Definitions are always the easiest part of an explanation, so let’s start with those. Celibacy is the perpetual renunciation of marriage for the sake of the reign of God. Religious orders of men and women normally embrace the celibate lifestyle as part of their vows or promises. It is the way of life practiced by those called to priestly ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. Although a married man may be ordained to the permanent diaconate, deacons may not marry after their ordination takes place, even upon the death of a spouse.
Chastity is a much broader term. It is the virtue that directs human sexuality toward its proper purpose. As such, while relatively few people adopt celibacy as a voluntary lifestyle, all of us are expected to practice chastity. Insofar as it defines the proper use of our sexuality, chastity differs according to our station in life. The single person is expected to refrain from sexual activity, just as the married person is to be faithful and singular in their sexual expression. The celibate person, as “single for the Kingdom,” exercises chastity like any other unmarried person. Chastity celebrates the church’s understanding of the gift of our sexuality as the binding force that draws couples together and creates a secure and nurturing environment for the family.
By contrast, the unchaste person invites chaos and suffering upon themselves and others. Unchastity jeopardizes the welfare of children, injures our capacity for fidelity, and opens wounds in marriages that frequently lead to their destruction. Unchastity for the celibate invites a misuse of power in relationships as well as imperiling the confidence of the community of faith.
Because chastity is a mandatory principle for Christians and celibacy a voluntary one, it helps to appreciate this virtue in its context. It is one of the twelve traditional fruits of the Holy Spirit along with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, and self-control. If we demonstrate any of these fruits, we’ll find our way to chastity quite naturally.
• Galatians 5:16-26 (the older, Vulgate translation says it best); Matthew 19:11-12; 1 Corinthians 7:8-17, 25-40 (caution: Saint Paul was expecting an imminent Second Coming of Jesus, as he makes clear)
• What is the Point of Being a Christian? by Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. (Burns and Oates/Continuum, 2005), especially chapter 5: “The Body Electric”
• Sex, Love & You: Making the Right Decision by Tom Lickona and Judy Lickona with William Boudreau, M.D. (rev. ed., Ave Maria Press, 2003)