Ascetical practices, including limitations on sex, are quite common in the world’s major religions, and often go beyond what would be expected from a purely ethical standpoint. It’s worth examining how – and why.
In Buddhism, the attainment of a state of enlightenment is essentially connected with freedom from desires. And sexual desire is considered one of the most persistent and challenging of desires to be confronted by most persons. Celibacy, as practiced by Buddhist monks, is thought to be the ideal form of purification, most conducive to spiritual enlightenment.
In Hinduism, the rechanneling of sexual “energy,” especially through celibacy, is prescribed by gurus as the means to greater intellectual and even physical prowess. The celibate Hindu yogi, freed from sexual Kama, is held to be in an optimal state for the habitual worship of God. The famous yogi Paramahansa Yogananda taught that married couples must practice moderation, and that celibacy is almost a prerequisite to attain maximal knowledge of divine love in a union of friendship.
But Hinduism is a religion of strange contrasts, as indicated, for instance, by the Kama Sutra, which appears to many Westerners to be a pornographic sex manual, possibly composed by some previous incarnation of Hugh Hefner.
Mahatma Gandhi, who took a public vow of celibacy in his thirties, was an example of the extremes that sometimes turn up in Hinduism. Towards the end of his life, he undertook a “last yajna (ritual)” to achieve sexual purity, an “experiment,” which he admitted was “dangerous” – sleeping naked with various young women without being sexually aroused. Gandhi claimed that success in this would grant great spiritual powers, but Hindu spiritual leaders and his followers criticized him for such “spiritual extremism.”
In Islam the “limitation” on sexuality is one that would probably be acceptable to many males – restriction to a maximum of four wives, but with the possibility of the addition of slave girls, and, in some jurisdictions, “temporary marriages.” In Sufism, an Islamic offshoot that emphasizes transcendence and the attainment of mystical states, celibacy is sometimes recommended. But Sufis are considered heretics by many mainstream Muslims. And Mohammed himself, when questioned about celibacy, answered, “there is no ‘Monkery’ in Islam.”
In Catholicism, the recommendation of celibacy is partly for practical reasons, particularly suited for ministers of the Gospel. St. Paul tells his followers, “I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided.” (1Cor. 7:32-33) He compares himself to Peter and the other apostles, and Jesus’ “brothers” – James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas – who were accompanied by women, possibly wives (1Cor. 9:5), but maintains that he and his associates avoid hindrances to the Gospel by foregoing this privilege.
In the early centuries of the Church, it became clear what sort of “hindrances” would emerge from the family dynasties created by priests, bishops, and even popes. For example, James Hitchcock in his history of the Catholic Church comments: “Pope Silverius was the son of Pope St. Hormisdas (514-523) – fathered before Hormisdas was ordained – and Gregory the Great was the grandson of Pope Felix III.” And this was just the “tip of the iceberg.” In the 11th century, celibacy in the Catholic Church was made universally mandatory. Concessions regarding celibacy were made, however, for Eastern Rite churches in union with Rome.
But the emphasis on celibacy was not just for practical reasons. Even more important, in analogy with Hinduism and Buddhism, the faith-inspired goal was to facilitate spiritual progress. Thus St. Paul writes (1Cor. 7:34) that the unmarried person is able to concentrate on “the things of the Lord” and on being “holy both in body and in spirit” – in contrast to the married person, committed to a spouse and necessarily involved in secular or family affairs. But he recommends to those who are married (1Cor. 7:5) that they practice periodic abstinence from sexual intercourse to engage in prayer.
Among many saints, celibacy is often seen in the context of spiritual espousal, patterned after the relentless pursuit of the divine Lover depicted in the Biblical Song of Songs. St. Teresa of Avila, as a prime example, was favored with the “espousal” of her soul to Christ, in a “mystical marriage.” And St. Catherine of Sienna in her Dialogues is assured by God the Father that it is possible for some souls to attain such union with the divine that they never lose the sense of the presence of God.
The present perception of sexuality within Catholicism is, of course, weighed down with the issue of contraception – a practice that was condemned by most Christians until the infamous Lambeth Conference of 1930, in which Anglicans led the way for relaxation of prohibitions of contraception among almost all Protestant denominations. The Catholic response, of course, is encapsulated most dramatically in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter, Humanae vitae.
In my book, Ethics in Context, I include a chapter on the difference between ethics and religion in formulating the “good.” I discuss the “family resemblances” of the major religions, and argue that in general religion goes beyond ethical concerns about right and wrong; religion is oriented subjectively towards personal integration and harmony with the highest good, and objectively towards communal/societal integration and harmony.
In Christianity, the “subjective” orientation takes on the aspect of union with God, the “objective” orientation consists in the Church, constructing on earth the foundations for the Kingdom of God. Needless to say, in any religion, lack of control of imperious sexual desires is a major obstacle to developing personal harmony, and seriously diminishes one’s spiritual sensitivity. And though the world seems to have forgotten it, as we see daily in the news, sexual excess is an inevitable obstacle to harmonious relationships in families, communities, and society, including religious organizations.