We talk about chastity. What does it really mean? We use the term “sexuality” but what is our Catholic understanding of sexuality? What does sex have to do with religion anyway?
Sexuality has a lot to do with living our Catholic faith. It falls under the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 5:18). Some people follow a very narrow definition of adultery, limiting it to only sex of a married person with someone other than their married spouse. Our faith includes all sexual activity as part of the Sixth Commandment (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2331-2400). While the Sixth Commandment is few in words, we can look at Leviticus chapter 18 as well as Leviticus 20:10-20 for a more extensive list of prohibited sexual activity.
However, Catholic sexuality is more than a list of rules about prohibited sexual activity. Chastity has a much deeper meaning than simply saying no to sex outside marriage. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about even lustful thoughts as sins of adultery (Matthew 5:27-30).
To explore the topics of sexuality and chastity, I highly recommend Christopher West’s book, Good News About Sex & Marriage: Answers to Your Honest Questions About Catholic Teaching, Updated, Revised, and Expanded Edition (Cincinnati: Servant Publishing/Franciscan Media. 2018).
West writes, ‘”Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). These words of Christ sum up the meaning of life and the meaning of human sexuality. At its core, sexual morality is about expressing God’s love through our bodies” (1). To see sexuality only in terms of physical sexual activity is to miss its very meaning.
West provides an analogy of the type of fuel one puts in their car. You do not put in whatever type of fuel you happen to like. Every car is designed to run on a particular type of fuel. We use the type of fuel the designer intended (8).
It is the same way with what we do with our bodies. God has a plan for which He created us. God’s commands about sexuality are not “meant to limit our freedom but to facilitate our freedom in making good choices” (West, 8). West goes on to say, “True freedom is to do whatever’s good, whatever’s in keeping with the truth of our humanity” (8).
At the beginning of creation, Adam and Eve were without sin. When they eat the forbidden fruit, their sin distorted their sexuality. “So they covered their bodies to protect their own dignity from the other’s lustful “look”” (West, 9).
We are created in the image of God, male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27). God created male and female to complement one another. The concept of complementing one another goes much deeper but it is seen in the way male and female bodies complement one another when they come together in physical intimacy. Two males or two females do not complement one another in this way. It is not what God intends.
West writes, “Hell is the absence of God’s love. So is lust. That’s why it’s so serious” (11). The purpose of sex is not based on physical activity. It is to be an expression of love.
So what is “chastity”? West writes, “Chastity comes from the Latin word castus which means “pure.” Sadly, sexuality purity is often confused with puritanism – a fearful, repressive approach to all things sexual. As a result, the word chastity itself tends to have negative connotations and needs to be rehabilitated” (54).
Thus, as West continues, “Chastity is the virtue that results from allowing the fire of God’s love to purify our sexual desires, thoughts, and behaviors from the selfish sting of egoism and lust, like fire purifies precious metal from dross. Through this purification, chastity orders all of our sexual desires, thoughts, and behaviors toward the truth of authentic love” (54).
The perspective from which we look at chastity is very important. People often think in terms of what the Catholic Church is against. For them, Catholic teaching is a bunch of “no’s”. Chastity is not simply saying no to illicit sex. It is a “great yes to the true meaning of sex” (West, 54).
Many people think “freedom” means to do whatever we want. The problem with this type of thinking is that, if we indulge all our desires, we can in fact become slaves to our desires. Chastity is a virtue that helps free us from purely physical sexual desires.
Love is not just feeling “warm feelings”. Love is not simply “sexual attraction” (West, 55). Love involves a deep and intimate caring that makes the other person more important to us than anything else.
In this sense, even sex between a male and female who are married to each other can be unchaste if it is only about the physical pleasure. They are missing the love and commitment that sexual intimacy represents. “Sex is only what it’s supposed to be if it expresses the commitment to free, total, faithful, and fruitful self-giving” (West, 58).
Our physical manifestations of affects, “from holding hands and kissing to sexual intercourse – are meant to be outward signs that express genuine inward realities” (West, 64, my emphasis). These “outward signs” are not an end in themselves. To see them as an end in themselves would be lust and adultery (West, 64).
West goes on in his book to speak on Catholic sexuality regarding contraception, fertility, homosexuality, and gender issues. The Holy Spirit may lead me to write more about them in the future. Today, I would like to conclude with a brief mention of what West says about pornography.
He begins by writing, “The problem with pornography is not the fact that it shows naked bodies. The Sistine Chapel shows naked bodies. The problem with pornography is the manner in which it shows naked bodies. It shows them with the explicit intention of inciting lust, reducing the human person to an object to be used” (West, 73).
Artists like Michelangelo “portray the naked body in a way that can help us see the true beauty and dignity of the human person, of our being created male and female in the image of God” (West, 73). Our bodies are created by God but we are not just our physical body. We have a body and a soul. We are unique persons who are beautiful creations of God. Pornography misses this. Pornography omits it in its focus on the physical. In doing so, it degrades how we see the person.
Chastity is not simply saying “no” to sex outside marriage. In fact, when two people, a male and a female are dating and choosing to wait to engage in sexual activity until they are married, they are saying they care for each other such that they do not want to use the other as a means of their own physical pleasure. Sexuality involves the whole person. It requires commitment, commitment that comes in the Sacrament of Marriage.