views updated May 29 2018


CELIBACY , the deliberate abstinence from sexual activity, derives its religious value from the vital human significance of sex itself. The different roles played by celibacy in the world's religions then reflect different attitudes toward procreation and earthly existence. Thus, traditions oriented toward fecundity and wordly success, like those of most nonliterate peoples, rarely if ever enjoin permanent celibacy for anyone; only periods of temporary celibacy preceding and following childbirth and at crucial communal rituals are prescribed. The great traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, on the other hand, all oriented toward otherwordly goals, have firmly established roles for celibate monks working out their salvation. And smaller, extreme groups with radically negative views of life in the world may prescribe celibacy as an ideal for all. The reasons offered for celibacy consequently range from concerns for personal physical health to a total rejection of the physical body. Religious institutions, moreover, differ both in the ways of life that they prescribe for the celibate and in the image of the celibate that they present to laypersons.

Traditional Perceptions

The placement of deliberate religious restraints on physical behavior, celibacy is often explained within tradition through physiological as well as metaphysical concepts. Asian esoteric texts, moreover, can be most explicit about the spiritual potentials of reproductive energies. Traditional understandings of celibacy, then, present a continuity that spans ideas about marriage and procreation, spiritual powers, spiritual purity, and chaste marriage to the divine.

Temporary concentration of reproductive energies

The perception that sexual intercourse during pregnancy and lactation will harm an infant is found in many cultures, including some contemporary Western folk traditions. The larger worldviews in which this perception is embedded may thus vary immensely. For the Arapesh of New Guinea, the practice of temporary celibacy has a positive religious significance for procreation. According to Arapesh ideas, the fetus is shaped and nurtured by both parents through several weeks of frequent and purposeful intercourse after the mother's menstruation stops. Yet once the mother's breasts enlarge in the first obvious sign of pregnancy, the child is considered fully formed and all intercourse must cease. After the child is born, the parents are supposed to sleep together with it, devote their energies to it, and give it special attention. If either parent indulges in sexual activityeven with other partnersbefore the child can walk, they say that it will become weak and perhaps die. With infanticide common among the Arapesh, choosing to keep a child is a deliberate decision, and this extended celibacy surrounding childbirth, once chosen, is normally kept. Celibacy then appears to represent here a conscious channeling and concentration of the reproductive power of both parents for the good of the child, lineage, and community.

The power of holy persons

Adepts in the esoteric traditions of Asia are often aware of transmuting their reproductive power into spiritual power and channeling it within. This perception lies behind certain occult meditation techniques found in both India and Daoist China that draw on a tension between continence, in a strict sense, and sexual intercourse. Through entering a woman and still remaining continent, the male adept arouses sexual energy in both partners, which can then be absorbed inwardly for spiritual transformation. More often, however, adepts practice techniques that entail only physiological imagery: Daoist spiritual alchemy may lead to the generation of an immortal fetus; Hindu yogins speak of channeling the seed upward through higher centers of the body. For most adepts, then, total celibacy is crucial in order to preserve the spiritual potencies of their own seed, a point also affirmed in popular tradition: Hindu mythological texts are full of stories of ascetics who succumbed to lust and lost their powers.

Thus, the power of holy persons also depends in good part on their self-control. The word yoga, in fact, deriving from a root meaning "to yoke," can often be best understood in a very concrete sense: a willful harnessing of the vital energies, which are considered prone to rage like beasts. So even in traditions like Christianity that do not explicitly posit a direct continuity between sexual and spiritual energies, celibacy still appears as a measure of powerful mastery over the senses. Latin Catholicism gives us stories of triumphant (and faltering) ascetics struggling with incubi or succubi, attractive male or female spirits bent on seducing them. Among the American Shakers, a struggle with sexual desire became the distinctive focal point through which an active Protestant sect sought to reform human existence. For the Shakers, the world of sensual experience itself was so overwhelming that a break with it required radical means: absolute abstention. In this instance, perfect celibacy expresses an attempt at total self-mastery.

Separation from the impure

Ascetics who aim to subjugate the flesh usually have no high opinion of the gross physical matter that constitutes it. The eventual aim of controlling the sexual nature for many can then become the achievement of distance from a fundamentally impure, degenerate, and transient world. The perception of the physical body itself as disgusting and ultimately worthless may be actively cultivated in monastic traditions, sometimes through deliberate meditation practice. In the near-canonical Visuddhimagga, Theravāda Buddhist monks are enjoined to detach themselves from sensual desire by contemplating the dead body in various stages of decomposition (swollen, bluish, gnawed, worm-eaten) and the live body as filled, among other things, with intestines, excrement, bile, pus, fat, mucus, and urine (chaps. 6, 8). Sexual activity in this context can easily be seen as another disgusting physical function from which all wise people should abstain.

In nonliterate cultures, which usually have fewer qualms about the physical body, the impurity attributed to sex may stem in part from its potential danger to the social fabric. Built up out of kinship bonds, tribal societies may splinter over family tensions and conflicts about women. Temporary celibacy is thus often enjoined at crucial public rituals that highlight communal solidarityinitiations, hunting expeditions, the start of a group journey.

The image of chaste asexuality encompassing the common good is also found in Western religious institutions. Roman state religion, which is often, in fact, understood to derive from the religion of family and clan, exalted the Vestal Virgins. The keepers of Rome's communal hearth, the Vestal Virgins were legally neither men nor women. Buried alive if they violated their chastity, their most crucial obligation was celibacy itself. People in literate as well as nonliterate cultures, then, may believe that sacred institutions maintaining the welfare of humanity as a whole should depend on individuals in an extraordinary state, beyond human sexuality.

Ideas about the impurity of sex known both to the Roman world's ascetics and in its politico-religious institutions were assimilated and transformed by early Christians, who by the fourth century had recognized the source of their own religious institution in the virgin son of a virgin mother. For Christians, then, maintaining virginity can be an imitation of divine models and the purity of permanent celibacy can offer a constant tie to what is realized as primal in religious experience. Appearing as the original state of man born of the spirit, celibacy in Christianity, as in other traditions, promises innocenceeternal childhood in the Lord.

