My dear brothers
and sisters in Christ: I write as your bishop and spiritual father on a
matter of great importance and great good news: chastity.
Why chastity? That
is really two questions wrapped up in one.
First, why do I
write on this subject just now? Violations of chastity in our Church and
our diocese have made some people skeptical when the Church speaks on
sexual morality. But for just that reason it is more necessary, not
less, to speak the truth about sexual morality. Sin and confusion cry
out for honest, truthful speech.
The Church has
always taught—and I teach here—that we need to find our happiness and
holiness in a commitment to the chastity lived out in marital love or
the chastity of celibacy lived out either in the consecrated life or the
life of a single layperson in the world. These are the two paths to
happiness and eternal life. There are no others.
Second, why is
chastity so important? Is this really a virtue for our times? Don’t
other subjects take priority?
In fact, chastity
is a virtue for our times, and it does take priority. That should be
clear, for instance, in the wake of the scandalous events in our own
Church as well as those in secular society.
One sad thing I’ve
read was the final paragraph of the New York Times obituary of the
popular French novelist Françoise Sagan. In a 1993 interview before her
second drug trial, Sagan recalled:
I had incredible
luck because just when I grew up, the pill came along. When I was 18,
I used to die with fear of being pregnant, but then it arrived, and
love was free and without consequence for nearly 30 years. Then AIDS
came. Those 30 years coincided with my adulthood, the age for having
In this “age for
having fun,” Françoise Sagan was twice married, twice divorced, twice
convicted of narcotics offenses. God rest her soul. God rest the souls
of all who thought as she did. And may God come to the rescue of all who
now think as she did. It is the spirit of this “age for having fun” that
makes the Church’s teaching on chastity so necessary today.
There is a vast
gulf between the secularist view of sex and the Christian view of
chastity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2337) says:
means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and
thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.
Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world
is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated
into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and
lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.
virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and
the integrality [i.e., completeness] of the gift.
says the same thing in its own way. The single most important fact about
biblical anthropology may be that it views the human body as integral to
the human person. In contrast with ancient and modern dualisms, the
Bible makes it clear that we do not possess our bodies, as if they were
apart from us; rather, we are bodily persons. God created us bodily
persons and communal in nature by being related to him and one another.
testimony has serious moral implications. What people do in and to their
bodies touches the core of their personhood (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9).
Chastity, as a principle of personal integration, is crucially important
to holiness and happiness–to being healthy, integrated human beings.
closely related to the virtue of temperance, which regulates the use of
food and drink—and sex. Regulation is in order precisely because these
things are good. If they weren’t, we would be obliged to shun them, not
regulate them. As it is, chastity empowers us to make right use of a
great gift from God.
appreciate chastity, we need to reflect on attitudes and ways of acting
opposed to it. This will not be pleasant. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere
Christianity, “perversions of the sex instinct are numerous, hard to
cure, and frightful.” But the cure begins with recognizing a perversion
for what it is.
The list is long
and depressing. It includes pornography, masturbation, premarital sex,
cohabitation, homosexual relations and unions, sexual promiscuity,
adultery, divorce and remarriage without an annulment, contraception,
sterilization, abortion, cloning, and the destruction of human embryos
for stem-cell research. Currently, a campaign of legal pressure and
media propaganda seeks to force a change in the definition of marriage
so that homosexual unions will be accepted as marriages.
Secular culture as
it is reflected in the media not only accepts sex outside marriage but
also encourages it. One result is that many people hardly even
understand what the Church says about sexual morality. Many, for
instance, not only do not practice modesty in dress but also have little
or no idea what “modesty in dress” might mean. And how often,
unfortunately, the young are left uninstructed about the evil of
masturbation, with the result being a vicious habit they must truly
struggle to overcome.
Consent is the
supreme principle supposedly legitimating virtually any sexual behavior.
This radically libertarian mindset still recognizes rape as a sexual
aberration, but if people are willing, virtually anything else goes.
“Who am I to judge?” others say with a shrug. “They’re old enough.
Nobody else is hurt. So why shouldn’t they if they want to?”
