Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age | Bishop Joseph F. Martino | Ignatius Insight
Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age | By Bishop Joseph F. Martino
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.
An American bishops pastoral advice.
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.
Aristotle remarked in the Nicomachean Ethics (1162a, 25-30) that
while men and women marry for reasons of usefulness and pleasure, their
"friendship may be based also on virtue, if the parties are good
And children seem to be a bond of union (which is the reason why childless
people part more easily); for children are a good common to both and what
is common holds them together." Chastity, which embraces openness
to children and the choice to stay together, is the key to a happy marriage.
The Bible makes it clear that married love is a great gift from God. This
is the message of the Book of Genesis and the Letter to the Ephesians.
Genesis makes two enormously important points about human beings. First,
they are made in the image and likeness of God. Second, seeing "it
was not good for man to be alone" (Gn 2:18), God created woman and,
by ordaining that the two become "one flesh" (Gn 2:24), made
the love of husband and wife a visible sign of his love for the world.
And, as Ephesians points out, by the redemptive activity of Christ, the
love of husband and wife is a signa kind of sacramentof the
mystery of the love between Christ and his Church (Eph 5:32). In marrying,
a man and woman establish a lifelong partnership, for their own good and
the good of their children. Because Christian marriage is a sign of Christs
covenant with the Church, its covenantal nature makes divorce impossible
for a man and woman joined in sacramental marriage. "To bear witness
to the inestimable value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage
is one of the most precious and most urgent tasks of Christian couples
in our time," according to Pope John Paul II. (Familiaris Consortio,
Soon after becoming Pope, our Holy Father devoted a famous series of Wednesday
audience talks to a theology of the body. It is a theology rooted in his
philosophical studies and one of its key insights concerns the bodys
"Right from the beginning," he said, the human body in its masculinity
or femininity includes "the nuptial attribute, that is, the capacity
of expressing love
in which the person becomes a gift and, by means
of this gift, fulfills the meaning of his being or existence." Does
the Catholic Church take a negative view of sex and seek to deny people
the pleasures of sexual expression? Critics say so, but theyre wrong.
As Pope Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae citing the Vatican
II document Gaudium et Spesthe Church teaches that conjugal
relations between a husband and wife are "good and worthy of human
dignity." Marital chastity preserves that goodness and protects that
Growth in friendship between husband and wife requires that they make
constant efforts to grow in love of God and neighbor and avoid sinnot
only sins against chastity but also sins like pride, anger, alcohol abuse,
drug addiction, laziness, holding grudges, withholding forgiveness, and
To do this, a Catholic couple must know their faith, receive the sacraments,
and strive for the perfection of charity. With Gods grace, mediated
especially through the sacrament of matrimony, as well as frequent reception
of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, wife and husband can conquer
their sins and disordered inclinations and love one another as Christ
loves the Church and the Church loves Christ. Then their marriage and
family life become manifestations of great beauty, sources of happiness
for themselves and their children, inspirations to others. Then they are
on the way to beingI write these words gladlymarried saints.
Contraception and natural family planning
The Catholic writer Flannery OConnor called the Churchs doctrine
on contraception "the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands."
Then this tough-minded realist about human nature added a catch: "With
all of us being materialists at heart, there is little wonder that it
Pope Paul VI stated the teaching clearly in his prophetic encyclical Humanae
Vitae (12): "There is an unbreakable connection between the
unitive and procreative meaning, and both are inherent in the conjugal
act. God established this connection, and man is not permitted to break
it through his own volition." Even so, peopleincluding many
Catholicsdo break that connection all the time. Does that have something
to do with our being, as Flannery OConnor said, "materialists
But after all, whats wrong with contraception? By contraception,
people willingly act against both the procreative, life-giving meaning
of conjugal intercourse and the unitive, love-giving meaning. Setting
ones will against, as well as acting against fundamental human purposes
like these, is moral evil: sin.
It doesnt help to say that one is avoiding procreation so that love
can be more freely expressed. The two things are so intimately linked,
Pope John Paul II points out, that "the conjugal act deprived of
its interior truth, because artificially deprived of its procreative capacity,
ceases to be an act of love."
What does someone who practices contraception communicate to his or her
spouse? "I love you deeplybut not completely, of course. I
give myself to you entirelybut only up to a point. I trust God unconditionallybut
weve got to look out for ourselves." This is a badly mixed
message, to say the least.
Things are very different with a husband and wife open to bringing a new
life into the world. They are prepared to live even more fully in service
to one another and to sacrifice for the common good of their family.
But what about couples who have a good reason to put off having a child?
Then the morally right answer is Natural Family Planning (NFP). NFP today
is not the calendar-rhythm method of the 1940s and 1950s. NFP refers to
scientifically proven, morally acceptable methods by which a couple determines
the womans fertile and infertile periods, with a view either to
conceiving a child or postponing conception. Both artificial contraception
and NFP can fail when not used properly, but the success rate of NFP is
fully comparable to that of contraception. And the rate of divorce among
NFP couples is much lower than among contracepting couples, thanks to
the high degree of communication, mutual consideration, and respect that
Homosexuality and same-sex unions
Widespread acceptance of contraception paved the way for approval of the
homosexual lifestyle and efforts to have same-sex unions accepted as marriages.
