Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Marital Chastity, Part II: Modernism and Marital Chastity

At the end of my previous post on marital chastity, I made the parting comment that I had not included any references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), nor any Vatican II or post-Vatican II documents. In this post, I’d like to address the way that modernist and personalist thought have influenced the verbiage used to describe the virtue of chastity and the institution of marriage.

Modernistic/personalistic language can sound so good! For instance, here is a definition of chastity from the CCC (my emphases throughout):

2337 Chastity 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.

The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.

Who would want to argue that “sexuality” is not meant to be “integrated” into the relationship of one person to another, a “lifelong mutual gift”? But those words are very nebulous. Isn’t it much more to the point to say, as the Catholic Encyclopedia does, that:

Chastity is the virtue which excludes or moderates the indulgence of the sexual appetite.

Or as My Catholic Faith says:

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

That lays it on the line. We are not left wondering what exactly the “integrality of the gift” means, nor are we led to focus on our “inner unity”. Instead, we are led to consider this virtue in the way it is meant to bring us closer to God: by being “pure in soul and body”.

The CCC of course has more to say, and again, these are fine-sounding words:

2338 The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it.

Not bad. Still, the modernist focus on the “person”, while it has value as a way of framing the definition of the virtue, can lead down the road to moral relativism via the “it’s all about me” path.

Compare that paragraph from the CCC to this one from My Catholic Faith:

…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

There’s a clear statement about something that is forbidden in a particular situation, and regulated in another. Of course, this paragraph assumes we will understand the “dictates of right reason”, and perhaps that’s harder for our modern minds to grasp than it is to ponder “inner unity”! The “modern world” isn’t too interested in “reason”, it seems.

Here’s a section that’s a little more concrete (italics in original):

2339 Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in  human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.126

That footnote references Sirach 1:22, so the statement has a solid biblical foundation; maybe that’s why it seems pretty straightforward! But then the paragraph continues with a touch of personalism:

“Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint…”127

This is a direct quote from Gaudium et Spes. It sounds good…sort of…but look at it carefully. It says that we must be “moved and drawn in a personal way from within”. But immediately, we are warned that this guidance should not be “by blind impulses” in ourselves. Well, which is it? How do we discern being “drawn from within”, versus a “blind impulse”? I would argue, following scripture, that our inner self (our “heart”) often misleads us through such a powerful deception that we think we are following God when in fact we are following our own blind impulses: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

These are just a few examples of how the vocabularies of modernism and personalism permeate the CCC. Similar examples can be found in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and in Humanae Vitae, but that would make for a much longer post than I’m willing to tackle right now.

The point is that the words we use have an impact on our understanding of the concepts. Personalist and modernist philosophy frame the concepts in words that lead us into an understanding of marriage and chastity that is quite a bit different than that taught by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, which formed the foundation for the papal encyclicals and letters on marriage of Popes Pius XI and XII.

To understand how that happened, let’s take a quick look “behind the scenes” peek at Vatican II and Humanae Vitae.

The Second Vatican Council was, in large part, focused on addressing the concerns of the Church “in the modern world”. That’s why we have a “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes, or GS) emanating from the Council. In this important document, we find language that reflects a modernist philosophy, and which remains problematic in some cases. The modernist vocabulary is generally less precise and more “feel-good” than the words and phrases that address similar concerns in documents that preceded Vatican II. For pastors, the imprecise vocabulary makes it easy to bend an interpretation of it to fit one’s personal opinion, or to hedge one’s bets when offering guidance to the faithful. For the faithful reading the documents, the same thing is true; for instance, even if a priest tells a couple that NFP is allowed for serious reasons only, the couple can point to GS and HV and say, “but, see, it’s up to us to decide what’s ‘serious’.”

