Catholicism and the Solitary Ideal

2,500 words

April 2017

This post is a follow-up on the previous one; it is short but ambitious. It takes a broad historical look at how the celibate ideal, based on the belief in the possibility of a psycho-erotic relationship with “God,” contributed to (1) the individualism that characterizes Western society some say to a pathological degree, (2) the abasement of women rendering marriage as an institution a school of domination and exploitation which is learned by the children, and from there to (3) the construction of an entire civilization built on domination of the weak by the strong and the justification of structural inequality.

That’s quite an indictment, especially when you consider that it claims to have its roots in a religious mysticism that is specific to Christianity. Other traditions have their mysticism, by which I mean a belief in the possibility of direct contact with “God” and a corresponding program for pursuing it, but none have been so amenable to nourishing anything like the cultural defects listed above.

Of course they may very well contribute to other failings found in their respective societies. It’s not my place to analyze or criticize them; I limit myself to my own cultural heritage and the religion that gave it birth. And in my own, a pyramid of religious doctrines arose, constructed upon the naïve belief in an anthropomorphic “God” whose humanoid “personality” was disposed to enter into an intimate personal relationship with a human being, who for all the infinity of difference that separated them, was also, like “God,” a “person.”

In the Platonic universe that spawned these notions, a human person was believed to be a “soul,” that is, an immaterial substance — spirit — whose eternal destiny after death was to live without the body to which it had been unnaturally attached during life. Belief in spirit as a category of being was the leitmotiv of Platonic philosophy which provided the official interpretation of the significance of Christianity beginning in the second century of the common era. Platonism scientifically projected imagined entities like the “soul” and “God” that are with us to this day. It was precisely because both “God” and the human soul were spirit-persons that they could have a relationship of lovers – for love was believed to be an immaterial valence between persons totally free of the complications of the body.

Platonic scorn for the body led to a conviction that such a spiritual relationship with “God” was not only possible but that it was necessary for full Christian redemption; it was only divine love that could substitute for and displace a corrupt erotic relationship between human beings, and no amount of contrary evidence could convince them otherwise. In a religious tradition that believed that the body had been fatally degraded from its former spiritual condition by the sin of Adam, the desires arising from the sex drive were themselves the primary empirical proof that the body was unnatural — corrupt — it refused to obey the dictates of reason, spirit.

This all worked together to erect an unassailable belief in the asexual Christian ideal of the virgin — the celibate hero, the bride of Christ — who lived on the spiritual nourishment provided by his/her divine lover, harvesting the concrete first-fruits of the redemptive reconquest of the body, subjecting it once again to the rule of spiritual reason and anticipating the spiritual soul’s final liberation from the tyranny of the flesh at death.

In such a scenario, those who entered into human marriage were by that fact eliminating the possibility of a faithful monogamous relationship with “God.” That meant they were formally alienating the one source of “super-natural” power capable of overcoming the unruly urges of the flesh. By embracing their sexuality they had consigned themselves to a marginated existence as second class human beings, condemned to eking out a trembling salvation through obedience to the proper authorities. By choosing to marry, and therefore to forego the celibate ideal, both the man and the woman had chosen a path that led away from human perfection. They had opted for an inferior and truncated humanity, forever estranged from the possibility of its ultimate fulfillment because the nuptials with “God” could never occur.

The Solitary Individual

This made the solitary individual the ideal human being in the Christian world. What appeared outwardly to be an eremitic seclusion was said to really be a sign of an invisible sustaining relationship with “God.” Given the uncontested belief in such an ideal and its promotion by the highest authorities, it was natural that on all sides and in all walks of life people would tend, in whatever way was open to them, to imitate the Christian ideal, no matter how absurd or far-fetched it might be.

