Words: Celibacy

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Much talk about the Roman Catholic rule on priestly celibacy may have misled the casual reader. The argument at first sight seems to be that, because a bishop has broken the rule, the time might come for it to be relaxed; as I understand it, however, the bishop has done no such thing. Celibacy, properly speaking, means being unmarried and so far as we know the bishop remains a bachelor. There is a confusion here between celibacy and chastity. A celibate does not marry, but a chaste person may, the original definition of chastity being the avoidance of unlawful sex. It is this rule that the bishop has broken. (Castus in Latin meant "pure".)

The confusion is not surprising - after all, the Church itself was already in a bit of a muddle about these matters even in the 11th century. Some, insisting that celibacy embraced chastity, said that unchaste priests should resign; others that this would deprive too many parishes of the sacraments, adding that St Paul, who disbelieved in celibacy, had declared it better to marry than to burn. Meanwhile chastity has long been an ambiguous word. Emilia turns on Othello and says "Moor, she was chaste, she loved thee, cruel Moor." Alexander Pope, in a nasty epistle about the characters of women, writes of one of them that she is "chaste to her husband, frank to all beside." Desdemona sleeps with her husband and is chaste, Pope's lady doesn't sleep with hers and is also called chaste.

Pope's meaning is the one that now prevails. But there ought to be a separate word for people who don't have sex. Celibate, commonly used for them, won't do, because it already means something else. Chaste is a lovely word which we still need for the Desdemonas of this world. It's all rather unsatisfactory.