The Meaning of Chastity
by Fr. Gerald Kelly
Chastity may be defined as: The habit of regulating the use of the generative faculty according to the principles of reason and of Faith. It might also be defined as the habit-of regulating the pursuit of venereal pleasure according to the principles of reason and of Faith. And still another definition might be the habit of controlling the sexual appetite, or sexual desire, according to those principles. Fundamentally, the meaning of all definitions is the same. Authors often frame the definition in terms of pleasure or appetite because it is the pleasurableness of the generative function which generally inclines people to sin against purity.
We call chastity a habit, because we are speaking of the virtue of chastity, and a virtue is an enduring disposition of soul to do a certain kind of good. One is not said to be virtuous merely because he does an occasional good deed; even an inveterate liar might occasionally tell the truth. For the constant keeping of the various commandments one needs the virtues corresponding to them.
Chastity is defined as a regulating virtue. Note, therefore, that it does not necessarily consist in abstinence from sexual activity. Married people practice conjugal chastity by confining their use of the generative faculty to the limits God has established for the married state. But for the unmarried, regulation means total abstinence because, as we shall see, God has reserved the use of the faculty to marriage.
When we speak of the principles of reason we refer to the natural law, that is, to God's will as manifested in the very nature of the thing He creates. When we speak of the principles of Faith, we are referring to God's will as manifested through revelation. Insofar as mere obligation is concerned, divine revelation has added nothing to the natural law. Thus the Sixth and Ninth Commandments of the Decalogue, as God revealed them to Moses, imposed no new obligation on the human race. They simply put into words the law that already existed in the human heart and that bound and binds all men. But Faith does tell us much about the perfection of chastity. To keep the Commandments is a good and perfect thing; but to follow Christ, and to strive to imitate Him as much as our natural gifts and the grace of God will permit is higher perfection.
In the Introduction, we specified that we are limiting our consideration of chastity to extra-marital chastity: that is, to the obligations and ideals of the unmarried. To sum up this brief explanation, we can now say that, from the point of view of obligation, extra-marital chastity consists in abstinence from all wilful use of the generative faculty. This is, of course, putting the matter negatively; yet everyone knows that the observance of this norm is not something merely negative, but requires the practice of a great deal of positive virtue, and at times even heroism. Beyond the realm of obligation, the Christian ideal of chastity consists in following Christ even to the perpetual renunciation of the privileges that might be acquired by marriage.
Chastity and Sex Attraction
From what we have said, it should be evident that chastity is directly concerned with the control of the impulses characteristic of physical sex attraction. These impulses are immediately concerned with the use of the generative faculty; hence the voluntary indulgence in them is a violation of chastity for the unmarried. Normally, these impulses are directed to sexual union and to the intimate acts that form the natural preliminary to such union. Sometimes the impulses are directed rather to oneself, that is, to the solitary enjoyment of venereal pleasure; and sometimes they are directed to a person of one's own sex. Whatever he their object, whether oneself or others, such impulses must be controlled by chastity.
On the other hand, the impulses distinctive of general or personal sex attraction have no direct bearing on chastity. The joy that one takes in the companionship of the other sex, the thrills of personal love and of becoming manifestations of such love have no necessary connection with the stimulation of the generative faculty; hence they have no immediate bearing on the preservation and practice of chastity. But it ,would be quite untrue to say that they have no connection at all with chastity. It is a fact of daily experience that these various things do frequently act as stimulants to the sexual appetite, even though unintentional. Because they are likely to have this stimulating effect., they do pertain indirectly to chastity, that is, they present a danger to chastity that must not be courted rashly.
As we have said before, there are many other things which, though they may be perfectly innocent in themselves, do endanger chastity precisely because of the fact that they have more or less power of stimulating the sexual appetite. Books, motion pictures, magazines, decent dancing, conversation about certain topics or with certain people, the study, of anatomy or physiology or various special branches of medicine-many such things can affect the generative nervous system, induce venereal pleasure, and thus incline the will to indulge in them precisely for that pleasure. In this sense, they too are dangers to one's chastity. And we might add to them, dangers that sometimes come from purely physiological and involuntary sources. For example, the condition of the nervous system, the activity of various endocrine glands, congestion of the organs adjacent to the reproductive organs, excessive fatigue, can also affect the generative system and thus be the source of disturbing temptations.
In the matter of sexual stimulation we should never forget that individuals differ greatly one from another. Some are much more affected by certain kinds of stimuli than an others; just an some have a much stronger appetite for food than others. Boys, for instance, are usually much more strongly affected physically than are girls; and a girl has to take account of this in dealing with it boy. Some people are definitely hypersensitive: that is, it is quite ordinary for them to be strongly excited by things that scarcely bother most other people. And any one individual might truly say that his own reactions to stimuli differ at different times. It may be that for a week or two or longer nothing seems to affect him; then for a brief period everything seems a source of disturbance.
