I began this book under a misapprehension, a confusion of celibacy and chastity. A celibate, it turns out, is simply an unmarried person. One can be celibate without also being chaste, and such is the happy lot of Father Ted Santek for most of ex-priest James Kavanaugh's first novel. One of those men who are born to please women, Santek also has strong priestly urges. His difficulty is how to practice his vocation without forfeiting his sexuality.

The Roman Catholic Church is no help at all. In the mid-'60s aftermath of the Vatican council, the hierarchy makes a few fitful gestures toward accommodating a married clergy, as it has long done for priests in its Eastern Rite (not to be confused with the separate Greek Orthodox Church, which also deploys married priests). But then Pope Paul VI accedes to the throne of St. Peter, and the gestures are withdrawn. The old orthodoxy renews its grip on the faithful -- and beyond. "He thinks he can scold the whole world!" Santek complains.

For Gerry Beauvais, Santek's fellow seminarian and best friend, the distinction between chastity and celibacy has more force. Though he has little trouble keeping his vow of chastity, Beauvais finds himself drawn to Peggy, his youngish housekeeper. After she goads him back to equanimity from one of his periodic depressions, the two of them stop just short of consummating their love. Instead they slip into church and make a dual commitment to hands-off experiences. Yet since they remain together and become dependent on each other, theirs is virtually a case of chastity without celibacy.

Santek, meanwhile, goes through women like paper towels. Until he meets a schoolteacher named Angie, that is. Their love is so powerful that it survives even her sympathetic but false vocation: She enters a convent, where she so plainly does not belong that she worries herself fat and pimply. Santek rescues her and installs her in an apartment as his mistress.

The oddity is how easily Santek gets away with this. Believing the pope to be wrong -- clerical celibacy is merely a regulation, not a doctrinal necessity -- he simply follows his conscience and keeps his nonconformity out of sight. Beauvais, on the other hand, is suspected of both sodomy for palling around with choirboys and straightness for cohabiting with Peggy. The author's none-too-subtle message: play is hypocritical.

Subtlety, to be sure, is not Kavanaugh's strong suit. He stacks the deck so blatantly against the callous church officials who enforce clerical celibacy at any cost that the reader begins to wonder. As Kavanaugh frequently reiterates, the church lost many of its finest during the '60s and '70s, and today there is a shortage of priests in many sections of the country. In the face of demographics like these, there must be a more compelling argument for bachelor priesthood than we've-always-done-it-that-way. Whatever it may be, Kavanaugh does not supply it.

In addition, Kavanaugh writes abominable sex scenes: "It was as if there were no barriers, as if the depths of their love crossed every boundary of kiss and caress and passionate explosion." The result is that Beauvais' chastity becomes far more fascinating than Santek's randiness.

When he lets up on the sex pedal, Kavanaugh, who has also written "A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church," comes up with some shrewd insights into the relationship between Catholics and their priests. "The most interesting sinners didn't go to confession," Santek cynically muses, "only those who had been scared half out of their wits in Catholic grade school." Elsewhere he reflects on how the constant deference paid priests can arrest their development. "Santek became aware that he could remain a child emotionally, with no one having the courage to challenge him . . . "

In "The Celibates" James Kavanaugh makes what seems to me a valid point: the Catholic church's tendency to reduce morality to little more than a narrow channeling of the sex drive has visited suffering on priests, nuns, homosexuals and married couples around the world. Yet he makes this point more as a polemicist than an artist and seems to be espousing a similar disproportion when he plumps for sex as a mystical union, as if it should be recast for the eighth sacrament. The truth, I would suppose, is that sex is no more nor less than what the participants make of it. At any rate, Kavanaugh has written a provocative, if not stimulating, novel.