Celibacy refers to an individual having decided to refrain from sexual activity, usually as part of an ascetic discipline. Also known as "consecrated virginity," celibacy usually refers to ordained clergy or persons in religious orders, and is an avowed way of living in which the person remains unmarried and forsakes all sexual gratification.
The Roman Catholic Church requires celibacy of their priests, regarding sexual purity as essential in order to perform the rites and rituals that connect the people to heaven. By contrast, marriage is accepted or even encouraged for priests in the Anglican and many Protestant churches. In the Eastern Orthodox Church traditions, celibacy is not required of secular priests but is required in monastic orders, from which bishops are selected. Married priests from these churches who convert to Catholicism can still function as priests by dispensation of the Holy See.
In virtually all Christian traditions, celibacy is required of monastics—monks, nuns, and friars. Sexual abstinence is often viewed as essential for a monastic, in order to align one's mind and spirit to the path of spiritual growth while renouncing cares of the physical world, which include sexual relationships.
Vows of chastity can also be taken by laypersons, either as part of an organized religious life (such as Roman Catholic Beguines and Beghards) or on an individual basis, as a voluntary act of devotion and/or as part of an ascetic lifestyle, often devoted to contemplation. Celibacy is included among the Christian counsels of perfection. Philosophers, too, have taken this path, a tradition that dates back to ancient Greece.
In some religions, celibate monastic life is practiced as a temporary phase, as by many young men in Theravada Buddhism.
From a secular viewpoint, celibacy may seem unnatural, even unhealthy. Yet from a religious perspective that sees human life as tainted by sin, our spiritual faculties impaired due to the Fall of Man, our minds addicted to self-seeking and slaves to desire, the path of celibacy, rigorous as it may be, can be liberating. When accompanied by a rigorous life of self-discipline in all respects, guarding against pride, gluttony, sloth, avarice, anger and so on, a celibate life can promote a high level of spiritual awareness and advancement on the path to personal perfection.
On the other hand, religious teachings that lift up the value of marriage and family as the way to complete personhood find celibacy excessive, even while maintaining that abstinence prior to marriage and fidelity within marriage is vital to the health of the marriage and a strong, enduring family. This article deals only with celibacy as a life-long discipline; for a discussion of premarital sexual abstinence as preparation for marriage, see chastity.
Eunuchs (castrated males) have had different roles in societies throughout history. The earliest record of intentional castration comes from the twenty-first century B.C.E. in Sumeria. Eunuchs have been called on to be courtiers or equivalent domestics, treble singers, religious specialists, government officials, military commanders, and guardians of women or harem servants. In the Byzantine empire, eunuchs were men who had chosen to be celibate or not procreate rather than those who were physically castrated.
Ancient Roman society exalted the Vestal Virgins, who were the high priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. The Vestal Virgins were women who chose to become priests around puberty and dedicated themselves to 30 years of chastity.
Ancient Greek civilization developed two forms of celibacy for men: one was the sacerdotal celibacy of the priest; the other, the ascetic celibacy of the philosopher. Priests of various cults, such as the followers of Isis, were required to abstain from sexual activity in order to be qualified to practice the sacred rituals. The philosopher Pythagoras and his followers were devoted to study, and practiced celibacy and vegetarianism. Epictetus and others regarded celibacy as important to avoid distractions and allow the mind to focus clearly on the complex task of scholarly inquiry.
In Buddhism, according to the celibate, the main goal of living is to eliminate (or at least decrease) desire. Desire is seen as one of the main causes of suffering, both in the world and in the mind or heart. A commonly-used metaphor sees desire, especially sexual desire, to be like drinking salty water: the more one consumes, the greater the desire - and the worse one's (mental) state of health becomes.
In Buddhism, attachment to impermanent things is regarded as one of the major causes of suffering. Sex is arguably the strongest attachment to impermanent things that human beings have. Therefore in Buddhism celibacy has been regarded as essential to obtaining Nirvana (liberation from suffering). The Buddha praised the ideal of living liberated from the entanglements of the affections of loved ones as in the Rhinoceros discourse:
To maintain their commitment to a celibate life, Buddhist monks are instructed on various meditative techniques to keep the desires in check and the mind focused on higher things. One such technique is to inspire strong revulsion for the desires of the flesh, by meditating on the "loathsomeness of the body":
While celibacy is required of all monks and nuns in the Theravada tradition, and among most schools of the Mahayana tradition, there are several Mahayana and Vajrayana orders within Tibetan, Japanese and Korean Buddhism that allow monks to lead married lives. The notion that a Buddhist can live inwardly free of desire and thus perfectly tread the path to Nirvana while carrying on the worldly life of a householder is expounded in the Vimalakirti Sutra.
