An unjustly forgotten classic text on ecclesiastical celibacy

by Fr. Massimo LAPPONI.

In these days, also following the Synod on the Amazon, it is back in fashion– as happens periodically– to speak about the problem of priestly celibacy, and, as is customary, arguments already repeated countless times against the vow of perpetual chastity are proposed again. This fact brings to life an episode that saw a great Christian thinker protagonist more than a hundred years ago. Even then these matters were spoken of with great freedom. In fact, the modern sexual revolution did not begin at all in the 1960s, as is generally believed, but it was, instead, present and alive already at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this heated atmosphere, in 1907 the pedagogist Friedrich Wilhelm Förster (1869-1966) published the first edition of his masterpiece “Sexualethik und Sexualpädagogik”. Förster, educated in agnostic positivism, but with high ideals of morality, after a long spiritual maturation, in 1906 had embraced the Christian faith, in a form of Protestantism nourished by the classics of Christianity, from Saint Augustine to Thomas à Kempis. He found himself, therefore, very close to Catholic sensibility, so much so that, in his book on sexual ethics, he made, among other things, a deep and motivated re-evaluation of ecclesiastical celibacy and of the life of total consecration.

This Protestant defence of religious vows, first of all the vow of chastity, attracted very lively criticism from the many and very aggressive champions of secular modernity. The abundance and violence of criticism led the author to publish, in 1909, a second edition of his book, almost tripled compared to the original edition, in which the illustrious pedagogist responds above all to the arguments against consecrated virginity, so that it stands out especially as a brilliant apologia for ecclesiastical celibacy. Nothing more topical, therefore, although the volume has been unjustly forgotten over time.

In fact the arguments used against him do not differ in substance from those used even today by the opponents of priestly celibacy and to them Förster responds with a depth and originality that is not given to record in years closer to us. In particular, a long chapter, “The indispensability of the ascetic ideal” – in which it is demonstrated, not only the convenience, but also the rigorous necessity, for a civilization developed like ours, of the presence of men and women embracing perfect chastity – for its exceptional value, suggests that, if the author had been in full communion with the Catholic Church, for that one page would have deserved the title of Doctor of the Church. Not for nothing the Blessed Mons. Fulton Sheen added to the 1936 American edition of the work of Förster – entitled “Marriage and Sex-problem” – a highly laudatory preface.

Here is part of the author’s preface to the English edition. In these pages the author, when he speaks of «the great value of the ascetic principle», refers to the vow of perpetual chastity proper to the Catholic priesthood and the consecrated life. In the text the author notes that there is such a close link between the monogamous ethic and the ascetic ideal of perfect chastity that, by falling one, the other also falls. Förster also points out that the men of his time still could not see the consequences of the reform of sexual ethics promoted by the avant-garde, but that after a few generations they would manifest themselves in all their virulence. This aspect of the book recommends it in a special way to our generation. In fact, it appears written more for posterity than for contemporaries.

The English edition of the whole volume can be downloaded by this link:

On account of its exceptional value, the long chapter “The indispensability of the ascetic ideal” was made available in a separate file:

From the author’s preface to the English edition

The author of this book comes from the ranks of those who dispense with all religion. But as the result of long experience, theoretical and practical, in the difficult work of character-training, he has been led to realise for himself the deep meaning and the profound pedagogical wisdom of the Christian method of caring for souls, and to appreciate, through his own experience, the value of the old truths. From this point of view he ventures in the present study to criticise the proposals of many of the modern writers upon the sex problem and sexual education. He has absolutely no doubt that modern education, in discovering the extraordinary practical difficulties of character-training, will be increasingly cured of its optimistic illusions and led back to an understanding and appreciation of Christianity.

Education in sexual matters means the education of nature by the spirit and this is not possible without a clear and definite ethic of sex, an ethic which is able, on behalf of the spirit and its claims, to offer a perfectly firm front to the untutored natural impulses. No such ethic is possible upon the basis of modern materialism or naturalism. It can come from religion alone. The more deeply the educator comprehends his problem, the more rapidly

he will be led back to religious education; and similarly, the more realistically the ethicist grasps human nature in his study of the problem of sex, and the more thoroughly he considers the conditions under which the sexual impulses can be effectively disciplined and socialised, the more he will be constrained to abandon the materialistic standpoint and to recognise the indispensability of the Christian ethic.

