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For a Lady Pope

The difference between celibacy and chastity

The Church has maintained complete confusion over these two terms. The discussion is a delicate one. Everyone would agree that celibacy does not mean chastity. Furthermore it was celibacy and not chastity that was imposed on the priests and bishops by the Council of Latran. On the other hand, it is the vow of chastity, and not celibacy, that is taken in monastic cloisters. What is the difference, you may ask?

Taking a vow of celibacy means that one commits to remaining unmarried. One can be celibate and still have sexual relations with a woman, have a partner, practise masturbation,…

For a monk, taking a vow of chastity means that he will not have sexual relations, will not have a partner and will not practise masturbation…. Cloistered monks take a vow of perpetual chastity. The Catholic Church  realised that one could only lead a life devoted to chastity if one lives in a monastic commune, far away from worldly temptations.

Being celibate means that you live alone, without a partner. Celibacy doesn’t exclude sexual practices and doesn’t mean that you can’t have sexual relations. If the Church imposed celibacy on its clerics in the 12th century, it was done in order to avoid them having children who could then inherit from them.

In the Catholic Church the priests, as opposed to the nuns and monks, do not take a vow of chastity but they do make a vow of celibacy to the bishop. A priest does not make a promise of pure chastity, which forbids sexual activity of any kind, and the Church has never asked for this.

However, regarding priests, the Canon Law decrees that:  Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and are therefore bound to celibacy.

In other words priests make a promise of celibacy, whilst monks make a direct vow of chastity, of continence.

We are also taught that chastity shouldn’t be confused with continence, which means, “abstaining from sexual relations”. In the encyclical letter, casti cannubii, the Church speaks about chaste spouses, in this case spouses who make love respecting the precepts of contraception. Continence isn’t therefore applicable here.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines chastity as: “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.”

If, after these explanations, you are any closer to clearly distinguishing the difference between a monk’s vow of chastity and a priest’s vow of celibacy, you are certainly clairvoyant. In order to avoid any ambiguity it would surely be better for bishops to demand complete celibacy during ordinations, which is not the case.

We should therefore use vocabulary, which everyone understands and uses on a daily basis.

Let’s take the case of monastic life. Everyone agrees that this must be difficult and, if there is mutual agreement between a monk and those in charge of the commune the Church allows the monk, who has realised that he has chosen the wrong vocation, to leave the monastery. He is no longer held to his vow of chastity.

On the other hand, the Vatican generally refuses a priest who has left his ministry to be released from the clerical state (this has been particularly noticeable over the last two decades). Those priests who aren’t released from the clerical state, remain priests, but may no longer engage in a ministry. In other words the Vatican decides that a priest living with someone cannot keep his ministry, but will remain a priest, even if he himself wants to be released from the clerical state. This position from Rome proves in its absurdity that having a partner can, in fact, be accepted in the priesthood. Otherwise, surely the Church would want to free priests from their duties and allow them to join the laity.

Multiple surveys have revealed that many priests live a double life, up to 50% in Europe and up to 80% in Africa. We have all heard of priests who go to live with their partners when they retire. Furthermore, in order to prove that the celibacy promised by the priests is not intrinsically linked to continence, Pope Benedicte XVI insists on chastity.

The problem we are presented with is that we shouldn’t be condemning priests, but that we should be urging the Vatican to admit that closing its eyes to the real problem only puts these priests in an untenable position. Only a despot would insist that a young man of 24 upholds, throughout his entire life, an ideal promise he has made, a promise, which, if breached, doesn’t necessarily lead to other people being harmed. We are talking about sexual relations between adults here, not abuse towards minors.

In conclusion, the Roman Catholic Church has to stop with these half-truths concerning the sex lives of its priests and bishops. The Church needs to admit that Christ didn’t demand that his apostles be celibate and that if the Orthodox Church and Anglicans, who have a diametric point of view on this subject, interpret the bible differently, they are not traitors. Celibacy cannot be imposed on the priesthood. It should be a free choice and should not be for life.

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