What Is Celibacy?
Celibacy is the state of voluntarily being unmarried, sexually abstinent, or both, usually for religious reasons. It is often in association with the role of a religious official or devotee. In its narrow sense, the term celibacy is applied only to those for whom the unmarried state is the result of a sacred vow, act of renunciation, or religious conviction. In a wider sense, it is commonly understood to only mean abstinence from sexual activity.
Celibacy has existed in one form or another throughout history, in virtually all the major religions of the world, and views on it have varied. Similarly, the Romans viewed it as an aberration and legislated fiscal penalties against it, with the sole exception granted to the Vestal Virgins. The Islamic attitudes toward celibacy have been complex as well. Some Hadiths claim that Muhammad denounced celibacy, but some Sufi orders embrace it.
Classical Hindu culture encouraged asceticism and celibacy in the later stages of life, after one has met his societal obligations. Jainism, on the other hand, preached complete celibacy even for young monks and considered celibacy to be an essential behavior to attain moksha. Buddhism has been influenced by Jainism in this respect. There were, however, significant cultural differences in the various areas where Buddhism spread, which affected the local attitudes toward celibacy. It was not well received in China, for example, where other religions movements such as Daoism were opposed to it. A somewhat similar situation existed in Japan, where the Shinto tradition also opposed celibacy. In most native African and American Indian religious traditions, celibacy has been viewed negatively as well, although there were exceptions like periodic celibacy practiced by some Mesoamerican warriors.
The English word celibacy derives from the Latin caelibatus, “state of being unmarried”, from Latin caelebs, meaning “unmarried”. This word derives from two Proto-Indo-European stems, *kaiwelo- “alone” and *lib(h)s- “living”.
Abstinence and celibacy
The words abstinence and celibacy are often used interchangeably, but are not necessarily the same thing. Sexual abstinence, also known as continence, is abstaining from some or all aspects of sexual activity, often for some limited period of time, while celibacy may be defined as a voluntary religious vow not to marry or engage in sexual activity. Asexuality is commonly conflated with celibacy and sexual abstinence, but it is considered distinct from the two, as celibacy and sexual abstinence are behavioral and those who use those terms for themselves are generally motivated by factors such as an individual’s personal or religious beliefs.
A. W. Richard Sipe, while focusing on the topic of celibacy in Catholicism, states that “the most commonly assumed definition of celibate is simply an unmarried or single person, and celibacy is perceived as synonymous with sexual abstinence or restraint.” Sipe adds that even in the relatively uniform milieu of Catholic priests in the United States “there is simply no clear operational definition of celibacy”. Elizabeth Abbott commented on the terminology in her A History of Celibacy (2001): “I also drafted a definition that discarded the rigidly pedantic and unhelpful distinctions between celibacy, chastity and virginity”.
The concept of “new celibacy” was introduced by Gabrielle Brown in her 1980 book The New Celibacy. In a revised version (1989) of her book, she claims that “abstinence is a response on the outside to what’s going on, and celibacy is a response from the inside”. According to her definition, celibacy (even short-term celibacy that is pursued for non-religious reasons) is much more than not having sex. It is more intentional than abstinence, and its goal is personal growth and empowerment. This new perspective on celibacy is echoed by several authors including Elizabeth Abbott, Wendy Keller, and Wendy Shalit.
The rule of celibacy in the Buddhist religion, whether Mahayana or Theravada, has a long history. Celibacy was advocated as an ideal rule of life for all monks and nuns by Gautama Buddha, except for Japan where it is not strictly followed due to historical and political developments following the Meiji Restoration. In Japan, celibacy was an ideal among Buddhist clerics for hundreds of years. But violations of clerical celibacy were so common for so long that, finally, in 1872, state laws made marriage legal for Buddhist clerics. Subsequently, ninety percent of Buddhist monks/clerics married. An example is Higashifushimi Kunihide, a prominent Buddhist priest of Japanese royal ancestry who was married and a father whilst serving as a monk for most of his lifetime.
