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Celibacy Has History Beyond Priests

April 14, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) _ For a species that has transformed mating into an obsession, human beings over the centuries have shown an abiding interest in the opposite of sex _ celibacy.

The practice is in the spotlight these days because of the molestation scandal which has rekindled debate over whether the Roman Catholic Church should allow married priests.

But it’s actually been followed in many cultures since ancient times: by secluded monks, Rome’s Vestal Virgins, and powerful leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth I. It remains an exalted ideal in several religions, and has become a trendy lifestyle choice for some people with no religious motives.

The secular version was celebrated in a 1999 book, ``Sensual Celibacy,″ which advises women exiting failed relationships to give chastity a try.

``Celibacy is the last great sexual taboo to come out of the closet,″ wrote Donna Marie Williams. ``We must learn to accept and honor the alone times in our lives as equally sacred to the times in which we are coupled.″

Williams suggests celibacy can be a temporary choice. Not so with the Shakers, the Christian sect that grew to 6,000 strong in pre-Civil War America.

While Catholicism requires celibacy only among priests, brothers and nuns, all Shakers pledged to abstain from sex. The faith could grow only through conversions and adoption of orphans; now just a half-dozen Shakers remain, in a village in Maine.

In Catholicism, priestly celibacy became commonplace by the third century, yet stringent church laws weren’t enacted until 1139. Today, there are some married Roman Catholic priests who converted from Protestant denominations, and married priests are the norm among Eastern Rite Catholics in their homelands in eastern Europe and the Mideast.

Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, commends men who ``made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.″ But the most explicit biblical support for priestly celibacy comes from St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians.

``The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord,″ he wrote. ``But the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.″

Amid the sex-abuse scandal, a few Catholic priests have been applauded by parishioners for urging an end to mandatory celibacy.

``Celibacy does not cause pedophilia, but it does limit the pool of candidates who choose to be priests,″ said the Rev. Thomas Suriano, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes church in Milwaukee.

Among priests-to-be, celibacy has some ardent defenders, like Larry Young, a seminarian at the Theological College in Washington, D.C.

``It runs so contrary to everything in America to be celibate, that the men being called to this vocation have a great depth of sincerity,″ Young said.

``There is denial involved, not having a wife and children, but I think it satisfies a deep desire in the masculine soul to lay down one’s life for the people of God. There’s a romantic quality to it.″

Celibacy is not embraced by Protestants, though many denominations require unmarried ministers to be chaste. Neither Judaism nor Islam encourages celibacy; the Quran says the practice, as developed by early Christians, was not decreed by God.

In Hinduism, celibacy is considered an important virtue, practiced by supreme priests but not required of all priests. Many Hindus, Gandhi among them, believe abstinence is a way to convert sexual energy into spiritual energy.

Buddhist and Jain monks take vows of poverty and chastity. There is debate in Thailand about celibacy, triggered partly by allegations that some senior Buddhist monks had affairs with women.

Thai monks who break their vows can be banished from their temples, but forsaking celibacy is not necessarily traumatic.

``Catholic priests make a lifetime commitment that can’t be violated without major repercussions,″ said Liz Wilson, a professor of religion at Miami University in Ohio. ``A Buddhist doesn’t have to make a lifetime commitment. You can leave with no shadow over your head.″

That’s not to suggest that Buddhism takes celibacy lightly. Wilson said the Buddha advised monks battling sexual temptations to cool their ardor by looking at dead bodies awaiting cremation.

Elizabeth Abbott, author of ``The History of Celibacy,″ says some men and women throughout the centuries have chosen celibacy for practical reasons.

``For women, celibacy has often been a way of defining relationships with men and getting what they want out of life,″ Abbott, a dean at the University of Toronto, said in an interview.

In the Middle Ages, she said, some women chose to be nuns rather than wives so they could pursue an academic or managerial career. Queen Elizabeth’s celibacy allowed her to play suitors off each other to England’s political gain. Some eunuchs in the Near East rose to powerful positions, and castrated male opera singers were prized for their sonorous voices.

Nowadays, celibacy is promoted as a sensible option, at least temporarily, for young people struggling with uncertainties over sex.

``Celibacy can still be a good idea even if you’ve been sexually active in the past,″ said Heather Corinna, who oversees an Internet sex-advice site for teen-agers. ``You don’t have to be a virgin.″

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