On the Virtue of Chastity

Friday, January 02, 2004



Over the past several weeks, my email inbox has been flooded with spam invitations to view pornographic images of Paris Hilton, the somewhat attractive, though too young, daughter of the hotel mogul. Ms. Hilton has appeared on a television program called The Simple Life, and the emails advertise that she is engaged in sex acts with an old boyfriend. I always delete these emails as soon as I realize what they are, and I have not viewed the links.

About a week or two ago, I wrote a post entitled, "Am I just Naive" expressing my personal shock to discover that some business associates I have known for years have frequented strip clubs. Steve Bogner followed up a posting in his blog commenting on the threats to chastity in the secular world.

Steve suggested that we Catholics need to find ways to talk positively about sexuality and chastity to avoid sounding like prudes. I think he is right and this will be my feeble attempt, and I confess I may be repeating things said in many other articles, especially Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.

As one surfs through the world of Catholic blogdom, a re-occurring theme emerges that Catholics place a premium value on the virtue of chastity. The bishops and some Catholic politicians even seek legislative channels for defending traditional family values and promoting chastity. The value of chastity is expressed sometimes in mistaken views of human sexuality, but the value shines forth nonetheless.

We see the value Catholics place on chastity in the defense of mandatory celibacy for ministerial priests, the encouragement for natural family planning in lieu of using contraception, the denouncement of the use of pornography, and Catholic ambivalence to divorce and remarriage, as well as condemnations of abortion. Occasionally, a Catholic blogger will speak to issues such as the sinfulness of masturbation, adultery, or fear of a Pandora's box being opened by a liberal attitude toward gay marriage.

Indeed, in my own defense of some sort of blessing for gay unions, conservative Catholics have pointedly asked me in discussion forums how I would condemn pedophilia and bestiality if I were to permit gay unions.

Regarding my more liberal views toward married priests, gay unions, and contraception, I believe that sexuality expressed in a publicly committed, monogamous, consensual, loving adult relationship are morally superior to acts of sexuality expressed outside of such bonds.

Outsiders consider Catholics who value chastity with suspicion. There exists a negative stereotype of Catholic prudes who hate human sexuality, who are uncomfortable with our bodies, who believe pleasure is sin, and who adhere to the promotion of sexist stereotypes and ideologies. Some secular feminists will argue that traditional marriage is simply a form of prostitution whereby males claim exclusive ownership of a woman and sexual favors are traded in exchange for financial support.

The issue I am writing about today is that I agree with conservative Catholics that there are threats to chastity surrounding us. Indeed, much of the thought I will expound has been stated in other articles.

I join my conservative Catholic siblings in being especially concerned at the proliferation of pornography on the internet and other media. I wonder if it is not becoming harder and harder for the non-Catholic world to understand what we value when we try to promote the virtue of chastity.

I once read a feminist author who claimed that the Church's condemnation of contraception, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality were all rooted in an unconscious fear of women by celibate male clergy. This author claimed that homosexuality is denounced because celibate males fear men who act like women, and that all other sexual morality was intended to subconsciously control women and keep them barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen acting as maidservants to powerful men.

Our young people are less sophisticated in their critique of Church teaching, and simply believe that their pastors are out of touch with reality. My wife states that she was viewing Oprah one afternoon, and the program indicated that there are large numbers of teens and even pre-teens who are engaging in group sexual encounters (orgies).

If one ventures outside of blogdom per se into Catholic discussion forums, one will inevitably run across a young Catholic wondering if the Church really teaches that sex before marriage is a sin. In many cases, these questioners openly admit that they are currently in a relationship where sexual intercourse is already being practiced.

A few months prior to the Oprah episode my wife watched, an episode of Prime Time dealt with the growth of the pornography industry, indicating that married women were beginning to consume pornography. I believe it was Diane Sawyer who was interviewing a porn star in her early twenties. Images were flashed on the screen of violent acts committed on camera with this women and male stars of the porn industry. In the interview, it was clear that this young woman was severely depressed. Yet, for some reason I will never understand, she continues to return to the porn industry as a major source of income.

I read the accounts of Arabs concerned that the victory of American troops in the Middle East means the downfall of Islamic culture, including the Muslim value for chastity. They are also concerned about the proliferation of pornography, prostitution, and divorce encouraged in Western society. They are also concerned about the proliferation of gambling and recreational drug and alcohol use in Western society. In some cases, Arab terrorism is justified by its proponents as a war against the dangers of Western cultrural decadence.

