Perhaps you have heard the saying, “In all things, Charity.” It comes from St. Augustine in this form. He likely said this because of St. Paul’s treatise on love, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). There is a truth I have come to know through experience and through study: the virtue of chastity is essential to charity — to true human love.
Chaste relationships are loving relationships. Chastity is a foundation of trust and therefore of truth. Chastity is a virtue for everyone, in all walks of life, in all attractions or temptations. Charity is loving God (Who is Love), by loving one another and spreading God’s love. Chastity is embodied Love. It is using our bodies in a way that gives God (again, Who is Love) — in a way that is life-giving, and this giving foments union between human persons and God. True communion is a mutual giving and receiving of love that starts in the heart, is chosen by the will, and is manifested through the body. It is made possible by the Incarnation of the Word — Truth Himself — Jesus Christ. Chastity is living out the redemption won by Jesus: body, soul, and spirit.
Chastity, truth, and charity are essences of Christ, who as the One Incarnate God is one with the Father, through the Holy Spirit. There is no separation; however, we do not speak of the Father’s love as chaste because the Father has no body. God became man in Jesus so that we can be unified with Him, in order to bring us into His divinity. This is called deification, and is spoken of specifically in the second letter of Peter, where he says we are to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). This communion is experienced in earthly life most profoundly through the Sacraments, beginning with Baptism, and through the vocations of service: Holy Orders and Matrimony.
God shares His creative essence and wants us to have all of Him. That is why Jesus gave His whole Self for all of us. That is why He gives Himself truly and substantially through the Sacraments, so that we have abundant life!
Does this seem difficult? Of course it is, because we are fallen; and we are burdened by concupiscence and sin. We live in a challenging world that has many beautiful created things. We over-desire things that are good for us and we too often desire things that are not good for us! But Jesus has redeemed us! It is hard for us to grasp this glorious reality. What does it mean to live the redemption, to live in the grace of God, to partake in the life of the Trinity?
It means to grow and live in the virtue of chastity.
What does chastity look like? First of all, since chastity is consistent with truth, we understand that human nature is both body and spirit. They cannot be separated. One way to think about it is to imagine how the water of the ocean permeates a sunken ship (this analogy falls apart if we were to remove the ship from the water). The soul is the form of the body, and as such, permeates every part of it. What is truly good for the body is good for the soul, and vice versa. (Yes, even coffee!). Therefore what we do with our bodies not only affects our soul, but speaks a language about who we are as unique, spiritual persons.
All healthy people have physical (bodily, sensual) desires for created things such as food and sex; however, these are not just material desires. There is a spiritual aspect of these and all desires of the human person, because we have a longing for connection with others. (For example, there is spiritual fulfillment from a meal with friends versus a meal alone). The virtue of temperance orders our hunger towards fueling our body sufficiently. Similarly, temperance orders our sexual desires towards love. True love is to desire the true good of the beloved. Desire for connection with others causes physical attraction, and stems from a spiritual desire for giving and receiving love. This desire is fulfilled through the body through looks, touches, and other interactions, using the senses. So you see, the soul which has the powers of reason and will has the capacity to make temperate choices for chaste love of others that is fruitful — both spiritually and materially.
How might a married woman practice and grow in the virtue of chastity? A chaste married woman has her sexual desires ordered only towards her husband. Jesus is the center of their loving relationship, especially in their sexuality. A married woman growing in the virtue of chastity doesn’t dabble in anything that would keep her from loving her husband fully and completely. These things, among others, are immodesty, pornography and sexual acts for only pleasure rather than self-giving love. This includes contracepted sexual acts. (If this idea is concerning, consider how wearing a mask inhibits our “knowing” of a person. When we choose contraception we are keeping a part of ourselves hidden; love expressed through intercourse says NO to the beloved’s fertility. I am speaking of an act of the will — the chosen act of contracepted intercourse. It speaks NO to the potential material fruit of the act, which is a co-creation with God). A married woman’s body is not her own, but belongs to her husband through their one-flesh union in marriage. (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:4). He is to love her as he loves and cares for his own body.
Similarly, a chaste married man has his sexual desires ordered only towards his wife. Jesus is the center of their loving relationship, and their union in marriage is most manifest through their sexuality. A married man growing in the virtue of chastity doesn’t dabble in anything (see above) that would keep him from loving his wife fully and completely. He rejects any sexual act for gratification that does not involve a potentially fruitful union with his wife. His body is not his own, but belongs to his wife through their one-flesh union in marriage. The Sacrament of Marriage constitutes chaste love between husband and wife in which they grow together towards their goal of Heaven (the beatific vision), and they are sanctified through their embrace, always willingly accepting the resulting fruitfulness. Notice that chastity in marriage is not abstinence. Chastity in marriage is the freedom in the will to love through the body with periodic continence or intercourse.
Chastity for a consecrated celibate (foregoing marriage) person (man or woman) requires the giving up the material intimacy of sexuality. For example, a chaste priest has his sexual desires ordered to love of the entire Church, as Christ gave Himself up for her. His vow of celibacy is giving up the bodily use of his sexuality to love others, i.e., ”giving it up for the Kingdom” (cf. Mt 19:12). It is a higher purpose and a higher calling that furthers the spiritual communion between Christ and the People of God. A chaste priest growing in the virtue of chastity doesn’t dabble in anything that would keep him from loving his parish family fully and completely, or participate in any unchaste act that would violate his vow of chastity through celibacy, or place him in the near occasion of sin. This includes flirting, use of pornography, masturbation, and any friendships, male or female, that take him away from his service to others through his vocation. He rejects any and all forms of sexual pleasure and anything that takes his complete gift of self away from his bride, the Church.
No matter what state we are in life — married, single, or consecrated celibacy — if we look at violations of the virtue of chastity as “no problem” or “just a little thing” we inhibit our ability to grow in Christlike love for others. We are all called to love like Jesus. Of course we fail — everyday we fail. To this truth St. Paul said “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Even Jesus fell three times as He carried the Cross for us. Jesus picks us up when we fall and makes us better than before! Through the great Sacrament of Reconciliation we encounter Christ Himself and His healing grace.
“The more things change the more they stay the same,” goes the old adage. This isn’t more true than with human sexuality. Everyone wants fulfillment and we all have desires. Our goal as Christians is to grow in virtue and become more like Jesus Christ, through His Word and Sacraments. When we do this, our bodies grow into a living Sacrament, a sign of God’s love for His people. With His grace, we grow in the virtue of chastity, and thus a pure love that images the love of Christ for His people.