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Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.
—Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abidsinia (1759), ch. 26

Celibacy is the ascetic practice of forswearing all forms of sexual contact for whatever reason, be it as part of a religious tradition, as a method of self-exploration and growth, or as a personal ethical decision. It is distinct from abstinence because the choice to be celibate is an intentional act rather than external rules or lack of opportunity;[note 1] it is also distinct from asexuality, which is a lack of sexual attraction to anyone. In more extreme forms, it may even involve the technically impossible attempt to clear the mind of all sexuality.

Celibacy has a role in most religions, and is seen either as a form of sacrifice or as a method of inner focus or both. The Roman Catholic Church demands permanent celibacy from most of its priests, with predictable results. By contrast, celibacy is a choice for Buddhist monks, and is generally focused and temporary.

Celibacy in Christianity[edit]

The official Roman Catholic position is that clerical celibacy is "a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbor",[1] and is required of most priests, monks, or nuns. Technically, they are to be 'unmarried', the original definition of "celibacy", not non-sexual. Of course, the whole "sex outside of marriage" prohibition basically forbids them any sexual contact for life. Many priests struggle continually with the requirement of celibacy and many break celibacy in whatever is their preferred sexual orientation.[2] Priests who cannot adjust to the demands of celibacy successfully can be driven to alcoholism, to getting sex from prostitutes, to sleeping around, to buggering altar boys. Others form stable relationships with, for example, a housekeeper.[3]

The Bible encourages singleness — Matthew 19:12 (assuming eunuch in this verse is meant figuratively rather than literally[note 2]), 1 Corinthians 7:7-8. 1 Timothy 3:2 and 1 Timothy 3:12 state that a bishop or deacon is to be the husband of one wife. The earliest records of a celibacy requirement are found from the Council of Elvira (4th century). Sometime before the 12th century, the Roman Catholic Church formalized this call into compulsory celibacy for its monks, nuns, and priests because, as Pope John Paul II stated, "The Church, as the Spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loved her." A cynical argument can be made, however, that this requirement was at least in part that the Church wanted to gain control of land possessed by the priests and bishops.[4]

The Roman Catholic Church does make an exception of the required Celibacy for converts from Anglicanism and for the priests of the Eastern Orthodox Church if they are already married in hopes of attracting them as converts.[4]

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, married men are permitted to be ordained as priests, but once a man becomes a priest, he is no longer permitted to marry. In both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, bishops must be unmarried at the time of appointment. For Roman Catholics, they must have never been married; Eastern Orthodox church permits the consecration of widowers as bishops. The Roman Catholic Church is not obliged to maintain priestly celibacy. The Pope can decree a change at any time.

Paul sees singleness as an important spiritual move, though it must be understood in the context of a belief that the world would end within his lifetime, so procreation was not needed. Sexuality, as with many other worldly drives, pushes the person away from God and focuses them on the "flesh". However, outside of Paul, there is no real mention of celibacy. There is emphasis in both the Old and New Testaments to staying faithful to one's spouse and rejecting sexual desires before marriage, but not celibacy. In fact, in Jewish tradition, you could not be a priest (or later, rabbi) without being married.

Celibacy in Islam[edit]

Celibacy is not appreciated in Islam, and it is strongly advised for a person — male or female — to get married as soon as they attain the age of puberty; however, extramarital relations are not tolerated.


Critics of religious celibacy allege that it is a cause of sexual frustration and attendant unhappiness, as well as sexual disorders, including paedophilia; they see it as contributing to the many child sexual abuse scandals which have afflicted the Catholic Church in recent years.[5][note 3]

Celibacy can stunt sexual development, making sex furtive and guilt-ridden. Barring those who are genuinely asexual or on the asexual spectrum, celibacy is a denial of a fundamental part of what it is to be human.[6]

While it is important for congregations to be aware of potential problems, it must be remembered that most people who are celibate will not form deviant desires, and many religions outside of Christianity have a long history of celibacy without associated abuses of children, women, or each other. Catholic Church paedophilia scandals can thus equally well be explained through the rather trivial facts that A) paedophiles seek places with (private) access to children and B) the Catholic Church's history of covering up (not only) paedophilia scandals and simply moving paedophiles to another area provided increased opportunity for re-offending.[note 4]

Voluntary celibacy for nonreligious reasons is perfectly acceptable, and is often practised by asexuals. However, in mainstream American society, this frequently leads to ridicule, especially in communities where men are expected to be horn-dogs who basically harass women (and are considered "queer" if they don't).

Other examples[edit]

A number of people in the public eye have declared themselves celibate. Morrissey, former lead singer with The Smiths, declared himself celibate in 1983[7] and Stephen Fry was celibate before coming out as gay.[8]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Although Merriam-Webster disagrees with this definition. They define abstinence as "voluntary forbearance." The manosphere glossary also uses the contradictory phrase "involuntary celibacy" (incel).
  2. Where the King James translation reads "and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake", the New International Version says "and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven".
  3. These critics include at least one senior church figure, Hamburg Auxiliary Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke, who said: a "celibate lifestyle can attract people who have an abnormal sexuality and cannot integrate sexuality into their lives." Does Catholic celibacy contribute to child sex abuse?
  4. This in and of itself can be taken as an instance of following Jesus's advice to forgive transgressorsWikipedia a bit too well.