Gautama, later known as the Buddha, is known for his renunciation of his wife, Princess Yasodharā, and son, Rahula. In order to pursue an ascetic life, he needed to renounce aspects of the impermanent world, including his wife and son. Later on both his wife and son joined the ascetic community and are mentioned in the Buddhist texts to have become enlightened. In another sense, a buddhavacana recorded the zen patriarch Vimalakirti as being an advocate of marital continence instead of monastic renunciation, the sutra became somewhat popular due to its brash humour as well as integrating the role of women in laity as well as spiritual life.
In the religious movement of Brahma Kumaris, celibacy is also promoted for peace and to defeat power of lust and to prepare for life in forthcoming Heaven on earth for 2,500 years when children will be created by the power of the mind even for householders to like holy brother and sister.
In this belief system, celibacy is given the utmost importance. It is said that, as per the direction of the Supreme God those lead a pure and celibate life will be successfully able to conquer the surging vices. The power of celibacy creates an unseen environment of divinity bringing peace, power, purity, prosperity and fortune. Those with the power of celibacy are eligible to claim a bright future of Golden Age of heaven / Paradise. Brahma Kumaris’ concept of identifying the self as a soul, different from physical body, is deeply linked to the philosophy of celibacy. It is said that the craving for sex and impure thoughts are the reason for the whole trouble in the universe today. And celibacy is to lead the pure relationship in one’s life.
When Jesus discusses marriage, he points out that there is some responsibility for a man marrying a woman (and vice versa). Not having assets of their own, women needed to be protected from the risk of their husbands’ putting them on the street at whim. In those times marriage was an economic matter rather than one of love. A woman and her children could easily be rejected. Restriction of divorce was based on the necessity of protecting the woman and her position in society, not necessarily in a religious context, but an economic context. He also points out that there are those “which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake”, but in the original Greek, the word εὐνοῦχος means “castrated person”. It was the custom at the time Jesus lived for priests of some ancient gods and goddesses to be castrated. In the pre-Christian period Vestals, who served the virgin goddess of the hearth, were obliged to forgo marriage, and so were some priests and servants of some ancient deities such as Isis.
There is no commandment in the New Testament that Jesus’ disciples have to live in celibacy. The general view on sexuality among the early Jewish Christians was quite positive. Jesus himself does not speak in negative terms of the body in the New Testament. While the Jewish sect of essenes practiced celibacy the general practice of the Jewish community by that time prescribed marriage for everybody, and at an early age. Saint Peter, also known as Simon Peter, the Apostle was married; Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14), and other apostles and church members among the early Jewish Christians were also married: Paul’s personal friends, Priscilla and Aquila (Romans 16:3), who were Paul’s coworkers, Andronicus of Pannonia (Romans 16:7), and Junia (Romans 16:7), who were highly regarded among the apostles, Ananias and Sapphira (Ap 5:1), Apphia and Philemon (Phil 1: 1). According to Eusebius Church History (Historia Ecclesiastica), Paul the Apostle, also known as Saul of Tarsus, was also married. It was the custom in the Jewish community to marry early.
In his early writings, Paul the Apostle described marriage as a social obligation that has the potential of distracting from Christ. Sex, in turn, is not sinful but natural, and sex within marriage is both proper and necessary. In his later writings, Paul made parallels between the relations between spouses and God’s relationship with the church. “Husbands love your wives even as Christ loved the church. Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:25–28). The early Christians lived in the belief that the End of the World would soon come upon them, and saw no point in planning new families and having children. This was why Paul encouraged both celibate and marital lifestyles among the members of the Corinthian congregation, regarding celibacy as the preferable of the two.
Paul the Apostle emphasized the importance of overcoming the desires of the flesh and saw the state of celibacy being superior to the marriage.
