Perhaps the most famous lines ever spoken on chastity come from Saint Augustine: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!” Many people avoid speaking of chastity entirely, hoping that with good intentions and prayer, the issue will simply “work itself out.” But any exercise, physical or spiritual, does not simply take care of itself. Just as physical fitness requires patience, focus, and discipline, spiritual fitness involves a similarly serious investment of time and will.
Perhaps nowhere is it more fitting to say that “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” than in the arena of chastity. Knowledge of and desire for chastity is as important as any other discipline for proper human development. Chastity is not a relic of Christian history: It is a virtue for all persons—religious or not, unmarried as well as married—for it presupposes a value of the human person that colors the entire sphere of human activity.
Sex and Modernity
Sex in man is the same as sex in animals; sex in men is the same as sex in women. These two fallacies are promoted in all aspects of modern culture, from television shows like Sex and the City and Girls to education in public schools. I’ll never forget being taught in my first year of high school that “mutual masturbation” was an appropriate sexual activity to engage in, in lieu of sexual intercourse, with our significant other—among a list of other alternative sexual activities in our class textbook that the health class teacher asked both the girls and boys to recite.
In my last year of college, I stumbled upon the writings of Dietrich von Hildebrand on the problems of sex education in public schools. The severity with which he condemned such “irreverent” teachings on human sexuality seemed a bit extreme, I thought. Years later, after a few more books and a few more mistakes, I came to realize that the situation is as dire as he said.
“Sex has become one of the most discussed subjects of modern times,” Fulton Sheen explains in Peace of Soul. “The Victorians pretended it did not exist; the moderns pretend that nothing else exists.” In an age of rampant abuses of the human body and its sexual function, how can people live out the call to chastity today? How can we speak of cultivating an attitude of chastity in relationships when many well-meaning people don’t adequately understand chastity at all?
“Unlike the extreme Freudianism,” Sheen writes, “Christianity is not so narrow-minded as to make sex the most important instinct of life or to attribute mental disorders exclusively to its repression.” Most critics of the Christian view of sex misunderstand the philosophy of the human person presented by thinkers such as Augustine, Edith Stein, Karol Wojtyla, Fulton Sheen, and Dietrich von Hildebrand. These writers were not “merely” saints, martyrs, popes, archbishops, or professors: They were deep thinkers whose minds were formed by years of serious study at universities across Europe and the United States. Most modern minds are quick to forget this fact, if they ever knew it in the first place, and to dismiss their profound insights.
“Using a more comprehensive and saner outlook on life,” explains Sheen, “Christianity traces not one, but several roots of mental disorders in the nonphysical and moral realm. There is sex, to be sure; but there are also six other possible causes—pride, covetousness, anger, envy, gluttony, and sloth.” In the presence of disordered desire, love “can be perverted into self-adoration.” It is precisely this sense of “self-adoration” that a proper foundation of chastity will amend—for sexual self-seeking, or erotic egotism, is incompatible with love.
Erotic Egotism and the Gift of Self
In today’s increasingly narcissistic culture, the focus on the ego is overwhelmingly pervasive. And the greatest victim of the age of narcissism is the family. The contraceptive mentality has become the scourge of Western civilization, creating a demographic crisis and poisoning modern man’s philosophical outlook. Contraceptives propagate erotic egotism, leading to its natural end—abortion, the deliberate destruction of a human life.
When sex begins and ends with the self, we make allowances for the technologies of narcissism: birth control pills, condoms, and abortions. This contraceptive attitude is fundamentally at odds with the attitude of true love: life-giving love as an expression of a full gift of self. “The body is a Temple of God,” writes Fulton Sheen; “with some modern minds, man is merely a beast.” Today’s cultural arbiters would have us believe that the deep spiritual communion of the conjugal act is merely sexual satisfaction for beasts. The contraceptive mentality violates the sanctity of the human person and the body as a temple.
Consider the outcomes of the two approaches. Viewing the body as a temple of God opens the way for a cultivation of both emotional and physical chastity, protected by prayer and bolstered by the promise of love while dating, and consummating your wedding night with a spouse who promises to love you until death. Viewing the body as a beast of pleasure embraces the pursuit of boundless sexual pleasures with strangers, protected by condoms and abortions, and maybe ending up married someday after you’ve sown your wild oats. Which story has a better ending?
The Culture of Chastity-shaming
Fulton Sheen aptly diagnosed the modern sexual situation: “Sex is thought about as a medium of pleasure to such a degree that it has become an obsession.” Even in our sex-saturated culture, student organizations like the Love and Fidelity Network have formed in reaction to the college culture, which masks sexual libertinism in Slut Walks and speech against “slut-shaming”—efforts that often only lead to “chastity shaming” instead. Even women well versed in feminist theory find pop culture’s presentation of feminism unsatisfying, with its insistence on the bifurcation of the self—dividing the physical from the personal and the emotional from the sexual. One paradigmatic example can be found in the lyrics of the popular Lady Gaga song, “Do What U Want”: “You can’t have my heart and you won’t use my mind, but do what you want with my body.” This false, dualistic dichotomy is the malady of the modern age.