In the Tibetan Vajrayana orders that permit this practice, relations between a monk and his spouse are governed by the discipline of tantra, which requires the highest level of morality and self-control, that sexual activity be performed in an advanced state of mindfulness and without the taint of ordinary desire.
The Catholic Church requires that its priests be celibate. This is so that they can devote themselves completely to the care of Christ's Flock (Matthew 19:12). The Church has not required celibacy of all ecclesiastics at all times in history (it was not required of the majority of ecclesiastics in the early Church, and in modern times certain converts are permitted to be married when receiving Holy Orders). The Catholic Church's practice of clerical celibacy among priests and bishops of the Latin Rite and bishops of all rites, Eastern and Western, was confirmed by the Second Vatican Council and reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical letter, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, June 24, 1967.
Catholics understand celibacy to be a reflection of life in Heaven, the highest form of imitation of Christ who was himself celibate, and a way to maintain detachment from the material world which aids in one's relationship with God. Catholic priests are called to be espoused to the Church itself, and espoused to God, without overwhelming commitments interfering with the relationship. The Apostle Paul explained this argument for celibacy:
The unmarried man is anxious about the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or virgin is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7.32-35)
Catholics understand celibacy to be the calling of some, but not all. They understand Jesus to have advocated celibacy as one of his "councils of perfection"; not for everyone but specifically those who seek the higher life of the Kingdom of Heaven:
Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (Matthew 19.12)
A deeper reason for Christian celibacy derives from an understanding that ordinary sexual relationships, even within marriage, are tainted by the Original Sin, which was consummated at the Fall of Man when Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan into an illicit sexual relationship. Thenceforth sin has been passed down from generation to generation through sexual intercourse: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me." (Psalm 51:5, NKJV) Saint Augustine wrote of the sinfulness that inhered in marriage as a result of the Fall:
Even the parental duty, done as it is in accordance with Roman law for the procreation of children, and, therefore, is both legally right and morally good, looks for a room from which all witnesses have been carefully removed. It is only after the best man and bridesmaids, the friends and the servants, have gone from the room that the bridegroom even begins to show any signs of intimate affection… Yes, it is a good deed; but it is one that seeks to be known only after it is done, and is ashamed to be seen while it is being done. The reason can only be that what, by nature, has a purpose that everyone praises involves, by penalty, a passion that makes everyone ashamed…
Now, in the Garden, before the Fall… the passions of anger and lust were never so roused counter to the commands of the rational will that reason was forced, so to speak, to put them in harness. It is different now, when even people who live a life of moral and religious self-control have to bridle these passions. This may be easy or difficult, but the bit and bridle are always needed. Now, the present condition is not that of healthy human nature; it is a sickness induced by sin… (St. Augustine, City of God 14.18f.)
Therefore, a celibate life, which places the sexual desire completely under the "bit and bridle," is necessary to counter the ill effects of original sin and to purify human love that it might be transfigured into divine love.
Monasticism, with its attendant celibacy, flourished in the Anglican Church from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. In the seventeenth century all Catholic monasteries in England had been closed and monastic orders disestablished as a policy of the English Reformation. However, in the 1840s, Anglican priest John Henry Newman established a community of men at Littlemore near Oxford. From then on, communities of monks were (re-)established throughout the Anglican communion, including Anglican Benedictines, Franciscans, Cistercians, and Dominicans, as well as home-grown orders such as the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. A distinguishing feature of the monastic life among Anglicans is that most practice the so-called "mixed life." They keep the full round of liturgical and private worship, but also have an active ministry of some sort in their local community—anything from parish work to working with the homeless. Since the 1960s, the number of Anglican monks has suffered a sharp decline, and most communities have closed.
Certain millenarian groups, believing they must live a perfect life in preparation for the end-times, practiced celibacy. The Shakers, founded in 1772 under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee, was an American millenarian sect that required celibacy for all members. They lived in communal "families" with the sexes segregated into separate living areas. They maintained their population by welcoming converts and adopting children. The Shakers believed that Adam's sin was in sexual impurity; hence marriage was done away with in the body of the Believers in the Second Appearance, who must pattern after the Kingdom in which there is no marriage or giving in marriage. They also believed that Mother Ann was the female manifestation of Christ and the Bride who must make herself ready for the Bridegroom at the Second Coming, and hence her church should be spotless and pure. The Shakers disappeared by the mid-twentieth century, though their crafts, music and industry left an enduring legacy.
