Autumn 2005 issue cover


Pleasure Principles

Toward a contemporary theology of desire.

Cover illustration by Paul Dallas. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By Sarah Coakley

In the late fourth century Gregory of Nyssa, the younger brother of Basil of Caesarea and one of the great Cappadocian fathers who forged the “orthodox” doctrine of the Trinity in response to late Arianism, wrote a remarkable treatise, de virginitate (“On Virginity”), which has puzzled his readership ever since. The reason for this puzzlement—which has intensified of late, leading to a string of competing interpretative articles—lies in the fact that Gregory was almost certainly married when he wrote this treatise. Is his high praise of virginity—a lifestyle embraced by his admired elder brother, Basil—merely rhetorical, even ironic? Does his insight about the particular values of married life, too, succumb to an inflated rhetoric? Does marriage simply pale, finally, alongside what he perceives as the infinitely higher vocation of celibacy? Or is the message something more subtle?

It is something more subtle, I think—for what Gregory presents to us in this unique text is a vision of desire, and its right ordering in relation to God, that (puzzlingly to the modern mind, as indeed to the ancient, for the most part) does not require a disjunctive approach to marriage and celibacy. Rather, his vision entertains the thought that the godly ordering of desire is what conjoins the ascetic aims of marriage and celibacy at their best, and equally what judges both of them at their worst. Thus, at the height of his argument in de virginitate Gregory can write that the choice for his reader is whether ultimately to be a “Pleasure-lover” or a “God-lover”—that is, the choice is about what the final telos of one’s desire is. It is not that sexual pleasure holds any intrinsic fear for him (unlike for his near-contemporary in the West, Augustine of Hippo, whose epic and tortured struggles for sexual continence we know about in detail from the Confessions), but rather, says Gregory, that it is all a matter of due balance or “proportion” (de virginitate, chapter VIII). The key issue, in fact, for Gregory, is a training of desire, a lifelong commitment to what we might now call the “long haul” of personal, erotic transformation, and thereby of reflection on the final significance of all one’s desires before God.

Such reference to an obscure, and puzzling, text of the patristic era might seem an odd place to start a discussion about the contemporary sex crises of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. But there is a method here, because I seek to outline, first, some of the problematic features of the journalistic, or “high popular,” responses to the sex crises in both churches, and to indicate how strangely lacking here is a distinctively theological analysis of the fundamental issue of desire. The various recent, and well-publicized, volumes and articles in this regard are of varying quality and insight, ranging from Peter Steinfels’s highly nuanced historical assessment of the Roman Church’s current crises, through A. W. Richard Sipe’s largely psychological account of celibacy, via Andrew Greeley’s sociological riposte to Sipe’s pessimism on the priesthood, to the troublingly voyeuristic journalism on sexual abuse in David France, and Jason Berry and Gerald Renner. My initial point here, however, is that historical, political, sociological, and, above all, psychological theories abound about the causes for the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed for the threatened schism in the Anglican Communion, but that there is very little that could be called a sustained theological analysis of the problem of human sexual desire encoded in these two notable ecclesial furores.

Underlying these journalistic responses are, I think, some striking cultural contradictions (to borrow a term of Daniel Bell’s), which, despite their own suppression of the theological, are potentially more teasing and suggestive than the “official,” disjunctive theological opinions (conservative vs. liberal) that are currently overlaid like a clamping template. “Conservatives” here, of course, tend to have recourse either to biblical injunctions that they take to be unambiguous, or to magisterial authority, often expressed, understandably, with a high degree of suspicion for modern, secular, post-Freudian reflections on sexuality. “Liberals,” in contrast, tend to suggest, overbearingly, that they know better, in the light of modern psychological theory, than anything that Bible or tradition or authority could disclose to them. And so this disjunction tends to stultify any new, creative theological way forward. The central thesis of this essay is that there is another mode of discussion that could cut creatively across the established ecclesial battle lines—liberal and conservative, pro-gay and antigay—and draw both camps into a new, and serious, reflection on ascetical theology tout court. It is true that to get where I want to be I am deliberately avoiding the usual pitfalls of a discussion that starts with, and then bogs down in, contentious biblical passages on sodomy: in short, I am not beginning with what might be called a “biblical/ethical” approach. Instead I want first to establish, and negotiate, a new interaction between Freud, on the one hand, and pre-modern ascetical theologies such as Gregory’s, on the other. The journalistic mind may indeed find this approach fantastic, but I will argue that it is a much richer approach than might be expected.

