Two Views on Chastity and Sin

In my previous post, I wrote about two approaches to human sexuality: the “avoidant approach” presented by many Catholics, and the “integrative approach” presented by the catechism.

Sin no more

These approaches are analogous to a discussion of sin in John 18:11. There, Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” A common reading of this passage teaches that Jesus commands her to no longer commit adultery, or any other active sin. But this reading misses more nuanced and compelling translations of the Greek text.

“Sin no more” is a translation of “ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε.” Most people translate this last word, hamartane, as “sin,” in the sense of commuting an overt act of evil. But it can also be translated as “miss the mark” or “err” or “be mistaken.” Sin, hamarteia, is not only an overt act of evil, but also missing the mark, failing to achieve one’s aim.

This understanding might shed light on Dostoevsky’s literary claim that Christians should see themselves as “guilty for all and before all.” It makes sense of the claim that we are all sinners. It explains the beginning of the Confeteor where Catholics pray, “I have sinned… in what I have done, and what I have failed to do.” It explains the saints who identify themselves as the worst of sinners. One sins not only through overt acts of malice, but through error, through mistake, by missing the mark with respect to living our fullest Christian lives. In hamarteia, there is no distinction between overt malice and simply falling short of our callings as Christians. 

This might lead us to despair of the fact that we are constantly sinners. We err, make mistakes, and constantly fail to live up to our vocations. But if sin is not only to commit an overt act of evil, but is hamarteia, missing the mark, then Jesus’ call to go and sin no more gives more than a command to avoid cheating or lying or stealing or fornicating or adulterating. It empowers Christians to go and hit the mark, to achieve, to aspire and succeed. Jesus does not give a negative command, but a proclamation of good news. He tells us to miss the mark no longer, to go and hit the mark. And in giving us this command, He implicitly tells us that He believes we can.

Avoidance or chastity

This aspirational approach to life generally and sexuality in particular is inconsistent with a preoccupation with avoidance. We do need to exercise prudence towards occasions of sin, but we should be conscious of when “prudence” simply becomes an excuse for avoiding vulnerable situations that challenge us to love others. We shouldn’t seek to justify hard-heartedness by calling it prudence. And we should scrutinize whether our “prudent” choices actually help us to achieve our aims, or whether they simply act as an avoidance strategy inhibiting growth. Chastity can only be achieved through risk.

The Christian life is inimical to either fear or avoidance. Thus, the Catechism characterizes chastity not by fear or avoidance or inhibition, but by peace (2339), free choice (2339), self-knowledge (2340), ascetic practice (2340), obedience to God’s commands (2340), moral virtue (2340), fidelity to prayer (2340), unity with others (2340), unity within the self (2339), effort at all stages of life (2342), and integrity of the powers of life and love placed in man (2338). Chastity should not lead us to become de-sexualized beings, but should enable us to fully realize our sexuality and sexual energies. Chastity is not a mark to miss, but a mark to hit. And if we treat chastity primarily as a list of “don’ts,” then we miss the point altogether.

Of course, this will involve us considering what it means to be “sexual” outside of genital acts. What would it mean for the celibate person to have a flourishing sexual life? In other words, how does the celibate person live out chastity?

In my next post, I discuss a group commonly subjected to the “avoidant approach” to sexuality: gay Christians.


You can find this post and others like it in my collection of writings, “I Desired You: Volume 2.” Available here.

desire book 2 cover

6 thoughts on “Two Views on Chastity and Sin

  1. Hello, I am gay and have recently received the sacrament of confirmation into the Catholic church as an adult. I am attempting to understand my sexual orientation in the context of Catholicism. When you write about an integrated approach to sexuality what does this mean? Am I able to have a same sex partner and engage in sexual activity? Or is an integrated approach to sexuality an acceptance of my homosexuality but not expressing my homosexuality in sexual activity? I have recently read ‘Another Kind of Love’ by Fr Richard Woods. I found the book helpful in terms of accepting my homosexuality and of living according to values consistent with Catholicism and not adhering to stereotypes of same sex promiscuity. I am just confused as to how I integrate my homosexuality and whether I can have a monogamous relationship that includes an expression of love through sexual activity.

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    1. Hi Bruce, I would say that the first thing to look at is what the Church has to say on these questions, looking at what the Catechism has to say about homosexuality, and then also at what it has to say about vocation and sexuality generally. I would also recommend Wesley Hill’s books, “Washed and Waiting” and “Spiritual Friendship,” as well as “Gay and Catholic” by Eve Tushnet. I have a couple of books on Amazon as well. Consider what it would mean for you to speak honestly about your experiences with family and friends, and seek out friendships and mentors that will help you grow in your faith and as a person generally. When I think about integration, I think about bringing together the various parts of your life and personality and considering what these parts can mean in the context of loving the Church, serving others, and growing in friendship and community. I’d recommend that as a place to start

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      1. Thanks for your reply Chris. I have read the Catechism on homosexuality but I’m unsure that I can live a celibate life.

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