaders –is disgusting to me and I should think disgusting to anyone who studies the matter. I did not know this stuff was being exported to India, but I do know one thing from an academic organization that has studied the effects of birth control efforts in India: By constantly reminding men of sexuality, they increase the rate of sexual activity. Missionary work to convert the Indians is a highly praiseworthy activity. Programs to improve their “quality of life” are busybodying. I recall a letter from an educated and affluent Indian written to the organization I referred to. He wondered why Europe and the US would lavish time and money on improving the conditions of a country that was dominated by extremely wealthy people who would not spend a time on charity.

  8. Dot says:

    I don’t know anything about these talks on marriage, but when couples give talks about the intimate aspects of their lives, they are openly, with an air of superiority, discussing and promoting these intimate aspects. They are making a science about it. It is cold and harsh. But I guess it is a sign of the times. I wouldn’t want to be their neighbor.

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks for the wise observation. I have no wish to condemn or criticize the movement, but when asked a question I gave a direct and succinct answer that touched on a persuasive style I found very disturbing.

  10. Dot says:

    And what can this movement lead to? Experimentation with other couples? But this is a social reality and laws cannot be made against it. There’s no point to it for that would be only one social reality and life presents many others. Best for me to mind my business, live in peace and live in the present. After 4 years my lilacs finally bloomed and the fragrance is wonderful.

  11. Robert Reavis says:

    I would agree with much of what you assert and is for me to similar to Americans infatuation with the sexual exploits of Clinton, Kennedy and Trump. Usury is much worse practice than contraception and individual family size is really none of our business, yours mine or anyone else’s so long as the parents are willing to make the self sacrifices necessary. My reference to NFP being taught with helpful and precise understanding by religious in India without boasting of its fruits or dictating the ideal family size was to The Sisters of Charity who were no busybodies. Your disgust with current Catholic practices that have been Americanized beyond recognition I share. It has killed Europe and London and is providing the same poisonous fruit here at home. I am glad you brought the subject up because it is so central to the turning of the fecund fruits of Christian love into the sterile self satisfaction or our intellectual class.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The little I know of the Sisters of Charity comes from Chris Check and his brother, Fr. Paul Check who has served them in various capacities. They are a true missionary group, ministering to soul and body. What I was referring to were various lay organizations in the States, some of whose leaders I have run into at meetings held by, for example, Opus Dei. They gave the impression–I am not claiming it is a valid impression–of advocating a way of making whoopee that remained technically licit. These are rotten times we live in, when even well-intentioned Christians can get warped.

    In talking generally of the highly charge rhetoric of such people, I was offering a sort of emotional parallel to the bad ethical logic used by otherwise Christian people to justify the killing of innocent civilians. Sometimes the language and arguments used to justify actions can be worse than the actions themselves, because they confuse the moral sense of ordinary decent people.

  13. Robert Reavis says:

    You do not need to justify your thoughts to me. I am your friend and agree with you because I actually know you and admire you after hours of conversation ( and occasionally too much hard liquor) together. I was simply responding to serious issues on topics far more consequential than why the recent omnibus budget provided more funds to planned parenthood than securing our nations borders.

  14. Sharif Said says:

    As someone that has in the past decade undergone marriage instruction in one of the diocese of the USA, I can say that there is much to be desired regarding the NFP. I think ultimately it is yet another way the rationalist approach to love and life has invaded our homes and lives. I prefer a vision of life that has nothing to do with such worries as excretions and body tempts, unless I’m about to go to the doctor. I have seen these things put more marriages in jeopardy than help them, and when you hear the presentation there is no doubt that this is a way for the present Church in the United States to deal with the reality that most just use some kind of intrinsically evil form of control. I enjoyed this article sir, and am enjoying the poetry as well.

  15. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Sharif, my friend, it is always good to hear from you, and in this case I agree with you entirely and am happy to find my tentative conclusions supported by someone who has undergone the ordeal.

    About 20 years ago, I knew a young secretary who was engaged and undergoing the diocesan marital preparation. As part of the program, she and her fiancé both took attitude/preference tests of some sort, and when the geniuses at diocesan HQ discovered that the two of them had differing views of finance and budgeting, they told them not to get married. So she dumped him and a few years later got married to someone the diocese did approve of. I took one look at the guy and knew he was not only stupid but a degenerate. He cheated on her so outrageously that she finally had to get rid of him. Score on for Catholic sociology!.

    I could go on but I won’t though I did note with horror that the Vatican embraced the economist Gary Becker, best known for his entirely bogus analysis of family as a playing field in which spouses and siblings were constantly competing for resources. Becker appeared to have misunderstood what he had read of sociobiology, and, if any serious person were to apply his analysis to actual families, the effect would be destructive. Partly the fault lies in the ignorance of Catholic theologians who blissfully borrow methods and terminology from their secular enemies. I could be mistaken, but I have never read that the Jewish Becker converted to Catholic–or any other–Christianity.

  16. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    PS My dealings with “Catholic” intellectuals have been kept at a minimum, but I am often reminded of my experience of living in a small Southern village and observing how quickly they went gaga over a Brooklyn-born ignoramus with a Harvard PhD and inveterate loathing of all things Southern that were not also Black.

  17. Ben says:

    Re: Mr. Said’s sentiments and experience, in my humble experience, he is spot on with it all having hurt more than helped. …and just think the likes of the Robert Barron’s and their “fiery words” wonder why they can’t connect with the “nones” en masse and instead they wonder with awe as to why the wily Jordan Petersons of the world have such success [and numerous youTube views.] Perhaps the good doctor Dr.TJF would speculate as to why a figure such as peterson “connects” with “nones” and the barron’s don’t…) (full disclosure: i’m no fan of neither Peterson nor barron…)

  18. James D. says:

    “As someone that has in the past decade undergone marriage instruction in one of the diocese of the USA, I can say that there is much to be desired regarding the NFP. ”

    Mr. Said, I was going to point that out. My wife and I took the required Pre-Cana classes prior to our marriage about a decade ago. More than half of the class was an awkward NFP discussion.