What Are Celibacy, Chastity, and Continence? 9 Things to Know and Share

“Celibacy,” says the Church, “is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.”

Mass (photo: David Mark / Pixabay / CC0)

There is a great deal of confusion about what celibacy, chastity and continence are.

Each one of these concepts is subject to common misunderstandings, but the differences between them are easy to sort out.

A reader from the Asian country of Myanmar writes:

Please, may I ask your help to explain the similarities and differences between celibacy and chastity, especially in the context of consecrated life, among diocesan clergy, and in married life.

I’d be happy to help! I’ll also throw in the related concept of continence.

Here are 9 things to know and share ...


(1) Formal vs. Informal Speech

People often think that celibacy means not having sex, or having a commitment to not have sex.

This understanding is so common that you will find dictionary definitions for celibacy like “abstention from sexual intercourse.”

People often have the same idea about chastity, and so you can find dictionary definitions for chastity like “the state of not having sex with anyone : the quality or state of being chaste.”

These are informal ways of speaking that use these words the way they are popularly understood.

In this piece, though, we are going to look at what these terms mean when they are being used in a formal, Catholic context.


(2) What is continence? 

Continence refers to what people think celibacy and chastity refer to — that is, not having sex.

The term also has other meanings, but in a formal, Catholic context, it means not using the sexual faculty.

That includes not just ordinary, regular sexual acts, but all sexual acts. If you are refraining from any and all sexual acts, you are being continent.

It comes from the Latin word continentia, which means “a holding back.” By the late 1300s, this had come to mean refraining from sex.

More recently (in the 20th century), it has come to refer from holding back other bodily functions as well.


(3) What is celibacy?

Celibacy is the state of not being married.

People associate it with the priesthood because, in the Latin rite of the Church, the norm is for priests to be unmarried — to be celibate.

However, properly speaking, anyone who is unmarried can also be said to be celibate.

It comes from the Latin word caelibatus, which simply means “the state of being unmarried.”


(4) What is chastity?

Chastity is the virtue of being sexually pure.

It comes from the Latin word castitas, which originally meant “purity,” and which came to refer specifically to sexual purity.

Chastity will take different forms depending on whether one is celibate or married, we are about to see.


(5) How do these concepts relate to consecrated life?

People who live the consecrated life take vows regarding the evangelical councils of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

They are called “evangelical” counsels because they are recommended by Christ in the Gospels as ways of approaching Christian perfection. (Chastity and poverty, explicitly so, cf. Matthew 19:10-11, 21; obedience to a religious superior by way of inference.)

For that reason, they are also called “counsels of perfection.”

They are called “counsels” because they are recommendations rather than mandates that apply to everyone. They are voluntarily assumed by some individuals to grow in perfection.

For example, not everyone has to be poor, but if you voluntarily assume poverty, it can be a religious act that unites one more closely with Christ, as in Jesus’ counsel to the rich young man in the Gospels.


(6) Wait! Don’t all have to obey God’s law? Isn’t everyone supposed to be chaste? 

Everyone is expected to obey God’s law, but not everyone has earthly superiors that they have taken a vow to submit their wills. This is the meaning of the vow of obedience (Code of Canon Law, canon 601).

Everyone also is expected to be chaste, but the consecrated life involves a specific way of living our the virtue of chastity. The Code of Canon Law states:

The evangelical counsel of chastity assumed for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, which is a sign of the world to come and a source of more abundant fruitfulness in an undivided heart, entails the obligation of perfect continence in celibacy [canon 599].

So it’s not simply a vow of chastity in general. It’s a vow to be chaste by observing perfect (complete) continence in a state of celibacy.


(7) How do these concepts relate to diocesan clergy?

Ordinary diocesan clergy do not take vows. They do, however, ordinarily have the obligation of celibacy.

If one is celibate then one is in a state of life in which sexual relations are not permitted, and so celibacy requires continence.

The Code of Canon Law states:

Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity [canon 277 §1].

This means that diocesan clergy are obliged to observe celibacy and continence, but it is not the product of a vow the way it is for those in the consecrated life.


(8) How do these concepts relate to married life?

Here is where things become different. Those who are not celibate — that is, those who are married — can legitimately have sexual relations.

As a result, they are not bound to observe continence, and they can be chaste (sexually pure) even though they have sexual relations.


(9) What about unmarried people who aren’t consecrated or clergy?

All unmarried people are called to exercise chastity by observing continence.

The difference between ordinary unmarried people, on the one hand, and the consecrated and clergy on the other, is that ordinary unmarried people can get married.

They are not in a stable condition of life in which they are obligated to remain.

They are in a state of potentiality which they could leave by embracing one of the three vocations: marriage, holy orders, or the consecrated life.

Thus, everyone is called to exercise the virtue of chastity, but the form that takes will depend on their state of life.