These three words can be easy to mix up.
- Often when talking about the priesthood, marriage, and sexuality, the words chastity, celibacy, or continence may be used. It can be confusing, as each word begins with a “c” in the English language, and they even sound similar in pronunciation.
Here is a basic overview of these three words and their differences in meaning.
This first word is probably the most difficult to understand because it is a virtue, and has a broad definition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church spends an entire section detailing the virtue of chastity (CCC 2331-2400).
The basic definition of chastity that the CCC gives is “the integration of sexuality within the person. It includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery.”
Chastity enables us to respect the dignity of the human person and see sexual union a gift of God that is protected because of its sacred character.
Everyone is called to chastity, whether single, married, or a consecrated religious.
People should cultivate [chastity] in the way that is suited to their state of life. Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner. Others live in the way prescribed for all by the moral law, whether they are married or single. (CCC 2349)
Common offenses against chastity are lust, masturbation, fornication and pornography. These sins do not honor the dignity of the human person and fail to uphold the great beauty of our sexuality, a gift God has given to us. A priest who breaks his vow to celibacy, or a married person who commits adultery have both committed a sin against chastity.
Even though all people are called to chastity, when consecrated religious speak of the three common vows, known as the evangelical counsels, they name poverty, chastity, and obedience. In this specific use, chastity refers to celibacy, as we see below.
Celibacy is a more easily defined term, as it refers exclusively to those who have freely given up the intimate sexual union of husband and wife and remain unmarried through a vow in order to devote their full attention to ministry.
The Catechism speaks of celibacy in reference to men ordained to become priests, “Called 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. Celibacy 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” (CCC 1579).
Both men and women can profess vows of celibacy, where they dedicate their lives to the work of God by not receiving the sacrament of matrimony, nor engaging in sexual acts. This is seen as a great gift that can only be given if God has invited the man or woman to it. Celibate men and women freely choose this gift. It is not an imposition by the Church, but an invitation to a deeper love of God and neighbor.
This last word, continence, refers specifically to the act of refraining from any sexual act. It comes from the Latin continere, meaning restraining oneself, which is why this word is also used medically to refer to an ability to restrain the bowels and bladder.
The Catechism explains how those who are as yet unmarried “are called to live chastity in continence. [Engaged couples] should see in this time of testing a discovery of mutual respect, an apprenticeship in fidelity, and the hope of receiving one another from God. They should reserve for marriage the expressions of affection that belong to married love” (CCC 2350).
So, “Married people are called to live conjugal chastity” while all others practice “chastity in continence” (cf CCC 2349).
A simple way to remember it is to think of chastity as a virtue, celibacy as a vow, and continence as restraining from sexual acts.
In the history of the Church, there have been some married saints who lived lives of “continence,” not engaging in sexual intimacy, because they felt God inviting them to this lifestyle.
Furthermore, married couples practicing Natural Family Planning will often have periods of continence, where they avoid sexual intercourse during a specific period of time each month.
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