In turn, I read liberal American secularists comparing conservative Christianity to terrorists. There is a deep seated fear among secular liberals that the promotion of chastity can only lead to a repressive style of government resembling the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan. Feminists are especially concerned that conservative Christians will force women to be circumcised and wear clothing resembling Catholic nuns. Other secularists, especially in the gay community, fear that the Church's teaching on condoms promotes the spread of AIDs.

It is almost cliche to speak of a culture war occurring in America. We have come a long way from the days when Dan Quayle ran for President calling Murphy Brown a threat to family values because the main character of this once popular television program chose to have a baby even though she was unmarried. Today, we have Will and Grace and some new show where a young girl in her twenties has two dads.

Why do the Church and those committed to her seem so hung up about sex? Even more liberal believers in Christianity have questions:

Isn't the Gospel about loving your neighbor and being a non-judgmental person? Doesn't excessive guilt lead to neurotic behavior, and sometimes violence to others? Aren't social justice, social peace and the quest for liberation the more important values of the Gospel tradition? Where in the Bible does it say that masturbation is a mortal sin? How does using pornography hurt anyone? Aren't our bodies good and holy? Why should we be ashamed of our nakedness? Isn't it enough to be in love to explore sexuality with a partner? Why must we also be married?

The Church responds in a couple of different ways, and I will try to simplify the answers to all these questions.

First, the church teaches that dualism is a heresy. Dualism is the belief that mind and body, or matter and spirit are two separate realities. Many people, including uninformed Catholics, mistakenly believe that Catholicism teaches dualism, but Catholicism teaches the exact opposite. Dualism among those who profess to be Catholics is often expressed in views of the afterlife. If we believe that we become disembodied spirits, or ghosts after we die, we are believing a doctrine that the Church does not teach!

What the Church teaches is that you are your body. The body is spirit in the flesh. The soul is the life-force of the body, and it cannot exist apart from the body. Your body is good and holy, because it is what you are.

When we say the Apostles Creed, we proclaim that we believe in the resurrection of the body. We will not be disembodied spirits in the next life. Our very bodies will be raised to glory. It is true that our bodies will be different in the next life, in a similar manner that an adult body is different from the body of a child. The glorified body probably will not be physically larger, and it may have powers and abilities that are unknown to the body on earth. Yet, the body that dies will be the body that rises!

This is an important point because it touches on the notion that many people have that as long as they feel love, any sexual activity is justified. There is a false sense many people have that all that is important is the spirit of an act, not the physical concrete act in history itself. To this, the Church is saying, you are your body!.

What you do in concrete, fleshly, historical reality is what you are!

We are products of our past, including our biological make-up and the effects of our environment upon our psyche. Yet, we are producers of our future. As we grow in self-knowledge, we become free to choose whether we will continue to blindly follow impulses shaped without our awareness, or whether we will seek to change the course of our development.

For example, the alcoholic may have a genetic predisposition to drink excessively, and such a person may have been raised in a traumatic environment. However, once she or he becomes aware of this condition, the person is freed to explore other options, such as becoming a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. In some cases, a person may have a genetic predisposition to mental illness, and becoming aware of the condition may open up medical options for treatment.

We live in a culture that devalues the virtue of chastity, and because of this, many of us blindly assume that sexual impulse is uncontrollable. We speak of "falling in love" rather than choosing to love. We assume that celibacy is unnatural and even impossible. We assume that "boys will be boys" and that men are simply sex starved children who cannot help ogling women. We assume that women's liberation involves encouraging women to act as freely toward sexuality as the male stereotype.

The Church is offering a different alternative, and with an alternative comes a choice, and with choice, there is freedom.

The Church is saying that sexuality can be greater than most people conceive. The virtue of chastity is not about treating sex and our bodies as though all matters of the flesh are evil. Christian chastity is not mere prudery and discomfort with the human body. The human body is so good that God assumed a human nature and became incarnate in human flesh!

What the Church wants us to understand about human sexuality is that sex can be great for every one of us. Great sex is not simply finding an attractive partner and seeking a mutual orgasm and then moving on to another partner. Good sex is not a series of meaningless acts of momentary pleasure.

We already know this intuitively. Even the most unchaste people know that really good sex is more mental than physical. Good sex is sexuality that expresses meaning. When the body, that which we are, becomes a means of non-verbal communication of one self to another, we begin to experience great sex!

Great sex is so good that the Church calls it holy! The word "holy" is rooted in the Hebrew notion of separation. Great sex stands apart from all else.

What is holy sex, and what is so great about it?

Holy sex is an act of total and complete self donation to another. It is a bodily non-verbal communication of commitment to another in permanent friendship. Because it is a bodily act, it is the most meaningful form of communication that can exist: it is an expressive of the entire self - because you are your body!

