On Celibacy, Continence, Chastity

“Celibacy is the renunciation of marriage implicitly or explicitly made, for the more perfect observance of chastity, by all those who receive the Sacrament of Orders in any of the higher grades.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Celibacy of the Clergy)

Celibacy is “abstinence from marriage” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Vows).

“Continence may be defined as abstinence from even the licit gratifications of marriage.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Continence)

“Chastity is the virtue which excludes or moderates the indulgence of the sexual appetite.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Chastity)

There is a common misconception that celibacy is merely the state of being unmarried. Not so. As Pope John Paul II explains, celibacy is “the renunciation of marriage”. (Audiences, 1993)

And as the Second Vatican Council explains, celibacy is “Perfect and perpetual continence.” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 16)

Continence (in this context) is refraining from sexual acts. But celibacy is not merely continence, but perpetual continence. Natural marital relations open to life is the only moral sexual act. Therefore, unmarried persons must be continent; they must refrain from all sexual acts. However, an unmarried person is perhaps not perpetually continent, since he or she may subsequently marry. Married persons may be continent for a period of time within their marriage: “So, do not fail in your obligations to one another, except perhaps by consent, for a limited time, so that you may empty yourselves for prayer. And then, return together again, lest Satan tempt you by means of your abstinence.” (1 Corinthians 7:5).

Chastity is a virtue, but the term is also used to describe the practice of the virtue. So a chaste person is someone who is living according to the virtue of chastity. For all persons, chastity requires refraining from all grave sexual sins. A per se sexual act is the deliberate use of the genital sexual faculty. Per se sexual acts do not include acts that are peripherally related to sexuality, such as flirting, kissing, etc. Outside of marriage, all per se sexual acts are grave sins against chastity.

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Now according to Christian tradition and the Church’s teaching, and as right reason also recognizes, the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious.” (Persona Humana, n. X.)

Within marriage, only natural intercourse open to life is moral. All other per se sexual acts are grave sins against chastity. A venial sexual sin is contrary to the virtue of chastity, but since we are all sinners in the fallen state, this type of limited offense against chastity does not destroy the virtue. Only a person who is sinless would be able to avoid even all venial sins against chastity. Jesus and Mary are both perfect in chastity, since neither of them has ever committed any sin, certainly not a sin against chastity.

However, the term perfect chastity is also used in a restricted sense, to refer to persons who take a vow of perpetual chastity. When a member of a religious order takes a vow of perpetual chastity, he or she is not only renouncing marriage, but affirming a commitment to practice the virtue of chastity in body and soul. This perfect chastity “is consecrated to the service of God” (Sacra Virginitas, n. 1). Now all human persons are required by the moral law to refrain from all sin, including all sexual sin. So the vow of chastity strengthens the requirement of the moral law, affirms a commitment to practice this particular virtue, and includes the renunciation of marriage (celibacy).

“And while this perfect chastity is the subject of one of the three vows which constitute the religious state, and is also required by the Latin Church of clerics in major orders and demanded from members of Secular Institutes, it also flourishes among many who are lay people in the full sense: men and women who are not constituted in a public state of perfection and yet by private promise or vow completely abstain from marriage and sexual pleasures, in order to serve their neighbor more freely and to be united with God more easily and more closely.” (Sacra Virginitas, n. 6).

Priestly Celibacy

Celibacy is required of Bishops in the Eastern Rites and the Latin Rite (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 16) and is generally required of priests in the Latin Rite. In the East, some married men are ordained as priests, just as in the West some married men are ordained as permanent deacons. Some exception is made in the Latin Rite for married men to become priests, for example, when a married Anglican priest and his congregation converts to the Catholic Faith, he is often permitted to remain marriage AND receive Holy Orders to the sacerdotal degree. However, the Church does not permit an ordained priest, nor even (in most cases) an ordained permanent deacon, even in the Eastern Churches, to seek marriage subsequent to receiving Holy Orders. One may sometimes leave a lower calling for a higher calling, but one should not leave a higher calling for a lesser calling.

Now as Second Vatican Council taught, celibacy “is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 16). However, this does not imply that the connection between celibacy and the priesthood is mere discipline. Certainly, there is an aspect to priestly celibacy that falls under the disciplines of the Church, in that the Church governs the requirement for celibacy and its exceptions. Celibacy is not absolutely required by the nature of the priesthood, but neither is celibacy exterior to the nature of the priesthood.

The intimate connection between celibacy and the priesthood is a doctrine of the Church. The Church teaches that: Jesus was unmarried; the priest represents Christ; there is no marriage in Heaven, since death ends the marital bond; there is no marriage after the Resurrection; virginity and celibacy are better than marriage; celibacy is particularly fitting for the priesthood. These teachings necessarily imply a further teaching, that the Church lacks the authority to choose a priesthood that is entirely or mainly composed of married men.

Christ established the priesthood. He did not establish a married priesthood, but a priesthood that is primarily unmarried, with some exceptions permitted. This truth is evident from Sacred Tradition. The priesthood has always consisted primarily of celibate men.

The ordained priesthood was established by Christ and is a continuation of His Ministry and salvific work. Jesus was a virgin, and he was celibate. He chose to remain unmarried for his entire life on earth.

His virgin bride is the Church, and so he did not take a wife. The priest represents Christ to the members of the Church, but the priest also represents the Church to Christ. So for both reasons, celibacy is inherent to the priesthood (though not absolutely required in every case).

Since celibacy is better than marriage, and since the priests represent Christ who is perfect, it is inherent to the nature of the priesthood that most priests be celibate.

Jesus also taught that there is no marriage after the general Resurrection: “those who shall be held worthy of that age, and of the resurrection from the dead, will neither be married, nor take wives.” (Lk 20:35). Marriage is a temporal good; it is not the type of good that persists unto eternity. But the priesthood is primarily concerned with spititual goods that persist unto eternity. Marriage certainly has spiritual benefits, but the Council of Trent infallibly taught that celibacy and virginity are better than marriage.

CANON IX.-If any one saith, that clerics constituted in sacred orders, or Regulars, who have solemnly professed chastity, are able to contract marriage, and that being contracted it is valid, notwithstanding the ecclesiastical law, or vow; and that the contrary is no thing else than to condemn marriage; and, that all who do not feel that they have the gift of chastity, even though they have made a vow thereof, may contract marriage; let him be anathema: seeing that God refuses not that gift to those who ask for it rightly, neither does He suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able.

CANON X.-If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.

If the Church were to require or permit all or most priests to be married, She would be contradicting in deed the above infallible word of the Council of Trent. The Church lacks the authority and the ability to do so.

The New Covenant is greater that the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant had a priesthood that consisted mainly of married men. The New Covenant has an ordained priesthood, making the new priesthood greater than the old. However, in so far as this priesthood is greater by nature than the old, it must also be greater as concerns marriage and celibacy. Since celibacy is greater than marriage, the priesthood of the New Covenant must consist mainly of the celibate, not mainly of the married.

Therefore, the Church lacks the authority to cause or to permit all or most priests to be married.

Moreover, the Virgin Mary was ever-virgin, even though it was God’s will for her to be married and bear a child. Therefore, celibacy and virginity are better than marriage, and those who choose the better portion, a life of religious consecration, must also be celibate.

{10:41} And the Lord responded by saying to her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled over many things.
{10:42} And yet only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the best portion, and it shall not be taken away from her.”

See also: The Church’s Teaching on Priestly Celibacy, by Fr. William Saunders

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