As with many other bad ideas, the logic is unassailable once you grant
the fundamental premise: that it is all right to separate the procreative
purpose of sexual intercourse from the unitive purpose. Of course the
same logic can just as well be used on behalf of other sexual practices
that are still generally considered unacceptable.
If homosexual "marriage" ever becomes the law of the land, the
views pronounced by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts when legalizing
it in that state will be imposed on the rest of the country. For instance,
these views include the notions that marriage is intended mainly to benefit
adults; that children do not need a mother and a father; that other ways
of raising children are as good as the mother-father way; and that marriage
is the creation of the state.
Then society will attempt to condition us to stop speaking of "husbands"
and "wives" and to speak of "partners." Children will
have to be taught about homosexual sex in marriage-preparation and sex-education
classes. Anyone who objects will be branded a "homophobe." Churches
that teach the contrary doctrine of their sacred books and traditions
will be called bigoted and threatened with legal coercion.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2357) presents the teaching
of the Catholic Church in these words:
"Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual
acts as acts of grave disorder, tradition has always declared that homosexual
acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural
law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed
from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances
can they be approved."
Recognizing same-sex unions as marriages would be a serious blow to traditional
marriage for it would demean the unique relationship of wife and husband.
It would be like giving a diamond and a piece of glass the same name"diamond"and
the same price.
Traditional marriage was already under assaultfrom cohabitation,
contraception, infidelity, and divorcebefore same-sex "marriage"
came along. But traditional marriages and families are essential to a
healthy society. For the sake of the common good, as well as individuals,
they should be defended and preserved.
At the same time, people with a homosexual orientation deserve the same
respect and fair treatment as everyone else. They should not be targets
of unjust discrimination and certainly not targets of violence. Called
to live chaste, holy lives, they should receive the support of the Christian
community in their efforts to practice chastity. The organization, Courage,
offers important ministry to aid those seeking to live chaste lives.
Education in chastity
Many persons and groups have roles in educating children and young people
in chastity. The need for such education is greater than ever today because
of the miseducation in unchastity that American children and young people
receive from other sources.
Parents should teach their children from an early age that chastity is
to be prized and cherished and that unchaste behavior is sinful. Parents
must of course be models of chaste behavior themselves. They can help
their children develop self-mastery by cautioning them against unchaste
thoughts and immodest behavior, and warning them againstwhen they
are young, denying them access tomovies, TV shows, Internet sites,
and other sources of lewdness and pornography.
Parents should chaperone childrens parties and social activities
and supervise dating. (Pre-pubescent and pubescent children shouldnt
date at all.) Catholic parents must see that their children learn and
practice the faith. In the present unhealthy cultural environment, faith
and virtuous behavior cant be taken for granted or left to chance.
Parishes and Catholic schools and religious education programs are obliged
to support and reinforce the teaching of conscientious parents. Bearing
in mind that they are role models as well as information sources, religion
teachers and catechistsindeed, all teachers, administrators, coaches,
librarians, and other staffshould know and observe the teaching
of the Church. Every class, subject, and activity, from science and literature
to athletics and the school play, is a potential setting for communicating
Like responsible parents, teachers face a daunting task today, given the
fact that children are bombarded with incitements to be unchaste and may
have hardly heard the word chastity, much less learned what it means and
been helped to live it out. Among other things, teachers need to encourage
their pupils to attend weekly Sunday Mass and receive the sacraments of
penance and the Eucharist regularly.
Parish priests should speak the truth about human sexuality and sexual
sin. Homilies, the sacrament of Penance, and sacramental preparation,
especially before marriage, are important occasions for doing this. Pastoral
sensitivity is always in order, but silence is not.
Careful instruction in Natural Family Planning should be part of marriage-preparation
programs. NFP should never be presented as merely a subject for discussion
that listeners are free to ignore. Where our own knowledge may be behind
the times, we bishops and priests need to update ourselves on Natural
Family Planning, Pope John Paul IIs theology of the body, and other
Let us take the Blessed Virgin Mary as our model and guide. As the Second
Vatican Council affirmed in Lumen Gentium (64), Mary "preserves
with virginal purity an integral faith, a firm hope, and a sincere charity."
Her special spiritual fruitfulness comes from purity and openness to the
Fathers will; by imitating her, we too can be spiritually fruitful.
But the Blessed Virgin is more than just someone to imitate. As mediatrix
of grace to those who call upon her with sincere devotion, she helps us
in our efforts to be holy. Loving us with a mothers compassion, she
wants Christ to be born in us individually and as a pilgrim Church. With
Gods grace, through Mary, may we all be chaste. "Blessed are
the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (Mt 5:8)
Bishop Joseph F. Martino heads the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
This pastoral letter was released on December 8, 2004: the 150th anniversary
of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception; it is reprinted
here with permission.
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