Yet, because the most pleasurable aspect of sexuality is in the mind, the bodily expression of sexuality is most pleasurable when it is expresses meaning. Sex acts are the most pleasurable when they are expressed in a committed and monogamous relationship that expresses the meaning of the commitment itself. Thus, even atheists refer to sexual acts as "making love".

Love is not something we "fall into". It is true that grace builds on nature, and we are products of our past, including our biological inheritance. Love is often awakened in us with the stirring of powerful feelings of infatuation. Yet, these feelings are not love. These feelings are simple chemical reactions.

Love is a freely made choice to commit yourself to another, even to the point where you would lay down your life for another. The feelings of infatuation often spur us to make the commitment of love to another, and by making a decision to love another, we can often nurture infatuation into a long lasting feeling that is rekindled through romance. However, love is the act of decision to commit to another.

Putting this in a Christian context, in the Bible, it states that God is love (1 John 4:8). Thomas Aquinas taught that God is pure act. God is not an object alongside other objects. God is mystery beyond language, and the first name of God in the Bible expresses pure being (I AM WHO AM - Ex 3:14). In the New Testament, God is the pure act of total self giving, emptying himself into human nature in the incarnation, and emptying himself again on the cross. In Christian theology, the mystery of God is expressed in the symbol of the Trinity: one being, nature, or essence who is three persons in eternal relationship. We image the divine by entering into personal relationships.

We empty ourselves to another in the act of love-making as we become naked and vulnerable to another and offer our very body to the other to become one flesh - like God who is a union of persons. This act of total self donation and union is a fecund union, meaning it is naturally and inherently open to the possibility of procreation. Through the sex act, we are made sharers in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver and life! Sex is sacramental - an outward sign of grace where grace is God's life in the heart of the believer.

Other religions and spiritualities may express these truths differently, but almost all religions and spiritualities ultimately speak of marriage as a mystical union of two people. Though I am framing my discussion of chastity in Christian language and symbols, even a non-Christian should hear some resonate chords in their own tradition.

Because sexual expression is an act of total self donation, we cannot give ourselves away more than once. Once you have given yourself to one, your body is no longer your own possession. Instead, it becomes a shared possession - one flesh with the other.

This union expressed in sexual activity between married people is so deep and so real that we often speak of spouses as complementary to each other - they complete one another. Thus, we typically call a spouse our other half, and romantic symbolism throughout the ages captures this notion of soul mates who are not their fullest selves until finding one another.

The virtue of chastity is not about denial of the pleasure of sexuality or the goodness of the naked human body.

The virtue of chastity is about saying that sexual activity can be so rich in meaning that anything less than the fullest meaning is a cheap imitation. Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that the sinner often seeks God in the act of sinning. The reasoning of the great saint was that God is goodness itself, and when a sinner perceives some sort of good enticing her or him to sin, they are really seeking the source of all goodness.

To further clarify, Aquinas made a distinction between real and apparent goods. For example, iron is good for the body, and a deficiency in iron can lead to ailment such as anemia. At the same time, most of us would realize that it is a mistake to eat a bowl of tacks in order to address a deficiency of iron. A bowl of tacks would be an apparent good, and would likely be very harmful to the body.

To understand chastity, it is helpful to consider the typical argument that takes place when a married person admits to adultery to a spouse. The adulterous spouse will often say, "But it did not mean anything". To this, the jilted spouse is now left wondering whether any of the sexual history within marriage meant anything. Afterall, if the adulterer is capable of meaningless sex with one person, how can the jilted spouse be sure that the sex he or she shared with the adulterer meant anything more?

We are our bodies, and through sexual activity, we communicate our entire selves to others. We are also free beings, and we can make our self communication mean whatever we want it to mean. When the Church promotes chastity, what she is saying is that everyone of us have the capacity to make our sexual communication so rich and full of meaning that it becomes holy! It stands apart as truly great sex!

Conversely, the further a sexual act is from this fullest meaning, the more we are choosing to degrade the meaning of the act for ourselves and those with whom we chose to share the act. The promotion of chastity is not solely about what we are not to do. It is not about what you can and cannot wear, or what you can and cannot view, or who you can and cannot be around.

In response to feminists critiques of the traditional family, the Bible nor Sacred Tradition fully support the notion of clearly defined masculine and feminine roles that make women subordinate prostitutes to male husbands. I covered this in greater depth in Genesis and Paul on Women. Suffice it to say here that the inherent meaning of human sexuality we have explored calls for the full equality of husband and wife in a mutually supportive partnership. Sexist patriarchy is the first sinful result of the Fall, and not God's intent for the family!

