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Chastity in the Society of Jesus

General Congregation 34 - Decree 8


[228] 1. In the course of the present century, in many parts of the world, the meaning of sexuality within human relationships has undergone significant change. Increasingly, men and women experience their sexuality as a gift which enables them to express intimate love and commitment. For many of them, sexuality is understood as part of the “sacrament of marriage” by which the love of God is experienced within their marital love for one another. At the same time, these decades have brought awareness of structural injustices imposed on women as well as some of the distortions, exploitations and abuses that have accompanied changing gender roles and expressions of sexuality. Moreover, contemporary advertising and entertainment have given sexual expression an unprecedented centrality within various cultures. These last few decades have been labeled “the sexual revolution.”

[229] 2. During this same time period, celibacy has come under heavy criticism from within as well as from outside the Church. Thousands have left religious life or active priestly ministry to enter into marriage. The media have carried sensational stories of infidelity and abuse. From all over the world, questions and doubts are posed about the meaning and the value of priestly or religious chastity.

[230] 3. General Congregation 34 wishes to address these questions, to say something directly and honestly about the meaning of chastity in Jesuit life and our resolve to continue to support it. We do not publish this decree because we judge that infidelity in chastity is widespread within the Society of Jesus. On the contrary, we are convinced that, despite the challenges and testing of these years, fidelity in chastity characterizes the life of the Society today as it has characterized it in the past, by the gracious goodness of God. This conviction is grounded on the extensive knowledge that members assembled here from each Province of the Society have of their companions, confirmed by the Congregation’s lengthy examination of the present state of the Society. It is this graced fidelity that we hope to strengthen and confirm in the face of so many cultural forces that contradict it.

[231] 4. The purpose of this decree, then, is to give an authoritative answer to the following question: what is the chastity that a Jesuit vows and how can the Society of Jesus continue to foster it in its integrity?

The Call to Chastity

[232] 5. Ignatius understood the Society of Jesus to be rooted in a fundamental detachment and a determination to serve God totally. The Society was to be one realization of the apostolic life: “Lord, we have left all things and have followed you” (cf. Lk 18:28). This renunciation for the Jesuit comprises “home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven” (Lk 18:29). A deeply personal love makes it possible to follow Christ in this way, a love that chooses him in place of all that is renounced. When a Jesuit speaks of this, he is speaking of his vow of chastity — a chastity that grace has made possible and that has been chosen, as was that of Jesus, to serve in mission the Kingdom of heaven.

[233] 6. To the ridicule of some and the puzzlement of many, Ignatius maintained that a Jesuit is to strive to imitate in his chastity the purity of the angels.3 But this does not mean that he is to act as if he regretted his body. He is rather called to embody in his life that singleness of vision and readiness for mission which is the Ignatian understanding of the angels. They were for Ignatius “the ministering spirits sent to serve.” They lived in immediate familiarity with God, and they served as God’s ministers in drawing human beings to himself. In his chastity, a Jesuit endeavours to realize in his actions and in his thoughts an analogous, undeflected union with God in prayer and ministry.

[234] 7. By the vow of chastity, then, a Jesuit is consecrated and united to God precisely as God is “labouring in all things”for the salvation of human beings. Chastity is first of all his gracious gift, calling the Jesuit to a discipleship and renunciation that can free his heart from the natural concern for an exclusive relationship and draw it into the universal charity of God towards all men and women. It is a gift to be, in this way, configured to Christ.

The Apostolic Character of Chastity

[235] 8. This life of chastity consecrated to God offers a living witness that Christ can engage human beings in so comprehensive a love and a prophetic reminder that we were created finally for that future life with God in which the children of the resurrection “will neither marry nor give in marriage” (Lk 20:34-36). In this way, living unmarried for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven preaches the Gospel in deeds rather than words. It can disclose that God and the Kingdom of God — both as the passion and the hope of a person’s life — can be absolute, prevailing in attraction over all other human values. For this reason, such a life has been seen in the Church throughout its history as a most suitable means “for religious to spend themselves readily in God’s service and in works of the apostolate.”