Note that I am not talking about a feeble kind of via media, the sort of compromised rapprochement between a secular ideology and a religious tradition that study of the origins of the Anglican Communion might lead you to expect of me. No, I actually want to expose the richness, complexity, and unfinished nature of Freud’s notion of sublimation, such that we are forced back to its sources in Plato and Plato’s Christian inheritors, and required to think afresh on matters that Freud himself never definitively parsed.


Anyone who has attentively followed the press coverage of the recent sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, on the one hand, and of the ecclesiastical divisions over homosexuality in the Anglican Communion, on the other, is probably aware of certain pressing cultural contradictions on matters of sexuality and desire that these two crises enshrine. It might be objected that even to name these two areas of ecclesial public furore in one breath is already to have committed a dire, and offensive, fallacy of “castigation by lumping,” to use one of Jeffrey Stout’s memorable phrases, in Ethics After Babel; for surely the abusive, illegal activities of pedophile Roman Catholic priests must in no wise be conflated with the honest and openly vowed relationships of gay Episcopalians, including one of such who is now a bishop. To this we must reply immediately that of course the difference is ethically crucial—not only in the eyes of the law, but also in regard to the unequal power relationships, and the protective shroud of ecclesiastical secrecy, that have marked the Roman Catholic scandal in contrast to the Anglican one.

Yet at the same time one cannot help noticing, simply by reflecting on the odd temporal coincidence of these two very different ecclesiastical paroxysms over same-sex desire, a latent cultural contradiction of great significance. There is a deep and pervasive public pessimism, on the one hand, over the very possibility of faithful celibacy, and yet an equally deep insistence that certain forms of sexual desire must at all costs not be enacted. This first cultural contradiction was forcefully, if perhaps unconsciously, expressed by Garry Wills in his article “The Scourge of Celibacy,” in The Boston Globe Magazine of March 24, 2002, in this way: “The whole celibacy structure is a house of cards, and honesty about any one problem can make the structure of pretense come toppling down. . . . Treating pedophilia as a separate problem is impossible, since it thrives by its place in a compromised network of evasion.”

“[The ] real enemy,” Wills ends the article triumphantly, “is celibacy.” Yet at the beginning of the same article he had inveighed against “the worst aspect” of the crisis, “the victimization of the young,” and “the clerical epidemic of . . . crimes” (emphases are mine). In other words, celibacy is impossible, compromising, and delusive—the whole system smacks of unreality—yet those who do have unmanageable and illegal desires must be held to account and punished: they must and should be celibate. Herein, then, we detect our first—and profound—cultural contradiction: celibacy is impossible, but celibacy must be embraced by some with unacceptable and illegal desires.

Of course once the familiar liberal/conservative divide is imposed on this first cultural contradiction, we get a certain diversion from it and an ostensibly much clearer disjunct, the “liberals” happily condoning faithful vowed gay relationships but condemning illegal and abusive pedophile ones, and the “conservatives,” whether Protestant or Catholic, disavowing and banning all of them by appeal to biblical injunction against sodomy, or reference to “natural” law. But this division—between “pro-” and “anti-gay,” “liberals” and “conservatives”—then tends to get most of the public attention in ecclesiastical circles and in the news media, thus diverting us from the underlying, and unsolved, cultural conundrum: how can sexual control be demanded of anyone if celibacy is intrinsically impossible? To this issue I shall shortly return.

