All posts by Dr. Aaron Milavec

Aaron Milavec, Professor Emeritus, has served as a seminary and university professor for over twenty-five years. He brought his fresh approach to the Didache to the attention of biblical scholars by originating a new program unit of the national Society of Biblical Literature, "The Didache in Context," which he chaired 2002-2005. Meanwhile, his website,, promotes pioneering research and scholarly exchange on issues of the early church. His thousand-page commentary, The Didache: Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E., received a 2004 Catholic Press Club award recognizing the best books in theology. To date, Aaron has published fifteen books in theology and ministry. brief bio = CV = research = support = renewal = GLBTQI =

Bravely Searching for a Spirituality of Sexual Intimacy

A Search for Married Spirituality

By Marysia (22 November 2013)

MarysiaThis is an edited version of my contribution to the book Women Experiencing Church: A Documentation of Alienation (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing Paperback, 1991). Not much has changed [since I first wrote], except that for 30 years of marriage now read 50.

I have been married for more than thirty years. Looking back, I can see that during that time I have become a different person. This is normal, we grow and develop. But I have something other than development in mind. I shall try to look back at the person I had been, and follow the process of change in my understanding of the Church’s teaching on what concerns most of its members, that is on marriage.

I met my husband when we were still young. We were both very religious. We could not to marry yet, but we knew that if we did get married, it would be to one another.

During my convent schooldays I had read that greatest mistake one could make was not to be a saint. But, since God had brought us together, He must have wanted us to look for sanctity through one another. So we set out to look for sanctity in marriage. The method seemed obvious. If we looked to the Church for guidance, we could never go wrong!

Still in our teens, we read Casti Connubii together. We accepted the encyclical’s outright condemnation of artificial birth control. Surely we were intelligent and knew enough about the female cycles to use the calendar, or so called ‘rhythm method’ to control the number and the spacing of children. However, in spite of this self-imposed discipline, within a month I was pregnant. Our third daughter was born three and a half years after the first. Clearly this could not go on. We obviously needed more and better information and found it, at last, at the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council, who introduced us to the temperature method. We breathed more freely. The discipline began to show results, or rather lack of them. But there was no question of conceiving a child intentionally; we had to leave room for emergencies.

These are common experiences. Such case histories have been described countless times in connection with Humanae Vitae and in other discussions before and since. But the question of birth regulation, since it affects women so intimately, clearly shows the callous attitude of the official Church. A handful of celibate old men, wielding power, make inhuman rules for others, even though Christ had warned them against putting burdens on other people’s backs.

We survived. Many marriages broke under the strain of trying to follow that teaching, which resulted in either too many children or in a damaged relationship! Moreover, when a marriage broke up under such strains, the victims were branded as sinners.

In our Family Group someone asked a priest to give reasons for the ban on contraception. He glibly replied: “I hope you don’t mind if I change the question, and talk about divorce, which is also forbidden”. We listened in amazement as he answered the unasked question. “But that refers to marriages which are failing” we replied. “All marriages are affected by the ruling on contraception, and the more the couple love one another the more they suffer”.

I led a discussion on sanctity in marriage – our ultimate goal – and realised that there were no married saints. Men were canonised for reasons unconnected to their state in life. Women had to be “virgins”, “widows” or “martyrs”. I thought innocently that the Church had through oversight not noticed the heroic virtues practised by married people. Nobody knew enough to contradict me, and show the true reason for that imbalance.

While I was confined to the suburbs with the babies, My husband continued extra-mural lectures on moral theology at the Newman Association and sat the exam. Writing about the role of sexual intercourse in marriage he disagreed with St. Augustine, placing what he called “togetherness” first. He failed the exam, but we were glad to know that he had expressed what we both thought.

We joined a local discussion group known as “The Mob”. There I first heard the opinion, that the Church tried to force religious forms of spirituality on married people. We needed a married spirituality, and would have to create it ourselves. This was a revelation. At last I stopped hankering after the glories of the Easter Liturgy when small children had to come first, or feeling guilty about not getting to church more often. The clergy were adept at requesting a “come hither” Christianity, manifested in frequent church attendance. Now I saw it as irrelevant to my life.

Then I read “The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought” by D. S. Bailey and became aware of the misogyny of the early Fathers, of Augustine’s contention that sexual intercourse in marriage was at least venially sinful, and only acceptable as a means of procreation. That man’s reaction against his misspent youth and his resulting imbalance on sexual matters has weighed heavily on the Church, which still has not shaken itself free from it. Augustine lurks under many of the reasons advanced against women priests. A married Anglican Bishop, Dr. Graham Leonard, revealed his own subconscious and that of many other clerics, saying that if he saw a woman at the altar, his first reaction would be to take her in his arms. What can one expect, therefore, of celibate clergy?