[236] 9. Accordingly, in our Society, not only poverty and obedience, but also chastity is essentially apostolic. It is not understood by Jesuits as directed exclusively to their personal sanctification, but as calling them to be one with Christ in labour for the salvation of the human race. According to the whole intent of our Institute, we embrace apostolic chastity as a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world, as a means for a more prompt love and a more total apostolic availability towards all men and women. That is why the chastity of Jesuits does not compete with marriage, but rather reinforces its value. Both point to a love and a fidelity that is deeper than sexual expression and of which Christian marriage and religious chastity are divergent and sacred realizations. Few are called to the life of a Jesuit, but for the man who is called, chastity only makes sense as a means to a greater love, to a more authentic apostolic charity.

[237] 10. This may be especially relevant today, when so many tend to put whole classes of human beings beyond the horizons of their concerns, while at the same time identifying love with eroticism and hedonism and exploiting such an identification to fuel financial gain and human degradation. A love that is warmly human, yet freely offered to all, especially to the poor and the marginalized, can be a powerful sign leading people to Christ, who came to show us what love really is, that God is love.

[238] 11. Because of his chastity, a Jesuit can live in radical apostolic availability. His assignments always have something of the provisional about them; he must remain open to the summons of obedience to another place, to another task. This detachment from stabilitas, from the definition of himself within a single family or extended set of relatives or even a particular church, culture and place, characterizes a Jesuit. It is constitutive of his obedience, and it is his remaining celibate for the Kingdom of God that makes such obedience for mission possible. If this apostolic availability is not to cripple his affectivity, it is only because his chastity embodies a contemplative love that includes all human beings and makes the Jesuit open and able to find God everywhere.

[239] 12. To God, then, and to his world, Jesuits have chosen to offer in union with Christ the sincere, simple, and demanding life of consecrated chastity.

The Matter and Meaning of the Vow of Chastity

[240] 13. Because of the confusion in current times, we must be as clear as possible about the meaning of this vow if we are to observe it as part of the shared meaning of our lives. It arises from and is based upon a conscious and free decision under grace. By his vow of chastity, a Jesuit devotes himself to the Lord and to his service in such a unique love that it excludes marriage and any other exclusive human relationship, as well as the genital expression and gratification of his sexuality. Thus the vow entails the obligation of complete continence in celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. Following the evangelical counsel of chastity, the Jesuit aspires to deepen his familiarity with God, his configuration to Christ, his companionship with his brother Jesuits, his service to others, and at the same time to grow in his personal maturity and capacity to love. The witness of many Jesuits confirms that there is a deep happiness in such a life of personal love and service.

The Cost of This Discipleship

[241] 14. A Jesuit should not deceive himself about the cost of such a decision. It involves renunciation of conjugal intimacy, denial of the very human desire for his own children, and turning away from a unique affective bonding that is one of life’s richest experiences and a normal condition for human growth. He surrenders the joys of belonging to and living within his own family. If he did not sometimes feel the painful loss of some of humanity’s most lovely and most tender joys, he would be less than human. Other joys, even deeper joys, will enter his life, but they cannot remove all sense of void.

[242] 15. Through his chastity, then, the Jesuit lives in some solitude — not loneliness, but solitude. There will be times when this solitude will become a desert, as he experiences little or no satisfaction or support in what is around him; at other times, it may even become the cross, the experience of futility, anguish and death.

[243] 16. Throughout his life, a Jesuit will give his time and his talents to others without thought of recompense. He does not build his own business or his own career because he does not build his own home and family. His chastity has made it possible for him to grow in his poverty. At the end of his life, through his vow of chastity, he will have become poor in a way that his previous talents and education and energies made impossible. Now all of these belong to yesterday; they have been spent for others. He has finally become poor as did Christ, who, “although he was rich, made himself poor for our sakes” (2 Cor 8:9). He has become a man who possesses neither family nor property, has built up nothing for himself, and looks to God for the definition of his life. This poverty that flows from his chastity is not the destruction of his Jesuit life; in many ways it is its completion and fulfilment. But he should not disguise the cost of such a life.

Normative Principles and Guidelines

[244] 17. Prenote: While many of the constitutive elements of being a Jesuit have been treated elsewhere, they give indispensable support to a life of chastity and will be included here so that Jesuit life and its requirements can be seen as an organic unity.

[245] 18. I. The familiarity with God and the friendship with Christ that lie at the origins of his vocation sustain a Jesuit in his fidelity. It was this love that first drew him to such a life; the commitments of chastity cannot continue or flourish without its continual growth. This conscious, loving union with God is prayer, whether at formal moments of explicit focus or as the atmosphere that permeates each day.