Furthermore, despite the weaknesses of the Church's current teachings about women and women's roles in society, the promotion of chastity often works hand-in-hand with other feminist values. For example, the Church rightly teaches young men that they can and should avoid objectifying women (and vice-a-versa). The Church rightly stands with feminist in saying that sexual harrasment has no place in the work-place. The Church rightly teaches that a fundamental principle of moral theology is that people are ends in themselves, and never to be treated as mere means to another end. Pope John Paul II has even condemned lustful objectification of a spouse!

The promotion of chastity is about holding an ideal in front of your mind at all times, and deliberately choosing over and over to cling to this ideal. For those who have not made this choice over and over, it may sound impossible to make the same choice over and over. However, human beings are a funny creature. We are creatures of habit.

Good habits are called virtues, and bad habits are called vices. The choice for chastity becomes easier the more often we make the choice. I say this from experience!

This is why fornication, or sex before marriage, is an unhealthy practice. By engaging in sex without already having made a commitment, we are deliberately choosing to engage in sex that does not really express commitment to the other, and we are forming a bad habit in making such a choice.

Some young people fool themselves into believing they should have a private commitment to one another prior to making their commitment public in the sacrament of marriage. One has to wonder why a person claiming to be committed to me would want to hide that commitment from others.

In the context of the community of faith, the Church is the Body of Christ, and marriage symbolizes Christ's love for the Church to the world. As members of Christ's body, nothing we do is entirely private. The human race is entirely interconnected at some mysterious level, and the act of public worship acknowledges this spiritual connectedness. Almost all religions and spiritualities teach a similar notion. The Bible teaches that even our thoughts will be manifest in the last days.

Jesus teaches us to guard not only our actions, but our very thoughts. Jesus warns against thoughts of violence and hatred as much as lust. Christians are not only concerned with moral and ethical behavior, but becoming a person of moral and ethical character. We seek an inner transformation aided by God's grace and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Contemplating the goodness of sex helps combat distorted notions of sexuality in the individual. Christians also seek cultural support from the community around us in living chaste lives. This accounts for the actions of the bishops and some conservative politicians in seeking to promote family values through legislation.

The more mature we become in chastity, the less concerned we are with trivial matters such as what other people wear. In general, Catholics are aware that we cannot be like the Taliban in promoting chastity. Jesus stopped the stoning of a woman caught in adultery, and invited her back into the community of faith. Christians know we must temper right behavior and justice with compassion and mercy.

At the same time, we live in a community by birth as well as by choice. Catholic schools do much to try to encourage chastity, but Catholics and other Christians would like the rest of society to voluntarily help us encourage one another in promoting meaningful sex, and discouraging images of meaningless sex. Christians are at different levels of spiritual development, and many who are trying to form a habit of chastity for the first time will overeact in fear to some cultural treatment of sexuality. This is unfortunate, but it does not make chastity an unworthy goal in itself. We are stuck in a difficult position.

And Christians who say that there is more to the Gospel than chastity are correct. The primary moral message of the Gospel is forgiveness and love - God's forgiveness and love of us, and the command to do likewise for others! Chastity supports this as a form of respect for others and the world of shared meaning. Yet, there is much more emphasis in the Gospel on non-violence, avoiding judgmentalism, being generous, living simply and working for social peace and justice than on chastity. Likewise, the virtue of temperance (moderation in food and drink) is probably on par with chastity in the Bible. So chastity is not the primary virtue, but it is a virtue nonetheless.

So let us continue exploring chastity....

Adultery is wrong, because, as I have already indicated, once you have given yourself to another, your body does not belong to yourself to give to others.

Pedophilia is wrong because the pedophile is not permanently committed to the child for life, and the child is not capable of understanding commitment or the meaning of what is happenings to him or her.

Masturbation is considered less than perfect because it is not shared with another and is not open to procreation. For similar reasons, pornography is to be avoided. I have written a more extensive article on this called The Solitary Sin.

Obviously, acts such as rape, incest, bestiality and so forth would all be violations of the meaning of human sexuality that I have set forth. Indeed, these acts are dehumanizing in meaning, and often acts of violence rather than lust.

Homosexual acts are wrong for heterosexually oriented people because there is little probability of a permanent committed relationship arising from such a union, and such acts cannot be open to sharing in God's creative power.

