Rarely has there been a more misunderstood word than chastity.
The term that’s practically universally thought to be synonymous with “abstinence” has, in reality, and incredibly richer and deeper definition.
Abstinence is merely refraining from doing an action — just a plain “no” — whereas chastity is essentially, “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2337).
But there’s so much more to chastity than even that one great line, which is why below you’ll find (what I call) 10 “Truth-Bombs” from the Catechism on chastity:
1) “The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech.” (2338)
Boom. Right out of the gates, we’re reminded of the powers we have within us to live and to love.
Ask any superhero (lookin’ at you Spiderman 3) and they’ll tell you powers are neutral — you can use them for good or use them for evil, it’s your choice. And you can’t be a good guy while doing evil at the same time. Superheroes at their best are wholly, 100% good, and so too are we called to be with how we live our life and love those around us.
2) “Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” (2339)
I’ll let the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes do the rest of the talking:
Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end. [emphasis added]
3) “Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life.” (2342)
Hear that? We have to keep working at being virtuous if we want to stay virtuous. There’s no homeostasis when it comes to self-mastery — you’re either getting better or getting worse.
Michael Jordan became the greatest basketball player to ever play not by winning one championship and coasting, but by honing his craft diligently every single day.
4) “The virtue of chastity comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance, which seeks to permeate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason.” (2341)
Note the last word of the quote — “reason.”
We humans aren’t animals. We have the unique capacity to use our brains to make decisions based on something other than instinct (though today’s society has us fooled most days), and it’s not an accident that we have it at our disposal. Use it to choose the best good, and to understand that there’s a time and a place for everything, especially when it comes to chastity.
5) “Chastity is a moral virtue. It is also a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort.” (2345)
Hearkening back to No. 3 on the list, being good at chastity requires effort. We have to work at it — chastity will only arise out of our own intentioned action. While it takes physical and emotional effort, we read here that it also takes “spiritual effort,” that is, prayer.
Prayer is the building of our relationship with the Lord, so that we might be prepared to always put our best foot forward in our relationship with a potential or current spouse. Marriage in its truest form is triangular — husband, wife, and God. It needs mentioning, however, that the grace of chastity from God is there and offered to us, regardless of the effort we put forth — it remains a free gift.
6) “Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. ‘Man . . . day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.’”
We can find a bit of consolation in No. 6: God’s not asking us to eat the whole elephant in one bite. But God is asking us to keep eating. If we hope to govern our passions and fully integrate our sexuality as part of the whole person God created, then we must build ourselves up through free choices, big and small.
That’s why everyone is called to chastity, and everyone can do it, no matter their state in life — a step in the right direction is a step in the right direction, no matter where you start from.
7) Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is “an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.” (2344)
In one respect, our adventure in chastity is ours and ours alone — no one but us can make the choices governing what we do with our bodies and how we treat our loved ones.
But in another, equally important respect, none of us is an island. We all live as part of society, a community of persons, and our choices all have ramifications that affect those communities, for better or for worse. So, we also have a duty as members of humanity to keep in mind as well the state of the culture in which we live.
8) Chastity leads him who practices it to become a witness to his neighbor of God’s fidelity and loving kindness. [Therefore,] the virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends. (2346-2347)
The idea of true friendship, I believe, has been somewhat lost on our Western culture and replaced in many ways by an odd form of quid pro quo “friendship” (i.e. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).
Friendship, which ought to be the root of all relationship, is the recognizing in another person the mark of God — that indelible, spark of the divine — that deserves cultivating regardless of whether or not you receive some good from it.
9) “People should cultivate [chastity] in the way that is suited to their state of life.” (2349)
Chastity is not just for the hormonal teenager. Nor is it a call for the engaged couple counting down the days to their wedding.
Instead, chastity is a universal call for everyone from single teenagers to married couples young and old to people who have chosen to live celibate lives, because we all have a call to “maintain the powers of life and love” placed within us.
[See also: 11 of the Best #ThingsJesusNeverSaid]
10) “All the baptized are called to chastity. The Christian has “put on Christ,” the model for all chastity. All Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life.”
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Not only are we all in the same boat, but we are all seasick.”
The Christian life is hard, there’s no way around it. But we’re all in it together, and we must use that great benefit to lift one another up, both physically by encouraging one another constantly to seek the good in our lives and relationship to others, but also spiritually through prayer.
The Kingdom will be better served because of it.