National Catholic Register


Chastity: The Most Misunderstood Word in America?

BY John Haas

March 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/15/98 at 2:00 PM


The auditorium in the university must have been filled with 400 students. I had been involved in a debate on abortion. During the discussion period after the debate, a student remarked: “Since you are opposed to abortion I assume you would advocate the distribution of condoms to prevent women getting pregnant so that they would not have to seek an abortion.”

“No,” I answered. “I don't believe you can fight one immorality with another one.”

“What would you recommend then?” he asked somewhat incredulously.

Somewhat naively I answered with one word: “Chastity.”

I was unprepared for the response. The auditorium erupted. Students began to jeer and hoot and whistle. They stood on the chairs in the auditorium with thumbs down. They began to pelt me with paper wads, pencils, and erasers. The program was over.

A bit shaken I walked down the corridor with one of the vice-presidents of the university. She shook her head in disbelief. Seeking some comfort and reassurance, I turned to her and said, “Wasn't that incredible?”

She did not hear a word I said. She looked at me with disbelief and asked, “How do you expect people to live without sex?”

Chastity just might be the most misunderstood word in modern America. The fundamental meaning of chastity is simple enough: sexual activity is for marriage.

In fact, a better understanding of the “C” word might lead to a vastly improved America. Each year more than 30% of our children are born out of wedlock. Roughly 1.5 million abortions are performed annually. According to the Center for Disease Control there are approximately 12 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States every year.

There are 4 million new cases of chlamydia alone each year. Chlamydia and gonor-rhea lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in some 20-40% of women infected with them that often results in infertility and later ectopic (tubal, or out-of-place) pregnancies, which can be fatal. Ectopic pregnancies could be reduced by as much as 50% by eliminating these venereal diseases.

It is estimated that sexually transmitted diseases add $17 billion to U.S. health costs each year.

Currently 650,000 to 900,000 people in the United States may be infected with HIV. Through June 1997, over 379,000 persons in America had died of AIDS. None of these frightful social ills would plague America now to the extent they do if more of its citizens were chaste.

Curiously enough, sex is still a “licensed activity” in the United States. You want to go deer hunting? You buy a deer license. You want to go fishing? You buy a fishing license. You want to have sex? You get a marriage license.

Why would the state be concerned about the sexual activity of its citizens? Quite simply because sexual activity can result in children, and for the sake of the common good the state must exercise a degree of regulatory control over it. Sexual activity within marriage serves to bring about the most basic social unit, the family.

No institution has ever been found to replace the family in the efficacy of rearing children and preparing them to contribute to the future good of society. When a society departs from chastity, it departs from reasoned good order, and the social consequences are horrific. Chastity is not a cute, passé '50s word. It is a prophylaxis against venereal disease, unwanted pregnancies, single parent households, death, and social disintegration.

Celibacy is not chastity, although it involves it. Celibacy refers to men or women freely choosing not to marry in order to give their lives to some good work; taking care of infirm parents, teaching young children, providing nursing services, praying.

The Catholic Church, for example, never imposes celibacy on anyone. There are those in the Church who choose celibacy in order to give themselves more fully to a life of service to others, such as priests and nuns do. But it is a free choice. And celibacy is not for everyone.

The Church teaches, however, that everyone should be chaste, which means using one's sexual powers in accord with one's state in life. If one is single or celibate, one abstains. If married, one is faithful to one's spouse and faithful to the purposes of marriage.

But confusion still abounds. A recent opinion piece in an East Coast newspaper accused the Church of imposing the “medieval” practice of celibacy on homosexuals.

First, there is nothing “medieval” about the practice of celibacy. People have always chosen celibacy for some good purpose. The Romans had their Vestal Virgins. England had its Florence Nightingale.

Second, the Church expects nothing less of its homosexual members than it does of its heterosexual members. As the old adage goes, use your sexuality according to its purposes. If you are not married, it is wise not to engage in sexual activity—for your own good, your partner's good, for society's good.

Do you want to make a significant contribution to the common good of society that will take none of your time and none of your money? It's simple. Be chaste.

John Haas is president of the Pope John Center for the Study of Ethics in Health Care in Boston, Mass.

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