All these things: different dispositions, varying strength of stimuli, and so on, clearly make it necessary for us to have a set of practical principles that tell us what we must avoid, what we must or may do, and what it is better for us to do. The peaceful practice of chastity is greatly aided by such knowledge. Before giving the principles, however, it will be well to spend a little more time in considering how the sexual appetite works and how it can be controlled.
How the Appetite Works
In general, we may say that the sexual appetite works along the same pattern as other emotions and passions. Take the emotion of anger. What happens when we become angry? A man strikes you; you feel that boiling state within you known as anger; you feel a tendency to do something about it, for example, to strike back. Before the man struck you, you were not angry; the fact that he struck you acted as a stimulus to your emotion. The emotion itself was the response to that stimulus. It is, in a certain sense, a very simple yet a very complicated emotion. It brings profound changes in your body and in your mental outlook. It is a state of unpleasantness and irritation, and you have a natural impulse to do something which will relieve that state. Thus we see that anger follows this simple basic pattern: a) stimulus; b) emotional response; c) impulse to do something about it. That a-b-c pattern works as a unit; it is, of itself, entirely involuntary and follows an elementary psychological law.
Again, consider the emotion of fear. In these days, when the air is filled with talk of war, it is natural enough to apply this example to a young soldier on sentry duty. He hears the signal announcing an air raid; he feels afraid; he has an inclination to run down into a shelter. The signal is the stimulus; the fear is the emotional response; and since this emotion also contains an element of tension and irritation, there is a natural impulse to do something which will bring a feeling of relief. Again, consider the fear of lightning. There is the flash of lightning acting as the stimulus; the dreadful feeling of fear that follows upon it; and the impulse to hide in the clothes closet. In both examples of fear, we see the a-b-c pattern of stimulus, emotional response, and impulse to do something about it.
Sex is no exception to this general pattern. A man, for instance, may be thoroughly unconscious of any sexual excitement. Then he sees an obscene picture; he becomes sexually aroused, that is, he feels a general emotional disturbance plus the beginning of the localized phenomena that we described in the last chapter when speaking of the generative processes; and he experiences an impulse to keep looking or to perform some immodest action that will heighten his emotional condition. His condition of excitement is basically one of pleasure, and we all have a natural inclination to continue pleasurable activity. The pattern is the same: stimulus; response; impulse.
Need of Some Control
All decent people will readily admit that our emotions and passions need some kind of control for the good of our individual personalities and for the preservation of peaceful social life. Suppose, for instance, a man is running to catch a street car and a stick is suddenly thrust between his legs and he trips and falls violently. The ear goes away, his suit is torn, he gets up in a rage and turns furiously on the person who tripped him. It is a blind man, feeling his way with a cane. Our angry friend seizes the cane and beats the blind man over the head with it.
The example is a rather evident one. We do not consider it reprehensible that the man was angered. In this case everything happened suddenly, and the a-b-c process was thoroughly involuntary. But carrying out the impulse of striking the blind man is going entirely too far. We consider that a reprehensible lack of self-control. In other words, the man should have disciplined his anger; and, if he in one who generally acts before thinking when he is angry, then he should cultivate the habit of thinking before he acts.
In the case of the young soldier, we do not (or should not) blame him for feeling afraid and for wanting to run. But if he actually runs and deserts his post, people generally look upon him with contempt. So, too, in the case of sexual excitement. The passion itself, following upon an unexpected stimulus, is involuntary; but the man would show a lack of needed self-control were he to give way to his impulse and seek further stimulation.
Thus, all decent people recognize that man is not supposed to be a creature of blind impulse. They recognize a need of control of our passions and emotions. They recognize that at times these things incline us to do things that we are not supposed to do and that the following out of such impulses is unreasonable and wrong.
The nature of our emotions and passions and their connection with good and evil should be perfectly clear to us. Certainly, they are natural tendencies that God gave us for a good purpose. Anger is a subjective state that enables one to preserve his life when unjustly attacked and to exercise a justifiable protection over others; fear also helps to preserve the life by warning against danger; the sexual appetite helps to preserve the race. But though these things have a good purpose, they do not always incline to what is morally good. To put it plainly, they tend to go their own way and ignore the higher good. Your temper does not ask you, "Am I justified in striking this man?" Your fear will not ask, "Is it right for me to run away?" Your sexual passion will not ask, "Would God be pleased with this action?" In other words, these and the other emotions are merely blind tendencies; they are natural insofar as they express one side of our nature; but to keep them from making sheer animals out of us, there is need of something to guide them in accordance with the dignity of a human being. They must be kept within the limits marked out by God, and these limits are made known through our reason and Faith. Hence the norm for all the emotions is that they must be controlled according to reason and Faith.
