Originally Published in The Catholic Thing
How do we explain the sexual relations between a man and a woman in their most original meaning unsullied by cultural distortions and lustful imaginings? We might start with something that John Paul II once said: “Only the chaste man and the chaste woman are capable of true love.”
But given widespread ignorance – even among Catholics – about what it means to be chaste, we need a full definition: “Chastity is the virtue which excludes or moderates the indulgence of the sexual appetite.” (J. Melody)
To unpack this saying, we have to start from the fact that “the goal of [all of] creation is the covenant, the love story of God and man.” (J. Ratzinger) Every activity in creation is under the sovereignty of God either moving towards fulfilling the “love story between God and man” or polluting it. Furthermore, the covenant means that: “True surrender to God [consists] in the union of man and creation with God.”
There is a wide range of such “surrenders,” ranging from things as simple as honestly focusing on another person in a conversation to giving alms to sacrificing oneself for another person. And it is ultimately what sex is all about.
The surrender of the man to the woman, and vice versa, is a concrete instance of a created union – in accordance with created nature – that confirms God’s covenant with his people and the creation of the whole world in love. (And you thought that it was just about you and your spouse.)
This is not love as lust, but real love. As John Paul said to a World Youth Day crowd: “Yes, through that love which is born in you – and wishes to become a part of your whole plan of life – you must see God who is love.”
There is much relevant to the meaning of marriage here. True self-surrender between human beings involves a permanent union in love, otherwise it is not true. Further: “It means emerging from the state of separation, of apparent autonomy and existing only for oneself and in oneself.” (Ratzinger) In our society, this is almost entirely unnoticed – and unencouraged. We have so focused on individual happiness that emerging from oneself virtually makes no sense to many people, even though it involves several crucial kinds of development intrinsic to human nature, as one begins to master oneself.
Kids are only at the start of the road to chaste “self-mastery [which is] long and exacting work.” (CCC) One grows by learning what is true, developing a conscience, learning real, respectful intersubjectivity, and more, very much more. In a culture of self-absorption, the typical person will not allow himself to be guided into these paths of burgeoning humanity.
Sexuality is the human power that indicates that this man and this woman, who have souls, also belong to the world of material things. But this man and woman are not livestock – as much modern thinking, despite romantic pretensions to the contrary, would have them be. Beyond their instincts, they mate in the covenant.
Moreover, a life of chastity “blossoms in friendship.” Working at friendship “shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends.” (CCC) The “him” here is, of course, Jesus Christ. Modern liberalism is profoundly secular, so the “him” it usually follows is some promiscuous, self-indulgent political figure or movie star.
Sadly, few people learn how to be friends. Witness all the unhappy families, broken and violent, because people cannot relate in loving respectful ways. But their tragedy does not define the value of friendship down. Friendship is part of the covenant, much as the laws that Moses passed on from God: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 4:1) God knows how he designed our natures and how they best unfold.
Interestingly, Israel repeatedly forgot and had to re-learn from God, just as we do, to find out who we are so as to live in the full sense of that word. Such learning and re-learning does not start over at zero for each person (the anarchist view) – or at least should not. Authentic human living is already known to some extent; if not from the natural law or from revelation in our benighted age, then at least from mere common sense.
It’s strange that so many clergy and religious have themselves arbitrarily and sinfully recast the understanding of human sexuality and mores. Some clergy even play down the seriousness of sexual issues in the confessional. Why?
The chaste individual chooses a life moving towards union in the covenant either as a chaste individual (single life) or in a chaste married union with someone of the opposite sex. The Church and the extended community need chaste people. They have purer motives. They know how to love. They are part of something larger than themselves.
Since American culture no longer even understands chastity, the Church and Christian families have to do much more to show the significance of the chaste life for healthy individuals and a healthy society. (It says a great deal that most Catholic schools could not even begin to deal with this issue to save their lives.)
Pure people, or people really working at being pure can and ought to teach others, “make [it] known to your children and to your children’s children.” (Deuteronomy 4:9) Our existence literally depends on it.