Cultivating Chastity’s Positive Side With Reason

COMMENTARY: Defining peace as the absence of war omits what peace is. Chastity is not simply one long “No.”

Chastity allows love to take place between in the light of two whole persons.
Chastity allows love to take place between in the light of two whole persons. (photo: Nomad Soul / Shutterstock)

In a lengthy article entitled, “The Virtue of Chastity,” author Mark Hendrickson defines chastity as “refraining from intimate sexual relationships outside of the marriage covenant.” The problem, however, with defining something negatively — referring to what it is not or what it does not do — is that it leaves in question what it is or what it does do. Defining peace as the absence of war omits what peace is. Chastity is not simply one long “No.”

The negative consequences of unchastity are considerable. Putting aside the spiritual damage of such actions can cause, let’s consider their physical toll: sexually transmitted diseases are of epidemic proportions. 

In 2018, 26 million new infections of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) occurred, almost half among youth aged 15-24, prompting some doctors to recommend anti-HPV vaccines for all boys and girls aged 11-12. Some strains of this sexually transmitted disease can lead to a multitude of health problems including infertility, HIV and cancer. 

In addition, sexual activity prior to marriage significantly increases the chance of divorce, unwanted pregnancy, and abortion. Shakespeare alluded to the dire consequences of unchastity in Sonnet 129: “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame /Is lust in action; and till action, lust /Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame.” Unchastity is perfidious. In a state of arousal, a person might say anything: “When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows” (Hamlet Act I, sc. 3).Removing weeds from the garden is not enough to cultivate roses. Likewise, the virtue of chastity will not bloom simply by avoiding its dire consequences. Chastity is not merely a state of inactivity. We should want this virtue in all of its positivity. Briefly, chastity is the virtue that brings the sexual appetite into harmony with reason. It is, as expressed by the Russian word tselomudrie (“the wisdom of wholeness”). 

Reason is a light that illuminates what we are doing. It is at the helm, so to speak, and serves as a guiding light that leads us in the right direction and, concomitantly, to avoid catastrophes. By subordinating the sexual appetite to reason a person is not a slave to its demands. 

Moreover, the chaste person is able to look at things realistically and act accordingly. Josef Pieper, in his book, The Cardinal Virtues, describes what a person loses when he is under the spell of unchastity: 

“Unchaste abandon and the self-surrender of the soul to the world of sensuality paralyzes the primordial powers of the moral person: the ability to perceive in silence the call of reality and to make, in the retreat of this silence, the decision appropriate to the concrete situation of concrete action” (page 160).

Being unchaste is like flying a plane without a pilot, driving a car without a steering wheel. We underestimate the primary importance of reason in the moral life. It is reason, of course, that allows us to behave reasonably. Vices, such as unchastity, drunkenness, cowardice, and envy, to name but a few, are despotic. That is to say, they can overthrow the function of reason and place the person in peril. Reason is the ruler; the vices are the barbarians who wanted to overthrow the government.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “When the lower powers are strongly moved toward their objects, the result is that the higher powers are hindered and disordered in their acts.” He, therefore, lists eight daughters of unchastity: blindness of mind, rashness, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, inordinate self-love, hatred of God, excessive love of this world, and abhorrence or despair of a future world (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 153, article, 5). Thus, the higher powers, reason and the will, are most grievously disordered by unchastity (synonymous with lust).

The Angelic Doctor’s list is strikingly similar to a contemporary one compiled by sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker. Their “daughters of unchastity” include guilt, regret, temporary self-loathing, diminished self-esteem, a sense of having used someone else or having been used, discomfort about having to lie or conceal sex from family, anxiety, and concern over the place or role of sex in the relationship (Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying).

It is commonplace these days for people to think that sex outside of marriage is simply love and therefore irreproachable. It is all too easy, however, for a person to identify his actions as loving. In Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) writes about having a “transparent attitude to a person of the other sex.” The virtue of chastity is slow to develop when the other is not seen in all of his or her dignity as a person. It is the person, not the pleasure that is paramount. This affirmation of the value of the person, according to Wojtyla, requires “a special interior, spiritual effort.” But, at the same time, “this effort is above all positive and creative.” 

Chastity, therefore, frees a person from using another person and clears room for “loving kindness.” Chastity allows love to take place between in the light of two whole persons. “Thus,” Wojtyla concludes, “only the chaste man and the chaste woman are capable of true love.” This may be received as a hard saying, but true love is not easily cultivated. 

The positive quality of chastity can hardly be more eloquently and forcefully expressed than it is in the words of G.K. Chesterton, from a Sept. 27, 1919, essay in the Illustrated London News

“Mankind declares with one deafening voice: that sex may be ecstatic so long as it is also restricted. That is the beginning of all purity; and purity is the beginning of all passion.”.