Here is the
rationale for the casual sexual encounters—not just loveless but without
even emotional attachment—now common on college campuses and in other
settings. Many young women complain of the boorishness of men who take
casual sex for granted, as if this were something they have a right to
expect after paying for a meal and drinks. Women, often on the
birth-control pill without any medical reason, feel under pressure to
comply. Wouldn’t people think them strange if they said no? Sexual
harassment, stalking, and violence also are part of this ugly scene.
course, unmarried young women and men do say they’re “in love” when they
engage in sex. Then the relationship ends, the partners enter into new
relationships, they again have sex, and again they say they’re “in
love.” It mocks love to call serial fornication by this name. And it
mocks parental responsibility for parents to imagine they’ve done their
duty by telling their children to avoid unprotected sex and have sex
only in a caring relationship.
flows from the mentality I am describing. Despite dishonest chatter
about making abortion safe, legal, and rare, there have been 45 million
abortions in the United States since the Supreme Court gave its blessing
to abortion in 1973. The destruction of 45 million human lives in a
little over thirty years is not what most people would call “rare.”
Veterans of the
abortion movement now speak of the need to preserve their daughters’
right to choose abortion. “If you want to kill our unborn
grandchildren,” they say in effect, “that’s your right.” Disordered
sexual behavior lies at the root of this cancer in our society.
attitudes and practices before marriage make chastity harder after
marriage. Women are encouraged to be as “liberated” as men. But
disordered sex is a recipe for conflict, infidelity, self-hatred and
hatred of the other, for violence, desertion, and the breakdown of
relationships in marriage. This is a strange liberation that entraps,
enslaves, and destroys!
Sex education in
the schools–unfortunately, even in some Catholic schools–frequently has
little or nothing to do with morality. Concentrating on the physiology
of sex and contraception, its message to young people is that when they
have sex, they should take steps to prevent pregnancy and disease. This
destructive miseducation is reinforced by television, movies, music
videos, and youth magazines.
The meaning of
chastity for everyone
message about chastity is simple: the great good of sex may not be
separated from procreation, love, and marriage. Sexual intimacy and
sexual relations are only appropriate between a man and woman united in
marriage. Consent isn’t enough; faith and reason should govern and guide
desire and passion.
Bishop James C. Timlin, once pointed to the likeness between the
appetite for food and drink and the appetite for sex. If food and drink
are to accomplish God’s purpose, the health of the body, then the
appetite for them must be regulated; otherwise, they become threats to
powerful appetite given by God,” Bishop Timlin wrote, “is the sexual
appetite. Unlike the appetite for food and drink, which is directed to
maintaining the life of the individual, the sexual appetite is provided
by God to maintain the continuation of the human race. If this appetite
is to do the good for which God gave it, it too must be regulated. Both
individuals and society suffer when it is misused or used without
Unchaste men and
women can hardly say with Mary, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord;
let it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Unchaste
people do as they please, not as pleases God. They should recall
Scripture’s warning: “No immoral or impure man…has any inheritance in
the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). The oldest piece of
Christian writing outside the Bible is The Teaching of the Twelve
Apostles. Known as the Didache, it calls abortion,
infanticide, fornication, and adultery “a way of death.”
may object: “God is a God of mercy. He doesn’t condemn people. Jesus
didn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery, did he?” Let’s see. Here is
the passage from chapter 8 of John’s Gospel:
looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they [those who had
wanted to stone her to death]? Has no one condemned you?” She said,
"No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
No, Jesus did not
condemn her. And neither did he excuse her. “Go, and do not sin again,”
he said. This is a message we all must take to heart.
Chastity has never
been easy, but today it is harder than ever because of the many
inducements to be unchaste and the widespread ignorance of the Christian
tradition and the teaching of the Church. Many people would like to do
the right thing—if only they knew what that was and felt up to the
Back in the 4th
century, St. Augustine knew what wanting and not wanting to be chaste
was like. He called it “sickness” for the soul to be “so weighted down
by custom that it cannot wholly rise even with the support of truth.”
But persistence seeking chastity is crowned with success. Thanks to
God’s help, Augustine succeeded. As charity increases, he wrote later,
“greed diminishes; when it reaches perfection, greed is no more.”
Similarly the growth of charity in the soul eventually removes the lust
that inclines people to act unchastely, for lust is a form of greed.
Good love drives out bad.
Now let’s look at
some specific issues.
in the Nicomachean Ethics (1162a, 25-30) that while men and women
marry for reasons of usefulness and pleasure, their “friendship may be
based also on virtue, if the parties are good . . . . And children seem
to be a bond of union (which is the reason why childless people part
more easily); for children are a good common to both and what is common
holds them together.” Chastity, which embraces openness to children and
the choice to stay together, is the key to a happy marriage.