For example: the warrior ethos of the Germanic peoples merged with the Christian ideal of the virginal bride of Christ to produce the iconic western figure of the Knight Errant, the solitary warrior who fights for justice and the oppressed, for true religion, and for the survival of the clan and nation. It’s easy to recognize this adolescent image as it morphs through subsequent epiphanies, some of which were gross distortions of the ideal: crusaders fighting to regain the “Holy Land” for the true faith from the hated Muslim infidels, and while they were at it, carry out wholesale slaughter of unbelieving Jews; Spanish conquistadores seizing the lands of heathen aliens whom they then enslaved in order to “win them for Christ.”


The Church claimed the solitary life reflected the “mind of Christ.” But the historical Jesus was a single man cut down in his youth by political events before he had a chance to marry. His ministry was the work of a youthful solitary firebrand and, unfortunately, Christian perfection – the “imitation of Christ” – came to be modeled on that phase of his life. Whether Nikos Kazantzakis was right and Jesus had a “girl-friend” doesn’t change anything. In either case he was not married; he was an example of the solitary ideal. His wisdom was thought to come full-blown from heaven, not from the family and community that formed him. The earliest Christians appreciated that Jesus’ wisdom came from Judaism; for them, he was the messiah. But as Christianity became a Greco-Roman religion, it lost touch with its Jewish roots; the Nicaean declaration of his co-equal divinity with the Father was effective in wiping out all vestiges of Jesus’ humanity, and that included his ethnicity and family matrix.

The Christian people never lost sight of our gendered reality, however, and Mary was quickly selected to accompany Jesus as part of the model of perfection. But please note, in a way parallel to what happened to Jesus, she was also divinized and de-humanized. She was very early on made into a solitary – a “virgin,” impregnated not by man but by the Holy Spirit – rather than being accepted for the married woman that she really was, and her life with her husband as the source of her deep humanity.

Throughout Catholic Church history, married people, mesmerized by the celibate ideal promoted by the Platonic Church, tried in every way possible absurdly to realize its goals in the place least conducive to their achievement: the conjugal bed. Couples were told to focus their attention during copulation only on the purpose that justified it: reproduction. They were to avoid any direct acquiescence in the pleasures that accompanied the act; to do so was venial sin. The insistence on setting spiritual reason to rule bodily sexuality eventuated in declaring birth control sinful and unnatural because it thwarted the one justifiable reason for sex, and encouraged performing sex for “other” reasons. Couples were encouraged to abstain from sex periodically for the good of their soul; and the practice of “living as brother and sister” after childbearing years in order to dedicate themselves to works of service and ministry usually performed by religious was lauded by the Church and highly recommended. But the clearest indication of the abasement of marriage was the denial of holy orders to all but celibate men; women’s bodies, even if they were celibate, were too bound up with the reproductive cycles of organic life to ever become fully “spiritual.”

The family: a school of exploitation and domination

The married man, father of the family, already considered the owner of everything in his household, a belief inherited from a more ancient culture, would be confirmed in his sense of solitariness by the new Christian ideal. The image would continue to militate against any thought of parity between man and woman and the egalitarian partnership that should have been the Christian ideal.

I claim marriage is a school of perfection every bit as much as a religious community, and the Church should have put all its energies there instead of trying to turn the parish priest into an other worldly monk and the people into lustful sinners in need of his condescending ministrations to avoid damnation in hell. At the time of the Reformation some of the leaders, like von Carlstadt, were in favor of refusing ministry to all but married men, because they saw celibacy as an hypocrisy and family life as the locus of Christian perfection. They eliminated monasteries altogether. Luther said some beautiful things about marriage and he had great respect for his wife.

The Protestant reformers closed the monasteries and convents and devised a model of married clergy, but in reaction Catholicism reaffirmed the supremacy of celibacy and virginity, anathematizing those who would hold “that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony” (Council of Trent, Twenty-fourth session, Canon X). Tridentine Catholicism remained in effect until Vatican II.[1]

The “Catholic Mystique” is still dominated by the mediaeval celibate (solitary) ideal, and even the modern married “reformers” of Vatican II do not write about the school of perfection that is marriage. Their spirituality remains cauterized by the solitary celibate ideal, now universalized into a western individualism that has achieved in the eyes of many the morbidity of an illness. The solitary celibate is the Catholic mystique and along with the papacy, Catholicism’s perennial marketable “brand.”