The modernistic and personalistic language of Gaudium et Spes permeates Humanae Vitae, and from there the concepts and vocabulary spread to Canon Law and the new CCC. How did this all happen? Well, in a nutshell, according to Anne Roche Muggeridge, in her 1986 book, The Desolate City:

Then in April 1964, [theologian] Bernard Haring addressed the commission and persuaded it to drop the whole argument from the natural law upon which the Church’s teaching on contraception was largely based…From that time, the emphasis in the commission’s discussion of marriage shifted from the objective, social, and eternal dimensions of marriage to the subjective, personal, and temporal. (p.79)

Similarly, in Humanae Vitae: Heroic, Deficient, or Both?, John Galvin notes that while HV comes to the right conclusion regarding the immorality of artificial contraception, it neglects Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium in coming to that conclusion. The omission opened the gate for a “new way” of thinking about the “modern world”. Thus, Galvin notes:

Instead [of traditional, scriptural, and magisterial references] there is a section which describes "the various changes that have taken place in modern times," "changes in how we view the person of woman and her place in society," and the "stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature." Humanae Vitae says that since we have a "new state of things" with a new "meaning which conjugal relations have with respect to the harmony between husband and wife," then we "require that the Magisterium of the Church give new and deeper consideration to the principles of moral teaching concerning marriage." Thus Humanae Vitae commences by making sweeping claims to invalidate the applicability of all prior pronouncements.

In Humanae Vitae, which quoted extensively from Gaudium et Spes, we see a formal break with tradition on the hierarchical ends of marriage. Traditionally speaking, the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children; the secondary end is the mutual help and comfort of the spouses (the “unitive” end), and the remedy for concupiscence (a phrase which seems to have fallen out of favor these days). GS and HV  omit any reference to a hierarchy of ends, and talk instead of the unitive and procreative “qualities” of marriage.

It might seem like a small matter, but it makes a big difference. One place you can see that big difference is in family size.

It also makes a difference in our conceptualization of marital chastity. When the procreative and unitive “characteristics” are placed on equal footing, the marital embrace is suddenly elevated to a level of importance it did not enjoy previous to Vatican II. It becomes an end in itself. I’m not saying that John Paul II intended this to be the case in his exposition of the “Theology of the Body”; I’m saying it’s the result of the nebulous and ambiguous wording that has generated a group of “gnostics” who must interpret the teaching for us.

When the sexual act itself is exalted in that way, we lose sight of the spiritual, I think. We forget that Heaven in our true home, and that our time on earth is short. We forget that suffering on earth is – or at least can be – a salvific thing. Physical pleasure becomes the ultimate goal.

When Catholics forget all that stuff, the culture suffers. If Catholics are now all about “God wants us to have the best sex possible”, and about limiting births in order to practice “responsible” parenthood, it paves the way – it has paved the way – for justification of sterile sex. Catholic acceptance of the validity and even desirability of sterile sex leads straight to acceptance of homosexual sex. And in the end, Catholics who tout “toe-curling sex” and “spacing” of births simply look like hypocrites when (if) they try to maintain that artificial contraception is a moral evil.

As for the virtue of chastity…well, lip service is still paid to this misunderstood virtue, but the whole concept seems to me to be clouded in “feel-good theology” that undermines the true meaning of the word. “Inner unity” is surely a good thing, but it’s a very subjective concept that becomes a tool for the poorly-formed conscience to use for excusing the abuse of the marital act.


  1. I really appreciated this article, Jay. I ditched the new Catechism some years ago after I learned more about the Catholic faith from traditional sources. I too have "My Catholic Faith" and of course, the Roman Catechism.

    The new Catechism was very appealing and comforting to me as a new convert, such lofty words and phrasing. But in time, I found it so vague and questionable in many places. It left me wanting for some clear truth. Thank God He brought me all the way home!

    It's illuminating to compare them side-by-side like you did.

  2. Elizabeth - yes! I liked the new CCC, too - it helped me to see the light and become a Catholic. It doesn't help me any to know that Cardinal Schonborn of the balloon Mass (and other liturgical abuses in his diocese) played such an important role in it!

  3. Dr. Boyd,
    This is a comprehensive and helpful analysis. If two qualities (or meanings) of equal value for marriage are presented (as opposed to the hierarchy of the procreative end), then people will tend to not opt for the more arduous meaning. Or they will opt for the procreative meaning more sparingly. Thus it is not surprising that smaller family size has resulted since the new approach to marriage and family life has been adopted.
    It matters very much what the Church holds up to be virtuous, and the ideal of Catholic family life.