[246] 19. [1] This should be a principal concern of all Jesuits: to seek the conscious presence of the Lord in such private prayer as meditation, contemplation, and the examination of conscience and in such community prayer as the liturgy of the hours, communal discernment and group spontaneous prayer. In their manifold occupations, Jesuits can learn to reverence the divine presence as the horizon in which they live, to apprehend the immanent providence of God that draws them into its own working for the salvation of human beings, and to hold on to God as the purpose that energizes their work — learning thus to find God in all things. The celebration of the Eucharist — frequently together as a community — ought to be central to such a life, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation ought to exercise a significant influence over it. Annually, they are to commit themselves conscientiously to making the Spiritual Exercises. All of these components of Jesuit life flow from the fundamental directive of the Formula of the Institute: Let the one who wishes to live our life “take care, as long as he lives, first of all, to keep before his eyes God.”

[247] 20. [2] From experience, the Society has learned that pivotal to its fidelity in chastity has been the strong though humble and simple devotion to the Blessed Virgin that has flourished among us since the time of Saint Ignatius.

[248] 21. II. Community life figures importantly here. It is not that the community compensates for a wife and children, but rather that it can and does support a life that is lived in their denial. Through the many forms of their mutual presence to one another and their investment of themselves in one another’s lives, Jesuits mediate to each other the presence of that Lord to whom they have offered themselves through their vow of chastity. It is this mediation, this interchange that makes their community religious. The continual and vital commitment of Jesuits to one another is a condition for a concomitant growth in chastity.

[249] Thus the apostolic chastity of a Jesuit cannot be lived in an aloof withdrawal from others. As a true “gift from above,” apostolic chastity should lead to communion both with one’s brother Jesuits and with the people we serve. It is sad if chastity is so corrupted that it leads only to a self-enclosed bachelorhood. Community life, then, must be not only a support, but also the privileged context for living a wholesome and humane chastity. When community life is strong in its support and truthful in its challenge, then Jesuits are inspired through their chastity to make visible the God who labours to help others. It is important both to appreciate and to develop the strong bond between apostolic chastity and apostolic community.


[250] 22. [3] Our houses are to be communities where the life of prayer and the interchange with one another of religious values habitually characterize daily life. There should be periods of the day and of the week in which the members of the community meet for prayer, recreation and meals. It is also important that there be longer periods of recollection and prayer during the year in which Jesuits in the community share with one another the religious realities and mission by which they live. In a manner appropriate to the Society, liturgy ought to mark the rhythm of the Jesuit community, as it is to characterize any vital Christian community. Each of its members is called by the Society today to take the responsibility to foster such a community.

[251] 23. [4] These communities should embody a deeply Christian hospitality “according to the custom of different places” so that we share what we have and what we are with men and women to whom we are related in friendship or committed in our apostolate. On the other hand, Jesuits need a certain privacy in special parts of the house. Since the customs of various cultures differ so radically, it is left to Province government to determine what is appropriate in this matter. In general it can be said that these arrangements are to be such as to obviate any ambiguity that could occasion misinterpretations.

[252] 24. III. The life of ministry also strengthens that attachment to the Lord which is the source of chastity. There is a consciousness of Christ in ministry that is not available to the Jesuit outside this apostolic experience, the Christ to whom he is united as the instrument wielded by the divine hand. It is also the same grace by which Jesuits move in fidelity and growth towards God as that by which “they labour in giving aid towards the salvation and perfection of the souls of their fellow men and women.” Furthermore, chastity belongs essentially to our chosen way of relating to others. The sense of meaning and the joy that come from apostolic experience in turn sustain the significance of the chastity that made this apostolic life possible. This can be especially true when ministry is realized within the world of the oppressed and of the poor. But in every case, this mutual support between Jesuit chastity and ministerial commitments is only possible if Jesuits minister gratuitously and without orienting this pastoral work to their own enhancement.


[253] 25. [5] The Society expects from every Jesuit not only fidelity to his vows, but the normal public signs of this fidelity. Jesuits should embody in their ministry and in their lives an unequivocal “professional” conduct (modestia) that manifests their commitments as priests and as religious. Their manner of proceeding — both as a community and as individuals — ought to preclude any ambiguity about their lives, enabling those to whom they minister to rely instinctively upon their disinterestedness and fidelity.