A further cultural contradiction seems to afflict the treatment of homosexual, versus heterosexual, desire in contemporary popular discussion of the church divisions. For it is a marked feature of both the Roman Catholic and Anglican sex crises that almost all the press attention is focused on same-sex relationships, whether pedophile, “ephebophile,” or (mature) homosexual. It is as if, by comparison, no crisis at all afflicts the heterosexual world vis-à-vis church life and what we might call the general “economy of desire.” But anyone surveying the cultural and political scene with a dispassionate eye would surely have to come to other conclusions. The general erosion of the instance of lifelong marriage in North America, the rise in divorce rates, and the concomitant upsurge in the number of single-parent families are all well known to us in secular discussions, but are by no means absent from church-attending, or indeed Protestant clerical, families.

Only recently, for instance, the clergy of one Episcopal diocese received a mailing calmly announcing that one of their suffragan bishops was undergoing a divorce. One could not but be struck by the air of enforced “normalcy” and psychological adjudication that hung over this letter: no regrets, no confessions, no distress even, and certainly no reference to either Bible or Christian tradition; just an insistence that the couple had been “faithful in caring for . . . each other” in the past, but were now “clear” about the fact that their marriage was “ending.” Clergy were further informed, by this suffragan bishop, “I want to assure you that I am taking care of myself in this period of change.” Apart from one reference to an “excellent Spiritual Director” that the bishop had now decided to see, there was no theological reference in the letter at all.

I wish to cast no specific judgments on this case—and, even if I did, the matter would surely be morally complex and demanding of due compassion. But in fact, the news of the ending of this marriage makes me much sadder than the letter would seem to warrant. I cite the case only to note an instance of the current culturally condoned acknowledgement of the impermanence of marriage, even in the ranks of bishops.

The more emotive issue of clerical homoerotic desire currently tends to glean much greater public attention than anything to do with heterosexual sex.

My more important, second point here, though, is this: Despite the extensive evidences of clerical divorce, and, quite differently, of clerical abuse or philandering—both Catholic and Protestant— in heterosexual encounters or relationships, the more emotive issue of clerical homoerotic desire currently tends to continue to glean much greater public attention than anything to do with heterosexual sex. It is as if, suddenly in early twenty-first-century America, homoeroticism has become sufficiently open to discussion to be dissected publicly, and emotively, in the news media (and then either condoned or condemned); yet it is insufficiently integrated into a general discussion of “desire” to make comparisons with heterosexual patterns of behavior a worthy topic of sustained theological reflection.

A third cultural contradiction that I want to propose to you hovers over the common assumption that celibacy and marriage are somehow opposites—one ostensibly involving no “sex” at all, and the other, again supposedly, involving as much sex as one or both partners might like at any one time. But on reflection, this assumption is also a perplexing cultural fantasy that does not bear close, analytic scrutiny. The “ethnographic” evidence provided by Richard Sipe’s book Celibacy in Crisis is revealing here. Not only does faithful (or what Sipe calls “achieved”) celibacy generally involve a greater consciousness of sexual desire and its frustration than a life lived with regular sexual satisfaction; but married sexuality, on the other hand, is rarely as carefree and mutually satisfied as this third cultural contradiction might presume. Indeed a realistic reflection on long, faithful marriages (now almost in the minority) will surely reveal periods of enforced “celibacy” within marriages during periods of delicate pregnancy, parturition, illness, physical separation, or impotence, which are simply the lot of the marital long haul, realistically considered.

And if this is so, then the generally assumed disjunction between celibacy and marriage will turn out not to be as profound as it seems. Rather, the reflective, faithful celibate and the reflective, faithful married person may have more in common—by way of prayerful surrendering of inevitably thwarted desire to God— than the unreflective or faithless celibate, or the carelessly happy, or indeed unhappily careless, married person.

We cannot now go further in our argument without attacking a different sort of cultural presumption head-on: that of the supposed psychological dangers of celibacy or of so-called “repressed” sexuality. And here we may be surprised to discover what Freud himself said on this matter. Could it be that he actually gives us, despite himself, certain backhanded resources for thinking afresh theologically about desire?


