When I was in grade school, I recognized the word “chastity” because it was the name of the daughter of TV stars Sonny and Cher. Later I gathered from my classmates and the media that chastity was the unhealthy antithesis of fun, which should be reviled along with virginity.
My parents did their best to teach me about God’s plan for human sexuality but in the 70s and 80s chastity seemed to be maligned by the world more often than it was defended and explained by the Church—especially to youth.
As a Catholic adult, I accepted chastity as a responsibility of the Christian life, along with the rest of Church teaching. But I’ve never felt very excited about it until recently.
When I came across the Catechism’s treatment of chastity, I found treasure in this virtue, beyond its well-known call to sexual continence. I discovered in it a means to freedom, wholeness and growth that enlivens and empowers the entire person.
As the Catechism puts it, chastity is “a school of the gift of the person.” As I read more, I saw what I—and the world--have missed by not attending this school often enough.
According to the Catechism, chastity is both a moral virtue and a grace. “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” It goes on to say that chastity helps us maintain the powers of life and love within us. This integrity opposes behavior that detracts from it, including leading a double life or duplicity in speech. I was struck by how this teaching on sexuality impacts the entire person in all areas of life.
Imagine if by learning and practicing the virtue of chastity, many more in our society maintained in themselves the fullness of the powers of life and love. How might this affect rates of infidelity, theft, and internet deception and nastiness, to name a few?
In reflecting on his life before his conversion in his Confessions, St. Augustine recognizes the unifying effect of chastity. He writes, “Indeed it is through chastity that we are gathered together and led back to unity from which we were fragmented into multiplicity.”
As many Americans consult holistic practitioners to improve their physical health, if they also sought the spiritual integrality of chastity it would impact not only their spiritual health but our societal brokenness. It could bring unity to divided and broken families, fidelity and permanence to relationships, and healing to children who are often wounded in all the fragmentation.
Chastity teaches self-mastery—a training in the freedom to choose the good of our own accord, according to the Catechism. “Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint,” according to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.
A chaste person acts freely on what the conscience knows is right. On the other hand, providing young people with contraceptives — including the long-acting Depo-Provera birth control shot — put teens at risk of losing their freedom to choose the good. In silencing their conscience and removing consequences, they have a better chance of becoming enslaved by their passions.
Rather than being dominated by our passions and appetites, we can learn to permeate them with reason by practicing temperance and chastity, the Catechism says.
Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte might have benefited from such an insight before embarking on a recent night of drinking that led to significant harm in Rio de Janeiro. The world tells us it’s unhealthy to discipline our passions and appetites. Chastity doesn’t require us to banish them, as many believe, but it helps us govern them wisely through reason.
Discipline helps us keep our baptismal promises and resist temptation, the Catechism states. We can do it with self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront us, obedience to the commandments, exercise of the moral virtues and fidelity to prayer.
At first glance that seems like a tough regimen but with grace and perseverance it’s do-able.
Under the influence of charity, through the school of chastity we learn to make a sincere gift of ourselves. Formation in this school is ongoing and must be renewed in all stages of life, the Catechism says. What chastity teaches us is to follow and imitate Christ, who has chosen us to be his friends. In that friendship and through chastity, we find a promise of immortality.