The experience of chastity as a negative phenomenon must be replaced with an experience of chastity as an entirely positive phenomenon.
There are many young couples who sincerely believe in the Church’s teachings forbidding sexual intercourse before marriage. They know that fornication is intrinsically wrong, and are more or less well-versed in the numerous good reasons to back up this claim, based in both Revelation and the Natural Law, reasons that will not be rehearsed in this article. Such young people want to be chaste and fully intend to be chaste.
And yet, even such admirable young couples with the best of intentions find themselves in situations of grave temptation. Some yield to that temptation, sometimes with pregnancy as a result. One reason this occurs is a faulty attitude toward the Church’s condemnation of fornication. It is seen as something to avoid, and to avoid for very good reasons. But it is still seen as a negative phenomenon: “We don’t get to have this great expression of our love for another how many years.”
Once it is viewed as a primarily negative phenomenon, it is all too easy — especially given the fierceness of passion between two people very much in love — to rationalize: we’re mature enough to handle just one taste of it now. We want so badly to be a real married couple now, we’ll act just a little older than our age. We can handle it. It’s not quite entirely fair that we have to wait.
An entirely different attitude is needed. The experience of chastity as a negative phenomenon must be replaced with an experience of chastity as an entirely positive phenomenon. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2350) wonderfully contains this positive message: “Those who are engaged to marry are called to live chastity in continence. They should see in this time of testing a discovery of mutual respect, an apprenticeship in fidelity, and the hope of receiving one another from God. They should reserve for marriage the expression of affection that belongs to married love. They will help each other grow in chastity.” What follows is a meditation on, an unraveling of, that message.
You cannot have a healthy marriage without chastity — that virtue by which we are in control of our sexual appetite rather than it being in control of us. And chastity is a tough virtue to develop. If it is not in full development before marriage, it is going to be very hard to develop after marriage. So, before marriage is the time to accomplish this very positive thing, the virtue of chastity.
This is a courageous thing to do, a positive thing to do. Males need to see it as the ultimate manly thing to do, and they need to take the lead in the couple’s mutual accomplishment of moral toughness. Note the complete change in perspective: abstaining before marriage is not a matter of “sticking it out” — for with that attitude, what real difference does it make if you don’t quite make it? Rather, it is a matter of accomplishing, finishing, a great task. It is an “apprenticeship in fidelity.”
Consider some concrete steps for accomplishing this great task — and remember that no matter how far you’ve gone in the opposite direction you can turn around now.
- Avoid the near occasions of sin. Today this idea is often looked upon as quaint and prudishly out-of-touch with reality. In fact, it is a gem of practical wisdom and will go a long way in helping young couples with their special project. Concretely, it boils down to this: when spending time alone together, do not spend it on your own. Be together publicly — parks, malls, other social settings. This is not prudish, it is realistic. You will have more fun and will be free that terrible accusation “they’re so exclusive.”
- The next point is really an addendum to #1: Given there are some occasions when you are invariably alone together, be very sure they do not occur while using alcohol. St. Thomas put it best: Through excessive use of alcohol people willingly and knowingly deprive themselves of the use of reason which enables them to act virtuously and avoid sin (S.T., II-II, 150, 2).
- Do not develop an inappropriate emotional dependency on each other. This may sound strange — after all, you are in love, are you not? Yes, but with a kind of “all-out dependency,” that love quickly degenerates into a sentimental attachment that actually prevents you from really getting to know each other. Signs of such dependency: you talk for hours on the phone, and cannot wait till the next call; if the call does not come you go into a crisis, thinking your friend does not love you; you think you must do everything, including studying, together; you plan your daily schedules to be in near constant contact. The logical extension of this immature dependency is undue sexual intimacy. You end up as two beings turned inward on each other in every respect.
- This navel-gazing is just the opposite of what you want to accomplish as a couple considering marriage: you want to be outward looking, focused on making a contribution together to the world. Some married couples who succeed in developing this attitude do not even want to take a honeymoon — they want to get on right away with their contribution to the community. They take a vacation a year later to renew their commitment.