The journalistic commentators on the Roman Catholic sex crises tend to take the view, as we have mentioned, that celibacy is “impossible,” or virtually so. Even Sipe—who wishes, despite his sustained exposé of clerical failures in celibacy, to defend the estimated 2 percent of Roman Catholic priests who he thinks do (as he puts it) “achieve” celibacy—avers that this achievement is always at the cost of earlier “experimentation” and fumbling, through which the priest must inevitably pass en route to something like mature sexual balance. Underlying these gloomy analyses (Sipe estimates that nearly half of so-called celibates are actually not so at any one time) seem to lurk the psychological presumption, often attributed to Freud, that celibacy is unnatural and even harmful; or if not inherently “unnatural,” then distinctly “unusual” and “utopian.”

It may come as some surprise then, to find that Freud’s own views on sublimation were malleable over time, remaining somewhat unclear and inconsistent, and that he moved distinctly away from his early, and purely biological, account of Eros and its power for redirection. At no time, in fact, as far as I can see, does Freud’s position provide a mandate for the view that sublimation is harmful—or at any rate any more harmful than the psychological repressions we necessarily negotiate all the time, according to Freud. On the contrary, the later view of Freud is that we must all, perforce, be engaged in forms of sublimation if civilization is to endure, and that celibacy has always been the choice of a minority who interpret this pressure “religiously.”

There are two points about Freud on sexual desire that seem particularly intriguing in our quest for a revitalized theological account of it. The first is that we can trace a distinct change in his views on Eros from his early writings on the biological drive of sex, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and the Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-17), through a transitional period represented by Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), to a mature sensibility about the possible re-channeling of “erotic” power in a less biological, and less repressive, sense, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929-30) and Why War? (1933). The shifts are highly illuminating and show how unafraid Freud was to change his mind—indeed, how his mind, even when changed, remained somewhat unclear on the matter as late as the 1930s.

The shifts particularly give the lie to the popular misconstrual that Freud sees sublimation/repression as inevitably harmful. In the early writings, Freud rarely uses the word Eros, although when he does it is as a synonym for the libido, the physical, biological, sexual drive that at this stage he argues often comes into conflict with the Ego. Note that even at this early phase Freud is by no means of the opinion that it is harmful to resist physical sexual expression in many circumstances; he can stress, for instance, in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, how harmful sexual activity itself can often be, precisely because its significance is social and not merely individual: “Sexuality,” he writes, “[has] advantages, but, in return for an unusually high degree of pleasure, brings dangers which threaten the individual’s life and often destroy it.” Eros at this stage, then, is conceived biologically and as always in a state of restless negotiation and tension: it must necessarily be repressed in part, and hence its difficulties.

For Freud, Eros/libido came to include not just the biological sex drive but also the Ego’s instincts to preservation of life.

By the time of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, however, Freud can be seen significantly extending his concept of libido and now more consistently labeling it Eros, while also drawing the Ego and the libido closer together, rather than placing them in conflict. Eros/libido have come now to include not just the biological sex drive but also all of the Ego’s instincts to self-preservation and the maintenance of life. At this point, too, Freud first introduces the notion of Thanatos (death) as a new binary opposite to Eros: whereas Eros is the drive that presses toward the future and new life, Thanatos looks backward and is death-obsessed.

In short, Freud has created a new binary, more publicly oriented than the earlier individual psychic tension between Ego and libido, and providing a sort of Hegelian dialectic of cultural propulsion. No wonder, then, that his later theory of “sublimation”—Aufhebung, in German—has a wider cultural remit than his earlier account of individual biological needs and their necessary repressions. This new theory, as expressed in Civilization and Its Discontents and then, slightly differently, in Why War?, is now fascinatingly, and explicitly, linked to Plato’s theory of erotic “ascent” to Beauty in The Symposium (e.g., Why War?), and it is “what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life” (Civilizations). While in Civilizations Freud is still of the opinion that such culturally conceived Aufhebung comes with the danger, and the cost, of a necessary accompanying “renunciation” or “repression,” it is not clear that he consistently keeps up this position later. As Herbert Marcuse argued in an important essay in his Eros and Civilization (“The Transformation of Sexuality Into Eros”), there seems to be in Freud yet another strand on sublimation that does not involve repression, but rather a more straightforward transference of aggressive energy to a good, erotic end.