  4. Please consider this. Saint Augustine was a mind that in his time could not be matched. He was a gift to the Church from our Lord to help theology develop. However, his views did not remain without controversy. Likewise around 800 years later, Our Lord gave us St. Thomas, who as you point out gave theology a new frame work (scholasticism). Thomas' was condemned in 1277. Coincidently, about 800 years later, Our Lord gave us Blessed John Paul II. John Paul II has also given theology a boost with his thinking(Personalism). It seems that our Lord gives to the Church every 800 years or so a mind to help the "modern world" be in the 400's the 1200's or the new millennium, a Saint and great thinker to speak the Gospel to the modern world in a language they can understand. If both Augustine and Thomas had their thoughts questioned for a time, it stands to reason that for a time Blessed John Paul II's thought would be as well by some people. Theology has to develop. It does not change, I am not advocating "process theology", but we certainly have a better understanding today of theology than people did who lived at the time of St. Augustine. The Church thinks in terms of centuries not years, the church has only just begun to chew on the great legacy that JPII left for us. Don’t dismiss who in my opinion, is the next Augustine and Aquinas.
    Also, before you start dismissing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, please remember that John Paul II called it a “sure norm for teaching the faith”. As a faithful Catholic I would find it difficult to disagree with what the successor of St. Peter called a “sure norm”. Further since you do not seem to like ambiguous statements, “sure norm” should be right in your wheelhouse.

  5. Ambiguous statements capable of multiple meanings are hardly a "sure norm for teaching the faith." Where the CCC is clear, it is very dependable and a "sure norm." Where it is ambiguous and susceptible to fuzzy thinking and contradictory conclusions, it is not.

    That "we certainly have a better understanding today of theology than people did who lived at the time of St. Augustine" is laughable. Have you read any modern theology?!?! Modern Catholic philosophers and theologians almost always ignore Augustine and Aquinas on principle, taking it for granted that "we certainly have a better understanding today of theology," so why waste time on obsolete thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas! It's like modern biblical "scholarship" that completely ignores the Fathers of the Church when seeking the authentic meaning of Scripture!

    JPII does little more than indulge in wordy and ambiguous theological reflections, his depth being confused with complexity and lack of clarity. He is not organized, he is not systematic, he is unable to get outside fascination with his own subjectivity and the ideas he finds there. He is not a "philosophical realist." He is more a descendant of the philosophical schools which followed Descartes than Augustine and Aquinas. He tries to reconcile Catholic thought with a philosophical system that is itself out of touch with the real. Aquinas would laugh at phenomenology, and personalism, and everything else that begins and ends with one's perceptions of reality rather than reality itself.

    Modern philosophy is happiest when it concludes to the ambiguous and disputable. It has little room for anything like "Absolute Truth." When JPII manages to be clear, he sounds like the traditional teachings of the Church. But most of the time he sounds like someone who is unable to be clear about dogma, or reality, because he's gazing at his own internal navel and trying to find significance in his subjective observations. A hundred years from now, JPII will be an intellectual footnote, not recognized as "the next Aquinas."

  6. Chris V: I'm not educated enough to be able to argue with you on St. Augustine or St. Thomas. What I do know is that Pope John Paul II was a good and holy man but not necessarily a good Pope, in my opinion.

    Modernism is a heresy. Pope John Paul II had some traditional leanings, thank the Lord, but overall he was imbued with Modernism. His opinion that the new Catechism is a sure norm for teaching the Faith, is just that, his opinion. That isn't an infallible statement. Of course he found it to be a sure norm ~ he helped write it, didn't he?

    I'm not advocating that the new Catechism contains heresy. But I did find that it doesn't adequately teach the crystal clear, unambiguous truths of our Faith. Flowery, beautiful words and phrasings can be comforting and transporting to read, but for me at least, they fizzled away. They didn't teach me my newfound Faith. The Roman Catechism may be old but it is venerable and a sure norm for the teaching of our Faith.

    God bless you.

  7. @Terry. Are you saying that Augustine did not need the Christological Councils? Would he have benefited from Ephesus or Chalcedon? Or did he know it all. Of course we should look at the Fathers, and listen to what they teach. But you have to admit that somone who lived in the 9th century had a better theological grasp of Christology than Augustine, because they would have had the wisdom and reflection of the Church via the councils. Again, this is not to downplay Augustine. I did not mean that we are smarter, I meant that we have more to work with.

