Chastity is Good News
At a recent spiritual retreat the director said, "A lack of male virtue is the cause of most of the problems in our society today.” I surmised he was referring to the recent spate of accusations of sexual harassment against prominent men. He could also have been referring to charges that high level dignitaries in the Catholic Church have been preying on seminarians. In the secular world it has been reported that UN peacekeepers and administrators of charitable organizations have been engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior in Africa, not to mention the spread of pornography on the internet even to young children. In the last fifty years since the advent of the contraceptive pill, which separates sex and procreation, such behavior has become commonplace as was foreseen by Blessed Paul VI in his encyclical on the regulation of births, Humanae vitae. Statistics show that there is little difference between those who call themselves Catholic and the general population in this area. One might ask, whatever happened to chastity in general and marital chastity in particular? Is it no longer a virtue prized by men and women of Faith?
Chastity is part of the virtue of temperance, which even the pagan Greek philosophers regarded as necessary for proper human flourishing. Traditionally chastity has been demanded of women in most cultures, especially as a pre-requisite for marriage. In order to ensure women’s chastity, they have been greatly restricted in contrast to men. For example, in traditional culture in India, a young girl, once she has reached puberty, may not visit the compound of a marriageable boy cousin alone. Even in biblical times a double standard pertained with men allowed several wives as well as concubines. Yet increasingly adultery was compared to the worship of idols as opposed to that of the one true God.
Christ brought a new ethos. As John Paul II reiterates in his commentary on Matthew 19:1-12, Christ said it was not so “in the beginning.” Sexual licentiousness along with other sinful behavior, flowed from the first sin of breaking the covenant with God. Man and woman lost original innocence. They could no longer see each other through God’s eyes as first of all cherished persons. Christ brought the good news that by his life, death and resurrection through the grace of the sacraments which strengthen Man’s own effort, man and woman could enjoy the communion he had originally planned for them.
Not only by his death and resurrection did Christ reveal the path to life and love, but through living thirty years of his life in the Holy Family he has shown us how to live the sometimes radical demands of family life. Too often, because there was no conjugal intercourse and Jesus’ birth was miraculous, the Holy Family has not been seen as a true model of the family. This, I argue, following John Paul II, in my book The Holy Family Model Not Exception, is a mistake and deprives families of an abundant source of grace and inspiration.
It is the communion of the Holy Family centered on Christ which provides the model for families. This communion, in turn, is modeled on the loving communion in the Trinity between Father Son and Holy Spirit. Such communion is first and foremost based on the spouses being equally persons, although in particular masculine and feminine ways. It is the man’s role to initiate love and the woman to receive and give love in return. However, as St. Paul in Ephesians 5:21 exhorts, both must first submit to Christ. Any action on the man’s part that treats the woman simply as an object of sexual pleasure, dishonors her as a person and in so doing degrades himself. Such behavior is all too clear in the pain women express in the Me-Too movement.
The Creator, in his wisdom, has so designed the human body, that, by monitoring the signs of fertility, men and women can not only discern the best time to achieve a pregnancy but also to avoid, if there are serious reasons, not to conceive another child. It is not hard to see that, if the intent is to avoid pregnancy and the couple must abstain, the method provides a challenge to the man’s often insistent sexual drive. Yet it is precisely this discipline of restraint, lovingly accepted for the sake of his wife, that enables him to treat her as a beloved person.
In spite of there being no conjugal intercourse, love was eminently present in the marriage of Mary and Joseph. As John Paul II says:
Joseph, in obedience to the Spirit, found in the Spirit the source of love, the conjugal love which he experienced as a man. And this love proved to be greater than the “just man” could ever have expected within the limits of his human heart.
It was Joseph’s closeness to Jesus that enabled him to make the sublime sacrifice of his conjugal rights. So, too, the sacraments are available to all the baptized. Through frequent reception, couples can live an ordered and, at the same time, a fulfilling sexual life.
All, according to Vatican Council II, are called to holiness and a life of virtue, married, single and consecrated celibate alike. This is not to say such holiness and virtue comes easily. John Paul II refers to “structures of sin,” the result of many personal sins coalescing, which make a life of virtue demanding but eminently possible. Some may have additional challenges from a defective family upbringing but even in such a case, psychological counseling and the Eucharist can bring healing. Many may fail at times but there is mercy and forgiveness, as Jesus did not come to call the righteous but sinners.
The Church’s teaching on chastity and marital chastity is good news. As Jesuit theologian Emile Mersch has written, “the foundation of chastity is not terror but love.” Sexual union is ordered to union and a reciprocal donation of self for life. John Paul II in Novo millenio ineunte (31) states that “the time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone the high standard of ordinary Christian living.” Men, especially, need to return to a life of virtue but they cannot do so without the encouragement and respect of the women in their lives. But that must be left for another article.
Mary Shivanandan, STD is retired as professor of theology from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, DC. Information on her new book, The Holy Family Model Not Exception is available from Amazon.