Thursday, February 7, 2013

How Do We Discuss Marital Chastity?

A reader of this blog wrote to me by email, and also commented at “Ethedreda’s Place”, regarding marital chastity. Here’s a consolidation of her missives:

One major theme related to this that I'd love to see more discussion about is how couples should behave within the context of marital love, aside from NFP. In other words, say the couple is totally open to life, how does one still deal with lust & what limits should be placed on it?

I have a dear Catholic friend whose marriage has always been open to life, but they have difficulties and disagreements about what is proper & chaste in marital relations.

Is it proper for a husband to request his wife to indulge his particular fantasies by wearing certain things or acting out in certain ways? If she refuses, is she denying him his due? If he claims he "doesn't feel loved" if she does not agree to do this, is there something disordered going on? I suspect yes & have tried to counsel her, but have had no luck finding specific documents or quotes to help. I suspect this is an extremely prevalent problem, given today's sexually saturated culture

Some (like apparently Christopher West) would say lust is mutually allowable between spouses ~ others would say things such as acting out 'fantasies', requesting special clothing be worn, etc. are a violation of dignity.

This is a difficult topic to tackle while still remaining appropriately discreet, which is why the Church (somewhat frustratingly) seems to only speak in generalities about it, yet I think it's a widespread problem. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

She’s right: This is a topic that no one but the immodest and unchaste are willing to talk about because, well, they are neither modest nor chaste!

And that's the problem in a nutshell: those most able to write something productive (i.e., the modest and chaste) won't want to talk or write about it in any kind of detail because it's so personal and intimate that ... it's not something that should be talked about! But in today's world, some counterbalance to the pansexual culture in which we live must be articulated, and we have to figure out a way to articulate it without becoming part of the problem. It's the very problem that exists with so-called "sex education." When we domesticate the sacred, it becomes profane, and that's what has happened within NFP and TOB discussions, all claims to mysticism notwithstanding.

I think what needs to be done is to lay out some basic principles concerning modesty and chastity, starting with good definitions. Then, rather than jumping right into "role playing the hooker and her john does not fall within anyone's definition of modesty or chastity," we can, instead, immediately appeal to the examples of married Saints and, consistent with how we talk about things today, ask "What would Louis and Zelie Martin think of such questions, and how would they respond if asked about their ‘sex lives’"?

There are plenty of misconceptions about marital chastity, and a primary one in NFP circles seems to be that “marital chastity” means abstaining from the marital act during fertile times. This is clear from the post of one NFP blogger who wrote:

“NFP and Marital chastity sucks!”…THAT is what I keep hearing. It’s loud and clear from all over the Catholic Blogosphere…from all over the world.

But marital chastity does not equal periodic continence!

I wrote on the topic of marital chastity here and here, and included these definitions:

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…

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… 

 …[F]or the married, it regulates the use of that appetite in accordance with the dictates of right reason…

So, marital chastity means that, within the state of marriage, the sexual appetite is to be “regulated”.

Regulated how? 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 the CCC, many of the paragraphs defining chastity talk about “inner unity”; frankly, I don’t find that very helpful when trying to address questions raised by the reader noted above. There is one helpful definition for our current context, though:

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. (Sirach 1:22)

Self-mastery, governing the passions: these are important to understand and apply in the context of the marital embrace.

There is also the consideration of the other person. Marriage is a path toward the mutual sanctification of husband and wife – they are to help each other become more holy, and the path to holiness does not require sexual fulfillment. Unfortunately, unless they take steps to avoid it, couples are bombarded these days with examples of sexual behavior in movies and even advertisements that convey the idea that “sex” must be dramatic, exciting, even “toe-curling”.  

But words make a difference: when we call it “sex”, those adjectives seem somehow appropriate. On the other hand, when we call it the “marital embrace”, all of a sudden (at least in my mind) we conjure up a completely different picture. I've become convinced that chaste married love is much more gentle, much less flamboyant and passionate, much more respectful and sensitive and modest, than is taken for granted today as "okay and normal." If we keep the goal of mutual sanctification in mind, then the answer to the question of whether one spouse has the “right” to ask for any kind of “sexual favor” (e.g., clothing, role-playing) becomes clear: if the reluctant spouse perceives that she or he is not being treated with dignity and respect, but merely as a “prop”, then something is seriously amiss.

In addition, there is much talk in Theology of the Body and even in the Catechism about “mutual self-giving” with regard to the marital act. Where in that perspective would there be found a place for demanding that one’s sexual whims should be satisfied by one’s beloved spouse?!

Sadly, in today’s sexually-disordered society, if a truly modest and chaste married couple were to make a presentation to a marriage preparation class, the class wouldn’t want to hear what they have to say; people want to hear that sex is exciting and fun and wonderful, and "we do it several times a week, sometimes several times a day." The "sex life" of a married couple is not a proper topic of conversation anywhere. I'm not even sure it should be talked about by the couple themselves! One should never become completely "familiar" with the sacred – and the marital embrace is sacred.

If the right definitions and principles are defined – if we keep in mind phrases like “self-mastery”, and “governing the passions”, then questions such as, "Is it okay for married couples to do X?" become humorously inappropriate, and answer themselves. If the right understanding of truth is in place, some questions become impossible to think or ask.

A final thought: perhaps if couples were to make a commitment to pray together before engaging in marital relations – as did Tobiah and Sarah – it would go a long way toward regulating disordered lustfulness.  In the Book of Tobit, we find:

Tobiah rose from bed and said to his wife, “My sister, come, let us pray and beg our Lord to grant us mercy and protection.”

She got up, and they started to pray and beg that they might be protected. He began with these words:

“Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors; blessed be your name forever and ever!
Let the heavens and all your creation bless you forever. You made Adam, and you made his wife Eve to be his helper and support; and from these two the human race has come. You said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; let us make him a helper like himself.’

