The virtue of chastity is necessary to protect and practice the truth about marriage, sexuality and human life
The 33nd installment of Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori’s faith formation program addresses questions 487-502 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The very notion of chastity is unpopular in contemporary culture. It is often equated with sexual repression and is decidedly out of step with how sexuality is portrayed by the entertainment industry. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, introduces to us a very different way of looking at chastity. It is a gift from God and a virtue by which we integrate our sexual powers and attain the self-mastery necessary to give ourselves in love and service to others (488-489). It is an essential part of building a culture of life.
Chastity is not reserved only for a few; all of the baptized are called to model their lives on Christ by being formed in this virtue, which is to be practiced in all states of life or vocations within the Church. This formation takes place through the sacraments, prayer, mortification — such as fasting — and exercising the moral virtues, especially the virtue of temperance by which our passions are steadily controlled by reason (490).
A DIVINE PURPOSE
Some, such as religious and priests, profess virginity or consecrated celibacy so as to serve God and the Church with an undivided heart. While the unmarried are also called to refrain from sexual activity reserved for marriage, married couples are called to conjugal chastity, or purity within marriage. At a minimum, this enjoins them to refrain from all sexual activity outside of marriage (491). These are not merely man-made rules. Rather, they help us model our lives after Christ and the Beatitudes: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8).
Chastity respects the intertwined, God-given purposes of human sexuality, which is to express the exclusive love of husband and wife in a manner that is open to the procreation of new human life (496). As Pope Paul VI warned in the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), de-linking sexuality's power to express married love and to beget new life has opened the door to abortion and many other assaults on the family, on the truth of sexuality and on the dignity of human life.
The Sixth Commandment, "You shall not commit adultery," forbids all expressions of the vice known as lust, including adultery, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, rape and homosexual acts. When such acts are committed by an adult with a minor, their gravity is intensified (492). Sexual abuse on the part of those who represent the Church is particularly reprehensible, and in recent years, the Church has taken appropriate steps to protect children and young people.
The Church's teaching on chastity has often been held up to ridicule and distortion. This was true not only in the decades following the so-called "sexual revolution" of the late 1960s, but it remains true today. In addition, there has been a trend in courts and legislatures to legalize as "human rights" sexual acts that are in fact destructive. In such cases, civil authorities have abdicated their responsibility to create a society that fully respects human dignity and the institution of marriage while protecting the most vulnerable (494). Unfortunately, young people are sometimes permitted and encouraged, even by their parents and public school authorities, to engage in sexual activity, while formation in chastity is dismissed as "unworkable."
Despite the fact that chastity is often distorted in our culture, it is at the heart of the vocation of marriage. Our human sexuality is not merely a means to pleasure, but is instead ordered toward the benefits of married love: unity, fidelity, indissolubility and openness to new life (495). Accordingly, God has invested two inseparable meanings to the conjugal act: the unitive meaning — the mutual self-giving of the husband and wife; and the procreative meaning — openness to the transmission of new life (496). Actions such as sterilization and contraception, which break the intrinsic connection between these two meanings, are immoral and contrary to God's plan for human life (498).
Of course, there can be morally sound reasons for a husband and wife to regulate the timing and number of births in their family. These decisions must not be made for selfish reasons or as the result of external pressures, and must be carried out by morally licit methods, which involve continence during periods when the wife is fertile (497).
The efforts of infertile couples to have children must also respect the link between the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act. Procedures such as artificial insemination and artificial fertilization, or methods that involve using a third party to carry a child to term, are morally illicit. Children are a gift from God; no couple has a "right" to a child, and no couple should regard a child as an intolerable burden (499-500). By contrast, from the moment of conception, children do indeed have a God-given "right to life." When a husband and wife generously seek to have children but find, after exploring all legitimate options, that they cannot do so, they should consider the possibility of adoption and avenues of service to others (501).
Lastly, we may observe that such acts as adultery, divorce, polygamy, incest, cohabitation, sexual acts before or outside of marriage, and so-called same-sex marriage are offenses against the dignity of marriage (502).
We should ask for the grace to open our minds and hearts to the truth and beauty of the Church's challenging and life-giving teaching on human sexuality. We are called to embrace this teaching and to lead others to live the virtue of chastity in generosity and joy.