[254] 26. [6] It is especially important that those in ministries like spiritual direction, counselling or therapy keep appropriate “professional” boundaries, aware of the possibility of affective transference and countertransference, and resistant to confusing such ministerial relationships with those of intimate friendship.

[255] 27. [7] The differences among particular cultures and attitudes require that Jesuits be especially sensitive in this area. Those travelling abroad are to attend carefully to the local feelings and attitudes concerning the relations between women and men. It would be unreasonable to expect local people to view their conduct as it would be understood in their own native land. Failure to take this into account can result in a witness contrary to the very gospel values they have given their lives to proclaim.

[256] 28. IV. Discernment and self-discipline are imperative for fidelity in chastity. Contemporary popular culture is heavily influenced by commercial propaganda, advertising, and the lucrative exploitation of sexual sensibilities for financial gain. Excessive passive entertainment can become addictive and debilitating. In this area, a Jesuit must be critically aware. The directions of Ignatius and the experience of the Society over the past centuries emphasize that a certain sober realism, discernment, and abnegation are necessary to deal with the many influences that enter into a Jesuit’s life. This need for discipline of the body and of the mind has for millennia been recognized in many spiritual traditions, and Jesuits can learn much from these spiritual masters to discipline and integrate the body and the mind into a life of prayer and service.


[257] 29. [8] Religious discretion is appropriately brought to bear on every element in Jesuit life, and this entails the practise of the examination of conscience, mortification and custody of the senses. Concretely, a Jesuit ought to weigh the influences he admits into his life through entertainment, TV, videos, reading, recreation and travel as well as through personal relationships. To live an integral life, one must ask realistically whether this or that particular influence or practise strengthens or weakens a life of fidelity in chastity and its public witness. Furthermore, a Jesuit should not be ashamed with honesty to notice the temptations and desires that would prompt him to behaviour incongruent with his commitments. Instead, he ought to seek help in dealing with these desires and inclinations.

[258] 30. [9] Everyone should be aware that any failure in living faithfully the vow of chastity or any ambiguous relationships can afflict others cruelly, both spiritually and psychologically. Besides the issue of serious sin, such behaviour can compromise the credibility of the Society within a culture that is skeptical about any fidelity in chastity and seriously injure its apostolic effectiveness.

[259] 31. V. Affective Maturation: Since grace presupposes nature, spiritual maturation goes hand in hand with an adequate affective maturation. Affective maturation means the development and the integration of all the forces and emotions of the human personality; it embraces more than just the sexual, but it presents a special challenge to a life with the renunciations that our chastity involves. The process of affective maturation for the individual Jesuit takes place within the context of his human relationships. It occurs in and through all phases of life, but especially at moments of crisis.


[260] 32. [10] The individual Jesuit must recognize, first of all, that under grace he bears the responsibility for his own human growth. It is he above all who must see that his life is characterized by that equilibrium which empowers him to remain conscious of his feelings and in contact with the deepest stirrings of his motivations and human powers. With discernment he must learn to differentiate among the “motions” within his life, to follow in the direction of those that move him towards God and to deny satisfaction to those that do not. Second, he should not attempt to isolate himself from the challenges and crises of life, but to deal with these with such honesty that he finds his relationship with God and his own self-acceptance deepened. Third, he ought to see to it that he can give both his feelings and his creativity appropriate expression, and he is to develop an educated sensibility for the humane achievements of life as are found in the arts, literature, music, etc. Fourth, he must avoid a style of life and of work that puts him under excessive affective stress or that necessitates a continual suppression of his own feelings and leads eventually to affective regression, “burn out” or some kind of psychic disturbance. Finally and most important, friendships should be very much part of his life. The ability to form mature friendships with other Jesuits and with women and men who are not Jesuits, as well as the capacity to collaborate in equality with others, are signs of affective maturity. Friendships can not only support a life of dedicated chastity, but can also deepen the affective relationship with God that chastity embodies.

[261] 33. [11] Spiritual direction is an indispensable aid towards spiritual and affective maturation. Spiritual directors can help those being directed to bring affective experiences into these conversations for an appreciation and discernment of their meaning. But a spiritual director must not confuse the ministry of spiritual direction with psychological counselling or therapy. If psychological problems emerge, the directee is to be recommended to a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

[262] 34. [12] Superiors can contribute significantly to the affective growth of those whom they serve. They can further in their communities an atmosphere of understanding and of friendship among its members. On the other hand, they should not shrink from the more unpleasant responsibilities of their office: to set boundaries, to challenge their brothers to a more integral Jesuit life, and to insist that the community give unequivocal witness to its vowed life. As a matter of fact, maturation is often furthered more by this kind of challenge than by a permissiveness that looks for peace at all costs.

