Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Diarmuid Ó Murchú on Celibacy and Androgyny

Social psychologist, "evolutionary theologian," and Sacred Heart Missionary priest Diarmuid Ó Murchú has an interesting and, no doubt for some, controversial new essay published in The National Catholic Reporter. In it he offers a "fresh appraisal" of the call to celibacy.

Overall, I appreciate the perspective of Ó Murchú and consider the ideas and insights he shares important to the Catholic Church's much-needed discussion on human sexuality. However, as evidenced
here, I don't consider his perspective above critique. That being said, following (with added links) are excerpts from his latest essay on celibacy and androgyny.


. . . It seems to me, and to many developmental psychologists, that our sexuality is first and foremost a form of psychic energy and not just a biological capacity with procreation as its primary purpose. The physical and biological dimensions of our sexuality ensue from the psychic foundations. As a psychic phenomenon, sexuality may be described as the sum total of our feelings, moods and emotions as articulated through relational interaction, which the Canadian theologian Carter Heyward pushes into the spiritual realm by defining sexuality as: “Our embodied relational response to sacred/erotic power.” The psychic and spiritual aspects become much more transparent and integrated in the life-experience of the androgyne.

I am proposing an understanding of celibacy that may seem very new, but in fact is quite ancient. By revisiting the notion of androgyny, I want to activate a spirituality and theology of celibacy more coherent and congruent for our time.

. . . The inner drive is towards integration and wholeness, motivated in this case not so much by conscious choice as by an inner subconscious urge which is fundamentally spiritual in nature. And it is not a once-and-for-all achievement; it is a life-long process, which merits the status of a life-calling or vocation, as distinct from a goal one reaches through learning and human accomplishment.

The androgyne and mystic seem to have a lot in common; each aspires to a sense of wholeness that transcends all our man-made distinctions and dualisms. Perhaps, St. Paul was alluding to this when he describes the new person in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, . . .slave or free, . . . male or female” (Gal.3:28). The mystical dimension helps to articulate and channel the spiritual meaning which is central to androgynous orientation; this may be subconscious rather than conscious and may not be easily integrated with formal religion.

Psycho-sexually, androgynous behaviour is informed by a stronger desire for psychic wholeness rather than driven to perform out of stereotypical, biological conditioning. Because it is difficult to internalise this identity in a culture addicted so rigidly to sexist and gendered stereotypes, androgynes are often labelled as bi-sexuals or transsexuals, and some prematurely adopt these labels.

I suspect that people called to a celibate vocation effectively embrace an androgynous identity. This is not something they have consciously chosen; more likely it is something that happens in the internal spiritual realm evoking a particular calling or vocation. Were such people always disposed to this calling - already marked out at birth as several ancient cultures claim? I feel unable to offer a meaningful response to this question. Whatever the preconditions governing the vocational call, the consequences remain the same and it is the consequences I am exploring in this essay.

Celibacy in its primordial significance seems to arise from a passionate desire to share more closely in the erotic intimacy of the Divine. God is the supreme lover who allures and captivates the heart of the loved one. This can easily be depicted as a mystical calling for the rare few, with nothing of value or worth for the rest of humanity. I suspect that the opposite may be the case. The celibate fulfils a cultural role – perhaps a paradoxical one – exemplifying the ultimacy that is at the heart of all our desiring as a human species. Of course, the vocational motivation may be based on less worthy aspirations, some of which may even be pathological; this is an area for profound and comprehensive discernment.

Despite this divine initiative – or perhaps precisely because of it – I wish to suggest that the celibate calling is a highly sexualised one. The celibate may well be the most erotic of all humans, honouring a very ancient understanding of the Divine as a highly eroticised life-force, impregnating the whole of creation. That being the case, two important adjustments need to be made to our thinking. Firstly, God is not a-sexual, and neither is any organism created by God. Secondly, the celibate needs expressive outlets for psycho-sexual energy, which cannot be adequately or appropriately channelled through sublimation or total abstinence.

On this complex question, ancient cultures may have been far more enlightened than contemporary ones. They provided outlets for the expression and articulation of sexual desire other than those of the monogamous, married relationship. They seem to have understood better the intense and amorphous energy of human sexuality and facilitated its articulation through rituals and ceremonies whereby people were sexually intimate, inclusive of genital expression (not to be reduced to biological intercourse). We glean evidence for this through ancient Chinese and Indian art; through spiritually-informed traditions like that of the Tantric philosophy of ancient India; in the iconography of early Hinduism; through a vast range of initiation rites among indigenous peoples, and through the courtly customs of medieval Europe.

That celibacy will involve an option for non-marriage makes a lot of practical and pastoral sense. That it must also imply total abstinence from sexual intimacy, is less compelling in our time. What may be most shocking about this claim is my differentiation between marriage and sexual expression. As indicated at the beginning of this essay, human sexuality is a process of growing more deeply into our evolving humanity - which for most of our time on earth was not confined to monogamous marriage - and there are several contemporary indications that this equation will not prevail in future.

. . . In popular Catholic culture, priesthood inevitably means a celibate lifestyle. I believe this has obfuscated the real meaning of celibacy and continues to make a meaningful retrieval both problematic and confusing. Long before a dominantly male priesthood evolved (about 7,000 years ago), celibacy was extensively practised. Celibacy did not begin with the Catholic Church, nor even with the monastic systems of the other great religions. Celibacy should not be equated with any one religious sub-group, particularly one so rooted in ecclesiastical structure.

