Let’s call the idea that celibacy is best defined in the negative, that all it takes to be celibate is a lack of sexual contact the naive view of celibacy.
In addition to the mere fact that it’s unwise to define things in the negative, the naive view of celibacy doesn’t take into account the heart condition of the celibant. This view doesn’t leave any room for getting better at being celibate. It suggest a rather simple view: person X is celibate, person Y is not. You can no more be a little bit celibate than you could be a little bit dead. You either are, or you are not.
A paralell occurs to me. There are people who take a naive view of Christianity. They believe that we make a decision to follow Christ. They furnish a view of all the things that a Christian can no longer do. They define Christianity in a negative way and believe that by refraining from these things, the Christian is fully a Christian. I believe that I made a choice. I believe that as a result of this choice there are things I should not do. But this is not the important part of my identity as a Christian. I’m learning more fully every day about how to be a Christian. And so it is with being celibate.
Though I am married, it occurs to me that I am celibate most of the time and with most people: to keep the math simple, let’s suppose that there are 100 people in my life. I think most of us agree that abstaining from sexual contact with all of these other people is not enough. The condition of my heart toward them matters. Having a fantasy life about these other 99% of the people in my life would not be good.
Furthermore, the one person whom it is acceptable for me to have sexual contact with is not somebody I should be having sex with most of the time. We need to be alone, of course, interested, assured of not being interupted. If I get any more specific I’m sure it’ll be TMI for both of us. Again, to keep the math simple, let’s assume that 5% of the time, all the conditions are right.
This means that I am celibate for way over than 99% of the time. Even the most promiscuous person imaginable, what percent of people in their lives are actual partners? When they are with these people, what percentage of their life can feasibly spent engaged in sexual activity? What portion of their day can be spent engaging in fantasy if they expect to get anything done? All of us are celibate, in some sense, for a huge majority of the time.
I have been very interested to read that monks and nuns speak about learning how to be celibate. If celibacy was merely a status achieved by not having intercourse, there would be nothing to learn. It’d be achieved by merely not having sex. They state that it is critical important to learn this discipline (skill?) because it is so important that we learn how to share our love in other ways… monks and nuns (and all of us!) are meant to exist in community. If we do not relate with one another, what is the point of community at all?
It seems clear that lifelong celibacy is a valid choice for people who are not monks or nuns. Furthermore, because we are celibate so much of the time, because community is so incredibly important, it seems like we’d be wise to listen to what is said by groups that having been doing this for centuries.