In the Catholic Church, a consecrated virgin, is a woman who has been consecrated by the church to a life of perpetual virginity in the service of God. According to most Christian thought, the first sacred virgin was Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was consecrated by the Holy Spirit during the Annunciation. Tradition also has it that the Apostle Matthew consecrated virgins. A number of early Christian martyrs were women or girls who had given themselves to Christ in perpetual virginity, such as Saint Agnes and Saint Lucy.
The Desert Fathers were Christian hermits, and ascetics who had a major influence on the development of Christianity and celibacy. Paul of Thebes is often credited with being the first hermit monk to go to the desert, but it was Anthony the Great who launched the movement that became the Desert Fathers. Sometime around AD 270, Anthony heard a Sunday sermon stating that perfection could be achieved by selling all of one’s possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Christ.(Matt. 19.21) He followed the advice and made the further step of moving deep into the desert to seek complete solitude.
Over time, the model of Anthony and other hermits attracted many followers, who lived alone in the desert or in small groups. They chose a life of extreme asceticism, renouncing all the pleasures of the senses, rich food, baths, rest, and anything that made them comfortable. Thousands joined them in the desert, mostly men but also a handful of women. Religious seekers also began going to the desert seeking advice and counsel from the early Desert Fathers. By the time of Anthony’s death, there were so many men and women living in the desert in celibacy that it was described as “a city” by Anthony’s biographer. The first Conciliar document on celibacy of the Western Christian Church (Canon 33 of the Synod of Elvira, c. AD 305) states that the discipline of celibacy is to refrain from the use of marriage, i.e. refrain from having carnal contact with one’s spouse.
According to the later St. Jerome (c. 347 – 420) celibacy is a moral virtue, consisting of living in the flesh, but outside the flesh, and so being not corrupted by it (vivere in carne praeter carnem). Celibacy excludes not only libidinous acts, but also sinful thoughts or desires of the flesh. Jerome referred to marriage prohibition for priests when he claimed in Against Jovinianus that Peter and the other apostles had been married before they were called, but subsequently gave up their marital relations. Celibacy as a vocation may be independent from religious vows (as is the case with consecrated virgins, ascetics and hermits). In the Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox traditions, bishops are required to be celibate. In the Eastern Christian traditions, priests and deacons are allowed to be married, yet have to remain celibate if they are unmarried at the time of ordination.
In the early Church higher clerics lived in marriages. Augustine of Hippo was one of the first to develop a theory that sexual feelings were sinful and negative. Augustine taught that the original sin of Adam and Eve was either an act of foolishness (insipientia) followed by pride and disobedience to God, or else inspired by pride. The first couple disobeyed God, who had told them not to eat of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). The tree was a symbol of the order of creation. Self-centeredness made Adam and Eve eat of it, thus failing to acknowledge and respect the world as it was created by God, with its hierarchy of beings and values. They would not have fallen into pride and lack of wisdom, if Satan had not sown into their senses “the root of evil” (radix Mali). Their nature was wounded by concupiscence or libido, which affected human intelligence and will, as well as affections and desires, including sexual desire. The sin of Adam is inherited by all human beings. Already in his pre-Pelagian writings, Augustine taught that Original Sin was transmitted by concupiscence, which he regarded as the passion of both soul and body, making humanity a massa damnata (mass of perdition, condemned crowd) and much enfeebling, though not destroying, the freedom of the will.
In the early 3rd century, the Canons of the Apostolic Constitutions decreed that only lower clerics might still marry after their ordination, but marriage of bishops, priests, and deacons were not allowed. Augustine’s view of sexual feelings as sinful affected his view of women. For example, he considered a man’s erection to be sinful, though involuntary, because it did not take place under his conscious control. His solution was to place controls on women to limit their ability to influence men. He equated flesh with woman and spirit with man.
