Definitions can be unpleasant things to consider.

Recently, in a public presentation in which I referred to the current crisis of sexual immorality and the networks of deception among some priests and, tragically, even among some bishops and cardinals, I used the expression “sexually active celibate priests.” To which someone responded, “Isn’t a ‘sexually active celibate priest’ a contradiction in terms? Something like ‘married bachelor’?”

Unfortunately, no. We understand why the inquirer thinks “celibate priest” and “sexually active” are contradictory terms.

Often, we think “celibate” means “not sexually active.” But “celibate,” at least in the Catholic context, refers to someone who chooses to be unmarried. Just because someone is unmarried, though, doesn’t mean he can’t also be sexually active.

Now consider three other terms — fornication, adultery and sodomy. People sometimes use these words with only a fuzzy sense of what they mean. Fornication is the sin of sexual relations between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. Adultery is the sin of sexual relations between a man and a woman when at least one of them is married to someone else. Sodomy, properly speaking, is the sin of sexual activity between two people of the same sex, although heterosexuals can engage in sodomitical behaviors. (Sodomy gets its name from the sin the men of Sodom and Gomorrah sought to commit, as described in Genesis 19:5.)

It is possible for a celibate person to fornicate, to commit adultery and to engage in sodomy. If this happens, the celibate remains a celibate — unmarried — though he has done something seriously wrong.

Chastity is the term for the virtue that disposes us to the proper use of, or living out of, our sexuality. In marriage, the virtue or habit of chastity inclines husbands and wives to engage in sexual relations exclusively with one another — which is what God intends. In the case of unmarried persons, including celibates, chastity involves sexual continence — which, properly speaking, excludes sexual intercourse.

All people, married or single, are called to chastity — to the proper living out of sexuality. Celibates, like other single people, behave chastely by living their sexual identities as men and women in ways that don’t involve sexual intercourse or engaging in activities tending toward sexual intercourse. This is because sexual intercourse is intended by God for marriage and only for marriage.

We sometimes hear it said — nowadays too frequently — that a priest broke his “vow of celibacy,” meaning he had sexual relations. Since, as we have seen, celibacy involves a choice to remain unmarried, acts of fornication, adultery and sodomy don’t violate celibacy, strictly speaking, though they do violate chastity.

We could say, though, that a priest who fornicates or who commits adultery or who engages in sodomy does something at odds with the radical freedom for, and commitment to, the service of God’s kingdom that celibacy exists to foster.

Priestly celibacy is a kind of consecration to God’s kingdom. It signifies his sharing in Christ’s “husbandly” commitment to the Church, the Bride of Christ. If a priest sins sexually with another person, he acts contrary to the purpose of his celibate consecration. But he doesn’t cease to be a celibate, i.e., someone committed to remaining unmarried.

What about the expression “celibate priest”? Isn’t it redundant? If celibacy refers to a chosen state of being unmarried, aren’t Catholic priests by definition “celibate”?

Priests in the Latin Church — the largest part of the Catholic Church — generally commit to, or solemnly promise, celibacy. They “renounce marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:12), as Jesus taught and practiced himself. In other words, Latin-rite priests generally follow the example of Jesus in remaining unmarried to serve God’s people.

Eastern-rite Catholicism has a different priestly practice, one that allows for married men to be ordained priests (though not as bishops). Eastern-rite Catholicism, though an authentic and important part of the Catholic Church, represents a small minority of the world’s Catholics. The vast majority of the Church is comprised of Latin-rite Catholics.
Still, a few Latin-rite priests are married. These men are exceptions. As married men, they were received into full communion with the Catholic Church, having previously served as clergy in a Protestant church. They were subsequently ordained Catholic priests even though they were married.

Consequently, they, along with Eastern-rite priests, form the tiny minority of married Catholic priests who account for why “celibate priest” is not a redundant term in the Catholic Church.

Sexual sins are sometimes called “sins of the flesh.” We routinely hear that such sins are not the worst sins. And that’s true enough. But worst or not, they are still sins. They need to be dealt with, not swept under the rug — especially when they involve bishops and priests.

Today the Catholic Church faces a major moral crisis, even apart from the deep darkness of child sexual abuse — far and away the most horrendous part of the whole vile business. A tiny minority of priests committed child abuse. But, if reports are correct, a significant number of celibate priests have been sexually active in other ways, despite their call by God to sexual continence.

It should be obvious that having a significant number of priests and/or bishops with deep-seated homosexual tendencies poses a problem for the Church. To be sure, people with same-sex attraction deserve respect as persons. Simply having a same-sex orientation doesn’t mean a priest will act on that inclination, with a minor or an adult, or that such a man can’t become holy.

Still, the presbyterate of a diocese forms, or should form, a close-knit male community. It is a group of men who live together in rectories and houses, who work closely together, who confide in one another, who supervise one another and are supervised by one another.

These men form what should be a sort of “band of brothers” in the priesthood. The danger of a sizable portion of that band having deep-seated sexual attraction for men should be obvious. Networks of deception, secrecy and abuse are bound to form, especially if priests are sexually active among themselves or were sexually active with each other in seminary.

Of course, many married and unmarried laypeople also have abused their sexuality and acted against chastity. It’s a challenge for many Catholics, lay or clergy, to be chaste in this day of rampant sexual indulgence. Priests and laypeople alike need repentance and conversion of life in this area.

We need forgiveness and healing to become chaste disciples of the Lord, according to our specific vocations. All of that begins with repentance, which includes defining our sins for what they are and owning them.

Mark Brumley is the CEO of Ignatius Press.