Alternative Forms of Marriage Celibate Marriages

About the alternative form of marriage known as celibate marriage, history of the practice and people who have them.

Alternate Forms of Marriage


The Practice: Celibate marriage, which seems a contradiction in terms, is a product of Christianity and was popular from the 2nd to the 6th century A.D. When the Alexandrian Ammonius (who lived in the 3rd century) was forced to marry, he talked his wife into living with him in the Egyptian desert as his sister, first in one hut, then separately in two. They ate nothing but bread and water, and he, in modesty, never took his clothes off, not even to cross rivers (an angel took him across, legend says).

According to Gregory, bishop of Tours, the wealthy Injurious, also of the 3rd century, married a Roman woman who wanted to remain pure for Christ. After his attempts to persuade her to change her mind failed, he agreed to a pact of mutual virginity, which they both kept until they died. Their tombs, on different walls of a building, moved together in the middle of the night, or so one old story goes.

During the same period, spiritual monogamy between a priest and a virgin (agapeta) was popular. Many religious watchdogs were deeply suspicious of such arrangements; St. Jerome said, "From what source has this plague of 'dearly beloved sisters' found its way into the church? They live in the same house with their male friends; they occupy the same room, often the same bed; yet they call us suspicious if we think that anything is wrong." It is probably true that many did make love, stopping short of actual intercourse; some made a virtue of resisting short-range temptation. In the Irish church, monks and nuns shared housing until late in the 6th century. At that time in Spain, church authorities from three synods ordered housekeepers and agapetae to be taken from the homes of clergy and sold as slaves. Leontius, bishop of Antioch, castrated himself so that he could keep his agapeta, an extreme solution which not many others adopted.

Practitioners: Martin Luther, lead of the Protestant Reformation, was against celibacy for priests and nuns. Once he helped an entire convent of nuns find husbands; in fact, he married one of the nuns himself.

English writer John Ruskin, who believed in conquering lust through love, married a woman with whom he lived in celibacy. At the age of 40 he fell in love with a 10-year-old girl, Rose La Touche, who was probably mentally deficient; that relationship, too, was unconsummated.

The Shakers, a religious sect founded in the late 1700s by Ann Lee, who disliked sex, practiced celibacy as a group. Their rules were so strict that women were not allowed to see men's chamberpots because it might excite them. At one time they numbered in the thousands. Today, there are less than a dozen Shakers left--all women.

Where It Stands Today: Not very popular now, as it was not very popular in the past, celibate marriage is legal, particularly if both spouses agree to it. Impotence, which may bring about celibate marriage in spite of wishes to the contrary, is grounds for divorce in 21 of the United States.

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