The Bible makes it
clear that married love is a great gift from God. This is the message of
the Book of Genesis and the Letter to the Ephesians.
Genesis makes two
enormously important points about human beings. First, they are made in
the image and likeness of God. Second, seeing “it was not good for man
to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), God created woman and, by ordaining that the
two become “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), made the love of husband and wife a
visible sign of his love for the world. And, as Ephesians points out, by
the redemptive activity of Christ, the love of husband and wife is a
sign—a kind of sacrament—of the mystery of the love between Christ and
his Church (Eph 5:32). In marrying, a man and woman establish a lifelong
partnership, for their own good and the good of their children. Because
Christian marriage is a sign of Christ’s covenant with the Church, its
covenantal nature makes divorce impossible for a man and woman joined in
sacramental marriage. “To bear witness to the inestimable value of the
indissolubility and fidelity of marriage is one of the most precious and
most urgent tasks of Christian couples in our time,” according to Pope
John Paul II. (Familiaris Consortio, 20)
becoming Pope, our Holy Father devoted a famous series of Wednesday
audience talks to a theology of the body. It is a theology rooted in his
philosophical studies and one of its key insights concerns the body’s
“Right from the
beginning,” he said, the human body in its masculinity or femininity
includes “the nuptial attribute, that is, the capacity of expressing
love…in which the person becomes a gift and, by means of this gift,
fulfills the meaning of his being or existence.” Does the Catholic
Church take a negative view of sex and seek to deny people the pleasures
of sexual expression? Critics say so, but they’re wrong. As Pope Paul VI
wrote in Humanae Vitae—citing the Vatican II document Gaudium
et Spes—the Church teaches that conjugal relations between a husband
and wife are “good and worthy of human dignity.” Marital chastity
preserves that goodness and protects that dignity.
friendship between husband and wife requires that they make constant
efforts to grow in love of God and neighbor and avoid sin–not only sins
against chastity but also sins like pride, anger, alcohol abuse, drug
addiction, laziness, holding grudges, withholding forgiveness, and much
To do this, a
Catholic couple must know their faith, receive the sacraments, and
strive for the perfection of charity. With God’s grace, mediated
especially through the sacrament of matrimony, as well as frequent
reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, wife and
husband can conquer their sins and disordered inclinations and love one
another as Christ loves the Church and the Church loves Christ. Then
their marriage and family life become manifestations of great beauty,
sources of happiness for themselves and their children, inspirations to
others. Then they are on the way to being—I write these words
natural family planning
writer Flannery O’Connor called the Church’s doctrine on contraception
“the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands.” Then this
tough-minded realist about human nature added a catch: “With all of us
being materialists at heart, there is little wonder that it causes
Pope Paul VI
stated the teaching clearly in his prophetic encyclical Humanae
Vitae (12): “There is an unbreakable connection between the
unitive and procreative meaning, and both are inherent in the conjugal
act. God established this connection, and man is not permitted to break
it through his own volition.” Even so, people—including many
Catholics—do break that connection all the time. Does that have
something to do with our being, as Flannery O’Connor said, “materialists
But after all,
what’s wrong with contraception? By contraception, people willingly act
against both the procreative, life-giving meaning of conjugal
intercourse and the unitive, love-giving meaning. Setting one’s will
against, as well as acting against fundamental human purposes like
these, is moral evil: sin.
It doesn’t help to
say that one is avoiding procreation so that love can be more freely
expressed. The two things are so intimately linked, Pope John Paul II
points out, that “the conjugal act deprived of its interior truth,
because artificially deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases to be
an act of love.”
What does someone
who practices contraception communicate to his or her spouse? “I love
you deeply—but not completely, of course. I give myself to you
entirely—but only up to a point. I trust God unconditionally—but we’ve
got to look out for ourselves.” This is a badly mixed message, to say
Things are very
different with a husband and wife open to bringing a new life into the
world. They are prepared to live even more fully in service to one
another and to sacrifice for the common good of their family.