Yet, for the homosexually oriented person, I would argue that homosexual acts may be the only way for the homosexually oriented person to experience the sanctified meaning of human sexuality. In this case, I think of the homosexually oriented person as one who is analogous to the handicapped. I see this issue as similar to the Church's slow understanding that infertile heterosexuals can marry because the unitive dimension of sexuality is preserved, and there is no intent to block procreation due to a physical limitation beyond choice. Homosexual acts do not express the fullest meaning of human sexuality when we consider humanity in general, but for the particular individual, they may express the closest approximation possible. I wrote more extensively on this subject in my Theological Reflections on Homosexuality. I also deal with this subject tangentially in Can a Gay Man be a Saint?

Celibacy is not about sex being wrong or bad, nor is celibacy solely a witness to the virtue of chastity. Indeed, celibacy is a unique calling that has nothing really to do with chastity considered in itself. All Christians are called to chastity, and the call to celibacy is a call to remain un-married.

The calling to celibacy is a particular experience of being called to empty the self before God, and stand before God incomplete. If spouses share in a complementary relationship to one another, the celibate is one who is not completed by any other than God. The celibate calling is a deeply subjective calling that originates in a unique experience of God not shared by married Christians.

This point about celibacy is important in the debates about married clergy. Some people argue that celibacy is valuable amongst priest because it gives a priest more time for ministry. This is false reasoning, since the married man is ministering to his wife and family just as surely as a priest may minister to his monastic community or some other specialized ministry. Both the celibate and the married man only have limited time in a day, and all Christians struggle with balancing multiple demands on our time. The celibate calling is not simply about making time.

Celibacy is a heartfelt calling to a unique relationship with God, and there is no guarantee that one called to celibacy is called to priesthood or vice-a-versa. I write more Scripturally and in depth on this issue in Why We Need Married Priests? and The Elephant in the Living Room: More on the Abuse Crisis....

Divorce definitely complicates the discussion of chastity, and clearly violates the sacred meaning of sexuality I have outlined above. People make mistakes and commit sin. Christ is merciful and the Church's main mission is the reconciliation of humanity with God.

While I do not condone divorce and remarriage, I do believe that the Church needs to retrieve mechanisms for reconciling divorced and remarried Catholics to full communion and sacramental practice. When I use the word "retrieve", I am referring to the fact that the Church historically did admit divorced Catholics in a second marriage to someone other than their first spouse to communion in the past, and this practice was encouraged by many early saints!

I explain my more liberal views further in Progressive Family Values and Divorce and Remarriage.

In outlining the meaning of sexuality above, I emphasized two important aspects of holy sex: the unitive dimension (two becoming one in an act of total self donation), and the procreative aspect (sharing in the creative power of God).

These are values that even non-Christians - even atheists - can perceive! Even an atheist can know the value of committed love and the blessing of children! Even an atheist can see that the further sexual activity departs from these principles, the less meaningful the sex, and the less meangful the sex, the less pleasurable and the more prone to dehumanizing behavior!

The Church's teaching on abortion really has little if anything to do with its teaching on sexuality. So let's clear this up here.

Abortion is considered wrong because Catholics believe that the soul is the life force of the human body, and the body is holy. A fetus is a living human organism, and therefore an "ensouled" body, and therefore holy. Abortion is not wrong because sex preceeds it. Abortion is considered wrong because it terminates the life of a human being.

The abortion issue should not be considered as part of the Church's sexual teaching. Rather, it is part of a consistent ethic of life where the Church currently frowns on violent crime, war, the death penalty, and euthanasia as well as abortion.

What about the Church's teaching on contraception, which strikes non-believers as nonsense?

The Church's condemnation of contraception is aimed at reminding us that children are a blessing not to be treated like a disease to be prevented by pills or removed by surgery. As a general principle, I agree with this, and I do not use contraceptives with my spouse.

At the same time, the Church recognizes that there are instances where there may be legitimate reason to space children apart or refrain from procreation. The Church encourages what she calls natural family planning in these instances.

My issue with this teaching is that pills and so forth are not really "unnatural", and there exists legitimate reasons to engage in sexual activity with no intent to conceive, a more logical position would be to hold that the unitive dimension takes precedence over the procreative dimension within a marriage bond, and even justifies sexual activity not intended for procreation in certain circumstances. I deal with this issue further in my article The Morality of Natural Family Planning

The unitive dimension of human sexuality expresses the reason for pursuing a habit of chastity. The procreative meaning of sexuality is also beautiful, but may be secondary. Christians need to hold the positive meaning of human sexuality before our eyes, ears, and hearts if we are to preserve a habit of chastity for ourselves, and draw others to the habit.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net


posted by Jcecil3 1:48 PM

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