On the lowly, yet vital, importance of chastity

On the lowly, yet vital, importance of chastity

A thoughtful and charitable response to Bp. McElroy’s recent remarks about the role of chastity in the life of Catholics

OCTOBER 20, 2017

Bishop McElroy: “Many times, our discussions in the life of the Church suggest that chastity has a singularly powerful role in determining our moral character, or our relationship with God. It does not.”

FromHomiletic and Pastoral Review Magazine:

The reader likely needs no introduction to the recent uproar in Catholic media regarding the rescinding of various speaking engagements previously granted to Fr. James Martin, SJ. Those particular waters are so contentious that I think little good is done wading into them. Let us pray for unity in the Church and, without currently ascribing any blame to any parties involved, make our own an expression from the Anaphora of St. Basil: “By the power of Your Holy Spirit, end the schisms in the Church, quench the raging of nations, and quickly destroy the insurrections of heresy. Receive us all into Your kingdom, showing us to be children of light and children of the day. Grant us Your peace and love, O Lord our God, For You have given all things to us.”1

However, a recent response to these issues, offered by Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, does call for some comment. In particular, I wish to focus on his remarks regarding the virtue of chastity. In a recent article in America, Bishop McElroy states, “Chastity is a very important virtue of the Christian moral life. The disciple is obligated to confine genital sexual activity to marriage.”2 We should also recall that the bishop did issue a statement after the Obergefell v. Hodges case, reiterating Church teaching.3 If nothing else, his words deserve a charitable treatment, even if one wishes to differ, as I will in what comes below. Let us try to maintain this general attitude in what follows.

In the aforementioned article, the bishop goes on to remark: “But chastity is not the central virtue in the Christian moral life. Our central call is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves.” So far so good, especially since Bishop McElroy has used the word “the” instead of “a.” The central virtue of the Christian life is charity. Charity is the soul of the virtues, conforming us to the Divine Love itself.4 Thus is our will divinized with a fire that should consume the world. Without charity, no other virtue can exist as a true and strong virtue.5

However, Bishop McElroy takes one step further, and it is here that I find need for comment: “Many times, our discussions in the life of the Church suggest that chastity has a singularly powerful role in determining our moral character, or our relationship with God. It does not.” In particular, the “it does not” rings in my ears, so to speak, each time that I read this statement. As one tasked with teaching college and seminary courses pertaining to such moral matters, I cannot help but reflect on such claims—especially since some of my students will quite soon have guardianship over the direction of souls. Such remarks, made in a significant public forum such as America, are imprudently overstated in our currently debased culture. If anything, we need more chastity today than ever before if we are to morally survive in the toxic environment of the West (and, most especially, America).6Moreover, let us remember the lofty words of the contemporary Catechism, which simultaneously notes the hierarchy of virtues while speaking in a lofty manner of the virtue of chastity:

Charity is the form of all the virtues. Under its influence, chastity appears as a school of the gift of the person. Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self. Chastity leads him who practices it to become a witness to his neighbor of God’s fidelity and loving kindness. The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.7

Thus, in reading the words, “It does not,” I cannot help but enunciate a distinction.8 It is one thing to consider the fact that a given virtue is less lofty than other virtues in what it positively attains. It is wholly another matter to consider the fact that the same virtue prevents the worst of all things, in the case of chastity, utter dissipation and enslavement to all things sensual. Water does not provide all that we need for our biological life. Nonetheless, it does indeed play a singularly powerful role in providing the foundation without which our life and thought would be impossible. Likewise, the canals that lead one to the sea are merely a presupposed pathway for water, but without them, the waters would spill over the ground and never reach their destination. So too with chastity. Like the immigrant workers of old digging the Erie Canal, chastity is an underappreciated underclass among the virtues. Without its backbreaking humanizing of the passions, the waters of divine life would find themselves quickly dissipated amid the temptations of the world.

It is wildly dangerous to claim that chastity does not play a powerful role in our moral lives. Merely in the natural order, the moral virtues are connected in prudence precisely because prudence presupposes the rectification of our appetites so as to issue a true and certain command of action. When any virtue fails, we risk failing in other virtues as well. Thus, a cowardly person is unlikely to do his duty in defending his family against an unjust aggressor. Likewise, a wildly gluttonous person is unlikely to meet the duties of his or her state in supporting the poor.10
When it comes to temperance, we are considering a very basic ordering of our internal “desiderative apparatus.” How are our desires related to fitting or non-fitting goods that we grasp in our moral reasoning? Let’s steal an image from Joseph Pieper. Temperance stems the tide of vice and provides a canal within which more important virtues can flow:

“Discipline, moderation, chastity, do not in themselves constitute the perfection of man. By preserving and defending order in man himself, temperantia creates the indispensable prerequisite for both the realization of actual good and the actual movement of man toward his goal. Without it, the stream of the innermost human will-to-be would overflow destructively beyond all bounds; it would lose its direction and never reach the sea of perfection. Yet temperantia is not the stream. But it is the shore, the banks, from whose solidity the stream receives the gift of straight unhindered course, of force, descent, and velocity.”11

Full article at Homiletic and Pastoral Review Magazine.

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