This perhaps may explain why the idea of a celibate lifestyle, as practised by the clergy of the Catholic Church, as well as adherents of other religions, causes a great deal of puzzlement among non-believers.”In our sex-dominated society, people tend to view celibacy as a form of sexual anorexia – a sad and lonely state at best, unnatural at worst,” says Elizabeth Abbott, author of A History of Celibacy.Jimmy O’Brien was a priest for the best part of a decade before deciding he had to leave his vocation. He has now been married for 20 years to a woman he met while still a priest, and he has two children.Born in Tipperary, Ireland, he started his training at 18. From a Catholic background, he completely accepted the idea of celibacy. But after several years as a priest in the south of England he began to change his mind.”Accepting it was one thing and living it was another. Four or five years into it, it’s only then the implications of the decision you made were questioned.”It isn’t so much the celibacy aspect, it is the loneliness. At 28 or 29 a lot of my friends were settling down and having children, my older brothers and sisters were having children. There was no significant other there for you.”By the time he was 34, Mr O’Brien felt he had to leave to preserve his “own personal sanity”. Although he says he did not break his vows while a priest, he had already met his future wife by the time he left.”By this stage I had kind of got myself into a relationship with a woman and was having to make that decision. It was a friendship that developed. When I did leave, the relationship I was in went onto a different level.”Even in slightly more conservative times, there have always been many for whom celibacy was not easily understood. Former nun Mel Baird encountered many baffled people in the late 1960s and 1970s.
“People thought I was completely mad,” she notes, and there were some who made wild allegations – that she was just odd, a lesbian, or even not celibate at all.”Some people couldn’t understand it was possible to be fulfilled and to enjoy what you were doing without being sexually active. It didn’t mean I wasn’t a sexual being.”