He believed that the serpent approached Eve because she was less rational and lacked self-control, while Adam’s choice to eat was viewed as an act of kindness so that Eve would not be left alone. Augustine believed sin entered the world because man (the spirit) did not exercise control over woman (the flesh). Augustine’s views on women were not all negative, however. In his Tractates on the Gospel of John, Augustine, commenting on the Samaritan woman from John 4:1–42, uses the woman as a figure of the church.
According to Raming, the authority of the Decretum Gratiani, a collection of Roman Catholic canon law which prohibits women from leading, teaching, or being a witness, rests largely on the views of the early church fathers, especially St. Augustine. The laws and traditions founded upon St. Augustine’s views of sexuality and women continue to exercise considerable influence over church doctrinal positions regarding the role of women in the church.
One explanation for the origin of obligatory celibacy is that it is based on the writings of Saint Paul, who wrote of the advantages celibacy allowed a man in serving the Lord. Celibacy was popularised by the early Christian theologians like Saint Augustine of Hippo and Origen. Another possible explanation for the origins of obligatory celibacy revolves around more practical reason, “the need to avoid claims on church property by priests’ offspring”. It remains a matter of Canon Law (and often a criterion for certain religious orders, especially Franciscans) that priests may not own land and therefore cannot pass it on to legitimate or illegitimate children. The land belongs to the Church through the local diocese as administered by the Local Ordinary (usually a bishop), who is often an ex officio corporation sole. Celibacy is viewed differently by the Catholic Church and the various Protestant communities. It includes clerical celibacy, celibacy of the consecrated life, voluntary lay celibacy, and celibacy outside of marriage.
The Protestant Reformation rejected celibate life and sexual continence for preachers. Protestant celibate communities have emerged, especially from Anglican and Lutheran backgrounds. A few minor Christian sects advocate celibacy as a better way of life. These groups included the Shakers, the Harmony Society and the Ephrata Cloister. Celibacy not only for religious and monastics (brothers/monks and sisters/nuns) but also for bishops is upheld by the Catholic Church traditions.
Many evangelicals prefer the term “abstinence” to “celibacy.” Assuming everyone will marry, they focus their discussion on refraining from premarital sex and focusing on the joys of a future marriage. But some evangelicals, particularly older singles, desire a positive message of celibacy that moves beyond the “wait until marriage” message of abstinence campaigns. They seek a new understanding of celibacy that is focused on God rather than a future marriage or a lifelong vow to the Church.
There are also many Pentecostal churches which practice celibate ministry. For instance, The full-time ministers of the Pentecostal Mission are celibate. Most of them are single, married couples can become celibate.
During the first three or four centuries, no law was promulgated prohibiting clerical marriage. Celibacy was a matter of choice for bishops, priests, and deacons.
Statutes forbidding clergy from having wives were written beginning with the Council of Elvira (306) but these early statutes were not universal and were often defied by clerics and then retracted by hierarchy. The Synod of Gangra (345) condemned a false asceticism whereby worshipers boycotted celebrations presided over by married clergy.” The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 400) excommunicated a priest or bishop who left his wife ‘under the pretense of piety”’ (Mansi, 1:51).
“A famous letter of Synesius of Cyrene (c. 414) is evidence both for the respecting of personal decision in the matter and for contemporary appreciation of celibacy. For priests and deacons clerical marriage continued to be in vogue”.
“The Second Lateran Council (1139) seems to have enacted the first written law making sacred orders a diriment impediment to marriage for the universal Church.” Celibacy was first required of some clerics in 1123 at the First Lateran Council. Because clerics resisted it, the celibacy mandate was restated at the Second Lateran Council (1139) and the Council of Trent (1545–64). In places, coercion and enslavement of clerical wives and children was apparently involved in the enforcement of the law. “The earliest decree in which the children [of clerics] were declared to be slaves and never to be enfranchised [freed] seems to have been a canon of the Synod of Pavia in 1018. Similar penalties were promulgated against wives and concubines (see the Synod of Melfi, 1189 can. Xii), who by the very fact of their unlawful connexion with a subdeacon or clerk of higher rank became liable to be seized by the over-lord”. Celibacy for priests continues to be a contested issue even today.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Twelve Apostles are considered to have been the first priests and bishops of the Church. Some say the call to be eunuchs for the sake of Heaven in Matthew 19 was a call to be sexually continent and that this developed into celibacy for priests as the successors of the apostles. Others see the call to be sexually continent in Matthew 19 to be a caution for men who were too readily divorcing and remarrying.