Thus, in a striking correspondence of 1933 initiated by Albert Einstein, and later published as Why War?, Freud can express the astonishingly optimistic view, as war clouds gathered in Europe, that “Erotism,” the love instinct, could finally triumph over hate and war and aggression (Thanatos) by a direct transference of the energies of hate. As he put it to Einstein, love and hate must always go together, so that one, love, can modify or redirect the energies of the other, hate. Thus, he concludes, “complete suppression of man’s aggressive tendencies is not in issue; what we try is to divert it into a channel other than that of warfare” (my emphasis). Note, then, that a discussion of sublimation that started in Freud’s early works as a matter related to mere biological drive has now become a theory of a positive, and seemingly nonrepressive, “rechanneling” of psychic energy.

The second point about Freud on sublimation that I want to stress here, however, is the issue on which he is at most odds with Christianity, and indeed with Plato. And this too is, at least backhandedly, instructive for my theological purposes, and again not what one might think to hear from Freud. For when he speaks specifically about Christian celibacy in Civilization and Its Discontents, it is not to inveigh against it as such, nor to deride it as psychically dangerous or impossible (although he does say that it is only a “small minority” who are “enabled by their constitution to find happiness, in spite of everything” according to this path). Rather it is to say, à la Plato’s first stages of erotic ascent in The Symposium, that celibates have managed to direct their love to “all men alike” rather than simply to one, chosen, sexual “love-object.” It is precisely religion that helps them to do this, he admits. And as we might expect from Freud, this causes him to inject a sneer: it is not that he thinks celibacy is intrinsically damaging, but rather that he has moral objections to the religious idea that one should love everyone equally: “A love [first] that does not discriminate seems to me to forfeit a part of its own value. . . .”; and, he goes on, “not all men are worthy of love” (my emphasis).

What this rhetoric hides, it seems to me, is a deep remaining aporia in Freud’s new, but partial, accommodation of Plato. Because there is no final theory of “forms” for Freud, still less a Christian God, then the new embrace of the Platonic ladder of ascent has, finally, nowhere to go: Eros lacks eschatological, or divine direction. Thus, while celibacy remains both possible, and even undamaging, for the later Freud, he cannot accept its moral goals; nor can he give it final theological meaning. Therein lies the true rub.

If I have now successfully shown that Freud himself, as opposed to the contemporary popular American misunderstanding of him, sees sublimation as personally and culturally necessary, and even priestly celibacy as possible, wherein lies the continuing felt resistance to a contemporary theology of desire? We have seen how Freud, of sheer atheistical conviction, himself blocks the upward ascent of Eros toward any heavenly goal. But it may be that it is Anders Nygren’s famous study Agape and Eros, rather than the secular Freud, that has actually played a wider cultural role here than is normally recognized in undermining the efforts at a modern Christian theology of desire. Now a classic of the twentieth century, the book’s rigidly Lutheran (and oft-criticized) thesis is so well known as to scarcely need another rehearsal: agape is the Christian love of Jesus and the New Testament, says Nygren—graced, God-given, sacrificial, downward-moving, unselfish—whereas nasty Platonic Eros, “desire,” is, in contrast, acquisitive, man-centered, upward-moving, egocentric, and needy. To pick up my metaphor of channeling again, we may note how frightened Nygren is about the possibility of any safe channeling of the alarming erotic urge: “The idea of agape,” he writes, “can be compared to a small stream which, even in the history of Christianity, flows along an extremely narrow channel and sometimes seems to lose itself entirely in its surrounding; but Eros is a broad river that overflows its banks, carrying everything away with it, so that it is not easy even in thought to dam it up and make it flow in an orderly course” (my emphasis).