The depths of the nonsense to which the Fathers descended, are shown by St. Jerome’s opinion, that the Jewish patriarchs would have preferred to fulfil God’s promise of expanding into a great nation without sex.. Woman was equated with sex, sex with evil. A woman could only achieve sanctity if she became male, suppressed her womanhood. The early Fathers would have created a better world than God had done. Burdened with this bias against half the human race, the Church in the Middle Ages forbade intercourse before receiving the Eucharist, and discouraged it in Lent, on Fridays, on the eves of Holidays and at countless other times. And I had set out to find sanctity in marriage, by relying on the Church’s guidance!

Bailey’s book was the first of many. Why had I not known the history of the doctrine of marriage in the early Church? The nonsense has never been repudiated. Church’s teaching was no more correct now, than it had been in those early ages. It was still permeated with Manicheism from the time of Augustine. Some changes have taken place, and no-one would dare to express quite the same crude opinions to-day, but the changes were resisted all the time by a celibate clerical establishment. Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors declared : “Whosoever should maintain that the celibate state is not higher than the married state – let him be anathema!” The establishment fought a rearguard action at every step, giving way only under pressure from undeniable reality.

I re-examined the Church’s teaching on subjects which affected my life as a woman and as a partner in a marriage. This re-examination was soon followed by the far greater one, that of the Second Vatican Council. We welcomed it as a long overdue rethinking of the Church’s teachings in many fields, including the one in which we had more experience than did the Council Fathers.

I am not talking only of birth control, but also of the disregard by the official Church of personal values, whether within marriage or within other relationships. The fact that a woman’s interests had to be sacrificed to the bringing up of a numerous family did not worry the law givers. If her conceptions, like Eve’s, were multiplied, that was the reason for her existence. St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Were it not for procreation, another man would be always of more help to a man than a woman.”

It was unimportant if children had not enough room in the home for privacy,. Poverty was a virtue. Some of our friends accepted overcrowded conditions as the consequence of their Catholic life-style. One heard of children sleeping two to a bed. But our parish priest was building a presbytery in which each of the three curates had a bedroom and a sitting room. So civilised!

Which came first: compulsory celibacy or impersonal attitudes to other human beings? Perhaps they reinforced one another. A priest wrote in the Catholic Herald, that he did without sex altogether, so married people could do it for a time. For him, obviously, sex was impersonal. A bishop regretted that he was not allowed to have intercourse with a woman, if only once, “to see what it was like”. Those representatives of the Church talked of marriage, while seeing sexuality in the same light as do adolescent boys. Yet they were grown men, and they aspired to be our teachers and pastors.

The history of the teaching of Second Vatican Council and after on sex and marriage is well known — the reservation of judgement to the Pope, the papal commission on birth control, the scandalous disregard of its findings, the bombshell of Humanae Vitae. But by then the inadequacy of the teaching Church to pronounce on marriage was transparent. As the understanding of the role of conscience deepened, the teaching was taken as only one aspect of the problem. The encyclical had a chance of dying a natural death.

Yet Humanae Vitae was a bombshell. The free and open discussions in our house were heard by our children. A friend had shown my eight year old a photograph of Paul VI, the Pope. Barbara looked dubious: “Mummy and Daddy don’t like him much just now!” – she commented.

This is a personal account of my relationship with the official Church, but my experiences mean little in isolation. The clerics whom I have met were individuals, some better, some worse. I had ceased to expect guidance and wisdom from the clergy. What is important is how the Church institution has weighed over my life and the lives of others. I do not take the institution sufficiently seriously any more to suffer from it. But the institution is still putting burdens on people’s backs, and we should fight for principles not only when they affect ourselves.

Some post-hysterectomy or post-menopause women, who in the past had reached the end of their endurance, have since become “experts on natural family planning”, and give an exposé of the Billings method of determining the time of ovulation. Now there is better knowledge, they say, it’s easier. Of course it is — for them. But I refuse to accept that method, or any other, as the panacea, though it is an improvement on earlier knowledge. I also refuse to accept the right of clerics to immerse themselves with cold abstraction in questions of female physiology. They like doing that, and it has nothing to do with them.

John Paul II went far beyond Humanae Vitae in his condemnation of birth control. I have corresponded with women in Poland who were unable to make the safe period work, badly instructed, not knowing where to turn. They tried to be faithful, but when asking for bread had been given stones. They were conditioned to think that the Church has to go on with the teaching, and if they cannot adhere to it, it is their fault. Often they accept the dichotomy — on the one hand the ideal proclaimed by the Church, on the other undeniable reality. They live in this state of inner division – somehow.

