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My Q & A on ‘continence’, ‘celibacy’, and ‘chastity’

January 15, 2015

A Catholic Q & A columnist recently offered an explanation of terms “continence”, “celibacy”, and “chastity”. My explanation would have differed in several respects. Shall we?

Hi, and thanks for your question about “continence”, “celibacy”, and “chastity”. I understand why you are confused. These terms are widely misunderstood and misused not just in the secular media but even among Catholics.  Let me suggest how they are best used in Catholic contexts.

Celibacy is the chosen, deliberately made, resolve not to enter marriage. Celibacy is not simply ‘being single’ (else, every child is a ‘celibate’), but rather, it means having chosen to live single either for a while (e.g., till I finish grad school, or till my ailing mother dies) or for life (e.g., I have been ordained or I took permanent religious vows). Celibacy can be chosen for good reasons (e.g., I wish to follow the Lord more freely, or I wish to serve as a nurse in poor countries) or for bad reasons (e.g., I despise people and refuse to share my life with anyone), but, standing alone, celibacy means only that a choice not to enter marriage has been made and is being observed. Such a person, and only such a person, is properly called ‘celibate’.

That being understood, single persons, whether single because of circumstances (e.g., I have not yet met Miss Right, or my husband died last year) or because they are celibate, are restricted in the sexual activity they can engage in. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but those restrictions include what we will call “continence”. But when discussing celibacy, keep in mind that it is a chosen way of life, a way of life that has certain consequences, yes, but fundamentally, a way of life.

Continence is the choice not to engage in sexual relations. Again, the element of choice is important because simply not having sex does not necessarily mean that one is ‘continent’. A castaway on a desert island might have no food to eat but we would not say he is ‘dieting’, why? because ‘dieting’ implies that one makes a choice about not eating. Now, a single person (again, whether single by circumstances or because one is celibate) is required to exercise, among other things, continence. But married persons, too, might observe continence. Mary and Joseph are the classic examples: they were not, repeat not, celibate; they were, repeat were, continent.

Sometimes you will run across the phrase “periodic continence” or even notions like ‘selective continence’. I avoid these terms, because, continence, carefully considered, is usually tied to a state of life (chiefly, being single, but other possibilities exist) and hence  continence is of long (often permanent) duration; per se continence is not a response to circumstances in life. Example? a married couple might decide to give up conjugal relations during Lent, but the better description of their choice, because it is temporary, is “abstinence”; likewise a couple who avoids relations at certain times of the month as part of natural family planning—such couples are abstaining, not, properly speaking, observing continence. And to describe sexual fidelity to one’s spouse as ‘selective continence’ is just creepy.

Chastity is the exercise of that virtue whereby one’s sexual powers are used properly and in accord with one’s state in life. A non-married person (again, whether single or actually celibate) is chaste by observing, among other things, continence; but a married person is chaste by engaging in conjugal relations! In both cases it’s the same virtue at work—chastity, the proper use of one’s sexual powers—but the actions are obviously quite different. Similarly, if a married person does with a third-party exactly what is done with a spouse, that would be unchastity, even though the actions appear the same.

In short: the Church teaches that everyone is called to observe chastity at all times; she holds that all single persons are called to observe continence; and she recognizes that some single persons laudably choose celibacy as a way of life.

Okay? Best, edp.

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