We have no time to examine the arguments of Luther and Calvin against monastic vows, but by definition there should be no Christian covenant—including baptism, marriage and ordination—in which public promises are not witnessed by the community. By abolishing the vow of celibacy, the Reformers also abolished the possibility of celibate life as a normative vocation alongside heterosexual marriage. The result impoverished the church and denied any structured expression for those Protestants who were not called into marriage.
A church without a covenantal vocation to celibacy is a church that is not fully oriented towards Jesus Christ—who, as Karl Barth reminds us, lived his life for others but not in the covenant of heterosexual marriage! Barth cannot be ignored when he writes that in Jesus "[t]he great example of a powerfully exercised freedom for celibacy is before us all. On the other hand, the Protestant revolt against priestly and monastic celibacy was not groundless.
Men and women like the monk Martin Luther and his future wife, the nun Katherine of Bora, were living under the burden of an enforced celibacy to which they were not truly called by God. We will take up this point again in a few minutes, because it will be a critical one in our discussion about same-sex relationships. Do same-sex relationships conform to the Christian tradition of covenant? Can they become a means of grace through which God calls homosexual men and women to a life of conversion and holiness? It is important to begin by acknowledging that homosexuality is most often experienced as inherent , as a "given," not a "choice.
But even the Ramsey Colloquium concedes—although rather reluctantly—that "some scientific evidence suggests a genetic predisposition for homosexual orientation," although it argues that there is no moral distinction between homosexuality and a predisposition towards "alcoholism or violence. According to the U. But basing its argument on natural law, the Roman Catholic church prohibits the expression of love in a homosexual relationship because "only within heterosexual marriage does sexual intercourse fully symbolize the Creator's dual design as an act of covenant love with the potential of co-creating new human life.
For these two reasons, the church requires that gays and lesbians remain celibate. The Roman Catholic teaching, in my opinion, is a reasonable attempt to struggle with a difficult problem in a way that does not dishonor or condemn the gay and lesbian members of the church. We can be grateful that the Church of Rome has broken decisively with the now widely-discredited model of homosexuality as a "disease.
The Roman magisterium therefore implicitly calls into question the ethics of so-called "transformation ministries" or "restorative therapies" that promise to convert or "cure" homosexuals into heterosexuals. But the implications of the Roman Catholic teaching go deeper.
Before , Roman Catholic ethics assumed that homosexuality was a vicious choice. It did not acknowledge the concept of "sexual orientation. This is clearly what Paul has in mind when he writes in Romans that "their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Note the verbs "exchanged" and "giving up!
The Romans described by Paul had freely chosen to "give up" what was natural to them for what was unnatural. But Paul is not describing the homosexuals who are the subject of Roman Catholic ethics. Here, sexuality is not "chosen," but "given. One gift of homosexuality, from the Roman Catholic viewpoint, could be a consecrated life of celibacy. Since that church continues to maintain an entire infrastructure of organized celibate communities, it can at least offer this alternative with some credibility.
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But Protestants have less credibility when we impose celibacy on our gay and lesbian members. Our churches support virtually no institutional forms of celibate life and seem to have returned to the idea of permanent celibacy merely as a backdoor solution to the disturbing presence of openly homosexual Christians in the ordained ministry. Confronted with the ecumenical consensus that homosexuality is not chosen, some Protestant churches have rediscovered the vocation of celibacy several centuries after it was abandoned by Luther and Calvin. But the rediscovery lacks moral conviction, and the spectacle of married bishops and ministers—who have no personal experience of vocational celibacy and have never considered this vocation valid for themselves—imposing permanent celibacy on others is problematical, at least.
But enforced celibacy for homosexuals is equally problematical in the Roman Catholic tradition. Fundamentally, it violates the dignity of celibate life as vocation. There is no evidence in either scripture or tradition that God created an entire class of human beings who sui generis must enter into covenants of celibate community. Celibacy in the Catholic tradition is always seen as a gift, a way of life to which God elects and calls some, but not most, men and women.
As any Roman Catholic vocation director will tell you, to live a life of enforced celibacy when that man or woman does not clearly hear the divine calling to this covenant is almost always destructive. Celibacy in the absence of God's call to celibate community is not necessarily a moral choice. Protestants should know this well enough from our own history! One of the motors that drove thousands of Catholic priests, monks and nuns into the arms of the Reformation was the legal requirement of celibacy in the absence of a real vocation to this way of life.
Celibacy, he wrote, was.
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Protestants should remember the spiritual and mental anguish of our own celibate ancestors before legislating permanent celibacy for lesbians and gays who may not be called to this exceptional and demanding way of life. Nevertheless, some homosexuals are called to the covenant of celibate community, and so are some heterosexuals. The Roman Catholic church acknowledges the presence of both sexual orientations in its ordained ministry.
