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Forgotten Chastity

My traditionalist Catholic friend Michael Brendan Dougherty, like several other Catholic friends of mine, really did not like Pope Francis’s letter Amoris Laetitia. From MBD’s column:

Pope Francis’ document justifies people receiving communion in a public state of sin by saying that the Eucharist is “not a prize” for good behavior. That is true. But instead the Church has turned it into a participation trophy, something so perfunctory and ultimately meaningless that it seems just too cruel to deny it to anyone.

Perhaps worse than Pope Francis’ official invitation to sacrilege is the document’s cowardice, cynicism, and pessimism. The Church can no longer even bring itself to condemn respectable sins such as civilly approved adultery. It can barely bring itself to address a man or woman as if they had a moral conscience that could be roused by words like “sin.” Instead, it merely proposes ideals; ideals cannot be wounded by your failure to realize them. And it promises to help you out of your “irregular” situation.

This supposed paean to love is something much sadder. A Church so anxious to include and accept you that it must deny the faith that transforms and renews you. It admits that God’s commands are not just beyond our reach, but possibly destructive to follow.

But a reader of this blog sends in this fascinating take. I’ve read it, and re-read it:

Amoris Laetitia isn’t the lost battle on the grounds of communion for the divorced and remarried. It is a recognition of what we have lost. It truly acknowledges that we have lost the truth in family and marriage and because of this, we have completely seen the meaning of sex and marriage shattered in an entire generation.

I look at this as a 24 year old female who was born into this generation where marriage and sexuality has been so shattered. I can tell you, even in my traditional and conservative state of Nebraska and the Diocese of Lincoln, that I don’t know a single woman or man in a proper relationship in regards to the Christian understanding of marriage and sex. All of the women I know in my circle of friends and my younger family members practice sex before marriage. I’m not saying I have never met or read of anyone who practiced chastity but I am saying that I don’t know anyone intimately who does. The majority of my friends and family, with few exceptions, come from a practicing Christian household. Most of my female friends go to church regularly. This is the same group of women who did not disagree at dinner last week when one friend said, “Not having sex before marriage is unrealistic.”

I now embrace the virtue of chastity but I agree with them that it will be a sin that the majority of people will fail in. The effort to abstain from premarital sex would be Herculean. It is an effort that would be undermined by family, as we see with the case most parents don’t comment on their children’s relationships and have no problem moving them in together. It would be undermined by friends because very few would understand and none would support it. It is undermined by nearly everything in society.

I’m not saying everything Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia (I prefer the careful thinking of Benedict XVI) is perfect but I think it is needed because it recognizes that many people, especially the people of my generation, have lost the truth in regards to sexuality and God and marriage to the degree that it reduces our culpability in sin. Is it a sin if no one has any idea that it is a sin?

Neither the right or the left should be acting as they do. This exhortation is truly a letter for mourning and renewal. I think, especially for the attitude of the left, there should be no cause for celebration because this exhortation was only necessary because we have so lost the truth that an entire generation have basically become pagans and is now left with no idea or example on how to form a relationship according to Christ. That is a tragedy and we should all mourn it.

But the right is wrong as well. The truth is still the truth and the exhortation is a call for us to renew Christian education and formation in our lives. Even in the darkest night, there is still hope and the Church is Christ’s Church for now and eternity.

It reminds me of something that G.K. Chesterton wrote his book on St. Francis. He spoke of the Dark Ages as a purgation, a necessary expiation for the sins of the pagan world. I would say we are at the gate of another Dark Ages, another necessary purgation for another generation of pagans.

“Chastity” is not total abstinence from sex, as many people wrongly believe. Rather, it is the right use of the sexual instinct. As the young female reader avers, we have lost the idea that sex has meaning, and that marriage has anything to do with the right use of the gift of sexuality.

(By the way, an Eastern Rite Catholic theologian explains here why it’s simply not true that Orthodox Christianity regards second marriages as the equivalent of first marriages. It’s more complicated that you might think.)

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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