The dogmatists of the “free-thinking” party have hastened to condemn the present work on account of its “catholicising tendency”. Let me remind them of Spinoza’s words: Non flere, non ridere, sed intelligere. This school of thought takes peculiar pride in its intellectual freedom. But is it in accordance with the spirit of free inquiry to reject a genuine scientific opinion because it happens to be in agreement with the standpoint of the Catholic Church? The author of this book is not a Catholic. He writes solely as a psychologist, sociologist, and educator. At the same time he is not afraid to own his convictions because they coincide with the principles of the historic Christian Church.

For example, in the chapter “The Indispensability of the Ascetic Ideal” which has been subject to a peculiarly sharp attack the author has not been in the least influenced by any religious bias, nor does he base his position upon any theological creed ; he has merely investigated the ultimate psychological foundations of firm and stable character, and in this investigation he has become convinced of the great value of the ascetic principle. He has striven to show, for example, that a large number of definite ethical principles (such as the rejection of all sexual intercourse outside the marriage relationship) cannot, as a matter of fact, be carried out in many of the situations we meet with in real life (in case of the wife’s more or less permanent ill-health, for example) without a high degree of ascetic power. Real monogamy demands, in many cases, no small amount of continence. The spirit of continence should therefore be encouraged by specific examples and a recognised valuation. The modern tendency to reject the monogamic ethic is due, in my opinion, in a large degree to the fact that in wide circles of society the strict demands of the monogamic marriage have come to be quite incompatible with the modern incapacity for severe self-control. Without a recognition, on principle, of the value of asceticism and without its educational assistance, people will not acquire and retain a certain and ripened power for the controlling of natural instincts; they will, moreover, perceive no real meaning in the great sacrifices which they are called upon to make in this direction. In the modern view of life, even among many religious people of a “free” tendency, the strictly monogamous marriage stands like a solitary pillar still bearing witness to an age of  greater tenacity and self-control. It is no accident that even in liberal Protestant circles there is not only an atmosphere of considerable insecurity in respect of marriage, but a tendency to make very remarkable concessions.

There are to-day many who are deeply convinced that the “new sex ethic” as a whole is nothing more than a sad but passing phase, the sole utility of which will be that it may serve as a valuable illustration of the incredible ideas which even gifted and well-meaning people may evolve when, in such difficult matters as these, they rely solely upon their own intellect, and are guided in their solution of the sex problem merely by any one-sided considerations which happen to occur to them from their own narrow point of view. On the other hand, there are many who look upon the ancient ethic as a remote dream, as something which has been radically superseded, and indeed

could never flourish except in an atmosphere of prejudice, obscurity, and oppression, as something which is doomed to certain disappearance before the triumphant self-security of new thought. And there are not a few followers of the traditional order who ask themselves secretly: “Am I, after all, fighting for a lost cause?” In reply we can only say: the abstract and impracticable character of all these modern theories would long ago have been clearly exposed, and they would have become matter for laughter, if the dignity of the old order were not still operative even in our “advanced” circles, preventing the real and necessary consequences of the modern theories from becoming properly apparent. The time is only too soon coming when those who are now the victims of folly and blindness will be compelled to realise that there are eternal truths which cannot be set aside with impunity by any would-be wisdom of to-day, truths which will rise again with renewed power when their non-existence has been most confidently

assumed. The author knows well enough that the point of view which he has set himself to defend contradicts nearly all those ideas which modern advanced thought has come to regard as almost axiomatic. The present work will without doubt be made an object of bitter and even contemptuous attacks. Just as water boils and hisses when it comes in contact with fire, so worldly thought will rise in resentment when confronted with the thoroughgoing and logical Christian view of life. It remains a fact, however, that a merely secular type of thought is itself unequal to meeting the realities of the world and of human nature. As increasingly large masses of people fall under its exclusive influence, the more obvious will this become, and the more humanity will again begin to realise that only from those thoughts which range far beyond the limits of merely earthly existence comes the vivifying and liberating power which is alone capable of embracing every aspect of reality.


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