Exclusive attachment to the divine

Being an eternal child in God can free the celibate from many worldly responsibilities. Luke's reference to chaste persons as "equal to angels" (20:3536) suggests not only the innocence of celibates, but also their roles as agents of God, in no way beholden to man. Certainly, the ability to devote all of one's efforts to spiritual matters without the burden of family obligations is a very frequently voiced justification for celibacy in the East as well as in the West. In India, the practical implications of celibacy for a life devoted to religious pursuits has explicit expression in the semantic range of the Sanskrit word brahmacarya, which occurs very frequently in religious writings. Used most often to refer to sexual abstention, brahmacarya literally means "walking with brahman ", the primal divine essence; at the same time, brahmacarya may be used to refer specifically to the first stage in the traditional Hindu life cycle, which is supposed to be devoted to religious study. Thus, a word suggesting adherence to first divine principles explicitly links the concept of celibacy to distinctly religious pursuits and the absence of worldly, adult responsibilities.

In a highly dualistic theology, strict adherence to first principles can demand an absolute withdrawal from involvement in earthly endeavors. Abstinence from sex is required less to follow active religious pursuits freely than to desist from physical procreation. For a gnostic like Marcion (d. 160?), the physical world is the creation of a false god, not the true one; trapped in physical bodies, souls cannot return to their real, original home. From this perspective, making more physical bodies only means making more prisons for human souls, and keeping celibate represents a refusal to further the false, earthly creation.

By inhibiting fruitful physical unions, celibacy may also strengthen the devotee's spiritual union with the Lord. Indeed, in devotional traditions, physical sexual abstinence is often a sign of faithful attachment to the divine beloved. Hindu devotional poetry idealizes the stalwart devotee as the Lord's faithful wife, a concept institutionalized in Catholic orders that identify nuns as brides of Christ. Moreover, Christian as well as Hindu mystics sometimes express themselves in terms of nuptial ecstasy. Though the patriarchal heritages of East and West usually present the aspiring soul in feminine guise, dependent on the will of her Lord, men too can adopt a passionate devotional attitude. In India, both male and female devotees of Ka understand the highest spiritual state in terms of romantic love, and make much of Ka's amorous dalliance with the adoring milkmaids of his pastoral childhood home. Some theologians of Ka worship have further pointed out that the milkmaids were in fact married women, and that the most intense desire between men and women actually takes place outside routinized marriage, between clandestine lovers. So, paradoxically, the milkmaids' passionate attachment to Ka an important ideal for a large tradition of Indian celibatesis frequently represented as wives' unchaste betrayal of their husbands. Thus, as radical departures from ordinary convention, both celibacy and sexual abandon become religious parallels to one another.

The Place of Celibacy in Society

Like total sexual abandon, moreover, total abstinence is not a generally recommended practice in most traditions, and the social regulation of sexual behavior may entail curbs on celibacy as well as on indulgence. Indeed, traditional cultures often present celibacy and procreation in a complementary relationship, which can be ordered according to the calendrical cycle, the life cycle, or divisions in the society as a whole. At the same time, separate communities of celibates have their own norms of sexual propriety, and the maintenance of these norms is often crucial for the image of the celibate in the eyes of laypersons.

Procreation and abstinence in traditional societies

Clearly, no civilization can survive for long without some provision for procreation, and religious traditions with strong ethnic roots, like Confucianism and Judaism, may have no place at all for the permanent celibate. Although traditional Judaism proscribes sexual relations outside marriage, all Jews are expected to marry and engage regularly in conjugal relations. Indeed, the Sabbath itself is thought of as a bride, and to celebrate its arrival Jewish husbands are enjoined to have intercourse with their wives joyously on Sabbath eve. In Judaism, then, controlled religious pursuits should also embrace sanctified procreation throughout a mature person's life.

The most highly structured relationships between abstinence and procreation are found in traditional India, where classical Hindu tradition sees these relationships ordered not, as in Judaism, in a lifelong weekly cycle, but in the cycle of each individual life. The life stages of classical Hinduism are fourfold: (1) brahmacarya, a period of celibate study; (2) ghastha, the householder stage, in which traditional Hindus were expected to marry and have many children, particularly sons who would perform their death rites; (3) vanaprastha ("forest dwelling"), the later stage of marriage, after the children were fully raised and had received most of their inheritance, and when abstinence was prescribed; and finally (4) sanyāsa, the stage of total renunciation of settled life as well as sex. The classical Hindu life cycle, then, begins and ends in celibacy, but prescribes a sexually fruitful period of life as a householder in between.

Giving celibacy an explicit place in the individual life cycle, Hindu tradition also gives celibate individuals an explicit place in society. Hindus recognize that exceptional individuals will want to live all their lives as celibate ascetics, either prolonging their studies indefinitely as brahmacārin s or bypassing the householder stage by making early formal renunciation. Today, Hindus tend to collapse the first and last stages of the cycle and ignore the third, thus resolving the four stages of the life cycle into two social states: householders fruitfully participating in society, nurturing new souls, and supporting ascetics; and solitary celibates outside society, working out their own salvation. In most Indian cosmologies, the participation of householders as well as celibates is required in the proper economy of salvation in the cosmos.

Sexual norms in celibate groups

In Theravāda Buddhism, the complementary roles of the householder and celibate were institutionalized and given a distinctive religious valuation. The community of monksthe sagha should be supported by the laity, but the proper ordering of the cosmos (and so the welfare of the laity) depends on the sagha 's purity, conceived in good part as its sexual purity. Thus, in the Vinaya Piaka, the monastic disciplinary code, specific rules governed everyday practices that had even the most subtle sexual implications, from propriety in dress to contact with women. Atonement for even minor sexual infractions required not only confessions but also a formal legal decision handed down in a meeting of the community. Sexual intercourse with a woman was one of the few grounds for immediate expulsion from the sagha.

Perhaps more crucial than the rules regulating the contact between members of a celibate community and potential sexual partners outside it are those controlling the relationships among the community members themselves. These rules can be especially complex in celibate communities of mixed sex. The Shakers, a mixed celibate community founded by a woman, maintained strict segregation between the sexes; men and women were even to avoid passing each other on stairways. Taking in children and youths to raise, they kept them under tight control. Children were not allowed out at night except for some specific reason (and not for any reason on Saturday evenings); lest they be tempted, children even of the same sex were not to be left unattended at their weekly bath. In whole communities of the same sex, too, provisions are often made to inhibit physical contact among members. Though the Rule of Saint Benedict, which stands behind much of Western monastic life, has little explicit to say about celibacy itself, it does include provisions apparently aimed at the prevention of homosexuality. Monks should sleep in separate beds, clothed and with a light burning; though inmates of monasteries should sleep in groups, young monks should not sleep alone as a group but should be together with older ones (chap. 22). The abbots seemed to recognize that ideals of spiritual love among members of their communities could stand in practical tension with vows of celibacy.

