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Celibacy in an intensively sexualised world is a curious anomaly

By Jeremy Seabrook, Guardian

It's all very well to demand that churches bring themselves up to date but then we'd miss their lesson in the mutability of things

Pity the Catholic clergy, of whom are demanded forms of abstinence and self-denial, which were, in less enlightened times, widespread, but which have been superseded by the altered sensibility of our time. The modern world knows that sex is the mainspring of all human activity; that it is something to get, to have and to search for; a commodity a bit like money, in that no one can ever quite obtain enough of it.

This knowing is socially constructed, despite the claim that we are uniquely privy to the fundamental nature of humanity, and that this is duly reflected in the social arrangements to which we owe allegiance. It is difficult to argue that the insights solely vouchsafed to this generation of privilege might be nothing more than a temporal imperialism, the triumph of a here-and-now that will eventually be swept away.

Yet we should, with humility, understand that the enthronement of sex at the heart of a culture is only one way of interpreting the world; and that there are other ways of living and making sense of human life, which do not give the same supremacy to this particular – although very powerful – aspect of our existence. Indeed, the very persistence of a belief in celibacy testifies to the changeability of our own culture, for it recalls a time when it was not considered eccentric or disordered, but was a freely chosen – and respected – way of life.

When incontinent desires becomes the norm – and in a society which is founded upon intensive consumption and the necessity of selling more and more things to people – restraint and abstinence become outlandish features that separate the weird and eccentric from the acceptable. When insatiability is naturalised, some strange pathologies are bound to develop; and those who are burdened with archaic commitments to celibacy or any other repudiation of self-indulgence will inevitably find themselves in conflict, not only with the prevailing social ideology, but also within their own heart.

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