But we should recognize with Karl Barth that celibacy is a "special vocation" and it would be a serious error to prescribe it when the vocation is absent. What else could be the result when a man or a woman who is capable of giving himself or herself to another in love is sentenced by the church to a life of solitude?
This was obvious enough to the Reformers years ago and it should be equally obvious to the church today. So, if not celibacy, then what? Is there a vocation for those gays and lesbians God has not called to either heterosexual marriage or celibate community? Like all other women and men, lesbians and gays are called by God to live a life not for ourselves, but for others. We are called to covenantal relationships in which our lives correspond to the inner life of God who is self-in-community, who in God's own being is self-for-others.
Gay and lesbian unions are covenantal relationships if they conform to this Trinitarian structure. Like heterosexual marriage and celibate community, these relationships are "schools for sinners," in which two partners learn how to live in the paradox of freedom that is unlimited precisely because it is limited by the other. The partner in a same-sex relationship is truly "other"—not through the complementarity of a man and woman, of course, but in the mutuality of two persons who in freedom choose each other and delight in being chosen.
God creates these relationships because within the limits of our given sexuality we are always called out of isolation into community. Through these relationships we learn what it means to be truly human, to care for another as much as we care for ourselves, to learn that a life enclosed on itself is death, but a life opened to other lives is God's gift and command to those who believe. Neither same-sex relationships nor celibate community are objectively "equal" to heterosexual marriage.
The marriage between a man and a woman has its own distinctive and privileged character. But neither are they "second-class" marriages. They are moral relationships and they have a specific claim on the ministry of the church. Same-sex relationships are broken by the same powers of evil that threaten heterosexual marriage. All relationships are wounded by sin. That is why God gave us covenants and why Christ is the Lord of each covenant. When the church offers its ministry to same-sex partners it is affirming the reality of sin and therefore saying "no" to the false doctrine that there was no fall from grace and no need for the Cross.
We often speak about "affirming" or "celebrating" same-sex unions but I am convinced the real pastoral need in the gay and lesbian community is the ministry of the church when our relationships are broken by sin.
Like heterosexual couples, we are adrift in the ethical chaos of a society that exalts freedom over commitment, selfishness over self-sacrifice, and the fulfillment of personal "needs" over mutual responsibility. The church needs to be a safe harbor for these relationships—encompassed by ethical boundaries, discipline, accountability and tradition.
In other words, gay and lesbian couples need structure , and we need just as much structure as heterosexual couples. Same-sex couples therefore have a claim on the pastoral care of the church. The church must not abandon us to the moral disorder of a fallen world that is in rebellion against God. But the church's pastoral concern for these couples necessarily requires the public, liturgical expression of the vows that bind them together.
Pastoral care without the public recognition of their vows would undermine the moral accountability of same-sex couples to each other and to the church. The congregation cannot legitimately expect conformity to ethical norms for same-sex partners if it is unwilling to witness the vows in which those partners commit themselves—in the presence of the community—to fidelity and mutual obedience. If a congregation permits pastoral care but denies the public rite of union it is saying, in effect, "we expect you to honor your covenant but we don't want to hear about it outside the pastor's office.
Moreover, the alienation of same-sex unions from the liturgical life of the community plays into the hands of the secular ideology that covenants are only private contracts between individuals who are accountable to no one but each other. Ultimately, the purpose of same-sex covenants, like the covenants of heterosexual marriage and celibate community, is conversion and sanctification.
Through these relationships we cooperate with God's design for human life. They are a means of grace, and we could not be fully human without them.
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Irenaeus, who heard God's call to the covenant of celibacy, says this about God's work of sanctification:. What a glorious vision, for all of us! God is an artisan who will adorn our lives "in pure gold and silver. Not alone. God takes us by the hand and leads us through the terrors of life, giving us companionship so we can learn how to live not for ourselves, but for others. Through these relationships of community and family, of heterosexual marriage, celibate love and homosexual partnership, God converts us towards the "life for others" that is the primal nature of the Trinity, towards the majestic generosity and creative power of the Three-in-One into whom we were incorporated through Baptism, and we know this is true because Jesus Christ has been revealed to us as the first of many chosen, justified, called and sanctified by God.
The Pilgrim Press, , Max Stackhouse, Covenant and Commitments: Faith, Family, and Economic Life Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, , Sermons throughout the Liturgical Year San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
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Helicon Press, , At this point the vocation of celibacy-in-community disappears from Protestant history until the first deaconess community was founded in Crossing the Atlantic with German Reformed and Lutheran immigrants, the deaconess movement spread to the United States, and its memory is preserved in the many "Deaconess Hospitals" affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Lutheran churches.
But today the deaconess movement in North America is only a memory. Unlike the deaconess movement, Protestant monks have met a cool reception in the United States, at best.