I recently attended a discussion with Catholic young adults on chastity (a follow-up from the first discussion on masculinity and femininity). The conversation began with a quote from Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility:
“Chastity is very often understood as a ‘blind’ inhibition of sensuality and of physical impulses such that the values of the ‘body’ and of sex are pushed down into the subconscious, where they await an opportunity to explode. This is an obviously erroneous conception of the virtue of chastity, which, if practiced only in this way, does indeed create the danger of such ‘explosions’. This (mistaken) view of chastity explains the common inference that it is is purely negative virtue. Chastity, in this view, is one long ‘no.’ Whereas it is above all the ‘yes’ of which certain ‘no’s’ are the consequence. The essence of chastity consists in quickness to affirm the value of the person in every situation, and in raising to the personal level all reactions to the value of ‘the body and sex.’ This requires a special interior, spiritual effort, for affirmation of the value of the person can only be the product of the spirit, but this effort is above all positive and creative ‘from within,’ not negative and destructive.”
Our group first discussed how chastity, purity, and abstinence are often treated as synonymous, and how this can lead to toxic cultures among Christians. I distinguished them, first, by saying that abstinence is simply avoiding sexual activity, and probably the easiest to define. I then discussed purity as involving a kind of single-mindedness. We all act from a variety of mixed motivations, and the work of purity involves clearing away the motivations which are not oriented towards the love of others, moving towards “pure intentions.” Chastity, on the other hand, involves an integration. The Catechism identifies chastity as an integration of sexuality within the person, which itself involves the integration of man in body and soul, especially in his affectivity and capacity for procreativity.
Our group discussed how most “chastity” talks focus almost exclusively on abstinence. Whether intentionally or not, “chastity” talks often simply treat chastity as abstinence. Indeed, “chastity” talks in Catholic schools are usually often just “the talk,” followed by a list of reasons why you shouldn’t do “it” until marriage. Thus chastity is treated in this context as a primarily negative virtue, as something which requires, first and foremost (and perhaps primarily) that one avoid certain acts.
If Wojtyla is right, this approach to “education in chastity” will actually exacerbate problems related to chastity, rather than alleviate them. Chastity, in this context, is treated as that “‘blind’ inhibition” which must be primarily acted against, a negative to which the response is repression. And thus, this results in the kinds of “explosions” discussed by Wojtyla. Such “chastity” talks will actually create the culture that they are trying to combat, because “this is an obviously erroneous conception of the virtue of chastity, which, if practiced only in this way, does indeed create the danger of such ‘explosions’.”
In contrast, a more holistic understanding of chastity focuses primarily on loving others. A more “Catholic” education in chastity will occur in stages, first as teaching about the dignity of the human person and the need to respect others and their bodies generally. Then, over time, this education will focus more directly on sex and sexual activity. But it cannot focus exclusively or immediately on sex. Rather, chastity should be understood as much broader and as something approached in stages. Catholic education should reflect this.
We also discussed the relationship between shame and sexuality. Often, Christians will attempt to promote “chastity” by promoting a certain kind of shame in conjunction with premarital sex. This is certainly the effect of the bandaid analogy. Under this analogy, the more one has premarital sex, the more “used up” and dirty one becomes, like a bandaid that one tries to use and then reapply again and again. This analogy tries to cast those who engage in premarital sex as dirty, as if their sexualities have less value and integrity because of prior use. Unfortunately, this approach may also exacerbate problems associated with chastity, for the same reasons given above.
I shared some lessons I’ve learned from my counseling sessions. I’ve learned from my therapists that all persons have basic needs, among them the adult need to develop an integrated relationship with one’s sexuality. However, developing a relationship of shame with certain sexual sins can often exacerbate, rather than curb, them.
For example, some who cannot find a healthy way to relate to sexual desire may habituate themselves into pornography use or masturbation or hooking up. When this happens, if they have strong reactions of shame afterwards, then they will work harder to repress their sexual desires and increase their insecurities about their sexualities. This repression and insecurity, however, will prevent them from addressing sexuality honestly and openly (either with themselves or with others) and create further “explosions” of desire that they cannot, because they will not, respond to such desire, since it is associated with shame. The men all nodded in agreement as I said this.
If you’re interested, here are some relevant texts/resources on this topic:
- Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility
- Alice von Hildebrand, “Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic Philosopher, and Christopher West, Modern Enthusiast: Two Very Different Approaches to Love, Marriage and Sex“
- Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Nature of Love
- David O’Connor, Plato’s Bedroom: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love
- David O’Connor, She May be my Wife: How a Real Man Looks at Women (lecture video)
- David O’Connor, Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love (undergraduate course videos)
- Chris Damian (me, because… why not?), Do We Want Gay Christians to be Chaste?