Yet more often than not, the physical chastity of cloistered monks is rarely tested; the crucial spiritual role of sexual restrictions on celibates is less the prevention of sexual activity than of sexual thoughts. For celibates living outside the cloister, continually interacting with laypersons, temptation and desire can become particularly problematic. Necessary celibacy for diocesan priests has been frequently questioned, both inside and outside the Roman Catholic church. In pre-Reformation Europe, many priests openly took concubines, and the last half of the twentieth century has heard continuing discussion of the value of requiring celibacy for all priests. The tensions facing the modern priest are understandable: living in a sexually open society and as a confessor hearing detailed accounts of the intimate lives of individuals, he is nevertheless expected to exercise the same sexual disciplineboth mentally and physicallyof the cloistered monk.

The image for the layperson

The persistence of sacerdotal celibacy in Roman Catholic tradition may lie, in part, in the image that the priest holds for the laity. As an administrator of divine office, the priest is seen to function within the holy mother church and should reflect her virginal purity. The ideal of virginal purity for its officiants is maintained even in the Eastern Orthodox church: though married men are allowed to become priests, they are not allowed to rise to the highest episcopal office, and once a man has become a priest he may not take a wife. As representatives of a sacred institution regarded as pure, Buddhist monks project a similar image of chaste holiness in Theravāda society. Like priests, monks are formal participants in Theravāda ritual, much of which involves the feeding of monks by laypersons. The religious power of the rite for laypersons depends in part on the monks' perceived purity.

A vow of celibacy, moreover, can make individuals appear remarkable beyond the confines of sanctified ritual. No longer appearing as ordinary mortals, celibates can be relaxed in their socioreligious roles. The Roman Catholic priest can joke and gossip with parishioners and not have to worry too much about a decorous image. A Theravāda monk, even if he is not particularly charismatic, at least withstands the rigors of chastityan experience familiar to many male Theravadins who have temporarily taken the robe. Among Hindu gurus, the married ones may feel constrained to appear particularly scrupulous in financial matters; celibate gurus, on the other hand, not burdened by family responsibilities, are said to be more easily trusted. And in all traditions, celibate hermits who do not interact readily with laypersons may, through their renunciation of society, seem awesome and powerful.


In setting individuals apart from normal life, deliberate celibacy can render them extraordinary both to themselves and to others. In crucial situations, temporary abstinence is undertaken by members of many cultures, either to achieve distance from impurity during rituals or to channel reproductive energy at the birth of a child. In religions oriented toward salvation, more permanent vows of celibacy affirm the links of individuals to powers higher than this world, often as members of sanctified institutions. In these ways, celibacy makes people seem less grossly, physically human, and thus, sometimes, more divine.

See Also

Asceticism; Desire; Kualinī; Sanyāsa; Tantrism; Virginity.


For an extensive survey of celibacy in Christianity with a brief treatment of Asian traditions see Elizabeth Abbott, A History of Celibacy (New York, 2000). For small-scale societies, see the essays in Celibacy, Culture, and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence (Madison, 2001) edited by Elisa Janine Sobo and Sandra Bell. In Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality (New York, 1970), Charles Luk presents a translation of a turn-of-the-century Chinese text that treats the spiritual transformation of sexual energies. Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (Princeton, 1969), treats this dimension of celibacy along with many others in Hindu religious traditions. Social-scientific insight on the role of celibate monks in Theravāda Buddhist culture is presented in S. J. Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand (Cambridge, 1970). A socio-religious perspective on the Shakers is given by Louis J. Kern, who presents them as a radical Protestant community: An Ordered Love (Chapel Hill, 1981).

Incisive accounts of issues surrounding celibacy in the first Christian centuries are offered by Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York, 1988). Later Christian traditions are treated in the essays in Medieval Purity and Piety: Essays on Medieval Clerical Celibacy and Religious Reform (New York, 1998), edited by Michael Frassetto. Contemporary concerns about celibacy in Catholicism, together with a concise historical survey, are presented by Thomas McGovern, Priestly Celibacy Today (Princeton and Chicago, 1998).

Daniel Gold (1987 and 2005)


views updated May 11 2018


Celibacy is the voluntary renunciation of sexual activity either for a specific period or for the remainder of one's life. It differs from virginity, the biological state of never having had sexual intercourse, because one can voluntarily commit to celibacy before or after having been sexually active. Celibacy also differs from chastity, which refers to refraining from inappropriate sexual activity. For example, a married person is chaste if she or he is monogamous and modest in social relationships. Thus, one can be chaste while not being celibate, and one can be celibate while not being a virgin.

Throughout history, from ancient times to the present, men and women in both the East and the West have opted to practice celibacy for a variety of reasons including the philosophical, religious, and practical. Some cultures believed that celibacy was the only way to rid oneself of the impurities of the body and its passions in order to attain holiness and ritual purity, an ideal still held by some in the twenty-first century. In former times, particularly in the Middle Ages, celibacy was also a means for women to escape the domination of a husband in a traditional marriage. In the mid- to late-twentieth century, however, celibacy became one way for many to assert their autonomy, redirect energy, and avoid disease.


When celibacy is thought about in the twenty-first century, it is usually associated with negative attitudes towards the body, sex, and reproduction. In fact, such negativity was a factor in the origins of celibacy as an institution in both the Western and Eastern worlds.

In the West

One of the major reasons for celibacy in the Western world is the belief that the body and its senses are obstacles to a moral life. The popularity of this line of thought can be attributed mainly to the Greek philosopher Plato who wrote in the fourth century bce. His philosophy, known as dualism, holds that humans consist of two elements, a body and a soul. The soul is the seat of rational thought, while the body is the source of appetites and emotions, which hinder the rationality of the soul. Morality, for Plato, means being able to know the good through reason, but to do this one has to first control the sensual appetites of the body.

This philosophical dualism is also the basis of Greek mystery religions, whose adherents believed that the immortal soul is capable of knowing divine truths. Through observing secret rites and practicing asceticism—that is, the denial of sensual pleasures—one's soul could be released from its bodily prison and attain communion with the gods. This belief was adopted by the Essenes, a Jewish community that separated itself from the corrupt world to live a rigorously disciplined life at the beginning of the Common Era. Many members practiced celibacy to avoid being contaminated by sexual intercourse and to free their immortal souls from the bonds of the flesh. While some Essenes did marry, it was only to produce offspring; therefore, fertility was the chief requirement of a prospective wife. Most members, however, rejected marriage because they believed women to be disruptive and to create disharmony because of their sensuality. Woman's association with the body made her more emotional than men and hence an obstacle to his spiritual life. Celibacy was a means to avoid such negative influence.

