In addition to being a way to channel this form of longing, celibacy in the Christian tradition is also linked to a certain understanding of sexual morality. Unlike the Gnostics, a heretical sect that thought sex was bad since it keeps spirit tied to matter, orthodox Christianity has always held that sex can be good when it is embedded in the right kind of relationship. In the Catholic tradition, celibacy is considered a “higher” calling, since it is more exclusively devoted to loving union with God. But sexual love, fulfilled in marriage, is considered good both in itself, as the means of passing on life and, especially, as a sign of a higher kind of life. Just as the apparent unfreedom of monastic life is supposed to lead to an interior freedom, just so the apparently restrictive and repressive narrowness of Christian sexual morality is supposed to lead to a kind of sexual freedom. In our current culture, deeply marked by the sexual revolution, sexual freedom is most often thought of as a freedom from restriction. To be sexually free is to be liberated from taboos and prohibitions, to be able to do anything that one desires, as long as one’s sexual partners consent. But the Christian tradition sees sexual freedom as being a freedom for a certain kind of human fulfillment; it’s the freedom to use our sexuality in the way it was intended so that it can be a sign of God’s love.
I often illustrate the two kinds of freedom by two experiences that most of us had as children. First, the freedom experienced on the first day of vacation. This is an experience of negative freedom—freedom from the discipline of the schoolroom. Second, the freedom that comes when one has learned to ride a bicycle. That is an experience of positive freedom—freedom for a certain kind of activity. Such experiences require the discipline of learning how to control a bike—the process requires courage, discipline and the willingness to risk scrapes. Applied to sexuality, the negative kind of freedom can certainly give a feeling of liberation. But it also has disadvantages.
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