A priest from Poland, an “expert” on marriage visited our family group. He blamed the apparent confusion of the present teaching on birth control on priests. who irresponsibly began to talk of a change, which was not possible.

On the contrary, I said, those priests listened to married couples about the realities of their lives together, became convinced by that witness and had the courage to side with the people.

He was shocked. He had probably never before been contradicted, especially by a woman.

We know that any priest who has spoken publicly against Humanae Vitae is unlikely to become a bishop. Soon the teaching Church will consist entirely of “yes-men”. Instead of being shepherds to their flock, they will be sheep. But those sheep will lead.

It would be so much easier if we were sheep, both for us and for the bishops. But we are thinking women and men. The bishops appear to realise it, since occasionally they request the opinion of the “laity” on matters connected with marriage. They want to know our experience. After all, if they have asked, perhaps they really want to know, so giving them the benefit of the doubt, I reply.

Expressing the views of the groups to which I belong, I repeat that until they recognise the prominence of the problem of birth control in married people’s lives, their expressions of sympathy and pastoral concern will sound hollow. We have written to the bishops repeatedly: at the time of the National Pastoral Congress, Synod on the Family, Extraordinary Synod marking the twenty years since the Council, Synod on the Laity. But our efforts came to nothing. Cardinal Hume said during the Synod on the Family that many couples who use contraception lead good Catholic lives, but shrunk away from the consequences of his judgement. He set out to “repaint the road signs”, to make the teaching more acceptable, as if our acceptance or rejection of the Vatican line depended on its presentation, and not on the truth or otherwise of the teaching. This implies that we are ignorant, that we have not thought, prayed and suffered for years, finally becoming convinced of the fallacy of putting technique before personal encounter and rule before love. It implies that we wait for a lead from the clergy, a lead from the blind – as, on the subject of marriage they are blind. Christ said to the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but you say `we see’, therefore your guilt remains”. I have never heard a sermon on this subject.

I may not have found a form of married spirituality, but I have discarded the ballast of centuries. I know that marriage is not merely “allowed” by God (since Christ attended the marriage feast at Cana he probably approved of it !)– but created by Him, so that men and women may have the best means of growing in their capacity to love.

Marriage exists for procreation only at the lowest level. The first “good” of marriage is love. The bond exists in the physical, mental and spiritual spheres, and to weaken it knowingly is a sin against marriage and against God. Any rule concerning the conduct of the couple must be subjected to the primacy of love.

It took me years to discard the weight of mistrust and prohibitions which accompanied the idea of Christian marriage only a generation ago. Next generations may perhaps begin at this point, and work towards the creation of a positive married spirituality, which is still lacking in the Church.

November 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm



Michael H. Crosby, OFMCap.

Human Development 32.2 (Summer, 2011), 30-33

MichaelCrosbyI believe one simple reason explains why fewer candidates now are joining the mainline non-clerical groups of men’s and women’s congregations in countries like ours. My conviction has little or nothing to do with the assumptions that seem to underlie the kind of questions being asked by the Vatican investigators of women religious in the United States and Ireland. On the contrary. When one looks at demographics from places like the U.S. and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and the U.K., Ireland and Western Europe, the lack of vocations to such groups ultimately involves one thing and one thing only: celibacy. Simply stated: the average person desiring to prayerfully serve God in some kind of permanent ministry can do so without being celibate.

This represents a relatively new phenomenon in the Roman Catholic Church; as a result its influence on young peoples’ conscious and unconscious decision-making involving celibacy is not being considered to the degree it should.

My experience of +50 years as a Capuchin Franciscan reveals that celibacy was the stated reason why we lost such large numbers in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Furthermore, at least in economically developed countries like the U.S.A., I believe it will remain the main reason why the congregations of women and men founded since the French Revolution will continue aging with lesser and lesser vocations. As I noted in my opening paragraph, those who would have been likely candidates in the past now are finding groups with whom they can pray and minister without having to be expected to remain celibate for the rest of their lives. As the saying goes vis-à-vis ministry in the church and celibacy, they now can have their cake and eat it too.

In the past I have written on mandated celibacy, especially among men. In this article I want to discuss the celibacy-based reasons why non-clerical groups of wo/men in the economically developed nations will not witness any upswing in vocations for the foreseeable future, if ever. I base my conclusions on various factors: scriptural, theological, cultural and practical

1. There is no clear scriptural foundation for any “call” to celibacy.

No less a scriptural authority than Paul himself declared that, when it came to any follower of Christ remaining a virgin, he had “no command of the Lord” (1 Cor 7:25). Furthermore, in giving his “opinion” on the matter, his conclusion was based on a faulty assumption: that the parousia was inevitable. For this reason, he argued, people should be intent on preparing for Christ’s imminent return rather than being preoccupied with relational dynamics around marriage.