The view of the Church is that celibacy is a reflection of life in Heaven, a source of detachment from the material world which aids in one’s relationship with God. Celibacy is designed to “consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to “the affairs of the Lord, they give themselves entirely to God and to men. It is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.” In contrast, Saint Peter, whom the Church considers its first Pope, was married given that he had a mother-in-law whom Christ healed (Matthew 8).
Usually, only celibate men are ordained as priests in the Latin Rite. Married clergy who have converted from other Christian denominations can be ordained Roman Catholic priests without becoming celibate. Priestly celibacy is not doctrine of the Church (such as the belief in the Assumption of Mary) but a matter of discipline, like the use of the vernacular (local) language in Mass or Lenten fasting and abstinence. As such, it can theoretically change at any time though it still must be obeyed by Catholics until the change were to take place. The Eastern Catholic Churches ordain both celibate and married men. However, in both the East and the West, bishops are chosen from among those who are celibate. In Ireland, several priests have fathered children, the two most prominent being Bishop Eamonn Casey and Father Michael Cleary.
The classical heritage flourished throughout the Middle Ages in both the Byzantine Greek East and the Latin West. Will Durant has made a case that certain prominent features of Plato’s ideal community were discernible in the organization, dogma and effectiveness of “the” Medieval Church in Europe:
“The clergy, like Plato’s guardians, were placed in authority… by their talent as shown in ecclesiastical studies and administration, by their disposition to a life of meditation and simplicity, and … by the influence of their relatives with the powers of state and church. In the latter half of the period in which they ruled [AD 800 onwards], the clergy were as free from family cares as even Plato could desire [for such guardians]… [Clerical] Celibacy was part of the psychological structure of the power of the clergy; for on the one hand they were unimpeded by the narrowing egoism of the family, and on the other their apparent superiority to the call of the flesh added to the awe in which lay sinners held them….” “In the latter half of the period in which they ruled, the clergy were as free from family cares as even Plato could desire”.
“Greater understanding of human psychology has led to questions regarding the impact of celibacy on the human development of the clergy. The realization that many non-European countries view celibacy negatively has prompted questions concerning the value of retaining celibacy as an absolute and universal requirement for ordained ministry in the Roman Catholic Church”
“The declining number of priests in active ministry, the exemption from the requirement of celibacy for married clergy who enter the Catholic Church after having been ordained in the Episcopal Church, and reported incidences of de facto nonobservance of the requirement by clergy in various parts of the world, especially in Africa and Latin America, suggests that the discussion [of celibacy] will continue” Catholic Churches developed the less well-known institution of chaste marriage.
The reintroduction of a permanent diaconate has permitted the Church to allow married men to become deacons but they may not go on to become priests.
Celibate homosexual Christians
Some homosexual Christians choose to be celibate following their denomination’s teachings on homosexuality.
In 2014, the American Association of Christian Counselors amended its code of ethics to eliminate the promotion of conversion therapy for homosexuals and encouraged them to be celibate instead.
In Hinduism, celibacy is usually associated with the sadhus (“holy men”), ascetics who withdraw from society and renounce all worldly ties. Celibacy, termed brahmacharya in Vedic scripture, is the fourth of the yamas and the word literally translated means “dedicated to the Divinity of Life”. The word is often used in yogic practice to refer to celibacy or denying pleasure, but this is only a small part of what brahmacharya represents. The purpose of practicing brahmacharya is to keep a person focused on the purpose in life, the things that instill a feeling of peace and contentment.It is also used to cultivate occult powers and many supernatural feats, called siddhi , usually downplayed by the mainstream media and other mediums of information.
