Understanding Celibacy

The Difference Between Celibacy, Abstinence, and Chastity

Cartoon drawing of newlywed couple with wedding ring
Newlyweds Admire Wedding Rings. Getty Images 

The word “celibacy” is typically used to refer to a voluntary decision to remain unmarried or to abstain from engaging in any sexual activity, usually for religious reasons. While the term celibacy is typically used in reference only to persons who choose to remain unmarried as a condition of sacred religious vows or convictions, it can also apply to the voluntary abstinence from all sexual activity for any reason. While they are often used interchangeably, celibacy, abstinence, and chastity are not exactly the same.

Key Terms

  • Celibacy is a voluntary choice to remain unmarried or engage in any form of sexual activity, usually in order to fulfill a religious vow. A person who practices celibacy is said to be “celibate.”
  • Abstinence is also called “continence” and is the often-temporary strict avoidance of all forms of sexual activity for any reason.
  • Chastity, from the Latin word castitas, meaning “purity,” embraces abstinence as a praiseworthy virtue according to the prevailing social standards of morality.

Celibacy is generally recognized as a voluntary choice to remain unmarried or engage in any form of sexual activity, usually in order to fulfill a religious vow. In this sense, one can accurately be said to be practicing sexual abstinence as a condition of his or her vow of celibacy.

Abstinence — also called continence — refers to the often temporary strict avoidance of all forms of sexual activity for any reason.

Chastity is a voluntary lifestyle that involves far more than abstaining from sexual activity. Coming from the Latin word castitas, meaning “purity,” chastity embraces abstinence from sexual activity as a praiseworthy and virtuous quality according to the standards of morality held by a person’s particular culture, civilization, or religion. In modern times, chastity has become associated with sexual abstinence, particularly before or outside of marriage or other type of exclusively committed relationship.

Celibacy and Sexual Orientation

The concept of celibacy as a decision to remain unmarried applies to both traditional and same-sex marriage. Similarly, the lifestyle restrictions implied by the terms abstinence and chastity refer to both heterosexual and gay sexual activity.

In the context of celibacy related to religion, some gay people choose to be celibate in keeping with their religion’s teachings or doctrine on gay relationships.

In an amendment adopted in 2014, the American Association of Christian Counselors banned the promotion of the largely discredited process of conversion therapy for gay persons, encouraging the practice of celibacy instead.

Celibacy in Religion

In the context of religion, celibacy is practiced in different ways. Most familiar of these is the mandatory celibacy of male and female members of the active clergy and monastic devotees. While most female religious celibates today are Catholic nuns living in residential cloisters, there have been notable solitary celibate female figures, such the anchoress — a female hermit — Dame Julian of Norwich, born in 1342. In addition, religious celibacy is sometimes practiced by laypersons or clergy members in a faith not requiring it out of devotion or to allow them to perform certain religious services.

Brief History of Religiously-Motivated Celibacy

Derived from the Latin word caelibatus, meaning “state of being unmarried,” the concept of celibacy has been acknowledged by most major religions throughout history. However, not all religions have acknowledged it favorably.

Ancient Judaism strongly rejected celibacy. Similarly, early Roman polytheistic religions, practiced between about 295 B.C.E. and 608 C.E., held it to be an aberrant behavior and imposed severe fines against it. The emergence of Protestantism around 1517 CE saw a rise in the acceptance of celibacy, although the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church never adopted it.

The attitudes of the Islamic religions regarding celibacy have also been mixed. While the Prophet Muhammad denounced celibacy and recommended marriage as a commendable deed, some Islamic sects embrace it today.

In Buddhism, most ordained monks and nuns choose to live in celibacy believing it to be one of the prerequisites to reaching enlightenment.

While most people associate religious celibacy with Catholicism, the Catholic Church actually imposed no requirement of celibacy on its clergy for the first 1,000 years of its history. Marriage remained a matter of choice for Catholic bishops, priests, and deacons until the Second Lateran Council of 1139 mandated celibacy for all members of the clergy. As a result of the Council’s decree, married priests were required to give up either their marriage or their priesthood. Faced with this choice, many priests left the church.

While celibacy remains a requirement for Catholic clergy today, an estimated 20% of Catholic priests worldwide are believed to be legally married. Most married priests are found in the Catholic Churches of Eastern nations like the Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. While these churches recognize the authority of the Pope and the Vatican, their rituals and traditions more closely follow those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which had never embraced celibacy.

Reasons for Religious Celibacy

How do religions justify mandatory celibacy? No matter what they are called in a given religion, the “priest” is exclusively trusted to perform the sacred function of communicating the needs of the people to God or other heavenly power. The efficacy of the priesthood is based on the congregation’s trust that the priest is properly qualified and possesses the ritual purity necessary to speak to God on their behalf. Religions that require it of their clergy consider celibacy to be a prerequisite for such ritual purity.

In this context, religious celibacy is likely to have been derived from ancient taboos that viewed sexual power as vying with religious power, and the sex act itself as having a polluting effect on priestly purity. 

Reasons for Non-Religious Celibacy

For many people who do so, choosing a celibate lifestyle has little or nothing to do with an organized religion. Some may feel that eliminating the demands of sexual relationships allows them to better focus on other important aspects of their lives, like career advancement or education. Others may have found their past sexual relationships to have been particularly unfulfilling, damaging, or even painful. Still others choose to abstain from sex out of their unique personal beliefs of what is “proper behavior.” For example, some people may choose to adhere to the morality-based tradition of abstaining from sex outside of marriage.

Beyond personal beliefs, other celibates consider abstinence from sex to be the only absolute method of avoiding sexually-transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancies.

Outside of religious vows and obligations, celibacy or abstinence is a matter of personal choice. While some may consider a celibate lifestyle extreme, others may consider it liberating or empowering.

Sources and Further Reference

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Understanding Celibacy." Learn Religions, Sep. 3, 2021, learnreligions.com/celibacy-abstinence-chastity-difference-4156422. Longley, Robert. (2021, September 3). Understanding Celibacy. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/celibacy-abstinence-chastity-difference-4156422 Longley, Robert. "Understanding Celibacy." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/celibacy-abstinence-chastity-difference-4156422 (accessed May 30, 2023).