Friday, April 20, 2007

The virtue of chastity

I like very much what Dawn Eden had to say on the delicate, but nonetheless important, topic of chastity in the most recent Our Sunday Visitor and on her Dawn Patrol blog. Her blog is great. It is hip, intelligent, cutting edge, entertaining and shockingly countercultural. Single young adults who are looking for daily support in living and loving as disciples of the Risen One can find no better on-line resource than the Dawn Patrol. She pulls no punches, however. It is her refusal to pull punches that makes her take so countercultural- hers is not discipleship for faint of heart or the fair-weather follower.

Every Christian- ordained, religious, or lay; man or woman; heterosexual or homosexual; married or single- is called to live a chaste life. In our society and culture, living in such a manner is difficult, but far from impossible. For example, this very medium, the Internet, through which all manner of filth can easily be accessed, is the primary means of making porn mainstream. Anyway, what Dawn says should resonate:

“We need to describe what chastity is and what it isn’t. It’s not just a negative, it’s not just saying ‘no’ to sex before marriage. It’s a positive, saying ‘yes’ to your intrinsic value as a human being apart from your willingness to have sex, and saying ‘yes’ to the intrinsic value of another by not using them in a way that violates their dignity.” It is viewing chastity as merely "saying 'no' to sex before marriage" that contributes to the fact that young people who receive abstinence education in schools are just as likely to engage in pre-marital sex as those who do not. After all, who wants to live their life negatively? Being a Christian, being Alleluia people, means being a people, and persons who say Yes! to life, to love, to each other, to ourselves, and, lest we forget, to God. Therefore, Dawn couldn't be more correct when she insists that chastity is a positive.

To take the discussion a bit further, we can lay a solid foundation by considering what the Church teaches about chastity in The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos 488-493):

488. What is chastity?

Chastity means the positive integration of sexuality within the person. Sexuality becomes truly human when it is integrated in a correct way into the relationship of one person to another. Chastity is a moral virtue, a gift of God, a grace, and a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

489. What is involved in the virtue of chastity?

The virtue of chastity involves an apprenticeship in self-mastery as an expression of human freedom directed towards self-giving. An integral and continuing formation, which is brought about in stages, is necessary to achieve this goal.

490. What are the means that aid the living of chastity?

There are many means at one's disposal: the grace of God, the help of the sacraments, prayer, self-knowledge, the practice of an asceticism adapted to various situations, the exercise of the moral virtues, especially the virtue of temperance which seeks to have the passions guided by reason.

491. In what way is everyone called to live chastity?

As followers of Christ, the model of all chastity, all the baptized are called to live chastely in keeping with their particular states of life. Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner. Others, if they are married live in conjugal chastity, or if unmarried practise chastity in continence.

492. What are the principal sins against chastity?

Grave sins against chastity differ according to their object: adultery, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, rape, and homosexual acts. These sins are expressions of the vice of lust. These kinds of acts committed against the physical and moral integrity of minors become even more grave.

493. Although it says only "you shall not commit adultery" why does the sixth commandment forbid all sins against chastity?

Although the biblical text of the Decalogue reads "you shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14), the Tradition of the Church comprehensively follows the moral teachings of the Old and New Testaments and considers the sixth commandment as encompassing all sins against chastity.

What we are taught is that we need help, we need God's help and we need each other's help. The last thing we should ever do is be condemnatory or judgmental. We must come to value ourselves and others as God, our loving Father, values each one of us, regardless of how we live or have lived- God's love is not dependent on our worthiness. To Him each of us are irreplaceable and priceless- loved beyond our comprehension. Sexuality is a deep part of our psyche. It is perhaps the most impressionable and sensitive part of us. It is a beautiful part of us that is easily distorted. Eros must be tempered by agapé just as reason must temper faith. Chastity, after all, means positively integrating our sexuality into our personality and vice-versa. Again, given that our sexuality is shaped to some degree by forces beyond our control during our developmental years, self-knowledge is a vital part. That we are sexual, have desires, proclivities, etc., is nothing to be ashamed of, it is part and parcel of being human, a good part. Therefore, shame and guilt should never prevent us from dealing with the disordered parts of our sexuality.

Last November, in their document on Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care, our bishops, as I wrote previously, "discuss the need for all Christians, married and single, homosexual and heterosexual, to acquire the virtue of chastity. In this quest grace is necessary because failure is almost certain at times. Too often we think of grace as the help God gives us by strengthening our will to do good and weakening our desire to do evil as we white-knuckle our way through life hoping to attain heaven. While I certainly believe God, over time and with our cooperation, graciously strengthen our wills, we cannot see that as grace in its totality. Even with God's help, building such strength is a gradual process that requires our cooperation when faced with temptation, it requires us working through the issues we need to work through to deconstruct our false selves, most of all it requires brutal honesty that oftentimes comes only at the price of failure and restoration, which bring true humility. We must always be humble because we never really arrive; we remain broken, fragile, sinful, and susceptible to sin. In this life of grace the sacraments are indispensable."

In an excellent article, Overcoming Discord in the Church, which was actually a lecture he delivered at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in April 2006, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, former Master General of the Dominican Order, suggests that we explore "a Christian understanding of our sexuality. What does the Gospel say about sexuality’s deepest meaning? And I propose that we can do this by looking at the Last Supper, where Christ gave us his body: 'This is my body and I give it to you.' We can only understand our sexuality in the light of this utter self-gift of Christ. So rather than battling away at the level of permissiveness versus insistence on the rules, we try to understand a Eucharistic understanding of what it means to live sexuality as the reverent gift and acceptance of our bodies.

"This is very short hand. It would take a whole lecture to spell out what such a Eucharistic understanding of sexuality might mean. All that I am trying to do is to show when conversation gets stuck and dialogue seems impossible, then we dig down deeper, until we reach the bedrock of the Gospel, and then maybe we will understand each other better. We may not agree but we will be able to talk."

(emboldened and underlined emphasis mine)

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