But what about
couples who have a good reason to put off having a child? Then the
morally right answer is Natural Family Planning (NFP). NFP today is not
the calendar-rhythm method of the 1940s and 1950s. NFP refers to
scientifically proven, morally acceptable methods by which a couple
determines the woman’s fertile and infertile periods, with a view either
to conceiving a child or postponing conception. Both artificial
contraception and NFP can fail when not used properly, but the success
rate of NFP is fully comparable to that of contraception. And the rate
of divorce among NFP couples is much lower than among contracepting
couples, thanks to the high degree of communication, mutual
consideration, and respect that NFP involves.
acceptance of contraception paved the way for approval of the homosexual
lifestyle and efforts to have same-sex unions accepted as marriages. As
with many other bad ideas, the logic is unassailable once you grant the
fundamental premise: that it is all right to separate the procreative
purpose of sexual intercourse from the unitive purpose. Of course the
same logic can just as well be used on behalf of other sexual practices
that are still generally considered unacceptable.
“marriage” ever becomes the law of the land, the views pronounced by the
Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts when legalizing it in that state
will be imposed on the rest of the country. For instance, these views
include the notions that marriage is intended mainly to benefit adults;
that children do not need a mother and a father; that other ways of
raising children are as good as the mother-father way; and that marriage
is the creation of the state.
Then society will
attempt to condition us to stop speaking of “husbands” and “wives” and
to speak of “partners.” Children will have to be taught about homosexual
sex in marriage-preparation and sex-education classes. Anyone who
objects will be branded a “homophobe.” Churches that teach the contrary
doctrine of their sacred books and traditions will be called bigoted and
threatened with legal coercion.
of the Catholic Church (2357) presents the teaching of the Catholic
Church in these words:
on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave
disorder, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are
intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They
close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a
genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances
can they be approved.
same-sex unions as marriages would be a serious blow to traditional
marriage for it would demean the unique relationship of wife and
husband. It would be like giving a diamond and a piece of glass the same
name—”diamond”—and the same price.
marriage was already under assault—from cohabitation, contraception,
infidelity, and divorce—before same-sex “marriage” came along. But
traditional marriages and families are essential to a healthy society.
For the sake of the common good, as well as individuals, they should be
defended and preserved.
At the same time,
people with a homosexual orientation deserve the same respect and fair
treatment as everyone else. They should not be targets of unjust
discrimination and certainly not targets of violence. Called to live
chaste, holy lives, they should receive the support of the Christian
community in their efforts to practice chastity. The organization,
Courage, offers important ministry to aid those seeking to live chaste
Many persons and
groups have roles in educating children and young people in chastity.
The need for such education is greater than ever today because of the
miseducation in unchastity that American children and young people
receive from other sources.
teach their children from an early age that chastity is to be prized and
cherished and that unchaste behavior is sinful. Parents must of course
be models of chaste behavior themselves. They can help their children
develop self-mastery by cautioning them against unchaste thoughts and
immodest behavior, and warning them against—when they are young, denying
them access to—movies, TV shows, Internet sites, and other sources of
lewdness and pornography.
chaperone children’s parties and social activities and supervise dating.
(Pre-pubescent and pubescent children shouldn’t date at all.) Catholic
parents must see that their children learn and practice the faith. In
the present unhealthy cultural environment, faith and virtuous behavior
can’t be taken for granted or left to chance.
Catholic schools and religious education programs are obliged to support
and reinforce the teaching of conscientious parents. Bearing in mind
that they are role models as well as information sources, religion
teachers and catechists—indeed, all teachers, administrators, coaches,
librarians, and other staff—should know and observe the teaching of the
Church. Every class, subject, and activity, from science and literature
to athletics and the school play, is a potential setting for
communicating sound principles.
parents, teachers face a daunting task today, given the fact that
children are bombarded with incitements to be unchaste and may have
hardly heard the word chastity, much less learned what it means and been
helped to live it out. Among other things, teachers need to encourage
their pupils to attend weekly Sunday Mass and receive the sacraments of
penance and the Eucharist regularly.
should speak the truth about human sexuality and sexual sin. Homilies,
the sacrament of Penance, and sacramental preparation, especially before
marriage, are important occasions for doing this. Pastoral sensitivity
is always in order, but silence is not.
instruction in Natural Family Planning should be part of
marriage-preparation programs. NFP should never be presented as merely a
subject for discussion that listeners are free to ignore. Where our own
knowledge may be behind the times, we bishops and priests need to update
ourselves on Natural Family Planning, Pope John Paul II’s theology of
the body, and other developments.
Joseph F. Martino heads the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania.