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The Nature of Marriage Blog: Chastity

Posted Mar. 6, 2020 by DOM No comments yet

Chastity: The Married and the Single Person

What is chastity? Some think that to be chaste means simply to abstain from sex or sexual behavior. This misunderstanding perhaps stems from the fact that we most often hear about chastity vis-à-vis our dating relationships, wherein practicing chastity means to restrain our sexual desires out of respect for our partner and out of respect for the gift of sexuality itself. Or, we might even have been led to be believe that sex in itself is wrong and dirty. However, while chastity certainly involves bodily restraint, chastity is much more than just bodily restraint, and chastity in no way supposes that sex is bad.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that Chastity is “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (CCC, 2337). The Catechism continues and explains that chastity protects the powers of love and life (see CCC, 2338). In other words, the virtue of chastity helps us protect ourselves and others since it frees us to live our sexuality according to our state in life.

All people, whether they are single, dating, married, or consecrated (lay or religious), are called to a life of chastity. Married integrated sexuality first by respecting themselves and God’s design for marriage. They live their individual gifts of sexuality by generously giving of themselves to each other as they vowed—faithfully, permanently, and open to life. Spouses protect the unitive and procreative nature of the conjugal embrace by keeping it whole and holy.  That means that they reject contraception, sterilization, and abortion. When needed, chaste married couples use Natural Family Planning (NFP) to attempt to either achieve a pregnancy or postpone one. The chaste married couple mutually grows in their respect for each other, cherishes their gifts of sexuality and fertility, and never violate each other, their marriage, or God’s gifts. Chaste married couples reject anything that would harm these gifts adultery, contraception, abuse of any kind, including pornography.

Clearly, then, the virtue of chastity is not merely a prohibition against sex, or else married people would be called to a life of abstinence! Rather, chastity is the right ordering of our inherently sexual nature and the proper expression of sexuality in our everyday lives. But you might be thinking: What about unmarried people? What does it mean for single people to integrate their sexuality in life without engaging in sexual acts? Indeed, one might object that to integrate sexuality into one’s life without engaging in sexual acts presupposes the very definition of chastity that we are rejecting: if “integration” for single people just means “not being sexual,” then to be chaste must mean, simply, to abstain from sex.

However, this objection assumes that the terms “sexuality” and “sexual acts,” have the same meaning, limiting the scope of sexuality to mere genital expression. As Dr. Theresa Notare, the assistant director of the bishops’ NFP Program notes,

“Today’s culture insists that genital activity is the most important aspect of human sexuality. This view holds that people have a need to be satisfied genitally in whatever manner makes them happy….This utilitarian view of human sexuality and sexual relations sees human sexuality as limited to the genital and treats the sexual partner as nothing more than an object to be used. It offers a greatly diminished understanding of human nature.”

Put differently, we must not assume that to be sexual means to engage in sexual activity. All people belong to one sex or the other; all people are born male or female. To be a man or to be a woman is to live one’s sexuality. If we grant that our sex influences the way that we think, act, and relate to other people, then our biological sex is integral to the way we behave in our daily lives. If we consider that human beings are by nature social creatures that seek community with others, then we see that there is an inextricable link between how we fulfill this aspect of human nature with the fact that human beings are essentially gendered. In the context of our social nature, the biological reality of sex and procreation takes on a deeper meaning. Notare is helpful again on this point: “Within the context of human nature, pro-creation also speaks of our need to be in relation to each other–to build family, to have community. If we hope to live in a sexually mature way, our basic challenge in life is to integrate our sexual feelings with all other aspects of being human.”

This emphasis on the interpersonal aspect of human sexuality is what Karol Wojtyla deemed a personalistic approach rather than a sexological approach to sexual ethics. By personalistic sexuality, Wojtyla means that sexuality is, primarily, a term for the relation between the sexes; the conjugal act itself is understood in context of the former.[4] By contrast, the sexological approach to sexual ethics places the conjugal act at the heart and center: we understand human nature in terms of sex, not sex in terms of human nature. This personalistic expression of our sexuality is especially clear if we remember that the virtue of chastity should be understood in relation to theological virtue of charity or love. Love is not merely a sensual or psychological phenomenon whereby we desire another person insofar as they give us pleasure. Rather, love is willing the good of another and seeing them as a whole person in themselves, not as an object for us.

