Nuns and Celibacy – Natalie Portman’s Doubt

Blog Published: November 28, 2008
By Sister Julie

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!

Archived Comments

Kazimer November 28, 2008 at 9:11 am

Great entry Sister Julie. What puzzles me is the statement that playwright John Patrick Shanley stated that ” she (Natalie Portman) didn’t understand celibacy.” If given the chance I would like to relay to him : So there was no one able to provide any kind of explanation/guidance to Ms. Portman on celibacy? What exactly does it mean she didn’t “understand” celibacy?

1) Did this mean she couldn’t understand the concept intellectually?

2) Did this mean she couldn’t understand how/why anyone would choose celibacy?

So, I find it difficult to bordering on impossible to believe she didn’t “understand” celibacy as her bio states she graduated from Harvard Universtiy with a degree in psychology. Rather, I posit that she could not internalize celibacy in order to authentically portray that integral aspect of a nun. Sister Julie, I believe you would make an excellent consultant for those people looking to portray nuns/sisters in the movies/theatre.

Kazimer November 28, 2008 at 2:07 pm

Thank you Sister Julie.I appreciate that religious celibacy is something that is not completely understood. Regardless of the depth of the story, if the quotes are to be believed, then at least Ms. Portman and Mr Shanley had the wherewithal and the presence of mind not to move forward with her in the role of the sister. Even though religious celibacy is nothing new, it still has the light of mystery and is especially in stark contrast to the world’s pervasive -known, yet confined-limited view of sexuality. If anything, the story allows the opportunity for someone, such as yourself, to help others find out and understand a little better the nature of celibacy and the role it plays in religious vocations. Continuing, the discussion helps people – hopefully – move towards the awareness that intimacy and love between people is something more than sexual expression which is endorsed and exploited in society.

Sister Julie November 28, 2008 at 12:54 pm

Thanks, Kaz … it’s a strange story in that it’s been picked up across the globe but there’s really no substance to it … nothing more is said beyond what I quoted at the top. I find it rather random and wonder why it is so newsworthy.

The fact of the matter is that religious celibacy is not really something that can be totally figured out. It is a calling, one which for nuns and monks (and religious sisters, religious brothers, and friars) is intimately linked with our community life and mission.

Stfrancisgirl November 28, 2008 at 1:16 pm

It is an odd story. You would imagine that actors take rolls all the time that are far from their true nature. There must be more to why she decided against this one. I guess that role went to Amy Adams.

Jen November 28, 2008 at 5:28 pm

I heard one Benedictine say that being celibate left him free to love other people. I didn’t really understand it until I became involved with the Hoopy Frood (and it became clear that we’d eventually marry). I don’t understand that love–it’s too mysterious–but I do know that I’m a lot more comfortable loving other people than I was.

mjpss November 29, 2008 at 5:01 am

in some way i can understand natalie portman, it is not easy for people who havent been indoctrinated with the catholic faith to understand. if i am not mistaken, i think she is not catholic. but still even some christian and catholic youth do not understand it, especially now when some so-called experts in the field of science and psychology say that celibacy is going against human nature. but if we truly believe that there is a God and that He is the author of human nature and that through the sacrament of holy orders, He strengthens these priests and nuns who have offered themselves willingly to Him, to keep themselves pure, chaste and faithful to Him so that His Spirit may fully work through them, if we believe in His grace, AND if we allow ourselves to have faith on these people who are willing to sacrifice themselves and discipline themselves so as to follow God’s call to serve and love His flock, then we will see that the vow of celibacy is holy and something to be revered and to be held with high respect. with that we will see the need to pray for our brothers and sisters who took this vow as well as the vows of obedience and poverty, and do our part to encourage them to be true to these vows.

still, we can not force other people to see things the way the Church, through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, sees things. it will always be a matter of faith, a choice between believing our own intellect, what we have learned, or trusting God who reveals true wisdom in His own time. if natalie (or anyone) would like to be enlightened about the matter, she can always do her own research, talk to people who have taken the vow, study documents that are both pro and against celibacy, and read about the vow of celibacy from the vatican website (to undestand the catholic church stand on celibacy and why it defends its decision to encourage the religious to stick to it).

i have read that the movie will spark a lot of debate. i wish i could see it here in the netherlands.

Lynn November 29, 2008 at 1:02 pm

I have a friend who is a Carmelite friar who explained celibacy to me this way:

He said if a married man walks into a room with 1,000 women, one of whom was his wife, he by vow could not have sex with 999 of them. If the friar walked into the room, he by vow could not have sex with 1,000 of them.

Interesting way to look at it!

Annie November 29, 2008 at 4:47 pm

Hahahaha. That’s just too funny if she did say that. Which it seems odd that she would – she’s a great actress, has done all sort of roles that have nothing to do with her, and who on earth would turn down a chance to work with Meryl Streep?? I’m thinking this is made up.

Still, it brings up an interesting point. I also think people are way too hung up on the celibacy issue. I would imagine that the most problematic vow of all would be obedience (it would for me anyway – having to actually listen to/obey the Pope? – that’s a good one! Sex might be a big deal and all, but it’s not exactly like giving up water! I don’t think Catholics understand it anymore than any non-Catholics do. I’ve known many Catholics who think nuns are crazy to have given up sex. I totally want Doubt to come out like, now!

Barbara November 29, 2008 at 5:17 pm

From what I gather, to be an effective actor, one has to find something within oneself that allows him/her to connect to the character portrayed. Then the role-playing will be convincing and effective. I think a life lived in celibacy is not all that simple to understand. It involves more than giving up a genital expression of sex. Perhaps she realized that in some way and could not relate to it. It affects one’s entire being. If the charism of celibacy is indeed a gift from God, why would anyone expect it to be simply portrayed?

Sr. Lyngine Dominique Marie, AIHM November 29, 2008 at 6:25 pm

Let me preface my comments by explaining that I’m a Sister in an ecumenical religious Order that allows for single, married, or celibate members (male or female)—we vow chastity to our state in life rather than celibacy. So in separating the calling to religious life and the calling to celibacy, it’s forced us to really think about what each brings to the community. I’ve spoken to some other members who’ve chosen celibacy rather than singlehood about their particular calling and what comes across very clearly is the beauty of their open availability because of their celibacy. Because I hold dual vows as someone who is married and who is a religious, part of my calling is to live both these vows with fidelity while balancing each of their joys and challenges. So part of my energy and time goes to maintaining that balance. Those in my Order who have vowed celibacy have other challenges which are specific to that vow, but one of their gifts is the ability to give of themselves to all others with a singleness of heart. That being said, we don’t hold any particular calling (single/married/celibate) as being superior to the others. As someone who is married and has been in this relationship for over 12 years, I come into my community with the experience of long-term, freely-chosen committed relationship and a very grounded sense of what it takes to make a relationship of that intensity work. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of what is required to remain committed within religious life. That’s one of the gifts that those who are married bring. I’ve learned from my sisters and brothers to think of celibacy not as a lack of being able to do something, but as its own particular calling with its own challenges and gifts. Each calling has it’s own challenges and gifts, it just depends which one is God’s particular call for you.

John December 1, 2008 at 6:53 am

I wonder how the media would have reacted if she had refused to take a homosexual role because she did not understand “homosexuality”. Hmmmmmm….

Mary December 1, 2008 at 8:06 am

Wait until Natalie Portman grows up and finds out that celibacy in life sometimes just happens.
– There are a lot of physically handicapped people who find themselves in this condition. I once heard a manager of a cat house in Reno Nevada give a presentation. One of the justifications she gave for their legal existence was that any number of handicapped men who were physically repulsive used their services.
– Ask new parents. They’re too tired.
– Single parents sometimes find themselves in celibacy by choice because they don’t want to have an outside relationship intrude on their first priority of raising decent kids.
– It seems like a lot of my mother’s generation became widows and by choice, never dated again, citing the bother of taking care of another person, happily living celibate, enjoying grandchildren and social activities.

Barbara December 1, 2008 at 9:51 am

How very true, Mary. I know of what you speak. However, the door is at least potentially open to change one’s mind. That makes a difference, even if, on a day-to-day basis behaviour appears the same.

Melissan December 3, 2008 at 8:12 pm

I work as a Chemist in a shop and when I tell them I want to be a sister, they ask me what it means and I first explain the vows. The whole celibacy thing is what gets them interested and asking more questions. These are mostly men and they don’t understand why you would give up sex. When I tell them that you are committed to your community and to God and there is no room in said commitment for that relationship, they look at me like I have a third head. They don’t see me as a sister, either, because they see me as a person who works in a shop and nothing more. The women I talk to seem to understand me a little bit better and can see beyond the work that I do and the way I have to be at work.

Elisabeth December 4, 2008 at 9:30 pm

I suggest “Virginity: A Positive Approach to Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” by Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap. It’s a small white book that not only turns heads of people on an airplane, but also enhanced my appreciation for my virginity.

Stfrancisgirl December 27, 2008 at 9:15 pm

I saw the movie today. I think Amy Adams did a very good job. I think Amy is actually the better choice. I’m a never married about to be 44 year old — celibate by default seeing as how I was always taught that sex was reserved for married couples. My life is very uncomplicated. I’m a Secular Franciscan.

gabs April 22, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Thanks for all the explanation regarding celibacy and chastity. I do wonder to the people who have limited their minds and ideas just on SEX. I do believe sister Julie has a real experience in living her life as a religious sister who sees Celibacy as her commistment to God through people that she is serving. Thanks sister Julie and more power.

Katie P. June 23, 2009 at 3:01 pm

I’ve been following your blog for awhile now and I think it’s great, but I’m glad you bring this up here and I love that you recognize the statement of celibacy being more than just “giving up sex.” I’m about ready to start my dissertation in sociology on women religious and I’ve been really honing in on the experience of religious women in this country from my perspective (which is as a single woman but not a vowed religious woman)…this statement is much more profound in the effect it has as a counter-cultural act, I think. It does build an image. And it’s something that honestly seems to fascinate (and almost mystify) those outside of it. It’s really definitional but I’m always taken aback by the people who just “can’t wrap their heads around it.” It honestly seems simple in concept, although clearly challenging in practice which is why people talk about it perplexing them just makes me laugh.

Great post. From my standpoint (as an ardent supporter and admirer of religious women), I’m glad that someone “on the inside” sees it in a contemporary and honestly real way. Kudos.

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