Chastity Is About More Than Abstinence from Sex
I was very moved by Eve Tushnet’s piece on homosexuality and the Catholic church. If you have not yet read it, I urge you to do so stat; it is a rare piece that deserves to be ingested, not just read. Her courageous story raises important questions about how sex and sexuality are approached in the church. Rod Dreher also weighed in on this issue, arguing that both straight and gay people need community and support on the journey of chastity.
My suggestion is this: how about an instructive community for everyone, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender? Everyone who chooses the path of chastity needs both support and instruction on how to present their bodies as a “living sacrifice”. For those of us who have chosen this path, chastity is much more than resisting temptation or forgoing an experience. Remaining abstinent outside of marriage isn’t like summoning the willpower to pass on dessert; it is a state of being that extends into courtship, marriage, and family planning. Even if someone decides on a lifetime of celibacy, there are phases of that lifestyle that need to be addressed. The Church has to implement faith-based teaching for each milestone of life—otherwise, the expectation to remain chaste remains just that: an expectation.
A solid example of faith-based practical teaching is the prosperity message propagated by the Evangelicals in the early to mid 1990s. With consumer debt rampant, personal finance became a topic that was placed front and center of Evangelical canon. Preachers like John Avanzini devoted their entire ministries on educating Christians on credit cards, interest rates, and debunking the myth that Jesus was poor. It was an effective campaign that reshaped how Christians viewed their finances, and it was done in a way that incorporated step-by-step teaching with Scriptures as a guide. The same down-to-earth teaching should be applied to sex. No matter what form of Christianity you believe in, learning about contraception should be a part of chastity, so each married couple can make the best decision for themselves.
The Atlantic ran a piece this week about a college course on marriage currently offered at Northwestern, arguing that there is no such thing as a “soul mate”, that the key to a good marriage depends on effective communication skills. Romantic love in popular culture is portrayed as a mysterious, elusive force that strikes its victims at random. While this is not the teaching about love in Christianity, the Church is not immune from falling prey to cultural misconceptions about love and marriage. Single people, as well as those who never plan to marry, should place seeking friendship at the top of their list, as well as exploring other kinds of love available to them. A Church emphasis on all kinds of love could be a way to remind young Christians that chastity is taking an active role in your relationships, not just waiting for “the one” to come along.
Eve’s piece drew attention to a small but devoted minority who wish to commit themselves to the noble cause of a lifetime of celibacy in according with the teaching of the Catholic church. But there is a sizeable portion of unmarried Christians, gay and straight, who need guidance as they navigate dating, marriage, family planning, or permanent celibacy. As the average age of marriage rises and the dating and marriage pool continues to change, the Church needs to respond to these needs with solid teaching to provide support and guidance. Otherwise, it risks appearing out of touch and didactic, teaching messages evocative of a time and place that do not jive with the here and now.