That sexual activity distracts and prohibits one from having a spiritual life was a part of Christianity from its early years. The idea appears as early as Paul's first letter to the Corinthians written in the middle of the first century ce, in which he suggests that married people abstain from sex to leave themselves free for prayer (1 Cor. 7:5). An even better way, says Paul, is to be like him, that is, to remain celibate (1 Cor. 7:7), because an unmarried man can devote himself to the Lord's affairs (1 Cor. 7:32). While Christians were free to choose marriage, particularly if they were weak and liable to be tempted, Paul saw celibacy as the way of perfection. He also thought women capable of celibacy and included widows in his directive (1 Cor. 7:8). It is at this time that the first women celibates held special positions in the community, often as collaborators with the clergy.

In the fourth century, when persecution of Christians ceased and the ascetic life became institutionalized, monks and nuns committed themselves totally to God by fleeing to the desert and renouncing all earthly pleasures including sexual activity. Thus celibacy became an intricate part of monasticism. It was against this backdrop and with the knowledge of Plato's philosophy that the most influential Christian theologian, St. Augustine (354–430), lived and wrote. In his City of God (14:17-18) Augustine claims that the sexual impulse is a result of original sin and is, itself, a source of sin and shame. He reduced the role of sexuality to that of procreation and viewed any pleasure derived from the act as interfering with one's spiritual life. Celibacy, where the passions are always in control, is the ideal state by which to achieve union with God.

Both Plato and Augustine hold to the Greek view of the divided self, the higher part being the rational soul that governs the lower irrational part, the appetites, and passions. In the context of their writings, men have been associated with rationality and women with the passions and sexuality. Like the Essenes of ancient Judaism, these major thinkers believed that women's sole purpose was to bear and nurture children, and this purely physical function rendered it much more difficult for women to achieve holiness. They were also the source of sexual passion and, therefore, had to be controlled by men.

The Christian Church in the West continued to be influenced by these philosophies, and in the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590–604), a former monk, strongly advocated celibacy among the clergy. It was not until 1074, however, that another former monk, Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073–1085), made it compulsory in the hopes of reforming the hedonistic Christian world with monastic asceticism (Abbott 2000). In the early twenty-first century, only the priests of the Roman Catholic Church are required to be celibate. There is little mention in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) about the sinfulness of the body, but negative attitudes are still present when the priest is told that, in order to serve the church well, he must mortify the deeds of the flesh in himself, that is, be celibate (Paul VI 1965).

Closely linked to the belief that sexual activity is sinful is the concept of ritual purity. In order for religious leaders to perform sacred ceremonies, they must be pure—in other words, have abstained from sexual activity. As far back as the seventh century bce, there were vestal virgins serving Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, by tending Rome's sacred fire, a symbol of Rome itself. This task was of utmost importance because, were this fire to be extinguished, battles would be lost and Rome would be destroyed. This and other important duties had to be entrusted to one who was pure and incorruptible, and only the vestal virgin's celibacy could ensure such purity. Young girls were chosen from wealthy families at the age of ten and were committed to thirty years of celibacy after which they were free to marry, but, in fact, few chose to do so after having lived most of their life in a privileged celibate state (Abbott 2000). Ritual purity was also required in ancient Greece, where priests and priestesses were to remain celibate before performing sacred rites.

In Christianity, the celebration of the Eucharist was so sacred that, by the fourth century, it was believed that sexual intercourse would make the priest unworthy to perform the rite. Married priests would have to abstain from sex the night before Mass, and, eventually, when daily Mass became a common practice, would have to not marry at all, hence, the support for mandatory celibacy. Ritual purity remains a reason for celibacy in the Catholic Church as indicated in the Vatican II document Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, which states, "inasmuch as they celebrate the mystery of the Lord's death they should keep their bodies free of wantonness and lusts."

In the East

While the cultures in India, China, and Japan value marriage and family, there are traces of negative attitudes toward the body and sexuality in the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. These religions believe that the body is a temporary home for the inner soul or, in the case of Buddhism, for the no-self, and is an impediment to ultimate liberation or enlightenment. In order to achieve these goals, therefore, one must renounce worldly attachments and bodily pleasures, including sexuality.

While there are many different strands of Hinduism, they are united by the common idea that one must be born again and again to ultimately reach final liberation, or moksha. One's soul, or atman, is ultimately united with divine reality, or Brahman, the source of all things, when it is freed from the body, which can be achieved in various ways. One common idea is that men of the upper castes follow four stages of life, two of which require celibacy. The first is the student life, brahmacharya, in which the student's discipline includes control over sexual passions in order to become mentally strong. In the second stage of householder, grihastha, one marries, has children, and participates in social and political life. The third stage is retirement, vanaprastha, when most financial responsibilities are over and it is time to slow down and practice meditation. The fourth and final stage, sanyasa, is the preparation for salvation when one severs all relationships and attachments and frees the mind of desires (Prinja 2002). Clearly, according to this schema, the Hindu believes that, because sexual activity distracts from both learning and attaining salvation, celibacy must be practiced both in the first and last stages of life.

Celibacy is also practiced by other renouncers in Hinduism such as sādhus. These are ascetics who leave a conventional lifestyle and undertake austerities in order to purify the mind and body. They are able to achieve liberation, or moksha, by dedicating themselves solely to meditation and contemplation of God. Some are wandering mendicants (beggars), some live alone in caves, forests, and temples, while still others join orders and live in communities, or ashramas. Sādhus are supported mostly by people who believe that their donations can rid them of bad karma and bring them closer to moksha. While the majority of sādhus are men, late-twentieth-century government census data indicate there are some concentrated populations of female renunciants called sādhvīs in parts of India (Clark 2005). According to Hindu philosophy, sādhus, sādhvīs, and others wanting to have a spiritual life must receive training from a guru, or mentor, who, in order to provide this training, must be pure and sinless, which, in Hinduism, requires celibacy (Prinja 2002).

There is another more philosophical strand of Hinduism called Vedanta, meaning after the Vedas, whose followers lead a celibate monastic life. This philosophy holds that the ultimate unchanging reality, or Brahman, dwells within people as the divine self, or atman, and one's goal in life is to realize this divinity within. One of the largest orders of Vedanta monks and nuns is that founded by Ramakrishna (1836–1886) in the nineteenth century and in the early twenty-first century has headquarters throughout the world. Ramakrishna required his followers to practice celibacy for two reasons: to conserve energy and redirect it to self-realization and to avoid distractions of the body so that one can unite one's spirit with God or Brahman.

Buddhism was an outgrowth of Hinduism in that the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama (c. 563–c. 483 bce), finding that the ascetic practices of Hinduism did not answer his questions about the meaning of life, meditated under the bodhi tree until he found the answers. This moment of realization gave him the title Buddha, meaning "the enlightened one." As a result of this meditation he discovered and taught the four noble truths: (1) all life is suffering; (2) suffering is caused by desires; (3) to eliminate suffering one needs to eliminate desires; and (4) one eliminate desires by following the eightfold path, which consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These eight injunctions can be summarized in the basic moral principle of compassion through self-discipline. Buddhism is not dualistic like the philosophy of Plato but rather monistic, that is, there are not two ultimate realities of body and spirit but only one, nirvana, or the state of liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. Nevertheless, Buddhism does say that the body and its cravings are "empty," that is, are not substantial or enduring and therefore must be transcended to achieve this liberation. Further, the idea of women being temptresses because of their uncontrollable sexuality and emotions exists throughout early Buddhist literature. For this reason the Buddha was reluctant to admit women to the monastic community, the sangha, and did so only if they submitted to the authority of the male monks (Paul 1985).

In Theravāda Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, the celibate male monk who has renounced the world and its desires is the one who is closest to liberation. Mahāyāna Buddhism, on the other hand, which exists in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan, teaches that laypeople as well as monks can be enlightened and, therefore, places less importance on the necessity of celibacy. However, in approximately 100 bce, when this type of Buddhism was in its early stages, women were so identified with bodily passions that they would have to be reborn as a man in order to attain liberation (Willis 1999).

A third religion growing from Hinduism is Jainism. Its founder, Mahāvīra (c. 599–527 bce), established a community based on severe asceticism. The main tenet is nonviolence, or ahimsa, which is accompanied by other disciplines, including non-attachment, or aparigraha, and celibacy, or brahmacharya. Like Buddhism, Jainism believes that passions, particularly sexual ones, are the root cause of unhappiness, and if indulged, they will lead to higher levels of dissatisfaction. Jainism, however, accepted women as nuns from the beginning and appeared to be much more egalitarian in its treatment of them, giving them access to education and the reading of sacred texts. But in spite of these divergences from tradition, this community still reflects the negative attitudes toward the body and its passions, and still requires nuns to be subordinate to monks regardless of their age (Balbir 1999).


Negative attitudes toward the body and sexuality were not the only motivations for celibacy throughout history. An understanding of past societies and their narrow definitions of gender roles provides a context within which to view celibacy as a means of freeing one from social constraints.

In the West

Celibacy has also been embraced for positive reasons throughout history, especially by women. In cultures that limited their roles to wife and mother, celibacy freed women to devote themselves to lives of service and study. In the early Christian Church, some women committed themselves to the celibate life not only for spiritual reasons but also for freedom to serve the community. Widows, being allowed to keep their husband's inheritance, pulled together and formed an independent group who had considerable influence in the early communities (Ruether 1998).

Beginning in the fourth century, there were many female ascetics who left noble families and rejected marriage in order to form new communities for themselves and other women. Unlike their contemporaries, these religious females were educated in languages, the arts, and theology and were able to write prose and poetry and circulate them to other communities (Ruether 1998). Hence, posterity is now able to read and be inspired by the writings of Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210–c. 1283), and Julian of Norwich (1342–after 1416).

With the advent of the women's movement in the mid-twentieth century, the idea of a committed celibate life no longer holds the same promise of freedom it once did. The modern woman has many opportunities for education, a profession, and, if she wishes, a life of service without necessarily embracing celibacy. As a result, the convents of nuns have far fewer applicants, and other celibate groups often have members who commit to them only for a limited period rather than for life.

In the East

In India, women are expected to marry, often to someone chosen by their parents. However, there are stories of women throughout history who have deliberately rejected the role of wife and mother to be free to live a life of devotion. For example, Lalleshvari, who lived in the fourteenth century, sought freedom from an abusive marriage by seeking a guru to mentor her in the ascetic life (Johnsen 1994). Another woman, Mīrā Bāī (c. 1450–c. 1547), considered herself the bride of the god Krishna from a very early age. She wrote and sang songs as she wandered throughout India followed by many of her devotees. Legend has it that those who wanted her to marry a prince threatened her with death, but her resolve never wavered and she has become a model for early-twenty-first-century women who choose to reject marriage and live a celibate life.

In the early twenty-first century, there are many women saints of all ages in Hinduism, both in India and throughout the world, who are considered to be incarnations of the goddess Devi and are leading lives of celibacy and teaching and mentoring others on the spiritual path. Because widows are considered inauspicious in India, women who have lost their husbands often seek freedom from the oppression of society by becoming sādhvīs and embracing an ascetic lifestyle, which includes permanent celibacy (Clark 2005).

The traditions of Jainism and Buddhism developed as heretical sects that allowed women to join monastic communities and lead ascetic lives. The overwhelming number of women who followed the strict asceticism of Jainism (one source gives 36,000 female ascetics to 14,000 males under its founder Mahāvīra in the sixth century bce) suggests that women followed a spiritual yearning that freed them from traditional societal demands (Murcott 1991). Around the same time, during the early years of Buddhism, women who joined Buddhist sanghas were also going against prevailing social norms. According to historians, these Buddhist nuns, or bhikṣuṇīs, freely left a family life to obtain spiritual realization unavailable to the woman who was a traditional wife and mother. Even as Buddhism spread to China and Tibet, cultures where most women were illiterate, women realized that going to a monastery afforded them freedom from unwanted marriages and provided security and educational opportunities. Buddhist nuns historically were scholars, a vocation that no woman of ancient times could hold in the outside world (Abbott 2000). While in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries not all Buddhist nuns have been celibate for life, their value of asceticism allows freedom from the pull of modern materialistic societies driven by passions and possessions. Hence, in the early twenty-first century, monasteries are not located only in Asia: They are growing in first-world Europe and the United States at a rapid rate.


Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, society has become more and more sexually oriented. Teenagers are having sex at a younger age, and teen pregnancies have risen. The television, movie, and music industries, knowing that sex sells, are pushing the sexual content of their products to new limits. Cosmetics and clothes are all geared to keeping men and women looking, smelling, and feeling sexy, and the pharmaceutical industry is dedicated to producing products that enhance sexual activity. This sex-focused culture, however, is also giving rise to a record number of sexually transmitted diseases, including the pandemic of AIDS. Against this backdrop, celibacy has acquired new meaning. While it is apparently counter to all that is socially acceptable, it is being embraced by many for just that reason. Since the mid-1980s there have been a growing number of people, especially women, who view sexual liberation as no liberation at all. Rather than freeing them to make choices, it requires them to make one choice, to have sex and to maintain their sexual attractiveness.

In her 1993 study of celibacy among women, Sally Cline reveals that many women believe that celibacy offers them strength, a sense of personal identity and independence, and creative time and energy for growth and work, which conventional sexual activity has not allowed them. Men also recognize that casual relationships, promoted by the image of the male stud, are no longer satisfying and that hormonal energy can be channeled into higher experiences. Celibacy can also be, for men and women alike, the ultimate expression of individuality and independence (Poulter 2006). With the advent of the Internet, these ideas are appearing more and more frequently on web pages, in chat rooms, and in online articles. The fear of sexually transmitted diseases, while always a motivator for abstaining from sexual activity, has become only one of many reasons to embrace celibacy, if not for a lifetime, at least for a period of time in which one has a chance to discover one's self, be free from conventional pressures, and experience autonomy in a new way.

It seems as though history is repeating itself. Gender roles, once so rigid in the Middle Ages, seem just as rigid in the early twenty-first century except in opposite ways. Forced marriages and confinement to family life for both men and women have given way to forced sexual activity, extramarital sex, and the pressure of sexual performance. In both these situations, celibacy has been a way to move out of social expectations and into a more meaningful sense of self. It appears that, far from being outdated, celibacy is a state that will always have its advocates and practitioners.


Abbott, Elizabeth. 2000. A History of Celibacy. New York: Scribner.

Balbir, Nalini. 1999. "Jainism." In Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion, ed. Serinity Young. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

Clark, Matthew. 2005. "Sadhus and Sadhvis." In Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd edition. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.

Cline, Sally. 1993. Women, Passion, and Celibacy. New York: Carol Southern Books.

Johnsen, Linda. 1994. Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India. St. Paul, MN: Yes International Publishers.

Murcott, Susan. 1991. The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

Paul, Diana Y. 1985. Women in Buddhism. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Paul VI. 1965. Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests. December 7. Vatican City: Vatican. Available from http://www.vatican.va.

Poulter, Martin. 2006. "The Celibate FAQ." Celibate Webring. Available from http://www.glandscape.com/celibate.html.

Prinja, Nawal K., ed. 2002. Explaining Hindu Dharma: A Guide for Teachers. 2nd edition. Surrey, UK: Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. 1998. Women and Redemption: A Theological History. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Willis, Janice D. 1999. "Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Arhats." In Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion, ed. Serinity Young. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

                                             Maura O'Neill


views updated May 23 2018


Celibacy is the practice of remaining unmarried for religious reasons. The term derives from the Latin caelebs and caelibatus, meaning "single" or "alone," and usually refers to the state of being unmarried. The practice of celibacy includes the intentional abstinence from sexual relations. While the word directly pertains to the state of being unmarried, a marriage may be described as "celibate" when a couple chooses to refrain from genital sexual activity.

Celibacy is adopted for various purposes, but most commonly for spiritual and ascetical reasons. Seeing it as a spiritual discipline that can enrich the life of prayer, religious traditions acknowledge that celibacy involves self-denial and renunciation. The practice of celibacy is found in various forms in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Permanent celibacy is rare in Confucianism. In American Judaism, which places great emphasis on marriage and family, the practice is all but nonexistent. In Buddhism and Christianity, persons who choose celibacy often reside together in religious communities.

The practice of celibacy is generally not widespread within mainline Protestant communities in the United States. However, one Protestant group known as the American Shakers did adopt strict observance of the practice. Beginning in the 1840s, this Christian group practiced celibacy as protection from what it saw as threats by the sensual, physical world. By the late twentieth century only a small number of American Shakers remained. Among U.S. Christian churches, the practice of celibacy is most often identified with the Roman Catholic Church, which requires a promise of celibacy for members of religious orders and for priests and bishops.

Origins and Historical Development

In Christianity, the practice of celibacy has a long and complex history. The earliest origins of the practice can be traced to religious cultic observance and to customs of sexual abstinence. Jewish Levitical laws of ritual purity and cleanliness influenced the liturgical practices of the first Christians. For centuries, Christianity has understood the celibate lifestyle to be a radical following of the example of Jesus Christ, who was unmarried. Christians believe that through the renunciation of the positive values of married life the celibate person embraces a deeply intimate spiritual relationship and union with Jesus Christ. Early believers were required to abstain from sexual activity in preparation for reception of the Eucharist, as priests were required to abstain from sexual relations for certain periods of time prior to offering sacrifice at the altar. At the end of the fourth century these customs led to sexual abstinence laws for then married priests. The monastic movements of the tenth and eleventh centuries also influenced the practice, as the celibate lives of monks gradually came to be seen as an ideal for all priests. Economic issues also played a role in clerical celibacy as churches dealt with questions related to the inheritance of church property by the children of priests. In the twelfth century, ritual laws of sexual abstinence for priests led to official church laws on celibacy. At the First Lateran Council, in 1123, the Roman Catholic Church formally required celibacy of all members of the clergy. During the Second Lateran Council, in 1139, canon law forbade the ordination of married men to the priesthood. Since the twelfth century in the West, celibacy has remained a universal requirement for ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood. In the East, Christianity followed a different course, as many churches allowed the marriage of priests and deacons prior to ordination while forbidding marriage after ordination. Some Eastern churches continue to require a promise of celibacy by bishops.

Two major forms of the practice exist in present-day Christianity. First, celibacy is a monastic or ascetical practice whereby an individual makes a commitment to a religious way of life that precludes marriage. In this view, celibacy is seen as a symbolic manifestation of a Christian's status as a stranger or pilgrim in the world. Second, clerical celibacy is a practice whereby priests, bishops, and ministers remain unmarried as part of their service in the church. In this view, celibacy is seen as integral and necessary for clerical life in the church. The Christian practice of celibacy has often been described as a special gift "for the Kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:10–12; 1 Corinthians 7:7; 32–33) that enables ministers to be uniquely available for the service of others. Celibacy is seen as a gift and a special calling that is accepted by some Christians as a way to live their faith in the world.