[263] 35. VI. The Account of Conscience and Spiritual Direction have been stressed in recent documents of the Society as critical for our religious life. They take on additional importance precisely in their contribution to the growth of Jesuits in chastity.


[264] 36. [13] Superiors should recognize as a principal task the fostering of mutual confidence and openness between their companions in the Society and themselves. This contributes wonderfully to the honesty and vitality of the account of conscience, the frankness of its interchange and the help that it can offer every Jesuit.

[265] 37. [14] It is very important that spiritual directors are given appropriate training, especially those that are formatores. This is additionally necessary today because of contemporary influences and issues regarding affective maturity and sexuality.

[266] 38. [15] Every Jesuit must realistically recognize that he will be as effective in helping others to lead a chaste life as he himself lives such a life with integrity and is aware of his own inner inclinations, passions, anxieties and emotions. Further, chastity is a shared responsibility of all Jesuits to safeguard seriously and to further through their mutual fraternal support and friendships as well as through the aid they offer superiors in their care for their companions and for the Society.

[267] 39. VII. Admission and Dismissal. Before admission into the novitiate — as later during the years of formation — the Society should attempt to examine realistically whether the candidate has the charism and character for this kind of life with its demands for celibate chastity. An affective maturation in the Society is only possible when a man possesses an adequate basic disposition, both spiritual and affective. While superiors carry grave responsibilities before God for the internal life of the Society, its public credibility and for those who will be affected by the pastoral ministry of its members, their ability to carry out these responsibilities depends upon the willingness of both candidates and their fellow Jesuits to be open with them about whatever difficulties they have. While their responsibilities call them to accompany their fellow Jesuits in their spiritual journey with kindness blended with firmness, superiors can only make their best efforts, and these in the light of the knowledge they possess.

[268] 40. But superiors can find decisions about admission and dismissal deeply troubling, especially if they are unaware of the norms of the Society or if the rules given for their application are ambiguous and they feel alone in their difficult decision. To formulate such norms remains the office of the ordinary government of the Society, and their prudent application will “depend upon many particular circumstances of persons, times and places,” as Ignatius insisted. In general, however, the long experience of the Society together with its fundamental documents indicate the following guidelines, while the norms for their application are to be set by the General.


[269] 41. [16] Superiors — with compassion and understanding — should try to probe issues of emotional strain and inner distress that each candidate carries from his history, attempting to deal honestly with such questions as those of affective maturity, of genuine capacities for sexual abstinence, especially if the candidate has had a previous history of intimate sexual relations, etc. The Society and the candidate need to have as clear an appreciation of these factors as possible in order to make a sound judgment about the ability of the candidate to live our life.

[270] 42. [17] When someone cannot live the vow of chastity with integrity, inner freedom and joy, i.e. when he cannot find God in his life of chastity, in conscience he ought not to proceed to vows or to major orders but to leave the Society and find another way of life where he can serve God in peace and fidelity.

[271] 43. [18] With deep sorrow, it must be acknowledged that for the good of the Society and those affected by its pastoral mission, they should not remain in the Society, whatever their grade, whose repeated acts with another against chastity show them in all likelihood unable to live their public profession of chastity with integrity, even after appropriate therapeutic rehabilitation.

[272] 44. [19] According to his best knowledge and judgment, the superior should also challenge with fraternal concern and kindness those involved in inappropriate relationships or exclusive friendships that can compromise dedicated chastity, cause scandal, or wound the union of minds and hearts that is to characterize Jesuit life.

Recommendation to Father General

[273] 45. Since a General Congregation has neither the time nor the resources to treat this entire matter in all of its dimensions, GC 34 asks Father General to establish a commission of experts who can examine thoroughly the issues attendant on the fidelity and credibility of chastity in the Society and on a sound affective formation of young Jesuits and those who are formed. Further, we recommend that each conference of Provincials work out the cultural adaptation of these guidelines, study the issues connected with affective formation and outline the appropriate pedagogies for this development among Jesuits. The results of this study should be submitted to Father General for his approval.

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