On celibacy, Our Lady and Lady Gaga

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

To say Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta – otherwise known as Lady Gaga – is a well-known pop-singer is an understatement. Forbes Magazine says she’s the most influential pop star in the world today and Billboard named her Woman of the Year for 2015.

Her net worth is estimated to be around $220 million, with $59 million made in this year alone. With songs like Bad Romance, Born This Way and Do What U Want, you might expect her to be a cynic about marriage and a champion of sexual licentiousness.

But she’s more complicated than that. She’s now engaged to her long-time boyfriend but a few years’ back she stunned the pundits by admitting she was celibate: “I can’t believe I’m saying this but [my advice is]: don’t have sex. I’m single right now and I’ve chosen to be single because I don’t have time to get to know anybody. It’s OK not to have sex. It’s OK not to get to know people. I’m celibate. Celibacy’s fine.”

This was an unexpected message from and to a youth culture that says we all need sex, lots of it, most of the time, in diverse forms and with multiple partners. But the flamboyant Lady Gaga has always courted controversy and so dares to say celibacy, at least for your career’s sake, isn’t such a bad thing. Though she was a convent school girl, no-one accuses Lady Gaga of being a prude.

Yet she apparently stands with her Christian roots in thinking that some things are important enough to be willing to give up something good for – even sex. Economists call it opportunity cost. Psychologists may call it repression. Spiritual writers praise it as self-sacrifice. Some people give up good things, even great goods like marriage, sexual intimacy and child-rearing, even for life, to serve some higher purpose such as the Kingdom of God.

The problem with Lady Gaga’s take on all this is the implicit suggestion that we must be ready to give up on getting to know people, not just in the Biblical sense of the word but in the ordinary sense also, if we are going to get ahead. There are lots of pressures in our economy and society right now saying something similar: don’t expect to have a life outside your work; career is what matters most; be ready to sell your soul for that.

Here our Christian tradition says hold up: if sex is so good that it properly says marriage; if marriage is so good that it properly says family; if family is so good that it’s the future of our Church and world and where most people find happiness – you’d need a pretty serious reason to give all that up.

Even then, you should never give up getting to know people. Few people make their best contribution or attain happiness alone. Until two centuries ago universities required their lecturers to be celibate: the thought was that scholarly life requires such concentration that it’s incompatible with the demands of romance and family.

What’s more, many academics are, frankly, eccentric, rather hard to live with, too ‘head in the clouds’ to be good at spousing and parenting. But this does not mean that to be good students, teachers or researchers, or even good entertainers like Lady Gaga, we must be loners, we must eschew all human company like a hermit in the desert. In fact, scholars are expected to form a community of scholarship. In universities we receive knowledge and pass on what we receive, adding our little insights along the way; we care deeply about the truth and about each other coming to the truth; we sit alongside wisdom, and help each other be seated there.

The University of Notre Dame Australia has in its crest a book opened to the words In Principio Erat Verbum. These are, of course, the opening words of the Gospel of St John: In the beginning was the Word (Jn 1:1). Hearkening back to our book of origins and the story of creation (Gen 1:1), these words tell us that underlying all of creation, at ‘home’ with God, so to speak, is an eternal Idea or Word, a Love Song sung by the Father from all eternity.

So close to Christmas, we might well have a very physical image of the heavily pregnant Mary ready to bring forth her child, this Word now made flesh and blood, fresh and baby. Yet, another way of viewing Advent is as a season of God readying Himself to speak His Word into the ears of Mary and of our world, to sound aloud the divine Reason, Argument, Love Song, first through a newborn baby’s cry and in due course through the sublime words and deeds of the young man Jesus. In our Epistle today, St Paul speaks of the descent or condescension of God, from the highest heavens to the lowliness of men (Eph 4:7-16). Catholics believe this descent is reprised in the Eucharistic Sacrifice offered physically on the altar, but also in Christ coming metaphysically, as it were, as Wisdom for the human mind.

This month’s National Geographic magazine has on its cover not some spectacular scene from outer space or the animal kingdom but a picture of a woman, with the headline ‘The Most Powerful Woman in the World’. It is not Lady Gaga, not even Oprah, but the woman for who is patron of this University. It was her cousin Elizabeth who St Luke records first called Mary Notre Dame, Our Lady, as well as ‘most blessed woman’ (Lk 1:42-43). Blessed, you might say, is all very well, but to call Mary ‘the most powerful woman’ seems extraordinary given that she was a sometimes frightened, often vulnerable, young Middle Eastern woman at a time in history – rather like in Syria and Iraq today – when women were more often powerless than powerful.

Yet as Maureen Orth explains in National Geographic: “Praying for the Virgin Mary’s intercession and being devoted to her are a global phenomenon… Mary is everywhere: Marigolds are named for her. ‘Hail Mary passes’ save football games. The image in Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most reproduced female likenesses ever. Mary draws millions each year to shrines such as [Lourdes and] Fátima… She inspired the creation of many great works of art and architecture… poetry, liturgy, and music… And she is the spiritual confidante of billions of people, no matter how isolated or forgotten. Muslims as well as Christians consider her to be holy above all women, and her name ‘Maryam’ appears more often in the Koran than ‘Mary’ does in the Bible…”

So the power of this woman is not political, military, financial or fashionable: it is her power to inspire, enlighten, encourage. This university is named for her because Christians have called her Our Lady Seat of Wisdom: the woman in whom God found pure docility to His reason, pure receptivity to His will; the woman who pondered the big questions and her own experience of God, the universe and ourselves; the woman who reflected upon what was revealed to her by God, what she received from her fellows, and what she figured out for herself.

Then she shared that wisdom with others such as her cousin Elizabeth. And she lived it, with integrity. In that woman was found the union of faith and reason at the heart not just of Philosophy and Theology but of all the disciplines of a university. Clever as Lady Gaga might be, powerful as she is in the pop culture, no-one is likely to name a university (or two) after her – unless she pays for it herself! But it makes sense to have a university for Notre Dame because her influence has spread far and wide precisely through the example of her fidelity to Wisdom received, pointing always to Christ who is Wisdom Himself and making herself His throne.

Graduands of Notre Dame, Catholics and non-Catholics alike: you too should now have something of the intellectual and affective equipment, the faith and reason tuned by scholarly discipline, to discern what is good and bad in our popular culture and the options it offers for the years ahead.

Modelled on Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, bearer of the Verbum in principio erat, you must have more than mere technical proficiency for a professional life, for you are so much more than a set of saleable skills: you are made in the image of that Divine Son who is Wisdom itself.

You are made like that woman who gave Wisdom a womb, a throne, a home. You have learnt like her to contemplate deeply the whys and wherefores of your discipline, your future profession, the options your education opens up for you. You are to be voices for that the Word who brings justice and mercy, healing and peace, joy and love to a world that so needs those things, even when it seems tone-deaf to them (cf. Jn 15:9-17). Congratulations for your hard work and achievements and may God bless your futures!

This is an edited version of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass of graduation for the University of Notre Dame at St Mary’s Cathedral on 15 December.

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