Islamic attitudes toward celibacy have been complex, Muhammad denounced it, however some Sufi orders embrace it. Islam does not promote celibacy; rather it condemns premarital sex and extramarital sex. In fact, according to Islam, marriage enables one to attain the highest form of righteousness within this sacred spiritual bond and is as such to be sought after and desired. It disagrees with the concept that marriage acts as a form of distraction in attaining nearness to God. The Qur’an (57:27) states, “But the Monasticism which they invented for themselves, We did not prescribe for them but only to please God therewith, but that they did not observe it with the right observance.”
The following sayings about the Prophet also address celibacy:
“There have been people who have come to the prophet and explained how they love to be engaged in prayer and fasting for the sake of God. The Prophet Mohammed told them that, despite this being good, it is also a blessing to raise a family, to remain moderate and not to concentrate too much on one aspect as not only can this be unhealthy for an individual as well as upon society, it may also take one away from God.”
Celibacy appears as a peculiarity among some Sufis.
Celibacy was practiced by women saints in Sufism. Celibacy was debated along with women’s roles in Sufism in medieval times.
Celibacy, poverty, meditation, and mysticism within an ascetic context along with worship centered around Saint’s tombs were promoted by the Qadiri Sufi order among Hui Muslims in China. In China, unlike other Muslim sects, the leaders (Shaikhs) of the Qadiriyya Sufi order are celibate. Unlike other Sufi orders in China, the leadership within the order is not a hereditary position, rather, one of the disciples of the celibate Shaikh is chosen by the Shaikh to succeed him . The 92-year-old celibate Shaikh Yang Shijun was the leader of the Qadiriya order in China as of 1998.
Celibacy is practiced by Haydariya Sufi dervishes.
The spiritual teacher Meher Baba stated that “[F]or the [spiritual] aspirant a life of strict celibacy is preferable to married life, if restraint comes to him easily without undue sense of self-repression. Such restraint is difficult for most persons and sometimes impossible, and for them married life is decidedly more helpful than a life of celibacy. For ordinary persons, married life is undoubtedly advisable unless they have a special aptitude for celibacy”. Baba also asserted that “The value of celibacy lies in the habit of restraint and the sense of detachment and independence which it gives” and that “The aspirant must choose one of the two courses which are open to him. He must take to the life of celibacy or to the married life, and he must avoid at all costs a cheap compromise between the two. Promiscuity in sex gratification is bound to land the aspirant in a most pitiful and dangerous chaos of ungovernable lust.”
Ancient Greece and Rome
In Sparta and many other Greek cities, failure to marry was grounds for loss of citizenship, and could be prosecuted as a crime. Both Cicero and Dionysius of Halicarnassus stated that Roman law forbade celibacy. There are no records of such a prosecution, nor is the Roman punishment for refusing to marry known.
Pythagoreanism was the system of esoteric and metaphysical beliefs held by Pythagoras and his followers. Pythagorean thinking was dominated by a profoundly mystical view of the world. The Pythagorean code further restricted his members from eating meat, fish, and beans which they practised for religious, ethical and ascetic reasons, in particular the idea of metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls into the bodies of other animals. “Pythagoras himself established a small community that set a premium on study, vegetarianism, and sexual restraint or abstinence. Later philosophers believed that celibacy would be conducive to the detachment and equilibrium required by the philosopher’s calling.”
Main article: Balkan sworn virgins
The tradition of sworn virgins developed out of the Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit (English: The Code of Lekë Dukagjini, or simply the Kanun). The Kanun is not a religious document – many groups follow it, including Roman Catholics, the Albanian Orthodox, and Muslims.
Women who become sworn virgins make a vow of celibacy, and are allowed to take on the social role of men: inheriting land, wearing male clothing, etc.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia