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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 [1]. 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 [2]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.)

110 Comments (Open | Close)

110 Comments To "Forgotten Chastity"

#1 Comment By Rombald On April 14, 2016 @ 3:34 am

“They know that their neighbors don’t follow those rules but they assume that their neighbors respect them for it. The reality is that their neighbors just think they are crazy. They are impressing no one.
…. There is something fundamentally disordered and unclean about chastity. It makes the skin crawl.”

I’m not a Christian, but, frankly, I think you’re talking nonsense. I think a lot of ordinary, nonreligious people have a sneaking respect even for those way out on the Erin Manning fringe.

As for more middle-of-the-road understandings of “chastity”, i.e. not sleeping around, and trying hard to find a life-partner for your sex-partner, I think most people very much respect a girl/woman who behaves like that. The only reason why they don’t respect a man who does is that, unless he’s a rock star, a soccer star, a billionaire, or has film-star looks, they assume that his chastity is involuntary.

#2 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 14, 2016 @ 11:40 am


I don’t know what ‘a lot’ means here (there are a lot of people who think genetically modified foods and vaccines are bad for you, after all, and there are a lot of people who think Islam is true) and Charles has a florid way of talking, but I think he’s mostly right here. It’s not that most non-conservative people object to you choosing to restrict sex to marriage, but they find it kind of pointless, giving up something good for no special reason.

#3 Comment By mrscracker On April 14, 2016 @ 11:58 am

Bernie says:

So yeah, morals don’t mean crap to biology, but our challenge is to channel our biological urges in responsible ways. You can argue that humans just cannot rise to this goal, but good luck with that.”
I read National Geographic and keep seeing more stories about finding evidence of prehistoric human cannibalism & other unpleasant stuff that probably was connected to biological urges.
So, yes. We can raise the bar on behaviors. We’re more than our biology.

#4 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 14, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

I’m also not sure what respect is intended to mean here. If you asked me my opinion of either Erin Manning’s chosen lifestyle, or the girl who disdains sleeping around, I’d say I support their right to do whatever they feel comfortable with, I’d strongly object to people trying to shame them into changing their views, and I wouldn’t try to put them into situations where they might be tempted otherwise. That being said, I think they’re operating on false premises about morality and human nature, that the world would be a worse place if more people shared their views, especially though not only for women, and I’m not going to pretend I *share* their views. Kind of the same way I respect, I dunno, Mormons not drinking alcohol, though to a stronger degree, since I think puritanical views about sex are worse for society.

#5 Comment By Intelliwriter On April 14, 2016 @ 6:17 pm

I’m not Catholic although I practiced for some years with my first husband. He was abusive to me and my children…mostly emotional but we received our fair share of physical punishment too. When I turned 40, I thought: Is this it? Is this how I live out the rest of my life? Soon after I filed for divorce and haven’t looked back.

If that means I couldn’t take communion, so be it! Not being screamed at every single day was more important for me and especially my children. Maybe Pope Francis considered actual people over ancient rules that serve no one.

#6 Comment By John On April 15, 2016 @ 12:15 am

Yes, I too think Charles Cosimano has it mostly right and I second what a Hector_St. Claire.

I have no interest in telling Erin Manning what god she worships or how she lives her life. If she believes one should remain chaste until marriage and she chooses to remain chaste until marriage more power to her.

It doesn’t make any sense to most of us (or perhaps in my case) aspects of that moral viewpoint make I sense to most of us but this is a free country and people who believe as she does should live as she sees fit.

I don’t personally but not concepts like “sin.” Things aren’t “right” or “wrong” or “true” or “false” simply because someone who claims to have some knowledge about what “god” wants.

To me, if something that is natural and no one is hurt than it else is fine in my book. If two people who live together in a committed relationship want to engage in foreplay, I have no problem with it. If a single guy or woman wants to look at porn to relieve themselves from their sexual tension, so be it. If two gays in a committed relationship want to be intimate, more power to them. Telling loving couples to refrain from all sexual activity (including those which do not include the “missionary position) makes no sense. Hormones kick in long before anybody is prepared to marry. I see no reason why a teenage couple can’t engage in a little kissing and foreplay.

Most humans are sexual beings (I say most because there are asexuals too) so expecting sexual beings to refrain from behaving like sexual beings for a God that may or may not exist makes no sense.

That doesn’t mean every-
thing which socially conservatives say about sexual activity is worthless. Reserving procreative sexual activities until one can raise any offspring makes sense — common sense. Monogamy makes sense. There are reasons, reasons which need not be explained on this blog apart from any “teleological” arguments, for monogamy and for reserving procreative conduct for marriage.

I think the problems we on the liberal side have with is the conservatives’ attempts to have what they believe written into the criminal code and to have those of us who do not believe as we do live as they do.

The Erin Mannings of the world can believe whatever they want about love and marriage and I certainly don’t need them to bless any marriage I may be a part of, but they certainly shouldn’t have a right to deprive the rest of us from our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

But the rest of us have lives to live too.

#7 Comment By Carlo On April 16, 2016 @ 7:51 pm

“they certainly shouldn’t have a right to deprive the rest of us from our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” ”

How on earth would they do that? By pointing out that civil marriage does not make any sense if it is reduced to a state endorsement of people’s private sexual/romantic relationships?

Well, then, your happiness hangs on a thin thread indeed!

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 17, 2016 @ 2:13 am

“My answer was in my comment on MBD (Michael Brendan Dougherty): because such teachings are communicated in the abstract without an existential/experiential context, and without showing the connection with the larger picture of Christianity as the answer to our most basic human questions.”

Here we are certainly in disagreement, of course the hope of all training is that ultimately one owns it.

Further, there’s nothing abstract about teaching the value and practice of celibacy, chastity, abstinence. As one who embraces these concepts, the Catholic Church in my view, my experience, brings the understanding home all to well. And they do existentially as well as experientially.

Purity as Christ’s bride is both existential and pragmatically related to marriage. And i that was not enough, the number of unexpected pregnancies or potential for the same made the matter very clear. I found this o be the case in other scriptural leaning faiths and practices as well. What ha been removed for the sake of one’s feelings is the idea of shame by breaking the boundaries. Shame was and is a powerful tangible – experiential — reminder to avoid breaking the rules. And that is where the secular world has been winning — the indictment being made that any shame and all shame is unhealthy.

If the Pope is failing it is here. He is pushing against the natural guardian of a life of commitment to a walk with Christ — making shame a sin. It is not that. It’s a tangible guide to keep us in check, a reminder – experiential and spiritual.

#9 Comment By Carlo On April 17, 2016 @ 3:03 pm


I agree with everything you say. On the other hand, I honestly think you did not understand one word of what I said.

#10 Comment By Franklin Evans On April 18, 2016 @ 11:26 am

Carlo, not sure if you’ll see this… but there is a very simple comparison point available to answer your incredulity: Well, then, your happiness hangs on a thin thread indeed!

The civil marriage license (a document ubiquitous to every state in the Union, if not always labeled as such) is the equivalent to a list of separate documents, the effects of which are encompassed by that single document. The list includes power of attorney, a contract of joint property ownership (implied with any joint purchase, but limited to that item), and the will.

I’ve not researched every state, but for those states for which I have seen reports, every one of them will reject, ignore or violate one or more of those individual documents when the holders of it are a same-sex couple.

The practicalities of it, being supportive of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” if arguably not the sole support of them, make it clear that absent a law that requires the states to recognize a same-sex couple in those situations and actions for which heterosexual couples take their benefits, privileges and conveniences for granted, there is in fact an inequality under the law that must be addressed and enforced under the law.

Civil marriage makes no sense unless it is solely “reduced” to those rights, privileges and conveniences. It is that line in the sand that separates civil marriage from any endorsement of people’s private sexual/romantic relationships…

Logically, only the moral argument can force that endorsement into a nonsensical state.