Thursday, September 6, 2012

On Marital Chastity, Part I

Marital chastity... I’ve thrown the phrase around a bit on this blog, I’ve seen it thrown about in various other places, and I thought it would be good to do a more thorough investigation of the topic. Just what is marital chastity?

First, let’s take a look at the general concept of chastity:

Chastity is the virtue which excludes or moderates the indulgence of the sexual appetite. It is a form of the virtue of temperance, which controls according to right reason the desire for and use of those things which afford the greatest sensual pleasures. The sources of such delectation are food and drink, by means of which the life of the individual is conserved, and the union of the sexes, by means of which the permanence of the species is secured…

In another source, My Catholic Faith, I found this exposition:

Chastity is that moral virtue which disposes us to be pure in soul and body…

Chastity, opposed to lust, disposes us to preserve the mind and body from everything that is impure. Chastity is purity. It is termed the angelic virtue, because it makes men resemble the angels in heaven… 

Chastity gives health to the soul and light to the understanding; it aids wisdom and develops strength of character… 

…For the unmarried, chastity forbids indulgence of the sexual appetite; for the married, it regulates the use of that appetite in accordance with the dictates of right reason. It is wrong to suppose that chastity is not a virtue for the married. God requires chastity from everyone, in all states of life. A chaste marriage is the basis of the Christian family…

So, we have chastity for the unmarried, which means total abstinence from the “sexual appetite”. And we have marital chastity, which means that, within the state of marriage, the sexual appetite is to be “regulated”.

Regulated how? Well, I think the first thing many people think of is that the married couple remains faithful to each other, that the marital relationship is exclusive. But this is fidelity – which surely is related to chastity, but is not the same thing.

Chastity is always related to temperance, and temperance means, basically, controlling oneself. Therefore, marital chastity means controlling one’s sexual desires within marriage. It means that marriage does not justify indulgence of the sexual appetite with an “anything goes” attitude.

In Pope Pius XII’s Allocution to Midwives, there’s a very helpful section entitled “Human Dignity in the Conjugal Act”. It says in part:

The same Creator, Who in His bounty and wisdom willed to make use of the work of man and woman, by uniting them in matrimony, for the preservation and propagation of the human race, has also decreed that in this function the parties should experience pleasure and happiness of body and spirit. Husband and wife, therefore, by seeking and enjoying this pleasure do no wrong whatever. They accept what the Creator has destined for them.

Note, though, that Pope Pius XII did not divorce that pleasure and happiness from the procreative end of marriage. He keeps that end primary. “What the Creator has destined” is that the marital act will often result in pregnancy. The Pope continues:

Nevertheless, here also, husband and wife must know how to keep themselves within the limits of a just moderation. As with the pleasure of food and drink so with the sexual they must not abandon themselves without restraint to the impulses of the senses. The right rule is this: the use of the natural procreative disposition is morally lawful in matrimony only, in the service of and in accordance with the ends of marriage itself. Hence it follows that only in marriage with the observing of this rule is the desire and fruition of this pleasure and of this satisfaction lawful. For the pleasure is subordinate to the law of the action whence it derives, and not vice versa—the action to the law of pleasure. And this law, so very reasonable, concerns not only the substance but also the circumstances of the action, so that, even when the substance of the act remains morally safe, it is possible to sin in the way it is performed.

In other words, it is lawful and moral to pursue the pleasure of the marital embrace, but there are limits. We are not given a green light to pursue anything sexual that strikes our fancy, even within marriage.

The transgression of this law is as old as original sin. But in our times there is the risk that one may lose sight of the fundamental principle itself. At present, in fact,it is usual to support in words and in writing…the necessary autonomy, the proper end, and the proper value of sexuality and of its realization, independently of the purpose of procreating a new life. There is a tendency to subject to a new examination and to a new norm the very order established by God and not to admit any other restraint to the way of satisfying the instinct than by considering the essence of the instinctive act. In addition there would be substituted a license to serve blindly and without restraint the whims and instincts of nature in the place of the moral obligations to dominate passions; and this sooner or later cannot but turn out to be a danger to morals, conscience and human dignity.

And we talk about Humanae Vitae containing prophetic statements! In this Allocution to Midwives, published in 1951, seventeen years before HV, Pope Pius XII is saying that when we divorce the procreative end of marriage from the “unitive” end, we put our souls in danger because we (as a society) will sooner or later succumb to the pursuit of pleasure in the sexual act independent of procreation. Is this not what we see today? Never mind even the pervasive use of artificial contraception – think about homosexual “marriage”. Seeking sterile sex is dangerous because it perverts the natural order of the relationship between man and woman, and refutes the intrinsic link between the marital embrace and procreation.

Pope Pius XII has more to say about that link:

If nature had aimed exclusively, or at least in the first place, at a reciprocal gift and possession of the married couple in joy and delight, and if it had ordered that act only to make happy in the highest possible degree their personal experience, and not to stimulate them to the service of life, then the Creator would have adopted another plan in forming and constituting the natural act. Now, instead, all this is subordinated and ordered to that unique, great law of the "generatio et educatio prolis," namely the accomplishment of the primary end of matrimony as the origin and source of life.

Unfortunately, unceasing waves of hedonism invade the world and threaten to submerge in the swelling tide of thoughts, desires and acts the whole marital life, not without serious dangers and grave prejudice to the primary duty of husband and wife.

Our culture's obsession with all things sexual is a fundamental violation of the virtues of chastity and modesty, which reflect purity. Purity, as noted above, is a virtue for both the married and unmarried; what is impure does not become pure just because the context of marriage is introduced. The same goes for modesty. One can be just as guilty of impurity and immodesty with one's spouse as with anyone else.

The following excerpts from two interesting articles on LifeSiteNews earlier this year provide a good example of marital chastity “in action” – even in today’s sex-obsessed culture, and even considering the issue of same-sex attraction.  In “Confessions of a Recovering Lesbian, author Dawn Wilde – who once lived a homosexual lifestyle but is now married with children – notes that she does face temptations because of her tendency toward same-sex attraction, but that

… I remain faithful to God and my husband because I work hard to avoid near occasions of sin. For instance, I avoid deeply emotional friendships with women that eclipse the one with my husband. I don’t watch gay- and lesbian-themed movies. I also have trained my imagination to avoid impure fantasies. It can be tempting to fall into old thought patterns, especially if I’m tired. But if necessary, I’ll shut down physically and emotionally to avoid offending God. No fleeting sensual pleasure is worth offending Jesus, who suffered so much to save me.

That’s marital chastity. That's preserving one's purity.

In her other article, “Life After Lesbianism”, Dawn notes:

People who interpret these temptations as evidence I’m suppressing my true self have an immature understanding of what love—especially married love—actually is. It’s true that love is often sparked by a sexual attraction, and ours was no exception. But love is ultimately expressed in action, not in feelings...Love is making dinner and doing laundry after a full day at work because your wife is puking her guts out from morning sickness. Love is sacrificing time to yourself so your husband can go on a retreat to get closer to the Lord. Love is wiping the vomit off your terminally-ill wife’s aged face…changing your comatose husband’s adult diapers…caring for her even after she has forgotten who you are. Love is the Cross.

That last statement reminds me of the homily I transcribed here, where the priest notes that during the wedding ceremony, the couple faces not each other, but the Cross:

Their marriage itself and their very first act of married life together, take place in the shadow of the Cross. It’s a stark reminder that in this fallen world, there is no escaping the Cross: the price of re-creation, the price of order replacing disorder, the price of grace driving away sin, the price of their marital happiness, the price of their eternal happiness is present, overshadowing their marriage from the beginning.

[They have come together] at the foot of the Cross, and kneeling before it they have vowed to spend their lives facing it, together.  Now they’re engaged in a loving contest to grow in holiness.

Dawn Wilde seems to have an exquisite understanding of that point.  Marriage is about growing in holiness: overcoming temptations, putting one’s spouse first, learning to control the sexual appetite in order mature in mutual love. Marital chastity fosters that growth.

(If you wonder why I have included no references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Theology of the Body, Humanae Vitae, etc…stay tuned for Part 2!)


  1. Great post! This topic is seldom talked about. When I was instructing my own teenage daughter about chastity, she was shocked to find out that it applies to married people too. She didn't think married couples had to "worry" about that anymore.

  2. And of course it all relates to some of what is taught in NFP classes, too.

    I was listening to a recorded sermon on the 6th and 9th commandments today(at oh boy, what we DON'T teach our children about the sins against purity in the "dating" scene - but which of course we should...if we even knew ourselves.

  3. I did a series on the Pope's encyclical Deus est Caritas and I brought up some of these points. Keep writing on this. Modernism is in the seminary and theological colleges of the world and the ideas you have highlighted and which were the teaching of the Church for years have been almost lost.

    I also blame modern philosophy and the fact that Aquinas and Augustine are "electives" in many seminaries.

    I am "off" TOB.

  4. sorry in a hurry Deus Caritas Est, of course

  5. PS
    Would you like to comment on the fact that permanent deacons were originally not to have relations with their wives after ordination and this is not being taught to them or demanded. Also, the same is true in the new Ordinariate, although there has been a consent from Rome on an individual basis to allow conjugal rights, but I here that is changing and that the coming round of priests will be asked to be totally chaste in marriage--that is, celibate.

  6. Supertradmum - I keep thinking about writing about the deacon/conjugal rights issue! That's an interesting thought in conjunction with this general issue of marital chastity. Dr. Ed Peters has done a masterful job of explaining and commenting on the issue.


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