Anglicans aside, most Protestant churches reject clerical celibacy and do not have monastic orders. Celibacy was an important point of disagreement during the Reformation. Reformers such as John Calvin argued that requiring a vow of celibacy from a priest or monk was contrary to biblical teaching that sexuality is one of God's good gifts, meant to be enjoyed within the lawful bounds of marriage. (1 Tim. 4:1-5) They point out that many of the early apostles were married, a right that Paul, though he was unmarried, yet affirmed (1 Cor. 9:5). To exalt celibacy as the way to a holy life degraded marriage, which scripture says should be held in honor (Heb. 13:4). Moreover, the requirement of celibacy was only fostering widespread sexual misconduct within the clergy (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV, 12,23-28).
Fundamentally, Protestants believe that when Jesus died on the cross to save sinners, he made no distinction between those who devoted themselves to a religious life and those who did not. Salvation is by grace, not by works, and celibacy is a "work."
In rejecting the Catholic view that celibacy is one of the "counsels of perfection," Protestants regard perfection as an ideal for all believers, married and unmarried alike. Jesus specifically described perfection in terms of love, especially love for the enemy (Matt. 5:44-48); certainly family life can be a good training-ground to reach this sort of perfection. On the other hand, to regard celibacy as necessary on the path of perfection effectively divides Christians into two groups—the celibate elite who strive for perfection and ordinary laypeople who do not. Protestants have a higher view of ordinary laypeople, and in calling for the "priesthood of all believers" they set the same standards of conduct for everyone.
Specifically rejecting clerical celibacy, Protestants point to the responsibility of clergy as role models who should lead their congregations with the wisdom that comes through experience in building good family relationships, as in the biblical teaching:
This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?) (1 Timothy 3:1-5, NKJV)
In recent years Protestants and Catholics have converged on numerous issues of theology, yet clerical celibacy remains a stubborn dividing point. In accepting Anglican and Eastern Orthodox priests, who are often married, into the ranks of the Roman Catholic priesthood, the Vatican has made a special dispensation to allow them to function as married priests. Meanwhile, a steep decline in the number of Catholic priests, the exodus of hundreds of thousands of priests who marry and leave the priesthood, coupled with recent scandals and lawsuits over priests sexually abusing children in their care, has sparked widespread calls to eliminate the celibacy requirement for the priesthood and institute the ordination of married priests.
Organizations and individuals have stood up to advocate a married priesthood. The most high-profile of these is the dissident archbishop, Emmanuel Milingo, who married in 2001. At the Holy Father’s urging, he set aside his marriage and lived for several years in seclusion at Zagarolo, outside of Rome. Yet this seclusion and subsequent restrictions on his movement raised many questions with the public. In 2006 he left the supervision of the Vatican and started a group called "Married Priests Now!" which began ordaining married priests without Vatican recognition. Milingo writes:
It is very clear that the Roman Catholic Church has a great need of priests. The Bishops worldwide have brought their concern repeatedly to the Vatican. In addition priests are needed to bring the Eucharist to those Catholic people who do not have a resident priest. The Eucharist is the essence of Catholicism. Currently on the sideline, there are approximately 150,000 validly ordained priests. But these priests are married. The majority of these priests are ready and willing to return to the sacred ministry of the altar. It is our mission to find a way to reconcile these married priests with the Church and to reinstate them in the public sacred ministry, working in every way possible with the Church.
In traditional Vedic culture as described in the Laws of Manu, human life is divided into four stages: Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (hermit), and Sanyasa (renunciate)—three of which are celibate. Celibacy was observed by the young child as he leads a student life—the stage of Brahmacharya—and again after 50 to 60 years of age when the householder left home and family behind to become a renunciate (Sanyassin).
Today the term brahmacharya is applied to the celibate life generally, whether as a student or as a renunciate. The term is composed of Brahma, the absolute God-head, plus carya, meaning "to go toward"; thus it connotes a virtuous way of life lived according to the deeper principles of the realization of Brahma. A Hindu renunciate may take the vow of celibacy at any age when they have understood that living for material/sensual pleasures will never bring the perfect happiness that their soul desires. Thus their life becomes centered on surrender to Guru and God with the firm hope of God realization and the perfect Divine Happiness.