The other key scriptural passage traditionally used as a rationale for celibacy in the church comes from Matthew 19. The context is Jesus’ stance on the only option available to the aggrieved party in a divorce. Assuming the marriage was valid, we have come to interpret that “difficult” passage to say that such people cannot remarry. Indeed this passage remains the key scriptural argument as to why the Roman Church insists that only if a marriage is determined to be invalid can either party be free to remarry.

Without a clear evangelical “call” to religious life in its present celibate expression, some have stressed the notion of celibacy as a “charism” in the church. But, again, there is no such place in the scriptures where charisms are discussed (such as the key texts in Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians 12) that we find any mention of celibacy.

In a wider or extended sense of such scripture passages one can (and should, I believe) apply to celibacy both the rationale for 1 Cor 7 (i.e., “waiting on the coming of the Lord”) and Matt 19 (“making oneself an eunuch for the kingdom”). However, this must be done aware of the fact that any study of the purpose of celibacy at the time of Jesus makes it clear that it had no value in itself except when practiced temporarily. And then it was discussed as something done by men. Thus soldiers and priests were to refrain from sexual activity before battle and before offering the sacrifice.

Other efforts to point to the scriptures in support of permanent celibacy cannot be sustained by deeper unbiased arguments, including the argument from silence that Jesus was a celibate, although I believe this to be the case. What he may have accepted or even embraced for himself was not something he considered important enough to be promoted in any way. Furthermore, the “leaving” father and mother and livelihood passages that are applied to discipleship refer to discipleship, not sexual/genital relationships. In this case Peter himself, who “left all” to follow Jesus, never left his wife.

Simply put, celibacy in the permanent form it has taken in religious congregations has no clear scriptural basis. Indeed to be celibate was not normal; thus it never was normative, much less made a norm.

As it was “in the beginning,” so now, the basic reason as to why celibacy is not “normal” comes from a definite scriptural assumption: “it is not good . . . to be alone” in such a way. It is not without reason that, given this tradition stressing marriage for all women, that Jephthah’s daughter, knowing her impending death, went into the desert to “bewail” her virginity (Judges 11:37).

2. Given the weak scriptural foundation for celibacy, its theological basis is equally weak.

From the earliest days of the church evidence reveals individual women who were called “virgins” and “widows.” The data whether or why they may (not) have remained so permanently does not seem to be that undisputed. In addition, only with the rise of the third-century coenobitical groups do we find a communal dimension highlighted and, when it appears, most often, this communal expression involves men, although we do find some ammas along with the abbas.

As religious life evolved, especially in the non-cloistered, apostolic form that arose during the last 500 years, two main theological assumptions buttressed its appeal to potential candidates, especially women. Besides being free of the direct day-to-day demands of a man, such women could serve God apostolically, convinced that such apostolic service made them unique among other women. This assumption—again being resurrected by more traditionalist groups and ideologies–has little current theological currency.

Any theological basis distinguishing between the communally-celibate expression of baptism and that of any other baptized Catholic was dissipated by two key teachings of the Second Vatican Council. First, the previous assumption about “states of perfection” that represented a kind of hierarchy of holiness was undermined by Lumen Gentium’s “universal call to holiness.” (Given this, it is interested to listen to recent discussions in more conservative circles about various “states in life;” such talk seems to represent a hankering for the earlier ideology and practices connected to the “states of perfection”).        The second factor arising from Vatican II involved the theological understanding that, rather than having a “call” to some certain apostolate in the church, baptism itself became recognized as the one call to witness to the Gospel with many apostolic expressions (male and female, single and married, celibate and non-celibate). Now every baptized person is called to witness to the gospel in whatever they do.

3. The wider cultural underpinnings for celibacy are weakening, if not already gone.

In many countries, including the United States and Canada, until the “sexual revolution” of the mid-to-late 1960s, sex was seldom discussed opening; it was protected. Something only intimated. However, often with appeals to the First Amendment, “freedom of expression” became increasingly linked with freedom of sexual expression, without boundaries. In generations since the ‘60s, what once was not culturally tolerated except for late night television seems de rigueur even on “family hour” television. Now any sexual and genital innuendo has become quite explicit to the point of a kind of non-critical form of promiscuity whether it is in the soft-porn advertising for Abercrombie and Fitch or the easy availability of hard-core pornography itself. Just ask any priest hearing confessions as to the increase in those confessing addictive-type behaviors related to watching pornography. Or ask the real reason why many formators of postulants, novices and those in temporary vows (at least in men’s congregations) have found it necessary to put blockers on house computers.

