Chastity, for Each and All, is Central to a Life of Holiness

Our Church needs to be purged of sexual sin, and complacency toward sexual sin, among our clergy and lay people

“Susanna and the Elders”, Appartamento Borgia, ca. 1493
“Susanna and the Elders”, Appartamento Borgia, ca. 1493 (photo: Public Domain)

I know I am not alone in my sorrow over the reports of sexual immorality among the clergy of the Church from the scandals of abusive priests of the early 2000s to the more recent revelations of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s notorious predatory behavior, the letter of the Honduran seminarians about homosexual activity in their seminary, the stifled report of priestly abuse in Pennsylvania, and so on. The actions of abuse of children and clergy using their power to intimidate those below them into sinful actions and to covering up immoral acts are sins that cry out to heaven for justice.

The words of Jeremiah to the unfaithful Israelites in the readings recently ring true to us today:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ [...] ‘Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Ba'al, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’ — only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 7: 3-4, 8-11)

Clergy and lay people in the Church have covered up these sins for too long. One of the many things that need to be improved is the understanding of the virtue of chastity as central to a life of holiness. I think it is not too much to expect that ordained clergy actively seek holiness, and along with holiness comes the formation of all the virtues. We are all called to live chastity; but it looks different in different states in life. Celibacy is just part of the chastity that all unmarried clergy and lay people are called to live. The only people who can chastely express sexual love are those who are in a valid marriage between one man and one woman with their spouse. And we are all called to have purity of heart where our thoughts and actions reflect our final end of union with God. If we in the Church do not encourage and demand chaste behavior of each other, then we will become no better than the secular culture that thinks the only limits on sexual behavior are age and consent.

Pope St. John Paul II in Love and Responsibility (see Chapter 3) talked about chastity and love of another human person being intrinsically linked. John Paul II explains that to be chaste we have to have control over our sexual desires and use them in the right way and in the right circumstances, but in order to do this we have to have genuine love for other human persons. To engage in sexual acts outside of a valid marriage is never loving another person. It is using another person as an object, be it for sensual gratification, emotional gratification, or to have the pleasure of dominating another human person. Instead we must form the virtue of chastity in ourselves to view all other with loving kindness, willing what is best for them (union with God), and not as things to utilize for our own ends. These things even could happen in marriage, which is why chastity in marriage must be developed and carefully guarded.

John Paul II also talks about how we must have humility of the body for “humility is the proper attitude towards all true greatness, including one’s own greatness as a human being, but above all towards the greatness that is beyond one’s self. The human body must be ‘humble’ in the face of the greatness represented by the person; for in the person resides the true and definitive greatness of man” He goes on to say that the body must subordinate itself to true love in order to have chastity. True love respects the whole human person, and sees them as something to be treated with reverence and not used in awful ways. (Love and Responsibility, p. 172)

Yet, our culture would have us think otherwise believing lies about what love actually is and how it should be expressed. It does not realize that to love another is to will and act for his or her good. This means that loving another person involves seeing the value of his or her personhood and loving him or her according to the relationship we have with them.

Our culture would have us see the moderating of our sexual desires as a suffering not to be endured, and that our physical desires should be gratified. It does not realize that our desires are inherently disordered because of concupiscence, and that they need to be submitted to truth we know with our intellect through natural law and Divine Revelation. We have to use our reason to control our desires, because we do not always desire what is actually good for us or others.

Our culture does not know that while we have our own natural ability to come to know truth and submit our physical and emotional desires to our reason, that those who are baptized have been given an extra grace through the revelation and the sacraments to more easily form virtues if we would only accept God’s grace and actively seek holiness.

Because of Christ’s redeeming act we do not have to be controlled by our desires nor only love in a merely human way. We have been given grace and through grace participation in Christ’s suffering and resurrection. We are being offered grace continually to repent of our sins, amend our lives, submit our will and desires to the truths known by our reason. We cannot do it alone, but we also have to respond to grace by actually trying to live virtuously and according to the truth.

When we fail to have self-control over our bodily and emotional desires, we sin. For example, when I desire to eat more cake than I should, I have a choice. It is really hard to not eat that cake that is right in front of me, but I have already had a good sized piece. I really want the flavor of more. I love that cake! It is my favorite kind: chocolate with chocolate frosting and covered in chopped peanut butter cups. But I am also completely full. I desire more cake, but my reason knows better, it tells me to not eat more now.

Gluttony is one kind of intemperance, and unchastity is another. And like John Paul II said, it is a graver matter because it involves how we treat other human persons. Those with vows of celibacy, those who are in marriages, those who are single, all catechized baptized people have no excuse to not seek to live chaste lives. We have no excuse because we know better.

But having no excuse does not make it easy. Overcoming sexual inclinations to sin is tough. It requires repentance and the Sacrament of Confession and finding ways to avoid tempting circumstances again and again until it is overcome. You will fail if you try to grow in chastity. It may take years. I know this from personal experience. John Paul II explains it well:

Every human being is by nature burdened with concupiscence and apt to find the ‘savour’ of love above all in the satisfaction of carnal desire. For this reason, chastity is a difficult, long term matter; one must wait patiently for it to bear fruit, for the happiness of loving kindness which it must bring. But at the same time, chastity is the sure way to happiness. (Love and Responsibility, p. 172)

St. John Cassian talks about how we need God’s grace to rid ourselves of all vice, but that “the specific aid and special gift of God is necessary for chastity.” (Institutes, Book VI, Ch. 6) He is right, it is not easy.

While we will not all become like St. Thomas Aquinas, he has a beautiful example from his life of how seeking holiness and relying on God for help can help one attain the virtue of chastity. He had joined the Order of Friars Preachers (the Dominicans) against the wishes of his family:

“He was waylaid by his brothers, who seized him, and imprisoned him in the castle of St. John. After having made several attempts to induce him to abandon the holy life he had chosen, they assailed his purity by sending to him a wicked woman: but he drove her from his chamber with a firebrand. The young saint then threw himself on his knees before a crucifix. Having prayed sometime, he fell asleep, and it seemed to him that two angels approached him, and tightly girded his loins. From that time forward, he never suffered the slightest feeling against purity.” (Dom Prosper Gueranger, The Liturgical Year, Vol. 4)

The universal call to chastity is not an impossible one, for it is part of the universal call to holiness. It is just one step along the way. Our Church needs to be purged of sexual sin and complacency towards sexual sin among our clergy and lay people. This means crying out to heaven to heal and protect our church from these things, and choosing to seek and promote chastity in our own lives and prayer and penance for the Church. It is for the sake of eternal union with Christ.

It is not a coincidence that recent daily Mass readings ring so these days:

And his disciples came to him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." He answered, "He who sows the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the     evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of  his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 13:36-42)