After another sex scandal involving a senior member of the Catholic Church, questions are again being asked about celibacy. Is it realistic for someone to permanently go without sex?
Celibacy does not mean abstinence.
To the purists, celibacy – derived from the Latin for unmarried – means a permanent state of being without sex.
Abstinence can be temporary. And it’s possible to be abstinent in a relationship. “True” celibacy means a life without both sex and a spouse or partner. Of course, there are many who give it a looser definition – merely indicating some sort of commitment to be without sex.
The subject is back in the headlines after Cardinal Keith O’Brien admitted that his “sexual conduct” had fallen below the standards expected of him amid allegations of “inappropriate behaviour”.
As a Catholic priest he was expected to abstain from all sexual activity and devote himself to God and the Church’s followers. Buddhist monks have similar expectation. In both religions, masturbation is regarded as a breach of celibacy.
For non-religious people the institution can be hard to comprehend.
Catholic priests are all men and while there are celibate women – typically nuns – much of the debate tends to focus on male celibacy.
Taken in its strictest definition, there is a question mark over whether celibacy is possible.
Men are driven by testosterone to want sex, says John Wass, Professor of Endocrinology at Oxford University. Women are driven to a lesser degree by a mixture of testosterone and oestrogen, he explains. “I’d regard celibacy as a totally abnormal state.”
Around 80-90% of men masturbate and it’s likely that priests do too, he says.
There is data to suggest that men who ejaculate more are less prone to prostate cancer, he says. “You could argue that it’s not so healthy to be celibate.”
Many people simply cannot imagine, purely on a physical basis, going their whole life without sex of any kind.
Jimmy O’Brien, who left the priesthood to start a family remembers how difficult it could be for young men. “You have to fight the urges. For a lot of people it can be a daily battle, others are not so affected.”
The power of the mind through exercises like meditation can banish physical cravings, argues Vishvapani, a Buddhist contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. “There’s no doubt in my mind that some people are able to practice it quite happily. It may sometimes be a bit of a struggle. But the idea that biologically you can’t – that’s false.”
Father Stephen Wang, dean of studies at Allen Hall Seminary, says it is a sacrifice that many priests manage. “It’s possible when people have an inner maturity and the faith and support structures are in place.” For him it is no different to the challenge of a husband trying to be faithful to his wife.
There is no celibacy get-out in the form of masturbation, says Wang. “For every Christian, masturbation, sex before marriage and sex outside marriage are wrong and something you shouldn’t be doing.
“Masturbation is forbidden for every Catholic. The reason is that it makes us more selfish, more introverted and less able to open your heart in love to other people.”
Of course, there are many millions of Christians who would disagree with Wang’s position.
Source – BBC News – By Tom de Castella – ** Is it even possible to live a celibate life? ** <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21654663>