The Hindu tradition of Brahmacharya places great emphasis on sexual abstinence as a way of harnessing the energy of body and mind towards the goal of spiritual realization. In males, the semen (Veerja) is considered sacred and its preservation (except when used for procreation) and conversion into higher life energy (Ojas) is considered essential for the development of enhanced intellectual and spiritual capacities.
The period of brahmacharya typically ends around age 20, when the student marries and becomes a householder, responsible to produce children and take up an occupation. Thus celibacy is not seen as in conflict with maintaining the social order. Only after a man's productive years are through does he again turn to spiritual pursuits and become a sanyassin, when he once again takes a vow of abstinence that is deemed necessary for spiritual progress. However, in Buddhism and Jainism, both of which stood outside normal social convention, the period of brahmacarya was practiced by adults throughout their lifetime. The Buddhist or Jain disciple often took the ascetic vow of renunciation even in his early twenties, thus becoming a monk (bhikku) or nun (bhikkuni).
Hindu priests, who are responsible for the public ceremonies in the Hindu faith, do not have any requirement to be celibate.
Islam forbids intercourse outside of marriage, however maintaining celibacy as an act of piety is strongly discouraged, and marriage for all who are able is strongly encouraged. Abstinence from sexual intercourse is also practiced during the dawn to dusk fasts of Ramadan or other fasting days.
Judaism rejects celibacy and regards it as a violation of the divine commandment in Torah to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28). It is practically expected of men in religious functions (such as rabbis) to be married. Relations between a rabbi and his wife are seen as furthering their relationship to God.
Lifelong celibacy, usually associated with religious asceticism, has a distinguished place in humanity's spiritual quest. The celibate's abstinence is often viewed as an admirable act of self-control over the natural desire to have sex. For the individual, celibacy establishes a solid foundation for the prayer and meditation required for achieving a higher spiritual state. In society, the celibate's display of the strength of character allows him or her to set an example for those not able to contain their "base urges." He or she sets forth a model of holiness that naturally evokes respect and trust. The celibate also brings honor to the family of his or her birth; thus many Roman Catholic families are proud to send one of their children to join a monastic order.
On the other hand, every tradition that practices asceticism cautions that it can lead to an overly severe personality devoid of compassion. The celibate necessarily forgoes the day to day experiences of family love that at its best can foster compassion, forbearance and solidarity. Saint Paul wrote: "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." (1 Corinthians 13.2-3). Likewise, the Buddha cautioned against asceticism when it was not matched by spiritual attainment:
If a man should go naked…feed on potherbs, wild rice, or Nivara seeds…wear coarse hempen cloth, or carry out any other [ascetic] practices… yet the state of blissful attainment in conduct, in heart, in intellect, have not been practiced by him, realized by him, then he is far from shramanaship, far from brahminship. (Digha Nikaya 1.167)
The second problem with asceticism is that its standard is too difficult to keep, driving its practitioners to take comfort in various vices. Martin Luther was critical of the monks and priests in his day for their secret sexual liaisons. The victims in these affairs were the women whom they could not marry, destined to live in shame and often saddled with raising the priest's illegitimate child. The priests and monks, on the other hand, were normally forgiven with a wink and a nod. The Qur'an in one place denounces Christian monasticism, most likely for the same reason: "We sent Jesus son of Mary, and gave him the Gospel, and placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him. But monasticism they invented—We ordained it not for them—only seeking God’s pleasure, and they observed it not with right observance." (Qur’an 57.27) Today the Catholic priesthood is tainted by problems of alcoholism, homosexuality and recent scandals of pedophilia.
These practical issues are rooted in the fundamental incompatibility of lifelong celibacy with the generative and productive life ordained by God. God created men and women with sexual desire and the biological equipment to satisfy it—as a fountain of love and the starting-point of new life. As such, sex is one of God's good gifts. Nevertheless, there was a deep-seated problem in the human condition that led God to institute the path of celibacy and asceticism in the first place: the corruption of marriage at the Fall of Man. As a result of that original sin, ordinary love goes astray, and hence spiritually sensitive people throughout the centuries have sought a higher, purer path through celibacy. Yet celibacy remains contrary to the human being's original nature, which seeks the fulfillment of love in spirit and in body.
Celibacy has been a worthy sacrifice to overcome sin. Yet if and when a new age dawns in which conjugal love is restored to its original estate, then the discipline of celibacy may pass away.
Some notable figures who either professed or are believed to have been celibate include:
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