Formal priesthood is probably too rigidified, institutionalised and ascetically based to appropriate the mystical embrace of androgynous values. Those committed to the monastic/vowed life stand a better chance of witnessing authentically, but that role too has been co-opted into the ecclesiastical/religious system and, correspondingly, has been seriously disenfranchised in terms of what it has to offer. The congealed clericalised culture is just not amenable to this new and daring vision.

In the light of recent debates, especially in USA, one wonders if greater recognition of homosexuality among Catholic priests and clerical students would be a step towards the integration of the androgyne in priestly celibates. It may help, but it could also confuse. Revisioning celibacy to accommodate those of homosexual orientation is a desirable goal, but it leaves deeper issues unrecognised and unresolved. In most cases, I suspect homosexuality is not the problem; human sexuality is. Because of the heavy impact of dualistic thinking in our Western world, unconsciously we try to resolve problems by switching from one pole to the other. In the case of celibacy, I think we are in great danger of missing the deeper challenge, namely the archetypal lure to an androgynous lifestyle!

. . . Naively, we assume that a homosexual leaning is at the root of the problem of clerical abuse. To me, at least, it seems fairly obvious that celibate sexuality itself, and the repressive clerical culture in which it is (mal)nourished, is the problem, precisely because neither the Church nor the wider culture is capable of recognising or affirming what the call to celibacy is really about. The so-called pedophile priest may be the ultimate scapegoat in one of the greatest cover-ups known to modern culture.

Eugene Kennedy has taken the bold step to describe celibate sexuality in terms of an archetypal wounding, which presumably can only be healed by tender and compassionate care. And if such positive regard is not forthcoming, then obviously the woundedness grows infectious and can create great havoc for priests themselves as well as for others. While Kennedy attempts to shift the focus to the archetypal level (I know of nobody else who has attempted this), I have some reservations about his starting point.

I don’t believe that people enter priesthood in a wounded state - particularly those who feel a deep sense of calling. I believe the majority enter as quite wholesome people who become wounded because of the internal corruption of the clericalised-institutionalised system with which they affiliate. Nor should we lay all the blame at the feet of a culture of clericalised power which Kennedy seems to suggest is the heart of the problem. I blame the wider culture of repression which is unable to discern the deeper meaning of human sexuality, for everybody, celibates included. . . .

– Diarmuid Ó Murchú
"Celibacy and Androgyny"
The National Catholic Reporter
March 16, 2011

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part 1)
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part 2)
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part 3)
Celibacy and the Roman Catholic Priesthood
What Is It That Ails You?
Now We Know
In the Garden of Spirituality – Diarmuid Ó Murchú
A Little Too Fluid?

Image: "Ascension Into Androgyny" by Daniel Neskovich.


Mareczku said...

Very interesting article.

Jamez said...

Much of this article rings true to me as someone who has and is exploring celibacy on an experiential level. When I was in college, I had a theology teacher who used Henri Nouwen's book "Clowning In Rome" as a springboard to educate us on the charism of celibacy. He taught us that celibacy was not so much about the abstinence or sublimation of sex as the living of one's life as an expression of that empty space for the Divine that all people need in their life in order to be whole. One who cultivates celibacy then becomes an empty space, a totem for all others and all thing that speaks of our human longing for Eternal and Divine wholeness. The abstinence from sex is rather a byproduct of the striving to empty ones self as totally a possible. Androgyny comes to play as one who is empty and “filled” with Divine Love becomes open in Love to all things.
This mysterious charism in the Christian context requires much solitude and prayer. It is a charism of the Desert. It’s fruits were most evident in the desert Father/Mothers who were seen in there time as an heroic expression of virtue and wisdom – so much so that they drew many followers. Ecclesiastical “authorities” of the day, seeing this turn of events and not to pleased with the competition, thought it worthwhile to co-opt the practice. As we can see today, that didn’t turn out so well. For this charism was/is misplaced in any other context than that of solitude in the desert.

Mark said...

Reminds me of one of Ghandi's vows. Borrowed shamelessly from Wikepedia:

Among the sramanic traditions, Brahmacharya is the term used for the practice of self-imposed celibacy that is generally considered an essential prerequisite for spiritual practice. A Brahmachari is a male and brahmacharini a female. These characteristics correspond to Western notions of the religious life as practised in monastic settings.

Sage said...

I am an admirer of Ó Murchú and I enjoyed this essay. Thank you for posting Michael!

Luke said...

As a gay male-bodied person who mostly passes as female these days, I have to say I really appreciate the article's perspective.

I find myself largely celibate, mostly because I think gay culture doesn't know what to do with androgyny anymore. But I'm also a channeler, and have found deep personal satisfaction as my life takes form around a constant spiritual fulfillment.

The deeper my spirituality gets, the less I find I need sex to fill the holes inside me. That doesn't mean I rule out sex, because it has a place for me, but it has taken a much different form.

I've read some sources that say androgyny used to be thought of as a way of combining the ("feminine") spiritual with the ("masculine") physical. Regardless, living androgynously does tend to alienate you societally, which can lead one into a deeper spiritual resonance and stronger sense of self. Would that we had more androgynes!