Contemporary Questions

For centuries, Christians have both embraced and questioned the practice of celibacy. In recent years, the practice of mandatory clerical celibacy has become the subject of considerable debate in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church. Since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, studies have predicted that a present shortage of priests will worsen due to retirements, fewer men entering seminaries, and departures from active priestly ministry. The requirement of priestly celibacy is frequently cited as one explanation for the decline in the numbers of U.S. Catholic priests. In 1975, approximately 57,500 priests served a Catholic population of about 48 million persons. In 1998, the Roman Catholic Church was the largest single U.S. religious denomination, with more than 61 million members. In that same year there were approximately 47,500 priests in active service. Since church law requires that a priest preside at the celebration of the Eucharist, theologians continue to study how these recent trends may affect this important Catholic ritual. In recent years, theologians have also begun to examine the relationship between celibacy and the nature of the priesthood itself. In 1965 the Second Vatican Council declared that celibacy "is not demanded of the priesthood by its nature," but the council strongly affirmed the suitability of the practice for priestly ministry. In the United States and elsewhere there have been calls for study of the feasibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood. Some bishops from Eastern Christian churches in North America—such as the Melkite Catholic Church—have recently ordained married male deacons to the priesthood.

Scholars continue to study how ecumenical dialogue between Eastern and Western Churches may be affected by these developments. Since 1965, the Roman Catholic Church has reaffirmed its teachings on mandatory priestly celibacy. Vatican II's decree on the priesthood, Presbyterorum ordinis, states that celibacy is "in harmony with the priesthood" and is "a feature of priestly life." In 1967, Pope Paul VI warmly praised priestly celibacy in the encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus and taught that the practice signified a love that "is open to all." Since 1978, Pope John Paul II has consistently endorsed and reaffirmed these earlier teachings. It is likely that discussion and debate about celibacy will continue in the U.S. Catholic Church for years to come.

See alsoChastity; Clergy; Deacon; Encyclical; Practice; Priesthood; Roman Catholicism; Sexuality; Spirituality; Vatican II.


Bassett, William, and Peter Huizing, eds. Celibacy in theChurch. 1972.

Frazee, Charles A. "The Origins of Clerical Celibacy in the Western Church." Church History 57 (1988): 108–126.

Garrity, Robert M. "Spiritual and Canonical Values in Mandatory Priestly Celibacy." Studia Canonica 27 (1993): 217–260.

Pope Paul VI. Sacerdotalis caelibatus (The Celibacy of the Priest). 1967.

Schillebeeckx, Edward. Celibacy, translated by C. A. L. Jarrott. 1968.

Vatican Council II. Presbyterorum ordinis (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests). 1965.

Francis T. Hannafey, S.J.


views updated Jun 11 2018

celibacy The ideal of celibacy — abstaining from sexual activity for religious or spiritual reasons — exists within several religions. It has been an ideal within Christianity from the earliest times. Jesus spoke of those who are ‘eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 19: 12), and Paul recommended celibacy as the best way of living, for it enabled a person to be free from distracting ‘worldly’ concerns, especially the household, children, and sex — and for men, the worldly was particularly represented by the female body — and therefore free to serve Christ. Thus, for many centuries, especially in the West, marriage was regarded as an inferior option for Christians, for those who needed to produce heirs or could not practice self-control because they did not have the ‘gift’ of celibacy. Only at the Reformation, when Protestant reformers began to privilege and justify marriage, was this view seriously challenged. Even in the post-Reformation period, there have been new Christian groups which have set celibacy as an ideal or rule, most notably the Shakers in nineteenth-century America, who formed communities of celibate men and women to live a simple life together. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican monastic communities retain the ideal of celibacy to this day.

In the early Church celibacy had been an individual vocation, so marriage was not incompatible with holding ecclesiastical office; but beginning with the canons of the Council of Elvira (c.306), the Church in the West increasingly moved towards clerical celibacy as the norm; married men who were ordained were urged to put aside their wives, go on living with them as sister and brother, or exchange vows of continence with them; their wives might then become deaconesses or join a monastic community. Throughout the later Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church attempted to enforce clerical celibacy, not always with great success; the second Lateran Council (1139) made clerical marriages invalid. Clerical celibacy remains the rule in the Roman Catholic despite pressures in the late twentieth century to change this. The Church of England allowed clerical marriage in 1549, as did the Protestant churches at the Reformation. The Eastern Orthodox churches have always allowed their priests and deacons to marry before ordination, though not after, and their bishops must be celibate.

Within Buddhism, celibacy is a permanent vocation for monks and nuns. Within Hinduism, celibacy is part of the fourth and final stage — samnyasa — for the Hindu who is following the Vedic way. This is the stage of renouncing all ties to family, caste, and property. Within a number of religions, reactions to celibacy are mixed. For Sikhs, it is not an ideal, for the Gurus taught that the married state (grihastha ashrama) was the ideal. But there are two Sikh groups that dissent from this: the Udasis (meaning ‘withdrawn’ or ‘dejected’) are an ascetic order, also forbidden to consume flesh, tobacco, or spirits; they wear salmon-coloured clothing and are clean shaven, though they often have long, matted hair. The Nirmalas (meaning ‘spotless’ or ‘pure’) are a learned monastic group who live in monasteries called akharas (meaning ‘wrestling arenas’) and wear saffron robes. Islam is generally hostile to celibacy, emphasizing the God-given goodness of creation, though Sufism, especially in its beginnings, has emphasized the strong control of body and spirit via ascetical practices, including celibacy. Early Sufi leaders saw lust as one of the seven gates to hell, one Sufi leader even going so far as to say that Sufism was founded on celibacy.