The center of Catholic life is the celibate “padre.” It has made Catholics deaf to reality. Not even the recent proofs of its unsustainability and the pedophilic “blowback” that it has created can cause them to reconsider. The inability to acknowledge failure is a sure guarantee that is will never be overcome and rectified. No flaw could be more tragic.

Humankind is one species made up of both male and female. Males’ and females’ perspectives differ because our bodies differ. Men and women have different points of view that remain insuperable until they begin to share their bodies with one another. That’s called marriage. Married men and women famously and almost inevitably take on one another’s perspectives through the daily business of living together over a lifetime, men becoming “feminized” and women becoming “masculinized” … each coming to understand how the “other” sees things and thus each expanding their own potential as human beings.

But for their “spirituality” Catholics still turn to solitary celibates who come up with shriveled mono-gender concepts concocted in monastery laboratories by men and women running away from one another and their own sexuality … possibly stemming from an oppressive patriarchal family life they experienced as children. Many of us alive today know what that’s not just theory. It seems to me that to call “neo-feminism” the Christian Ideal could only be a perspective of the “solitary” Christian — the monk, the celibate, the “bride of Christ,” the “religious,” — promoted by a mediaeval monastic Catholicism that continues unreformed to this day.

 Social Revolution

It’s not coincidental that the solitary celibate ideal, historically speaking, happened to run concurrently with a European society that was structurally divided along class lines, a small elite minority upper class, superior in every sense to an uneducated, servile lower class — the vast majority of the population — whom the elites ruled with absolute domination and oppressive economic exploitation throughout the entire time of the political hegemony of the Catholic Church, from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries. Catholic celibates in every case, except for those few who had chosen voluntary poverty as a sign of rejection of the prevailing system, were part of the ruling class. The identification of the Catholic celibate elites with the economic interests and power goals of the European aristocracy has been on indisputable display through­out western political history, but never clearer than during the period from the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century to the full flowering of democratic nationalism at the end of the 19th. The Catholic Church resisted the derogation of aristocratic rule every step of the way. Even today, when inherited class is supposedly no longer the determining factor in the assignment of positions of power, the celibate Catholic hierarchy can be found supporting the interests and the values of the elites with whom they continue to identify.

Is it simply a revolutionary fantasy of mine that IF from early on — from before Christianity took on Plato’s bi-focal vision — the followers of Jesus had maintained his earthy Jewish concept of the absolute identity of the human person with the human organism, that we would have accepted our bodies and the material conditions of their formation as fully human … and therefore fully capable of the divinization Jesus preached? Had we accepted the full humanity of our bodies in principle might we have avoided denigrating the bodies of women as somehow less than human? Would that have militated against the perennial abasement of women by Christian theologians like even the revered “Fathers” of the Church? Would that, in turn, have prevented the exclusionary male take-over of leadership roles in the Church? Would that have maintained the image of the mature married man and woman as the Christian Ideal? And would the identification of Church leadership with the destiny and aspirations of married heads of families have ensured the rejection, reformation or even prevention of the development of a two class society where the strong are permitted to dominate and abuse the weak, and where parents struggling to raise their children are routinely exploited? IF the Church, in other words, had identified married family life and the married man and woman as the Christian Ideal, wouldn’t she have necessarily been a champion of the underclass?

There is no reason, in theory, why that cannot happen …

Tony Equale

[1] Phillip Berryman, History and “The Family,” Lonergan Workshop, Boston College, June 2015

6 comments on “Catholicism and the Solitary Ideal

  1. Brian Coyne says:

    Tony, thanks for these essays. I think they fit in well with a string of other recent conversations here on catholica. Society seems divided today into three principals groupings: the fundamentalists engaged in a headlong, insane “back to the future” putsch; the vast majority seemingly couldn’t give a fig and are sick of politics, church and just about everything going on in society at present; but there is another sector seriously trying to make fresh sense of everything in light of the continually fresh information coming to us about the architecture of nature — and our own selves.