Most religious women (or men) over 60 will tell you that they never really considered celibacy as a critical component when they made their decision to enter religious life or make perpetual commitment in it. It simply came with the package and the package, for them, was mainly about doing something apostolic. Their goal was to “do something” apostolic; only later did they realize celibacy was about “being something” quite different. And, oftentimes, through many mistakes and sins, they were able to begin to “make themselves so” for the sake of the kingdom noted in Matthew 19.

Proponents of a more culturally conservative form of Catholicism will point to the the relatively large numbers in some of the very traditional forms of religious life that are identified with specific apostolic activities (often episcopally sanctioned and supported), unquestioning acceptance of Vatican decrees, with members who live communally strict hour plans, including daily Mass and prayer. They do not recognized that now, as in the past, celibacy is still too often “part of the package” that can be handled because one’s identity disassociates (at least for a while) one’s sexual drives from other drives such as power and prestige for being part of such groups—at least among those who identify with a patriarchal, clerical form of Catholicism. Furthermore, some of these groups, notably in my case as a Capuchin, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, have had great success in appealing to the youth-market with their various rallies and seminars and have very savvy expertise in the internet and other forms of mass media communication not enjoyed by many other groups.

However, those touting the “success” of such groups that fit into a more conservative form of patriarchal and clerical Catholicism do not note that these tend to be, with some notable exceptions like the Nashville Dominicans, newer expressions of the older forms of apostolic religious life. If this were not so, then one must ask why some of the equally traditional groups, like the Little Sisters of the Poor or Hawthorne Dominicans, are diminishing as rapidly as are their mainline equivalents. This data raises the question about the “pool” of potential candidates for religious life and my final point.

4. The practical reasons for celibacy are less and less convincing.

Recently I had conversations with several people working with young Catholic adults aware of “trends” among them. Consistently they pointed to polls showing that  Indeed only 15% of this cohort are attracted to such forms. If this be so, it follows that the existing groups that are more traditional (such as those noted above) will continue to attract such people, but they will not be the norm; they will appeal merely to the 15% of Catholics who are seeking such a patriarchal, clerical form of religious life—including women willing to submit to it for all sorts of reasons too complex to address here.

So, then, what is the “norm” for the wider cohort of younger Catholics who previously might have felt “called” to those forms of religious life that were reinforced by once never-challenged assumptions that made candidates then think that they were scripturally, theologically and culturally unique?

Simple stated, these young people are finding prayer groups and other such faith-based supports to help them sustain their various ministries. For many, seeking temporary expressions, they find such in Teach for America, JVC and my own Province’s CapCorps, and other volunteer programs like the Catholic Workers. And for those of them that want to spend their foreseeable futures in full-time apostolic activity, they have found outlets that allow them to fulfill their dreams without having to commit to life-long celibacy. Some of these are found among movemental groups like the Focolari and Communion and Liberation (to say nothing of the more patriarchally conservative groups like Opus Dei).

A good example of this shift comes from the demographics revealing the largest source of lay ministers in the United States: the religious studies programs in college after college. The Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in Chicago is one such example. Founded almost 50 years ago, it once served mainly women religious. Now its student base is mainly lay, with the number of young adults increasing each year. Just this summer, teaching there, among my class of 20, I had at least 5 young IPS students. These were the “candidates” of yesterday who would have been open to consider progressive forms of religious life today but now they know they pray and minister with others without needing to remain celibate.

Given the above, I think it is safe to conclude that the days of huge numbers of people in non-clerical forms of religious life have ended. I don’t think that this change has occurred because religious congregations are too liberal or too questioning of the Vatican. They have done nothing wrong (as many believe to be the case in the Vatican Inquiry); they are simply the faithful remnant of an era that honored celibacy in a way that will not likely come again. While I believe some life-long communal forms of celibacy will remain, I think that among men, most candidates will go to the clerical groups and not the communities of brothers. For the women, especially the mainline groups, candidates will be fewer and far between.


Michael Crosby, OFMCap. is celebrating his Golden Jubilee as a Capuchin Franciscan this year. He has authored many books, including Rethinking Celibacy: Reclaiming the Church. His website is

More  Resources:

Priests talking about celibacy
The Tradition of Abusive Dishonesty
The Trouble with Celibacy in Africa
When a Priest Falls in Love