    @Elizabeth, if you want to disagree with a Pope on matters of Faith and morals that is your perogative. You might not think you are doing it, but if you reject the text that the Church gives us to teach the faith, I think you are on shakey ground. It doesn't have to be the only thing you use, but you can't discount it.

  8. Chris, I think I can discount it. I don't reject it, I simply won't use it. The Roman Catechism (and the Baltimore Catechism) teach the Faith and have quite successfully taught the Faith for centuries, in the case of the Roman Catechism at least.

    1. I like the Baltimore Catechism as well. But lets not get "good old day" syndrome. It is not nor ever was the perfect text. I do not have empirical data on this, but I think we can assume that Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, etc., were all taught their Catholic Faith via the Baltimore Catechism.
      I have no idea what your experience is as a catechist, or who you are for that matter. I can tell you from my experience Question and Answer does have a place, but it needs to go further than that. People need a why, a where is that from. Scholasticism as well as Humanism did a superb job of going back to sources. For example look at the Summa, Thomas is constantly quoting someone. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church is so marvelous. Look at it, it goes back to sources. It uses Church Council's, Liturgy from the East and West, Scripture and you will also find that two of the people it quotes the most are Augustine and Aquinas. If you are a catechist, you are doing your students a disservice by totally discounting the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

  9. Thanks for the great summary of the problem and I agree with you 100%. When I taught married and family, I based my teaching on Aquinas and pre-Vatican II statements. Vague indeed. Part of the problem is that those statements rarely point to two things: the hierarchy of celibacy and therefore chastity; and two, the fast that marriage is also a sacrament in which two people bring each other to God and not merely to themselves or each other. Little about dying to self and sacrifice are in those statements.

    This is one reason why I do not like phenomenology as a philosophy informing these principles. A philosophy which is based on relationship rarely than the sublime goal of the soul, which is eternal life, is doomed to be inadequate.

  10. @Chris V: I'm not a catechist. I'm a Catholic woman, a convert. So no, I'm not doing anyone a disservice. The Roman Catechism is as much the "catechism of the Catholic Church" as the new catechism is. The new catechism is just newer. Let's hope that there's nothing actually "new" in it.

    As I said, the new Catechism is not rejected by me. But it is not chosen by me for my own self-education in the Catholic Faith. I have learned more about the Faith by studying the Roman Catechism, The Catholic Encyclopedia, writings of the Saints, the Daily Missal, etc., than I ever learned from the new catechism.

    As I also said, the new catechism has beautiful, lofty language and soaring statements and paragraphs. And yes, it does quote quite extensively from the past, thank God. But in my opinion, it is vague and wishy-washy in many areas.

  11. The points you make are all valid, but actually the situation is worse than you present. When all is said and done, the reality is that modern people have no concept of "chastity" at all. The word has no content in their minds.

    One could compare the word "chastity" to the word "humility." The vast majority of modern people have nothing at all in their minds when they hear the word "humility." It's just like an empty box with nothing in it. They have a vague sense that they have heard the word in the past, but there is no mental word association.

    To the extent that any word association exists for traditional spiritual concepts, it is most often negative. For example, the word "obedience" conjures up images of robots and/or Nazis. I'm sure you could create a google program that would calculate how often the word "obedience" is followed by words like "robot" and "Nazi" if you wanted to prove just how much of a knee-jerk reaction it has become.

    When some modern church person is put on the spot and asked directly what these terms mean, they nearly always answer in the negative. "Well humility is not so and so; obedience is not ... ; chastity is not what you might think it is." In my experience, even priests do not have in their minds any content associated with these terms.

    This process might be described as practical rather than theoretical deconstructionism, a la Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault. The signifiers no longer signify anything, not just philosophically, but in real life.
    -John Galvin

    1. I think it was C.S. Lewis who described humility as not thinking less of oneself, but thinking of oneself less. For what that's worth...

  12. How true, John. And how sad. But that's where moral relativism leads, I suppose. "Good" is "bad" and "bad" is "good"...


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