When you’re in a new relationship, the subject of boundaries can (and should!) come up. But far too often when we think about the subject of chastity, we think of it as something that keeps us from having fun. We may approach boundaries in a relationship by thinking “How far is too far?” or “Will I have to go to confession after this?” But if we’re asking ourselves these questions, we need to reassess what the virtue of chastity really is.
Some will say that chastity is an old-fashioned thing of the past. Others believe that as long as you don’t have sex with someone before the wedding band is on your finger, you’re practicing chastity. But neither of those polarized positions encourage conversation about the virtue of chastity.
Perhaps the best way chastity can be understood is by examining what the virtue isn’t. Although this isn’t an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, here are five things that chastity is not:
1. Chastity isn’t old-fashioned
In a world of hook ups and hanging out, promoting the virtue of chastity can get you labeled as “old fashioned” or a “prude”. Mention the virtue on your first date and your lover may think of chastity pledge cards, chastity belts, and lectures their parents gave them. Today’s culture defines our freedom as men or women by how many people we have slept with.
But we also live in a world where men and women can’t ask each other out on dates anymore.
The Church has long taught the importance of the virtue in the lives of men and women striving for Heaven. Pope Pius XII wrote: “The virtue of chastity does not mean that we are insensible to the urge of concupiscence, but that we subordinate it to reason and the law of grace, by striving wholeheartedly after what is noblest in human and Christian life.”
We need chastity as a virtue today more than ever. It’s not a virtue that should be left to our grandparent’s generation. Instead, practicing chastity can improve our relationship with ourselves, with the Lord, and with others.
2. Chastity isn’t just for teenagers
When we think about chastity, the virtue can often be misunderstood as something that rowdy teenagers need to keep in mind during prom season. We know that teenagers shouldn’t be unchaste in their relationships, but what about those of us who are past the teenage years?
People of all ages (and vocations!) are called to practice the virtue of chastity. We shouldn’t be chaste because we want to avoid pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Rather, we should strive for chastity because God calls us to a greater appreciation of the human person.
While we can start to form this worldview from a young age, the virtue of chastity is one we should strive for throughout the course of our entire life. Whether we are 16 or 46, fertile or infertile, grown up or trying to figure out those teenage years, the Church calls us to a life of virtue, which allows us see each other as a gift.
“Self-mastery is a long and exacting work,” we read in the Catechism. “One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.”
3. Chastity isn’t a virtue because our bodies are bad
Some believe that Catholics are encouraged to live a chaste life because the Church thinks that the sex and the body are evil or dirty. But that is a complete misunderstanding of the Catholic view of sexuality. “While the world believes that Catholics hate and fear sex, the truth is even more scandalous,” writes Dr. Greg Popcak in his book Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving. “The truth is that the Catholic Church celebrates and esteems sex more than any other faith.”
4. Chastity isn’t just about sex (it’s about sexuality)
Another lie the culture feeds us is that chastity is just about not having sex. But to say that chastity is a virtue that regulates when and where we should make love sells the virtue of chastity short. Chastity isn’t just about sex – it’s a virtue that values the wholeness of our sexuality as men and women. While lust teaches us to view each other as a sum of our parts, chastity encourages us to view each other as men and women with minds, souls, and bodies.
“Catholic sexuality is really all about communication of the whole person with another – with all that means,” Dr. Popcak writes. “To be an Infallible Lover means to be committed to becoming a healthy, faithful person who knows how to communicate the fullness of his or her being to another healthy, faithful person. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate a sexuality based on such a reality?”
“Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being,” the Catechism reads. “Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.”
5. Chastity isn’t just for before the wedding
Because there is a misconception that chastity is only about sex, it can be easy to think that chastity is something you don’t need after the wedding altar. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
God calls people of all ages to live a life of chastity. However, God also calls people of all vocations to strive for the virtue of chastity as well.
Marriage isn’t where chastity ends – in fact, marriage offers many opportunities to continue the practice of chastity. A wedding ring does not offer immunity against the danger of thinking of your spouse as something to use instead of someone to love.
So what does it take to become an infallible lover in a marriage? “It takes a commitment to be a whole and healthy person,” Dr. Popcak continues. “That doesn’t mean that you have to have achieved total health and wholeness, just that you need to be striving for it and willing to see it in your sexual relationship, not just as a thing to do, but mainly as a expression of who you are.”