Tag Archives: Chastity

Respecting Human Weakness

Unjust consent.

While we usually think about chastity in narrowly sexual terms, I often suggest to people that we think of it in a broader, more anthropological sense.

In a negative sense, the chaste person doesn’t exploit human weakness. Important here is that this includes not only my neighbor’s weakness but my own as well.

In a positive sense, the chaste person respects human weakness and sees it as an opportunity not to exploit but to make a sacrificial offering of self for the benefit of the other. This I think helps us understand what self-restraint is essential to a chaste life.

Limiting this self-restraint to sexual behavior is an act of self-deception. Sins against chastity (or sins of sexual immorality) are almost always the result of a series of self-indulgent thoughts and actions that exploit the immaturity or vulnerability of others.

A recent post in Just Thomism touches on the importance of this wider, deeper understanding of chastity.

Reflecting on the popular, contemporary notion that “consent” is the only ethical limit on sexual activity, James Chastek points out what I would call the unbearable naiveté of such a standard.

Drawing from the business world, we see the insufficiency of consent as a moral standard. In the economic realm,

…all kinds of consent are exploitive. Consent is usually given in timeshare sales, phone bills 50-100% greater bottom lines than announced in the big print, donations or campaign contributions that are functionally equivalent to bribes, payday loans, loans made to those in dire circumstances, loans made at no risk to the lender, most college loans, most historically existing forms of debt peonage, accepting perpetual slavery as a punishment for default or as the price for anything at all etc.

Just as in business, consent in the sexual realm can also be unjust. After all, “Since sex might be the only thing we want more than money, there are as many ways in which sexual consent is exploitive.” Chastek goes on to say, that

People agree – consent – all the time to exploitive, wrong, and unjust things, and it is silly to protest that their agreement makes everything right. But this is where everything gets interesting, since we find ourselves trapped by the question of what justice looks like in sexual relations, i.e. what are sort of sexual relationships to which one ought to consent? This is, however, exactly the sort of question that the Sexual Revolution wanted to replace with an economy of sheer consent, and it’s here that one sees the contradiction at its heart.

The contradiction is overlooked because we naively (and often implicitly) contrast consent with physical (or at least) emotional violence.

But coercion in human relationships is broader than physical violence. Working with college students, I frequently find that students feel great social pressure to be sexually active.

The practical effect of this is that free consent between two individuals is compromised by the social coercion. This puts sexually active students in the curious–and emotionally and morally untenable–role of being both victim and perpetrator.

Especially with the young, social pressure can rob individuals of the ability to consent. This shouldn’t be a surprise. We know that the opposite is equally true. Fidelity to the promise we make depend, at least in part, on the support of family, friends and the wider community.

And so back to chastity.

Chastity is not simply a private virtue; it is fundamentally social. Not simply interpersonal (i.e., between two people) but communal. We avoid exploiting the weakness of self and others, I need a community that supports and sustains me in my acts of self-restraint and self-denial.

Put another way, the self-sacrifice at the foundation of love is not only something we engage in for others but the fruit of the community’s sacrifice on our behalf.

Consent as the primary moral norm in sexual activity, then, reflects not enlightenment but a mere affirmation of human poverty and loneliness. While consent is personal it is also fundamentally communal. Consent abstracted from a community founded on self-restraint, self-denial and the self-sacrifice of love is simply an illusion.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Virtue of Chastity

What is most needed both in the Church and in the culture, is an appreciation of the virtue of chastity. The Catholic priest-psychologist Adrian van Kaam writes that chastity is “love purified” of all that is self-aggrandizing “and disrespectful of concerns of others.”[1] Chastity is that virtue that refuses to exploit for one’s own advantage the weakness of others. What we need to foster then is a respectful and appreciative acceptance of human limitations, both those of our neighbors’ and our own.

In the text below, I explain more fully what I mean by chastity. It is from my monograph for the Acton Institute, The Cure for Consumerism (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2015), 130-131.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

[1] Adrian van Kaam, Formation of the Human Heart (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1986), 47.divider-37709_960_720Although often overlooked today, St. Paul encourages all Christians to remain unmarried. Like St. John Climacus’ discussion of poverty, the apostle counsels celibacy in the service of both practical and spiritual freedom: “But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord— how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world— how he may please his wife” (1 Cor. 7: 32– 33). Nevertheless, just as not all Christians are called to material poverty, not all Christians are called to celibacy. “[E]ach one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.… [A]s God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk” (7: 7, 17). Akin to poverty, the key to chastity is not whether the person is married or not. Rather, within the tradition of the Church the virtue “of chastity … is the basis of the inner unity of the human personality, which should always be in the state of harmony between its mental and bodily powers” (Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, 10.6). Sin, such as fornication and adultery, “inevitably ruins the harmony and integrity of one’s life, damaging heavily one’s spiritual health.” Likewise, the absence of chastity “dulls the spiritual vision and hardens the heart, making it incapable of true love.” While the synod fathers are speaking here of sexual morality, it is not much of a leap to see that the same vices that make the “happiness of full-blooded family life … unattainable” also foster consumerism and disrupt the virtuous functioning of the economic order. “Sins against chastity,” they write,

also lead to negative social consequences. In the situation of a spiritual crisis of the human society, the mass media and the products of the so-called mass culture sometimes become instruments of moral corruption by praising sexual laxity, all kinds of sexual perversion and other sinful passions. Pornography, which is the exploitation of the sexual drive for commercial, political or ideological purposes, contributes to the suppression of the spiritual and moral principles, thus reducing man to an animal motivated by instinct alone. (Basis, 10.6)

Avarice and sexual immorality both result in unwholesome forms of consumption that hinder rather than foster human flourishing and Christlike holiness. With only minor changes, the synod fathers’ condemnation of “pornography and fornication” are equally applicable to avarice. Just as “the Church does not at all call to abhor the body or sexual intimacy as such,” it does not condemn wealth or property. Instead, in the sexual and economic aspects of our lives, what is rejected is “the tendency to turn chaste and appropriate relations”— and economic activity—“as God has designed them” into occasions “of humiliating exploitation,” characterized by “egoistic, impersonal, loveless and perverted pleasure” that is “completely divorced from personal and spiritual communion, selflessness and all-round responsibility” for my neighbor (Basis, 10.6).