When the Promise Movement Promised too Much

I can’t remember the last time I’d seen a promise ring. Then I met Tom. I noticed his metal band with a cross on it and in curiosity I asked him what it was.

“Oh, it’s a promise ring,” he said. “You know from back when they were…uh…a thing. Before the movement changed and became something else…”

Of course, the chastity promise movement isn’t dead. Every week or two someone forwards a blog to my inbox, usually written by a married guy promising his single fan club relationship happiness if they can just hold out till marriage…or rather, hold it in till marriage.

These pieces usually begin, “When my wife and I were dating we….” and end with, “…so just wait until marriage and you can have a marriage like ours.”

And it’s in these moments when I think the promise movement has promised too much. Sometimes we get excited about an idea and we think that one idea will solve or has solved all our problems. It’s like, “I had ate kale last week and I finished my first marathon.” Kale makes winners. Okay, tell yourself that.

Here are a few of the biggest overpromises I’ve seen with the promise movement.

Just be chaste and you will end up in a great relationship.

Basically this promise says be chaste and then you will find someone amazing. I don’t think that is what chastity is about.

If you decide to live chastity, you are only guaranteed one thing—that you will have a chaste life. Whether you end up in a great relationship or not is apart and sometimes quite unrelated. There are many more factors in relationships than simply sex.

I’ve seen people not live chastely and end up in committed, loving relationships. I’ve seen chaste people age into their late 30s and be miserably single, and I’ve seen the reverse of those both happen. Chastity promises chastity, not a spouse.

I mention it to save yourself from the disappointment of holing up in a moral fortress thinking the shining knight or damsel will appear on the horizon; and then 10 years later you’re still alone in your castle and wondering what happened.

Like begets like. If you live chastely you will become chaste, not Princess Theodora, and you should be happy with that because that is what you wanted. If you want things other than chastity, there are other things you need to do. If you want a date you have to ask someone out. If you want a relationship there is a lot of other work to be done.

Protecting something does not always mean you’ll make the best use of it. Think the parents emphatically telling a teenager not to wreck a car but giving no instruction on how to use a passing lane or high beams. At the end of the day, is the teen a good driver? No. He’s probably actually annoying the heck out of people. Nobody wants to drive in a lane with that person.

If I’m chaste more people will want me.

Frankly, having sex a couple times before marriage isn’t going to minimize your market value in the world of dating. This isn’t 16th century London and you’re not auditioning for the throne of England. The average millennial cares less about your sexual history and more about your ability to be an empathetic listener or ambitious thinker. Young people want mates who listen, communicate, have passions and share their passions. They want people who are changing the world.

It’s not that virtue is out the door. It is just that there are other virtues we esteem more. Whether that’s good or bad is a whole other discussion. It’s just the way it is.

“That guy is really smart, makes great money, has his priorities straight and is Catholic; but he’s not a virgin. I’m not interested,” said almost no girl ever.

“That girl is gorgeous, sexy, empathetic, has a great sense of humor, and is really thoughtful. She’s lived with one of her exes. I’m not interested,” said no sane man ever.

If you decide to live virginity do it for yourself or for God but not for others.

If I’m chaste I’ll be better than other people

Nobody really says that out loud but some can definitely think it. And people judge.

“Did you hear? That couple is living together. They’re doing it all wrong.”

“That guy doesn’t follow Church teaching.”

“That girl gets around. Stay away.”

You know where that leads. At some point you actually find someone you like who has done a great job at life but hasn’t followed your same moral path. Then, you start thinking, “I’m better than this person,” and you probably aren’t because you’re judging; and it ruins the relationship because all the sudden one person is better than the other.

Or you simply become frustrated with your partner because you did all this work living a moral code and they didn’t. You start thinking they owe you in some way or another. You severely limit the number of people you can find companionship with because now few people are good enough from the chastity perspective.

At the end of the day, you may find someone amazing; or, at the end of the day you may still be alone. There is no promised outcome.

“Do not judge (Mt. 7:1),” Jesus said. It is as simple as that.

There are benefits to waiting and holding out on sex but don’t do it for the wrong reason. Do it for yourself. Do it because you believe in it. Do it as a personal sacrifice you want to make. Or do it just to avoid an STD.

Do not do it to rise above society, get a “better” mate, or to replace all the other work that needs to go into a strong dating life or relationship. Chastity is not a cure-all and you’re not going to get the world handed to you by living it. Chastity is simply living chaste.

    John Coakley
    7 Aug 2017
    5:21pm

    John, your conclusions are solid, but your reasoning is flawed in places. For example, aren’t you judging people who believe chastity will lead to an amazing mate right before you tell us not to judge? I agree that I am too judgmental of people’s intentions and circumstances. However, if someone has recently had multiple sexual partners (and the rumors are true), then I would probably be kind to inform my friend that dating him/her is not a great idea as of today – or if they still choose to date/court, to beware of the other person’s recents falls. Nor is this the sin of detraction because I would be warning my friend of the higher probability of a recent (at least materially) gravely wrong act (or even habit) perpetrated by a romantic interest of his/hers. I am also sensitive to the “Do not judge,” counsel because it has been utilized often by moral relativists, myself included when I was younger. Now, if you were to discuss the dangers of judging the intentions and even the circumstances of another person’s choices, I think that approach could yield less ambiguity in the minds of readers. Just as I would not recommend saying simply, “Christ is a man like you and I,” in the fourth century because of Arianism, neither would I recommend saying simply, “Do not judge,” in the twenty-first century because of moral relativism. On the other hand, I admit your advice that chastity will not guarantee a joyful courtship/marriage is spot on.
    I also just finished your book Dating and Other Things Catholic: What Seminary Taught Me About Single Life. I enjoyed it. Reminded me a lot of my transition from religious formation to secular lay life. Cooking dinner always made me nervous because one of the older brothers used to be a chef! 🙂

      John A.
      9 Sep 2017
      4:23pm

      Hi John, thanks for the candid response! Glad you enjoyed the book. It’s hard to make a position clear in less than a 1000 words but agree with you judging and relativism are both bad news. I do believe that chastity has to be lived for itself and not as a means to find someone “better” or convince yourself that by that fact alone you are “better” and deserve more. Thanks for taking the time to read, always enjoy the comments!

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