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Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age | Bishop Joseph F. Martino

An American bishop’s pastoral advice.

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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 taught–and I teach here–that 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? Don’t 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 I’ve 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 Church’s 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 man’s 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 happiness–to being healthy, integrated human beings.

The contemporary context

Chastity is closely related to the virtue of temperance, which regulates the use of food and drink–and sex. Regulation is in order precisely because these things are good. If they weren’t, 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. "They’re old enough. Nobody else is hurt. So why shouldn’t they if they want to?"

Here is the rationale for the casual sexual encounters–not just loveless but without even emotional attachment–now 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. Wouldn’t 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 they’re "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 they’re "in love." It mocks love to call serial fornication by this name. And it mocks parental responsibility for parents to imagine they’ve 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, "that’s 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 schools–unfortunately, even in some Catholic schools–frequently 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 Church’s 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 isn’t 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 God’s 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 Scripture’s warning: "No immoral or impure man…has 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 doesn’t condemn people. Jesus didn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery, did he?" Let’s see. Here is the passage from chapter 8 of John’s Gospel:

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 to heart.

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 thing–if only they knew what that was and felt up to the effort.

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 God’s 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 let’s look at some specific issues.

> Read Part 2 of "Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age"


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