Swine Flu, Celibacy, and the Martyrs of Memphis

2 May 2009

by the hand of Tobias Haller, BSG

by the hand of Tobias Haller, BSG

People are freaking out over swine flu, and understandably.  While only one patient has succumbed, this particular flu poses a huge public health threat.

Which got me thinking about self-sacrifice.  Today is the feast day of Catherine of Siena, who herself served those who were too sick or too unpleasant for other nurses.  The history of Christianity is filled with those who stayed and ministered to the sick and dying, often contracting the disease their patients suffered from.  St. Gregory of Rome, St. Damien of Molokai, and the Martyrs of Memphis (more here, here, and here) are but a few of those who acted heroically in the face of frightening plague.

Which made me also think about the place of celibacy in the world.  Many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, criticize celibate life as “unnatural” at best and at worst a haven for people whose sexuality is not accepted (gay folks) or who have sexual predation on their minds (pedophilia).  But isn’t there a place for celibacy, especially in the case of disasters such as plague?

I remember sometime after September 11th watching a television interview with the widow of a firefighter who died inside one of the towers.  She mentioned that her most abiding emotion was anger, anger with her husband that he had chosen all those people in the tower over her and her child.

While I think that the potential for such a choice goes with being or marrying a firefighter, she has a point.  If I choose to give my life, not for my wife or my son, but for someone else, especially in a context where the risk is a conscious decision and not a split-second, reflexive action, I think my family would have reason to be angry with me.  Whether or not they are right, and whether or not my action would be right, they would have a reason to be angry.  My wife because I made her a single parent against her will, and my son because I chose to save someone else’s life at the cost of my own, instead of being his father.

It makes me wonder if there is a very practical reason for having celibate folks around.  A celibate person can put herself in harm’s way without having to worry about others he or she is leaving behind.  While a celibate is certainly missed and mourned, there is no spouse or child to leave behind.

Of course part of the challenge here is that society as a whole and a significant portion of the church consider celibacy to be a misfortune, and not something anyone would ever choose.

And yet there are those who choose it, hopefully because they are really not interested or meant for marriage.  And that celibacy can be a great gift in more ways than one.

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4 Responses to “Swine Flu, Celibacy, and the Martyrs of Memphis”


  1. […] Swine Flu, Celibacy, and the Martyrs of Memphis […]

  2. Larry Says:

    Well, you certainly are in good company in saying so. St. Paul the Apostle said much the same thing, though admittedly in a much more rhetorically charged way . But that’s St Paul for you!
    I also have long felt this way, and I think it is a great difficulty for many to hear this call when both Christians and non-Christians find celibacy a pitiful situation to be in.


    • I do think that celibacy is right for a fraction of the population, but it is a small fraction. I don’t think most people are called to this. It’s a shame, but our society —both Christian and non-Christians— don’t respect celibacy’s validity. Glad to know I’m in good company.

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