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Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age | Bishop Joseph F. Martino
An American bishops pastoral advice.
Editor's note: This pastoral letter was originally released on December 8, 2004: the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception; it is
reprinted here with permission.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: I write as your bishop and spiritual
father on a matter of great importance and great good news: chastity.
Why chastity? That is really two questions wrapped up in one.
First, why do I write on this subject just now? Violations of chastity in
our Church and our diocese have made some people skeptical when the Church
speaks on sexual morality. But for just that reason it is more necessary,
not less, to speak the truth about sexual morality. Sin and confusion cry
out for honest, truthful speech.
The Church has always taughtand I teach herethat we need to
find our happiness and holiness in a commitment to the chastity lived out
in marital love or the chastity of celibacy lived out either in the consecrated
life or the life of a single layperson in the world. These are the two paths
to happiness and eternal life. There are no others.
Second, why is chastity so important? Is this really a virtue for our times?
Dont other subjects take priority?
In fact, chastity is a virtue for our times, and it does take priority.
That should be clear, for instance, in the wake of the scandalous events
in our own Church as well as those in secular society.
One sad thing Ive read was the final paragraph of the New York Times
obituary of the popular French novelist Françoise Sagan. In a 1993
interview before her second drug trial, Sagan recalled:
"I had incredible luck because just when I grew up, the pill came along.
When I was 18, I used to die with fear of being pregnant, but then it arrived,
and love was free and without consequence for nearly 30 years. Then AIDS
came. Those 30 years coincided with my adulthood, the age for having fun."
In this "age for having fun," Françoise Sagan was twice
married, twice divorced, twice convicted of narcotics offenses. God rest
her soul. God rest the souls of all who thought as she did. And may God
come to the rescue of all who now think as she did. It is the spirit of
this "age for having fun" that makes the Churchs teaching
on chastity so necessary today.
There is a vast gulf between the secularist view of sex and the Christian
view of chastity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2337) says:
"Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the
person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.
Sexuality, in which mans belonging to the bodily and biological world
is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into
the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong
mutual gift of a man and a woman.
The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and
the integrality [i.e., completeness] of the gift."
Sacred Scripture says the same thing in its own way. The single most important
fact about biblical anthropology may be that it views the human body as
integral to the human person. In contrast with ancient and modern dualisms,
the Bible makes it clear that we do not possess our bodies, as if they were
apart from us; rather, we are bodily persons. God created us bodily persons
and communal in nature by being related to him and one another.
The biblical testimony has serious moral implications. What people do in
and to their bodies touches the core of their personhood (cf. 1 Cor 6:9).
Chastity, as a principle of personal integration, is crucially important
to holiness and happinessto being healthy, integrated human beings.
The contemporary context
Chastity is closely related to the virtue of temperance, which regulates
the use of food and drinkand sex. Regulation is in order precisely
because these things are good. If they werent, we would be obliged
to shun them, not regulate them. As it is, chastity empowers us to make
right use of a great gift from God.
Fully to appreciate chastity, we need to reflect on attitudes and ways of
acting opposed to it. This will not be pleasant. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere
Christianity, "perversions of the sex instinct are numerous, hard
to cure, and frightful." But the cure begins with recognizing a perversion
for what it is.
The list is long and depressing. It includes pornography, masturbation,
premarital sex, cohabitation, homosexual relations and unions, sexual promiscuity,
adultery, divorce and remarriage without an annulment, contraception, sterilization,
abortion, cloning, and the destruction of human embryos for stem-cell research.
Currently, a campaign of legal pressure and media propaganda seeks to force
a change in the definition of marriage so that homosexual unions will be
accepted as marriages.
Secular culture as it is reflected in the media not only accepts sex outside
marriage but also encourages it. One result is that many people hardly even
understand what the Church says about sexual morality. Many, for instance,
not only do not practice modesty in dress but also have little or no idea
what "modesty in dress" might mean. And how often, unfortunately,
the young are left uninstructed about the evil of masturbation, with the
result being a vicious habit they must truly struggle to overcome.
Consent is the supreme principle supposedly legitimating virtually any sexual
behavior. This radically libertarian mindset still recognizes rape as a
sexual aberration, but if people are willing, virtually anything else goes.