The body is not merely our possession: It is a sacred property created and preserved by God. As temples of the Holy Spirit, created in the image of God, we are reflections of the divine. If our bodies were merely instruments, then pornography, sex trafficking, and slavery would be legitimate uses of the body. Yet as Fulton Sheen writes, “sex instinct in a pig and love in a person are not the same, precisely because love is found in the will, not in the glands—and will does not exist in a pig.”
To reduce our sexual being to a merely animalistic instinct is to diminish an integral aspect of the human person. Our sexual identity is bound up with much more than our glands: It is inseparable from our personalities, and most importantly, it is sanctioned by the will. The willed “yes” of spouses is so much more than sex between two animals. “One of the noblest projects of the race,” R.F. Trevett writes, “the subordination of the sexual passions to love and to generation through love—has been approved, ratified, consecrated, assumed into the union of Christ with mankind.” The human emotions tied to the sexual act go far beyond mere pleasure and pain, but instead include our most profound part: the spirit.
Sexual Longing and Loneliness
“Sex can cause a loneliness and sadness in humans that it cannot cause in animals,” Sheen writes. “His tension comes from trying to substitute the chaff of sex for the bread of life.” Glaring examples of the “chaff” he describes can be found not only in Dunham’s Girls, with its depiction of modern women who lead uninteresting and unpleasant lives in an endless pursuit of casual sex, but especially in the film that inspired the series: Tiny Furniture. The film ends with the main character, played by Dunham, engaging in casual sex in a gutter in the streets of New York City. She returns home, noticeably disappointed by her late-night liaison. The film ends with a wounded Dunham, curled up in bed with her mother and sister, tears streaming down her face.
This is the icon of sex in the modern age: violation followed by tears. The scene leaves a burning impression of a profoundly lonely young woman—a woman seeking to escape her loneliness in alcohol and casual sex, seeking self-worth from the affirmation of strangers—who ends up feeling alone and worthless even in the arms of her loving mother.
A friend once told me that when he decided he couldn’t marry his girlfriend, he took steps to “burn the bridges of intimacy” between them. Many of us are caught in relationships that are not right. We are afraid to loosen the ties that bind us to our significant other—and when two people are physically intimate, these ties are even more difficult to undo. Sex creates emotional attachment, like an intimacy IV. The more intimacy shared with another, the more difficult it can be to detach. The more sober and chaste we are—both physically and emotionally—the easier it will be to discern whether or not someone is suitable to marry.
Often, whether we realize it or not, we may be using emotional and physical intimacy to alleviate loneliness. “The single person has to value aloneness, the state of being on one’s own,” writes Benedict Groeschel in The Courage to Be Chaste. “He or she must also have learned to overcome loneliness, that is, aloneness when it becomes a burden.” Yet many are unprepared to embrace this state of aloneness—particularly difficult when we rely on others for physical intimacy. We may also begin to divulge to friends—in person or digitally, in tweets or texts—seeking emotional consolation and validation of ourselves. But to fall in love as a flight from loneliness is no way to build a marriage. Only when our cup is full, as Rilke writes, are we prepared for the significant, serendipitous encounter of love. While we may be moved to love because of a lack in ourselves, we are not moved out of loneliness.
The Positive Virtue of Chastity
In an age when morality is known more for its rules and regulations than for the beauty of a morally excellent life, our focus should be not on what chastity forbids but on the positive human values that a chaste life affirms: personal discipline, a confident sense of self-worth, psychological wholeness, freedom from disease and fear of pregnancy, and an increase in marital stability and satisfaction, to name only a few.
To live a chaste life in this world is to “live in opposition to the strong tide of contemporary decadence,” as Benedict Groeschel warns the chaste singles of today. Most Millennials consider the call to chastity an impossible ideal, as if tempering one’s physical desires is asking us to move the rock of Gibraltar. Yet perhaps more would consider the challenges worth it if they fully realized the benefits.
“Chastity implies an heroic effort at times to confront the dark and self-centered aspects of one’s inner being,” writes Groeschel. The radical shift from a life of sexual indulgence to sexual restraint can be daunting, with moments of difficulty and darkness. But we are not called to pursue this chaste life alone. Man was not meant to be alone; we are called to love, and healthy friendships are crucial to the health of the human person. In times of trial, like-minded friends can offer critical emotional support.
“At last,” Etta James sang in 1960. “My love has come along. My lonely days are over.” Etta James was not singing about some fleeting sexual encounter: She sang about true and lasting love. “Chastity is not merely continence,” St. Josemaria Escriva wrote, “But a decisive affirmation on the part of the will in love.” Perhaps, by pursuing a life of intentional chastity rather than irreverent decadence, we just might invite our love to come along.