Where the church and the world collide

church and the world

Back from my two months summer hiatus, I wanted to tackle a hot button issue. This issue is one that plagues millions today and one that is widely unpopular: Catholic sexual morality.

Fornication, contraception, pornography, homosexuality, divorce and abortion are widely regarded as topics in which the Church errs and rarely ignites polite dialogue between believers and non-believers. There are most certainly discussions to have on any one of these topics, but for today, I’ll explore the seemingly alien concept of chastity.

First off, is there a need for sexual morality? Our human experience seems to indicate that this is the case. Putting aside the obvious evils that are pornography, prostitution, rape and incest, we can evaluate other tenants of what is included in our sexual experiences to conclude that chastity should be examined on a closer level.  For example, “Divorce kills the “one flesh” theology created by marriage. It inevitably destroys the indispensable foundation of the family and creates in children a hard, cynical spirit, insecurity, distrust in persons and a rejection of the idea of self-giving love (not to mention the damages suffered by the adults in said divorces). Furthermore, there are adverse health effects from sexual impropriety: Increased sexually transmitted disease, AIDS, rising infertility rate and death. The human victims in just one generation of abortion vastly outnumber the victims of wars throughout history”.[1]

Looking up from these rather grim consequences we find the reason for the Catholic Church’s teaching on chastity. Chastity is the sum of all sexual virtue and is not the same as abstinence. It is communicated differently based on one’s state 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 live in the way prescribed for all by the moral law, whether they are married or single.” Married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence: There are three forms of the virtue of chastity: the first is that of spouses, the second that of widows and the third that of virgins. We do not praise any one of them to the exclusion of the others. . . . This is what makes for the richness of the discipline of the Church.” (CCC 2349)[2]

There is a beautiful foundation for the teaching on chastity that sexuality is an image of God. “As soon as Scripture mentions “the image of God”, it mentions sexuality: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Sexuality is an image of God by being a reflection of the Trinity: as God is one yet three, spouses are two yet one.”[3]

Based on the cathechism’s definition of chastity, it seems so contrary to our instincts. If our instincts are such that chastity is so contrary to them, then either Christianity is wrong in proposing chastity or our sexual instincts, as we now know it, have gone wrong. For this answer, I will differ to C.S Lewis which analyzed this dilemma beautifully in Mere Christianity (94-97). (The following two paragraphs are all paraphrasing from Lewis’ treaty on the subject)

It would seem that our sexual instincts have gone wrong.  Let’s examine why by comparing sex to another natural desire of the body: eating. The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. Someone might over-indulge in food but not disproportionately. Someone might eat for two, but never for ten! The same cannot be said of our sexual appetite. If a healthy man would indulge in every sexual desire he has, he might end up fathering a small village! This appetite is in insane excess of its function.

We seem to be able to assemble a large group of people to watch a strip-tease show, or pornography but we would never see such group if on the stage, or computer was a plate full of bacon! Some critics might say that such tendencies come from starvation, that there is such a desire for sex because of some sort of starvation from this desire in one way or another. Is this reality though? Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly within marriage and much safer outside of marriage and public opinion of illicit unions are much less taboo. It seems then that the sexual appetite is growing and perverting by indulgence. Starving men may think of food, but so do gluttons.

There is much more to be said on the topic, but from Lewis’ explanation we can deduce that abandoning ourselves to our sexual desires as they are today is unhealthy and eventually leads us to the aforementioned problems. This is the very reason that the Church proposes chastity. It protects us from our disordered desires (pornography, prostitution, fornication) and its consequences (depression, divorce, multiple health concerns) etc. “There are three things we need– holiness, happiness and health– because we live on three levels: spirit soul and body”[4]. God’s laws, including chastity, gives us all three.

[1] Kreeft, Peter, Catholic Christianity (Ignatius Press), 243

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2349

[3] Kreeft, Peter, Catholic Christianity (Ignatius Press), 244

[4] Kreeft, Peter, Catholic Christianity (Ignatius Press), 242