Big news it seems in the entertainment world. Natalie Portman has been outed as having turned down the role of a young nun in the movie Doubt because she couldn’t wrap her head around the character being celibate. Playwright John Patrick Shanley explained: “We asked Natalie Portman, and Natalie was very interested but kept saying she had a problem. And we finally nailed down as to what the problem was: she basically said she didn’t understand celibacy.”

As you might suspect, I have a few words of wisdom for Natalie, as well as for Amy Adams who eventually took the role. Celibacy, my friends, is not an easy thing to understand especially in our society, but it is worth wresting with.

First things first: celibacy is basically abstaining from sexual relations. For people who take a religious vow of celibacy (as Catholic sisters and nuns do), the meaning of celibacy goes deeper than “merely” not having sex. Don’t get me wrong, not having sex is a significant choice and is not for the faint of heart. But it’s more than that for nuns. When we profess a vow of celibacy, we make a conscious choice of how we want to BE in the world, how we want to comport ourselves and how we want to relate to people and to the world. It means that we choose not only to not have sex, but also to not engage in sexual activity or to have “romantic”, exclusive relationships.

Whereas a married, sexually-active person gives herself/himself to a spouse and to a family, a nun gives herself to her relationship with God which is expressed through her relationship with her religious community (her “family”) and her mission (the way she serves the world). Being celibate leaves a nun “free” to go where God and her community calls her to go (having children and a spouse can make this more challenging). There’s also a counter-cultural dimension to the vow of celibacy. A nun testifies by her life that sex is not what it’s all about. Yes, sex is good, but even for healthy, sexually-active people, it doesn’t define a person nor constitute who she or he is.

Celibacy is not all that a nun is about — there is much more, though celibacy is definitely the first thing that might hit you! Celibacy is lived within a community of sisters who support one another in this lifestyle. We also profess the vows of poverty (simple living, holding all things in common) and obedience (to God and to the mission of the Congregation) which combined with celibacy shape a nuns life and help her live her life-long commitment to God, her sisters, and the world.

There’s lots more to say about living celibacy as a nun, but I’ll stop for now with an invitation: if you are considering playing a Catholic sister and nun, don’t get hung up on the celibacy part of it. It’s worth wrestling with and you can always come by A Nun’s Life for some insight and advice!