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The True Meaning of Chastity: Love and Responsibility (Post #21)

Note bene: This blog post includes a quote from the newer translation by Grzegorz Ignatik of Love and Responsibility—this translation is more readable and may be in some ways more faithful to the original, but the blog post author is most familiar with the H.T. Willets translation and that is why it has been used more!

Chastity as Virtue:
Where does chastity fit in the general pursuit of virtue? This is what Wojtyla seeks to answer in this section of Love and Responsibility. Aquinas places chastity under the cardinal virtue of temperance[1], or moderation, by which reason moderates physical drives (for food, drink, and sex). Thus for Aquinas, chastity, as a sub-virtue of moderation, is having control over one’s sensual desire, such that the person is in a more or less permanent state of control (in the will).

Wojtyla asks, is that really the best way to think about chastity? As self-control? No, he argues, “There is no way to comprehend chastity without the virtue of love.”[i] The virtue of chastity cannot only consist in control over one’s impulses, but rather control of “those centres deep within the human being in which the utilitarian attitude is hatched and grows.”[ii] This is much harder, and much easier, than acquiring chastity as moderation. It’s harder because looking at yourself honestly and working to root out self-centeredness and a tendency to use others is the work of a lifetime. And yet, once you engage in this deeper work you are much less likely to fall into particular sins related to lust or emotional manipulation. A virtue makes doing what is right easy and joyful. It becomes “co-natural” and it is no longer a real question or temptation because the will is solidly grounded in the understanding of the value of the person.

Consider pornography, for example. There will always be external temptations to view pornography, but the man or woman who has internalized and gained the virtue of chastity does not experience these temptations in the same way that someone who does not have the virtue does. He or she knows in their mind that pornography degrades a human being, and has chosen with his or her will, over and over again, to reject it, such that pornography loses much of its power.[2]

The Goodness of the Whole Person:
“To be chaste,” Wojtyla writes, “means to have a ‘transparent’ attitude to a person of the other sex… the desire to ‘enjoy’ is subordinated to a readiness to show loving kindness in every situation.”[iii] Wojtyla reiterates that chastity does not mean “artificially banishing the values of the ‘body’ or more generally the values of sex to the subconscious, of pretending that they do not exist or at any rate have no effect.”[iv] That is not a good idea. As Wojtyla notes, this false idea of chastity lends itself to “explosions” of sexual desire after repression.[v] Such repression happens when one sees chastity only as a negative virtue (a “no”), “whereas it is above all the ‘yes’ of which certain ‘no’s’ are the consequence.”[vi] Chastity’s essence is “quickness to affirm the value of the person in every situation and in raising to the personal level all reactions to the value of ‘the body and sex.’”[vii] It doesn’t push down the value of the body and sex, trying to smother it, but rather seeks to integrate its goodness into the knowledge of the goodness of the whole person. As Wendy Shalit wrote about modesty (a sub-virtue of chastity) in A Return to Modesty:

“Whether she decides to have scores of men or none, promiscuous
and prudish women in some sense embrace the same flippant world view,
which one might call the nothing-fazes-me world view. As types, they rep-
resent two sides of the same unerotic coin, which flips over arrogantly and
announces to the world when it lands, “Ha!—I cannot be moved.” Modesty
is prudery’s true opposite, because it admits that one can be moved and
issues a specific invitation for one man to try.”[viii]

If sexual reactions were always bad or undesirable, how could marriage be considered good or holy? “True chastity does not lead to disdain for the body or to disparagement of matrimony and the sexual life,”[ix] Wojytla writes. “That is the result of false chastity, chastity with a tinge of hypocrisy, or, still more frequently, of unchastity.”[x] A person who has not integrated their sexual reactions into a deeper affirmation of the person will see all sexual reactions as ‘dirty.’ “Thus only the chaste man and the chaste woman are capable of true love.”[xi] Chastity frees a couple from using each other and gives them the ability to love in their marital sexual relationship.[xii] This requires maturity of many kinds, since concupiscence remains. “For this reason, chastity is a difficult, long term matter; one must wait patiently for it to bear fruit.”[xiii]

Finally, Wojytla writes about the “humility of the body,” which he asserts is necessary for love.[xiv] “The human body must ‘humble itself’ in face of the magnitude represented by love… subordinate itself [to love].”[xv] Instead of the person striving to satisfy the body’s desires, the chaste person basically says to the body, “Not so fast! This is a person, and he/she is a child of God, destined for heaven.” Thus the body is subordinated to the ultimate happiness of the person. For, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8).

[1] If you need a little refresher, the cardinal virtues are the four “big” virtues, under which other virtues fall. They are prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude.

[2] This is one of the reasons that early exposure to pornography is so harmful to the person—it snatches away, if you will, the innocent period of time when a child sees everyone as a human person first and only later as a sexual body, and makes it that much harder to develop chastity and a proper view of the human person.

[i] Karol Wojtyla. Love and Responsibility (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2013), p. 154.

[ii] Wojtyla, Karol. Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 170.

[iii] Ibid, p. 170.

[iv] Ibid, p. 170.

[v] Ibid, p. 170.

[vi] Ibid, p. 170.

[vii] Ibid, p. 171.

[viii] Wendy Shalit. A Return to Modesty (New York: Touchstone, 1999), p. 182.

[ix] Ibid, p. 171.

[x] Ibid, p. 171.

[xi] Ibid, p. 171.

[xii] Ibid, p. 171.

[xiii] Ibid, p. 172.

[xiv] Ibid, p. 172.

[xv] Ibid, p. 172.

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