“Now, not with lust, but with fidelity I take this kinswoman as my wife. Send down your mercy on me and on her, and grant that we may grow old together. Bless us with children.”

They said together, “Amen, amen!” Then they went to bed for the night. (Tobit 8:4-9)


  1. Three cheers for the quote from Book of Tobit. Tobit is my favorite book of the Bible. It's got practically everything and it's not that long and it's kind of fun and has a happy ending. It is such an inspiration. I wish more people would read it.

  2. Yeah, it really is a great story, isn't it? Mostly because of it, I have adopted the Archangel Raphael as my personal guardian!

  3. Great post, Dr. Jay! It is imperative that we examine our own marital relationship: How have I helped my spouse become more holy?

  4. I hope that in this over-sexed culture, people who are really Catholic begin to realize that teaching sex education to kids from age 12 and using Theology of the body is just plain wrong.

    Some seminarians were upset with a Christopher West presentation to them some years ago as they thought it was too specific and unnecessary. Me, too. The mistake has been the caving in to the society at large and emphasizing sex in marriage without the growth of mutual prayer and spirituality

    The other HUGE prcblem is the assumption that anything sexual in marriage is good. Wrong.

    Concupiscence is part of all of us. Sadly, too many priests are involved in either glossing over possible sins between married couples or romanticizing sex.

    If sex does not lead to agape, something is wrong.

    Also, many married couples do not have sex all the time for either physical or psychological reasons, meaning that the persons must love each other in other ways. I try to make this point on my blog.

    Sex is one expression of love and limited. It can lead to sublime experiences of spirituality, but not if it is the GOAL. Idolatry or even addiction to sex in marriage as well as the substitution of it for real love are possibilities, leading to grave sin.

  5. PS if your husband or you have to go to Victoria Secrets for clothes, something is wrong.....just a hint.

  6. Good points,Supertradmum. And - LOL! - you're right about Victoria's Secret! Not that you could call what they sell "clothes"! I am embarrassed to even walk by that store in the mall.

  7. Thanks so much for tackling this topic! You did a deft job of remaining discreet while getting to the point. Love the quote from Tobit!

    It occurred to me that some of the reasons behind this problem may be:

    1. Since we are bombarded by sexual imagery constantly (advertising, magazine covers in the checkout line, pop music in stores, tv/movies ~ even those marketed to young teens), we walk around in a state of semi-arousal all day long. So when people actually engage in the act of physical intimacy, they expect it to be even *more* exciting than what they are "used to". The ante has been upped.

    2. The recent glaring lack of teaching on solitary sexual sins as SINS (& corresponding over-emphasis on them as 'normal' or even encouraged, in popular culture) has caused this to become a powerful habit in recent generations ~ one that is very difficult to overcome. The fantasizing that nearly always accompanies this act becomes habit as well ~ and carries over into married life.

    SuperT made a great point about physical satisfaction being a "goal" ~ to the extent that people now cohabit so they can "test drive" their "compatibility", and if either partner's expectations are not met, the relationship ends. If the drug is not providing a sufficient high, they move on to something more interesting. :o/

  8. And thank you, Inara, for making the suggestion to pursue the topic!

  9. It would be nice if I could remember how to spell discrete ~ :oP

    One thing you said that was especially interesting to me was that in NFP circles,“marital chastity” means abstaining from the marital act during fertile times. It had never occurred to me that it could be misconstrued in this way! No wonder people are expressing frustration with NFP, if they always feel they "must" abstain during the time they are most attracted to each other in order to be "responsible" Catholics.

    It makes sense, though, if you consider your options as being "artificial contraception vs. NFP" (which seems to be the TOB approach) rather than "NFP vs. nothing" (the truly Christian approach of "generous parenting").

  10. Actually, you did spell it correctly! "Discreet" is the correct spelling in the way you meant it in your comment. "Discrete" means individually separate and distinct, such as "discrete data" meaning each individual data point is whole and distinct from the others. Anyway...

    I like your phrasing of the options: NFP vs. nothing. Yes!

  11. ah yes, I always think of "discretion" & then think I need "discrete"~

    As to the NFP vs. nothing approach, I challenged Marc Barnes(of BadCatholic) about 6 months ago on this, when he was gearing up to launch His response was "That's a great way to look at it & I'm glad you can live that out...but the Church leaves a lot of room for what constitutes a 'well-grounded' reason for deciding when to have your next child."

    Of course, he is correct that Humanae Vitae & the CCC are quite ambiguous here ~ so, just like with the liturgy, when the Church fails to clearly articulate what is allowed & what is not, people interpret that as THEY get to 'decide'. A child is not a decision, it is a gift ~ how dare we say to God when we think we should be given a gift!

    As you noticed in SheIsCatholic's video, the college-age Catholics seem to have difficulty fully embracing the concept of being open to life. Their humor, charm & exuberance are wonderful, but as traditional as they think they are, their vision is still clouded in many ways by secular culture.

  12. Trying to decide when the right time is to have another child just makes people crazy. When you say to yourself. "I have to do this. There is no choice." You just do it. But once you see a way out, you are always going to be wrangling with it in your mind. Which of course leads to anxiety and then of course you can't have another baby because of all the anxiety.
    This is different than truly having a serious reason. In that case, I believe God makes it clear and there is no wrangling, you just do what needs doing however hard it is. I don't think "easy" is a word that could ever be used to describe the Christian life.
    Its too bad that the mindset has become ABC vs NFP as if you have to "plan" your family. And there are lots of very prominent Catholics who subscribe to this idea.
    And might I add, that Christopher West is mistaken. Lust is one of the seven deadly sins. Lust destroys love. AARRGGHHH


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