"Who am I to judge?" others say with a shrug. "Theyre
old enough. Nobody else is hurt. So why shouldnt they if they want
Here is the rationale for the casual sexual encountersnot just loveless
but without even emotional attachmentnow common on college campuses
and in other settings. Many young women complain of the boorishness of men
who take casual sex for granted, as if this were something they have a right
to expect after paying for a meal and drinks. Women, often on the birth-control
pill without any medical reason, feel under pressure to comply. Wouldnt
people think them strange if they said no? Sexual harassment, stalking,
and violence also are part of this ugly scene.
Sometimes, of course, unmarried young women and men do say theyre
"in love" when they engage in sex. Then the relationship ends,
the partners enter into new relationships, they again have sex, and again
they say theyre "in love." It mocks love to call serial
fornication by this name. And it mocks parental responsibility for parents
to imagine theyve done their duty by telling their children to avoid
unprotected sex and have sex only in a caring relationship.
Legalized abortion flows from the mentality I am describing. Despite dishonest
chatter about making abortion safe, legal, and rare, there have been 45
million abortions in the United States since the Supreme Court gave its
blessing to abortion in 1973. The destruction of 45 million human lives
in a little over thirty years is not what most people would call "rare."
Veterans of the abortion movement now speak of the need to preserve their
daughters right to choose abortion. "If you want to kill our
unborn grandchildren," they say in effect, "thats your right."
Disordered sexual behavior lies at the root of this cancer in our society.
Disordered sexual attitudes and practices before marriage make chastity
harder after marriage. Women are encouraged to be as "liberated"
as men. But disordered sex is a recipe for conflict, infidelity, self-hatred
and hatred of the other, for violence, desertion, and the breakdown of relationships
in marriage. This is a strange liberation that entraps, enslaves, and destroys!
Sex education in the schoolsunfortunately, even in some Catholic schoolsfrequently
has little or nothing to do with morality. Concentrating on the physiology
of sex and contraception, its message to young people is that when they
have sex, they should take steps to prevent pregnancy and disease. This
destructive miseducation is reinforced by television, movies, music videos,
and youth magazines.
The meaning of chastity for everyone
The Churchs message about chastity is simple: the great good of sex
may not be separated from procreation, love, and marriage. Sexual intimacy
and sexual relations are only appropriate between a man and woman united
in marriage. Consent isnt enough; faith and reason should govern and
guide desire and passion.
My predecessor, Bishop James C. Timlin, once pointed to the likeness between
the appetite for food and drink and the appetite for sex. If food and drink
are to accomplish Gods purpose, the health of the body, then the appetite
for them must be regulated; otherwise, they become threats to health.
"The other powerful appetite given by God," Bishop Timlin wrote,
"is the sexual appetite. Unlike the appetite for food and drink, which
is directed to maintaining the life of the individual, the sexual appetite
is provided by God to maintain the continuation of the human race. If this
appetite is to do the good for which God gave it, it too must be regulated.
Both individuals and society suffer when it is misused or used without regulation."
Unchaste men and women can hardly say with Mary, "Behold, I am the
handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word."
(Lk 1:38) Unchaste people do as they please, not as pleases God. They should
recall Scriptures warning: "No immoral or impure man
any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God" (Eph 5:5). The
oldest piece of Christian writing outside the Bible is The Teaching of
the Twelve Apostles. Known as the Didache, it calls abortion,
infanticide, fornication, and adultery "a way of death."
Certainly, someone may object: "God is a God of mercy. He doesnt
condemn people. Jesus didnt condemn the woman caught in adultery,
did he?" Lets see. Here is the passage from chapter 8 of Johns
Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they [those who
had wanted to stone her to death]? Has no one condemned you?" She said,
No one, Lord. And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you;
go, and do not sin again."
No, Jesus did not condemn her. And neither did he excuse her. "Go,
and do not sin again," he said. This is a message we all must take
Chastity has never been easy, but today it is harder than ever because of
the many inducements to be unchaste and the widespread ignorance of the
Christian tradition and the teaching of the Church. Many people would like
to do the right thingif only they knew what that was and felt up to
Back in the 4th century, St. Augustine knew what wanting and not wanting
to be chaste was like. He called it "sickness" for the soul to
be "so weighted down by custom that it cannot wholly rise even with
the support of truth." But persistence seeking chastity is crowned
with success. Thanks to Gods help, Augustine succeeded. As charity
increases, he wrote later, "greed diminishes; when it reaches perfection,
greed is no more." Similarly the growth of charity in the soul eventually
removes the lust that inclines people to act unchastely, for lust is a form
of greed. Good love drives out bad.
Now lets look at some specific issues.
> Read Part
2 of "Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age"
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