- Avoiding a sentimental emotional dependency also helps you to see each other with some clarity, both in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Respective strengths are not over-glamorized. You can objectively discern whether you think you could live with the other’s weaknesses, and simultaneously work on your own faults in light of the other’s observations. You can truly develop the “hope of receiving one another from God.”
- As noted, the logical extension of an immature emotional dependency is undue sexual intimacy. Here is a good test to check whether a selfish preoccupation with your own passions (masqueraded as love) has crept into your friendship. Take one of those evenings together when some unforeseen circumstance causes a premature ending to your time together, and as a result there was no physical intimacy. Be honest: did you feel cheated, as if it were a wasted evening? If so, passion has eclipsed the friendship, the physical has eclipsed the personal. See #1 above to avoid this trap.
- Alongside the virtue of chastity, you can develop that virtue so closely allied to it, the virtue of purity by which the mind and heart are made clean of lust. Through patient practice, cooperating with God’s grace, and with the help of the sacraments, young people can get their minds “out of the gutter” as it were. There is an enormous freedom in not being bound to impure thoughts. One is free to treat others as persons, for their own sake, not as objects of passion. And with the development of the twin virtues of chastity and purity, those who still have lingering habits of solitary sexual acts left over from a possible weakness in adolescence can quickly and effectively surmount them. (In the next issue, watch for a practical set of guidelines for working on the virtue of purity.)
- Unmarried couples who have fallen into the habit of engaging in varying types of genital activity can likewise do an about-face. Essential to the great project of developing chastity and purity is a turning away from a preoccupation with genital stimulation, so that one is left free to treat others as persons, not objects for self-gratification. Any intentional genital stimulation prior to the marital commitment is a selfish preoccupation with one’s own passions. In black and white: keep your clothes on, your feet on the floor, and no French kissing. Put otherwise, avoid anything that arouses you to the point where you almost desperately want to go one step further. Avoid the trap of the slippery slope.
Too many couples who have the best intentions easily get caught in that trap — and with one step after another, their resolve gradually vanishes. A direct about-face in attitude is required. The time prior to marriage is a time of preparation, a time to accomplish a great task: demonstrating to each of and to the world that you are not ruled by your passions. It is not “kind of unfair” to have to wait right at the time when sexual passion is so pronounced; rather it is eminently fair that so challenging a task be given right at that time. There exists an inherent commensurability between the difficulty of the task of preparation and the gravity of that which one is preparing for. If sexual passion can be mastered now, when that passion is at a certain height, it is mastered for a lifetime, a lifetime that will provide challenges of all sorts and intensities.
Encouraging such attitudes is also enormously important for helping young people discern whether their vocation is to marry or to remain celibate (entering religious life or the priesthood). Too often, young people think that if they have a good dose of libido, they probably aren’t called to celibacy. But in point of fact, everyone is called to master sexual passion, in preparation for either the married state or the celibate state.
Only when sexual passion is under control is one fit to make a mature decision about either marriage or celibacy. With this attitude, there will be many more vocations to priesthood and religious life, many marriages with more stability and happiness, and many pre-married couples with much happier courtships.
One final suggestion for the “apprenticeship in fidelity.” John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor 52 notes that “...there are kinds of behavior which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person.” This article has focused on those acts incompatible with the apprenticeship in fidelity. The pope goes on to make a startling and profound exhortation: “Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil” (emphasis added). One way to express this point is to say “I’d rather die than violate a moral norm.” This is a good motto for the apprenticeship in fidelity. Say it every day.
Mark Lowery. “Chastity Before Marriage: A Fresh Perspective.” The Catholic Faith (May, 1998): 14-16.
Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.
Mark Lowery is Associate professor in the Department of Theology, University of Dallas, Irving, TX 75062. He is also a husband and the father of six children.Copyright © 1998 The Catholic Faith