    As I’ve written recently my own emphasis has shifted from primarily viewing God as the Creator — some intelligence or being located way back in the mists of history who brought everything into existence, including the laws of science and nature. My focus is much more today on the Omega- or Destination appreciation of the Divine. But again not so much as some “kindly old gent” whom we meet when we die, but appreciating “God” in the sense that he/she is some projection of our human hope of what the “perfect being” might look, think, feel and act like. And “heaven” is also a projection forward of the anticipation, hope or dream of the ideal society we’d like to live in. Rather than “God” inventing or creating us, in a sense it’s the other way about: we have a deeply ingrained existential need to create or imagine a “perfect being” — what “God” might look like. To me, what you write in these thoughtful essays conflict with none of that. I wonder though if the “God” we once almost universally believed in was a necessary part of our evolution?

    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks for your comment.

      “God” was a necessary part of our evolution because that’s the way we evolved. But is “he” a necessary part of everyone’s evolution? Obviously not for the Hindus, Buddhists, Chinese Taoists, etc., and I am hoping that the “development of doctrine” in our own tradition will make the “God” we once almost universally believed in as harmlessly obsolete as the Yahweh we once asked to dash the heads of our enemies’ children against the stones. We are able to laugh at ourselves now and say “what could we have been thinking? “God” is not like that.” Similarly someday the “God” whom science is revealing to us — the “God” who is to come, whom Whitehead called “the consequent nature of ‘God,'” the “God” who is evolving — will appear as natural to us as the heliocentric explanation of night and day.

      But hey! We don’t have to wait for posterity. We can live our evolving divineness now. For “God” now looks out on the world with our evolved eyes of compassion, and touches it with our evolved hands of healing, and dies in our deaths as “he” died in Jesus’.

      What’s to come? Who knows? Going by what’s happened over the last 13.7 billion years, I suspect it will take our breath away … if indeed “breath” will still be an appropriate image …


  2. says:

    Dear Brother, I really enjoy your articles. They make me think about myself and my Faith or lack thereof. Thanks so much. Keep on writing and delving into the Force with all its meaning. Please note my new email address…… Thanks. Verizon is no longer my wifi carrier. Amor vincit in fine. Your old brother, Bill Viola

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Frank Lawlor says:

    As always I love the way you can see the overlooked connections within culture, phillosophy and Church practice.

    I would like to add a couple of other elements to the picture of the Christian domination of women. One is the forgotten fact that so many women, in pre-scientific societies died in childbirth simply because of a failure to observe a higher level of sanitary practices. This death rate was so high that most husbands outlived their wives – the first wife, then the second and often the third! This in itself put the male in a dominant position and women in the role of weak, fragile subordination.

    As I have claimed elsewhere, the theory of reproduction which gave males the sole causation of new life and gave women only the role of a receptor and nurturer, a passive vessel morally responsible for all birth defects including the ultimate defect: sexual identity. This amounted to intrinsic inferiority. This was seen as the unquestionable conclusion of what passed for science and it had the full support of religious judgement. Eve not only provided evidence of poor intellectual capacity and the witch-like ability to deceive the male, but justifiably bore the major divine retribution for her sly sin in the form of a cruel penalty: pain and suffering and the frequently lethal results of childbirth.

    Another, more recent quirk of history it seems to me which applies to the especially sexist American version of Catholic sexual morality and clericalism hinges on the fact that the Church here has been until recently a church dominated by Irish clergy and certainly by Irish hierarchy. The Brits made this mess for us. For a few centuries due to British restrictions, Irish seminarians had to be sent to France for their studies. French Jansenism was the flavor de jour in those seminaries. When the Great Famine drove immigration from Ireland to great heights, Irish clergy came as well. It is no surprise that the Jansenist version of Moral Theology characterized the preaching in most parishes down to our own experiences as young parishoners and even as junior clergy. Everything that you point to in a distorted Platonic view of sex and sin was what American Catholics were exposed to in its most extreme form.