I mention Nygren’s thesis here only briefly as a bridge back to our discussion of Gregory of Nyssa and other pre-modern Christian theorizers of desire, because anyone who wishes, as I now do, to re-engage a significant dimension of Christian tradition that consciously married the New Testament with Platonic and neo-Platonic ideas of Eros, inevitably has to run Nygren’s gauntlet. It is worth pointing out, then, with Martin D’Arcy and other earlier critics of Nygren, that while his account of New Testament views of agape is relatively accurate, his reading of Platonic Eros is by contrast highly selective, negative, and contentious. It shows little cognizance even of the subtlety of Diotima’s speech on the nature of love in Plato’s Symposium, in which the ladder of erotic purification is mounted in order finally to “have disclosed’ to her “suddenly”—and as a sort of gift or revelation—a participation in the form of Beauty. This is no mere selfish grasping. Not only then is Nygren’s reading of Plato marred by an imposition of Christian, and specifically Lutheran, fears of “works righteousness” and Pelagianism, it also has the effect of placing sexual attraction and “Christian love” in radically different boxes with no obvious means of mutual influence—a Protestant trait that has lethal consequences for any theological theorizing of sexuality and its relation to God’s love.

For Gregory of Nyssa, Eros is agape, as he puts it, ‘stretched out in longing’ toward the divine goal.

To move then toward my own proposal based on Gregory of Nyssa’s insights, I shall have to bypass Nygren’s roadblock and declare it a mistaken and false construction. Nygren is in fact quite unable, on account of his rigid binary, to give any positive account of the fruitful alliance of Christian agape and Platonic Eros that began in the third century with Hippolytus and Origen, and their commentaries on the Song of Songs, and passed directly from there to Gregory; and yet this was the marriage that was to spawn innumerable classics of “mystical theology” thereafter. For Origen, agape simply is Eros, by another name; whereas for his rather different successor in the Song-commentary tradition, Gregory of Nyssa, Eros is agape (as he puts it) “stretched out in longing” toward the divine goal. Let us then turn back, now, to see further how Gregory’s views on celibacy curiously cohere with his views on marriage, and how his insights, after our examination of Freud, might steer us beyond the false cultural contradictions with which we started.


I have been charting, in the case of both Freud and Nygren, how the image of channeling is used in relation to erotic desire in interestingly contrastive ways. For Freud it provides a means of positive transference of energies, whereas for Nygren the dangerous Eros is forever destructively bursting its banks. Precisely this same image of channeling, interestingly, is at the heart of Gregory of Nyssa’s theorizing of marriage and celibacy in de virginitate. As Valerie Karras perceptively shows in her excellent recent article on this treatise (Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 13), Gregory is being “ironic” in his adulation neither of celibacy nor of marriage, puzzling as it may seem that they should be put thus together. The really interesting and unique heart of the argument, then, lies in the metaphor of the “stream” of desire, and of its right direction, use, and even intensification in relation to God. And in this task celibates and married people are, as far as Gregory is concerned, equally involved as a life-long ascetical exercise. Thus, as Gregory puts it in chapter VII of the treatise:

“Imagine a stream flowing form a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose of agriculture, the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow. But if one were to mass these wandering and widely dispersed rivulets again into one single channel, he would have a full and collected stream for the supplies which life demands. Just so the human mind . . . as long as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the senses, has no power that is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good; but once call it back and collect it upon itself . . . it will find no obstacle in mounting to higher things, in grasping realities.”

(Note how interestingly this compares with Nygren’s imaging of dangerous and excessive erotic channels.)

It might be thought that Gregory intends this intensification of desire toward God as mutually exclusive with a sexually active life in marriage; but interestingly he repeats the same metaphor of the stream in the following chapter (VIII) precisely to explain how sex in marriage can be a “good irrigation” provided it, too, is ordered in relation to God and so made “moderate” in comparison with the intensified and unified stream that desire for God demands. It is not then to suppress passion that the treatise is written; but actually (as stated by Gregory at the very outset) precisely to “create passion” for “the life according to excellence.” Married sexual expression, and its erotic metaphors, thus holds no worries for Gregory, unlike for Augustine, who was to find even lawful married intercourse a matter for concern on account of its capacity for male loss of control (City of God, book XIV), and who notably never expanded any theology of the Song of Songs as did Gregory later. Here, in the earlier de virginitate, however, Gregory lauds virginity not on account of its sexlessness, but because of its withdrawal from worldly interests—the building up of families, status, and honor—and hence its emulation of the changeless life of the Trinity. It is not sex that is the problem but worldly values. And he sees good, spiritually productive marriage as almost on a par with celibacy given its equal potential capacity, when desire is rightly “aimed,” to bear the fruits of leitourgia, service to others, especially to the poor.