That there should be some conflict between our emotions and our reason is a perfectly natural state for a human being, since we are the only creatures in the world that unite such tremendous extremes as the spiritual and the material. It is only natural that the lower appetites, which tend to act blindly, should want things that conflict with higher duties. The understanding of this natural phenomenon helps us to see the real wonder of the gift of integrity, which God gave to Adam, which he possessed before the Fall and which all of us would possess if there had been no original sin. By that gift Adam had such perfect control over all these appetites that 'his reason was always the absolute master. There was perfect harmony, no struggle, no conflict.
The loss of the gift of integrity was one of the punishments for original sin. We now experience that natural conflict which God would have spared us. Our appetites are inclined to work independently of reason and even to want what is contrary to reason. This inclination of the appetites to work independently of reason is what is known as concupiscence. Concupiscence is not in itself a moral wrong, but it is an evil for us because it is the result of sin and because frequently it acts as a powerful incentive to sin. It is a force inclining us towards what reason tells us is forbidden, and it is simply a historical fact that no other appetite has been so successful overthrowing reason as has the sexual appetite.
Without the gift of integrity we have to struggle to control our impulses. But we are well equipped for the struggle. First of all we have the promise of abundant help from God. And with that we have our free will, which by the practice of various virtues, is able to act in such a way that appetites are kept within the bounds of reason. For instance, anger is kept within reasonable bounds by the practice of meekness; the impulses of fear are controlled by the virtue of fortitude; and the sexual appetite is kept within the bounds marked out by God by the practice of chastity. By these diverse ways of exercising self-control we fulfill that need which decent people commonly recognize in regard to the emotions-namely, they do not destroy our human dignity.
Means of Control
There are many ways by which self-control in sexual matters can be exercised. Without indulging in too many technicalities, we want to indicate here a few of the more obvious and practical points to be kept in mind in this matter.
In the first place, it is well to remember that the will is not a dictator in regard to the emotions. It has no absolute power. If a man kicks you in the shins, you feel it, and no act of the will can prevent you from feeling it. And because you feel the kick, you feel irritated about it, and thus your adrenal glands are activated, your imagination is disturbed, and you feel like doing many dire things to that man. The will cannot prevent these feelings and dire thoughts from arising, and sometimes it cannot get rid of them for quite a while. Also, in the sphere of sex, if something attracts the sexual appetite, pleasurable sensations and disturbing imaginations are aroused, and the will cannot prevent one's feeling these things, and sometimes it cannot get rid of them.
But the will can generally refrain from any external action that these things may urge one to do. It is only in the rarest possible case that these external actions get entirely beyond the control of the will. It can ordinarily stand pat and refuse to do anything immodest. Sometimes, by seeking a distraction, it can get rid of the thoughts and feelings. Always, even in extreme cases, when thoughts and pleasant feelings cannot be banished, the will can refuse to approve of them.
Again, the will can very often avoid even the sources of stimulation, so that the sexual passion is not even aroused. We say "very often," because it is evident that, in the world in which we live, such things cannot be avoided entirely. Nevertheless, there still remain some untainted books and plays and other forms of entertainment, and by choosing these things rather than the "spotted" kind, a person can avoid a great deal of sexual stimulation. We do not say that this is always obligatory (that subject will be treated later); we simply give this as one way of exercising self-control.
Again, surely we all recognize this fact: There are some people who are always hunting for trouble. Not that they do it deliberately; but they do seem to cultivate an attitude of mind that seeks to be insulted, or angered, or abused, and so forth. And the same thing can happen in the sexual sphere. People can be involuntarily looking for trouble here, too, and thus they are all set to react to any stimulus they encounter. This disposition can be counteracted by the cultivation of a sincere, wholesome attitude that sees other things in life besides sex and thus does not react readily to sexual suggestion. This does not mean the brazen disposition of one who will walk into any sexual danger with the excuse that we ought to take those things "as a matter of fact"--such an attitude is sheer folly; but it does mean a quiet attitude towards the ordinary things of life and a refusal to be always on the lookout for sex.
Finally, we have to realize that we were created with a dependence on God, a dependence that is had in all our actions - To control our emotions, to will the good, and especially to counteract the inordinate pull of concupiscence, we have an absolute need of prayer. The Church is positively rich in the means that she offers both to inspire and to strengthen the will. We have but to use them and cooperate with them.
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Copyright © Gerald Kelly. Reproduced with permission of Fusion International. All rights reserved.