    Even into the fifties the sacrosanct domain of Dogmatic Theology divinized little, hardly noticed bits of distorted sex related dogma, As we snoozed through the monotone reading of dogma by the highly acclaimed Fr. Healy, one day a few of us were astonished to realize the extremes that this dogma forced us to swallow. The statements read out to us without commentary or opportunity for dialogue, concerned the “Virgin Birth”. The teaching promulgated was that Jesus, since Mary was perpetually a virgin, was born without disturbing the “integrity” of her hymen. Just as Jesus came through the closed wooden door in the upper room after his resurrection, so he came through the barrier of the hymen without “opening” it. In addition, his birth of course did not come under the divine punishment of pain and suffering brought upon all women by Eve. In this also Mary was an exception. There was no room provided in this dogma for the implications of this particular tidbit of doctrine. Does this postulated miracle not imply that Mary was a mother unlike all other mothers? This most motherly suffering to bring another life into the world is not something that binds Mary to all women? Does it also not make Jesus not precisely a human in all things? He was more a spirit with total control over matter than a human like the rest of us?
    John Paul II on one occasion somehow verified this under-stressed dogma in one of his many theological exhortations. This was reported without comment as a pious item that Catholics swallow without a gurgle.

    [note: Frank wrote to correct an error. He had written “John XXIII” instead of “John Paul II” (ed.)]

    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks for reminding me of those little gems of absurdity about Mary. Of course, we laughed about it even in those days, but passed it off as antiquated nonsense that had no effect on the central doctrines. But now we’re seeing more clearly how it was all bound together. Augustine’s doctrine of “concupiscence” identified sexual desire as a standing proof that original sin was passed on to the entire human race because everyone was assailed by sexual desire. Augustine actually maintained that were it not for original sin copulation and reproduction would have taken place as a placid choice of serene rationality without the slightest emotion except the quiet joy of participating with God in an act of creation. The Church actually believed that as “sanctifying grace” achieved its effect over time that lust would cease. I guess if “over time” meant until you were in your 80’s, you would have your wish fulfilled. But then, how to explain how the unchurched, Jews, Moslems, and everyone else who never had access to the sacraments achieved the same blessed quiescence at the same time of life. Maybe by applying the parable of the workers in the vineyard all paid the same wages? Now I am sounding a little like Marty Healy … snort.


  4. Noel McMaster says:

    I read this sequence of commentary and response within the scientific model of theory, experiment and verification. The theory that jumps out at us today is material evolution, and behind that I can theorise that there is a Self-Communicator who ‘uses’ material evolution to communicate with us humans who in turn might be called communicants in the evolutionary process. We are in search of ‘meaning’, whether it be couched in ecological terms or psycho-sexual terms, noting that the latter would be subsumed in the former anyway. All nature and all our bits and pieces are ‘meant’ to work together, albeit historically in a world running down towards entropic indifferentiation. But we are not there yet, and that human proclivity to choose exemplars for living and learning about what is meaningful on our way reminds us of the anthropological element needed in all our theorising, from Plato, to Augustine to Luther et al.
    Let’s not forget that the mix of available exemplars is something of a muddle (entropy), with husbands, wives, celibates and all the other variations related to biology, gender etc that are available today. Midst much erosion of freedom (opportunity), accumulation of (invincible) ignorance among our 7 billion plus, and an ever-recurring exploitation of the masses, I choose, midst the total theory, not to forget the words of one available exemplar, “do this in memory of me”, a dangerous memory sustained more and more by small groups of active, socially aware people fashioning here and now their eschatological vectors in the hope of a final unveiling or manifestation (revelation, at last) of the ‘meaning’ of the whole evolutionary process.

    A good theory deserves an anthropological faith, i.e., theorists will not forget the element of the worthwhile in being human, and its transcendent quality, that only in end will this or that theory and its practice be manifested as that which truly was “the ought to be of life”, or not.

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