Consequently, by the end of the treatise, as Karras rightly shows, we have an instructive set of hierarchically ordered possibilities for erotic states of affairs: bad marriage, in which the external rules of fidelity may be kept but no spiritual unification of desire toward God is occurring—no right “channeling” of Eros; bad celibacy, in which likewise the external rules may, or may not, be obeyed but physical virginity is not leading to any transformation of the soul; and then spiritually fruitful marriage and spiritually fruitful celibacy, in contrast, which turn out to have more in common with each other than do the other states. Hence, as Karras puts it the married person who can “channel the water” erotically toward God is significantly above the mere physically celibate virgin who is still subject to false attachments or the spiritual vices of envy, malice, and slander.

But the special power of the virgin who has also rightly channeled the erotic stream lies for Gregory in his significance for others: Gregory ends, much in the spirit of an Alasdair MacIntyre today, with an insistence on ascetical practices as means of transformation, and of the indispensable spiritual power of one from whom one may mimetically “catch the halo,” as he puts it, of rightly ordered desire. In other words—and this is surely a point of great spiritual significance for today—right-channeled Eros, whether married or celibate, is impossible without deep prayer and ascetic perseverance; but it is even more impossible, interestingly, without shining examples to emulate. Such, for Gregory himself, was the inspiration of his celibate brother Basil: celibacy was ultimately to be “caught,” not “taught.”


Gregory’s tract De virginitate is unique, and puzzling, in the tradition precisely because it is written by a married person and cuts across the usual dividing categories of lay and ordained, married and celibate. I suggest that, as such, it not only provides a potential hermeneutical key for reading other forms of ascetic literature against the grain and across traditional disjunctions, but surely also gives the lie to Peter Steinfels’s insistence that a celibate clergy could now only be re-invigorated within contemporary Roman Catholicism at the cost of a remainingly high theology of lay and married service. (As Steinfels puts it in A People Adrift, “If the church wants to restore celibacy to [its] former status, there is really only one practical way to do it: demote marriage to the second-class standing it once had.”) Here, I am suggesting otherwise, in the spirit of Gregory; and not only to insist that marriage and celibacy should thus be re-thought alongside each other, but also implicitly, and doubtless more contentiously, that heterosexual and homosexual desire should also, and analogously, be reflected on in concert by the same exacting standards of progressive non-attachment and ascetical transformation. Then, I submit, homoerotic desire could potentially be released from its cultural, and biblical, associations with libertarianism, promiscuity, and disorder.

Gregory’s vision of desire as thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed, and finally intensified in God, bringing forth spiritual fruits of agape and leitourgia in a number of different contexts, represents a way beyond and through the false modern alternatives of repression and libertarianism, between agape and Eros, and has curiously more points of contact with the real Freud than the imaginary Freud of American popular consciousness.

Whether Gregory’s stern intimations of the final locus of desire can also be the means of a sublation of all three of the cultural contradictions I outlined at the start of this essay is a matter for further reflection, but such has been at least my implicit argument. Certainly the re-thinking of celibacy and faithful vowed relations (whether heterosexual or homosexual) in an age of instantly commodified desire and massive infidelity is a task of daunting proportions, of which no one can be very confident of widespread success. But as Gregory himself warns, we cannot believe it unless we see it lived: “Any theory divorced from living examples . . . is like [an] unbreathing statue” (chapter XXIII).

Therein, perhaps, lies the true challenge for us today: the counter-cultural production not of film stars, sports heroes, or faithless royal families, but of erotic saints.

Sarah Coakley is the Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. This essay is an adaptation of “Ecclesiastical Sex Scandals: The Lack of a Contemporary Theology of Desire,” which she presented as the Reynolds Lecture at Princeton University on April 28, 2005.

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