Judaism has generally not advocated celibacy, seeing marriage as important for the fulfilment of procreation as commanded in Genesis 1: 28. The High Priest in Temple times had to be married (Leviticus 21: 13) and the unmarried were barred from holding various public offices, though there were two important Jewish first-century Ascetic groups. The Therapeutae (Latin, ‘healers’), described by Philo, lived in Egypt in solitude, poverty, and (as far as was possible) celibacy, meditating on spiritual writings. Both men and women could be members. Every fiftieth day, they gathered for a meal and sang and danced. The all-male Essene community by the Dead Sea (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947) sought to bring Israel back to God by their own rigorous and celibate way of life. This relationship between apocalyptic beliefs and the ideal of celibacy forms the backdrop to Jesus' preaching about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was intimately entwined with his call to follow him and leave behind all family ties. Thus in Christianity, the celibate was seen to anticipate the state of the human being at resurrection — described by some as a state in which the sexes do not exist and there is no place for marriage. The celibate therefore sought to return to his or her original — that is pre-Fall — state. As Genesis records Adam and Eve as having had sexual intercourse only after the Fall, sexual renunciation was a vital component in acquiring this pre-lapsarian ‘state’. This meant the transcendence of gender, and while, for some celibates at least, it meant that the body was seen as alien to the true self, many explored the possibilities of that transcendence. Celibacy, and the ascetic way of life in general, were appealing because they allowed any Christian, regardless of gender or social status, to transcend what their body represented in this world; this was particularly appealing for women, especially élite women, whose bodies functioned primarily to produce heirs and thereby circulate wealth in the Roman world. That some writers spoke of Christian women ‘becoming male’ to indicate their great holiness illustrates the double-edged nature of this ideal of celibacy for women. Suspicion of the female body, and projection onto it of all the male celibate's fears of ‘the world’ exists within Christianity generally, and has existed particularly within the monastic communities from the fourth century onwards, and is shared by Buddhism and the early Sufis.

Jane Shaw


Brown, P. (1988). The body and society, men, women and sexual renunciation in early Christianity. Columbia University Press, New York.

See also asceticism; chastity; religion and the body.


views updated May 29 2018


The deliberate renunciation of marriage is all but completely alien to Judaism. Scarcely any references to celibates are to be found in the Bible or in the Talmud, and no medieval rabbi is known to have lived as a celibate (see L. Loew, Gesammelte Schriften, 2 (1890), 112; 3 (1893), 29ff.). The demands of celibacy were included neither among the acts of self-denial imposed upon the Nazirite (Num. 6:1–21), nor among the special restrictions incumbent upon the priesthood (Lev. 21:1–15). Celibacy among Jews was a strictly sectarian practice; Josephus ascribes it to some of the *Essenes (Wars 2:120–21). Equally exceptional is the one solitary case of the talmudist Simeon ben *Azzai who explained his celibacy with the words: "My soul is fond of the Law; the world will be perpetuated by others" (Yev. 63b).

The norm of Jewish law, thought, and life is represented rather by the opening clause in the matrimonial code of the Shulḥan Arukh: "Every man is obliged to marry in order to fulfill the duty of procreation, and whoever is not engaged in propagating the race is as if he shed blood, diminishing the Divine image and causing His Presence to depart from Israel" (Sh. Ar., eh 1:1). The law even provides for the courts to compel a man to marry if he is still single after passing the age of 20 (ibid., 1:3). Since the late Middle Ages, however, such authority has not been exercised (Isserles, ad loc.). Only if a person "cleaves to the study of the Torah like Simeon b. Azzai" can his refusal to marry be condoned, provided he can control his sexual lust (ibid. 4).

The Jewish opposition to celibacy is founded first on the positive precept to "be fruitful and multiply" as a cardinal duty to perpetuate life, a duty which also underlies the attitude of Judaism toward *birth control. Second, celibacy is incompatible with the Jewish scheme of creation in which a man is regarded as half a human being unless he be married, and in which "he who is without a wife lives without joy, without blessing,… without peace" (Yev. 62b, based on Gen. 5:2). Third, far from regarding celibacy as a means to the attainment of holiness, Judaism views it as an impediment to personal sanctification. This is strikingly illustrated by the rabbinic use of the term kiddushin ("sanctification") for marriage and by the insistence that the high priest be married (Lev. 21:13), especially at the time when he officiates in the Holy of Holies on the holiest day of the year (Yoma 1:1, based on Lev. 16:6, 11, and 17). For similar reasons, unmarried people are also debarred from holding certain public and religious offices, notably as judges in capital cases (Sanh. 36b) and as synagogue readers (Sof. 14:17; cf. oḤ 53:9). Jewish moralists in all ages have advocated severe self-control and occasionally even a measure of asceticism, but they did not encourage celibacy or any form of monasticism (although exceptionally there was a note of sympathy, cf. Baḥya's Ḥovot ha-Levavot 193, Abraham b. Ḥiyya's Meditation of the Sad Soul 133, and Abraham Maimonides' Highways of Perfection 249, 265, 279). Their writings and teachings reveal no trace of the condemnation of marriage as a compromise with evil, a concept already found in the New Testament (Mat. 19:12; i Cor. 7:9; Luke 20:27–36). The notion that there was something immoral in marriage was refuted in a special tract by *Naḥmanides as early as the 13th century (Graetz, Gesch, 7 (19083), 41).

[Immanuel Jakobovits]


views updated May 23 2018

Celibacy. A state of life without marriage, undertaken for religious or spiritual reasons. Celibacy was not practised among the Jews.

In Christianity, celibacy rests on the demand for the renunciation of family ties ‘for the sake of the kingdom’ (Mark 10. 29, Luke 18. 29). In the early church, it was an individual vocation. In the Eastern Orthodox church, the norm became one of unmarried bishops; other clergy could be married. In the West, celibacy was increasingly imposed, until from the time of Pope Gregory VII (d. 1095) it was assumed to be the rule. The Protestant Reformation abolished mandatory celibacy.

In other religions, celibacy may also be a permanent vocation (e.g. for Buddhist monks, bhikṣus, unless their ordination is temporary), or it may be a temporary stage (e.g. the fourth āśrama for Hindus). It may be tolerated, as it is among Sikhs, though regarded as less than ideal.


views updated Jun 11 2018

cel·i·bate / ˈseləbət/ • adj. abstaining from marriage and sexual relations, typically for religious reasons: a celibate priest. ∎  having or involving no sexual relations: I'd rather stay single and celibate.• n. a person who abstains from marriage and sexual relations.DERIVATIVES: cel·i·ba·cy / -bəsē/ n.


views updated May 18 2018

celibacy Commitment to a lifelong abstention from sexual relations. The status of celibacy as a religious obligation is found in Christianity and Buddhism. From the 4th century, it gradually became compulsory for Roman Catholic priests, monks and nuns. In some Orthodox religions, married men may become priests, but bishops must be celibate.


views updated May 23 2018

celibacy XVII. f. L. cælibātus, f. cælebs, cælib- unmarried; see -ACY.