By understanding sexuality as, primarily, a social relation between people of the opposite sex, we can see how the single person’s sexuality is no less than the married person’s. It is tempting to think of marriage as the fulfillment or culmination of sexuality, that everyone’s sexuality is incomplete or lacking until it finds expression in the conjugal act. This is not true. It is especially important for the single person to realize that their sexuality is not diminished because they cannot have sex. The single person’s sexuality is not merely a diminished or immature form of married sexuality. Rather, the single person’s sexuality is good in itself because it is an expression of the more fundamental reality of sexuality: the interpersonal relation between men and women. Without downplaying the significance of the marital union, getting married and having sex is just one way of expressing this interpersonal relation.

For the single person, every time you treat someone of the opposite sex with kindness and respect—that is a chaste expression of your sexuality. Every time you express your unique, God-given strengths and gifts (especially in a way that benefits your community)—that is a chaste expression of your sexuality. Every time you thank God for your sex and revere the different but complementary aspects of men and women—that is a chaste expression of your sexuality.

[1] By “unmarried,” I mean dating or even engaged couples, as well as lay or religious people who have taken vows of celibacy. While the vow of celibacy is a unique way of expressing the call to chastity (in effect, one consecrates his/her life to a nuptial relationship with God), and while the celibate person practices chastity in an importantly different way from the single person who hopes to marry, the broader question with which I am concerned is: what does it mean to be a sexual person while abstaining from sex?

[2] Theresa Notare, “Sex and the Single Person,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, April 3, 1998, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/abortion/sex-and-the-single-person.cfm)

[3] Notare, “Sex and the Single Person.

[4] Karol Wojtyla, “The Problem of Catholic Sexual Ethics,” in Person and Community: Selected Essays, vol. 4 (Peter Lang, 1993), 282.

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

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What is Sacramental Marriage?

Posted Jan. 17, 2020 by DOM 2 comments

Sacramental Marriage

In the last post, we discussed marriage as a natural institution. We explained how marriage is rooted in human nature—meaning that marriage is not a purely conventional, political, or social institution, but a natural one; one that human beings are made for.[1] In today’s post, we are going to build upon our discussion of natural marriage, looking specifically at the Catholic Church’s teachings on both natural marriage and sacramental marriage—marriage between two baptized Christians, elevated by Christ to the level of a Sacrament.

Recall from our last post that marriage is a natural institution because it is a practice instituted by nature itself. If we believe that God is the author of nature, then it is God who created the human being to be the kind of being that procreates sexually and whose offspring require parental involvement for their entire lives. Therefore, by creating man and woman in this way, it is God who instituted marriage. Marriage is written into His plan for creation, “written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC, 1603).[2] Further, the Catholic Church teaches that God created the natural institution of marriage to be permanent. This is simply an acknowledgment of what love means—we do not say “I love you until the end of the month,” but rather “I love you forever.” This is why the Catholic Church recognizes even the marriages of non-baptized men and women as valid, lifelong, and binding, as long as certain basic elements are present. Why must all valid marriages be regarded as lifelong and binding? The natural impulse to marry is inextricably linked to the procreation and education of children. Children have the natural right to know their parents. So, it follows that a lack of permanence in marriage would do harm to the children.

It is in virtue of marriage’s natural permanence that the Catholic Church rejects the practice of divorce. The Church follows what Jesus Christ says about marriage in the gospels.  In response to the Pharisees, who ask him whether a man is ever permitted to divorce his wife, Jesus says,  “from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and … the two shall become one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder” (Mk 10:5-9; cf. Mt 19:4-9; Lk 16:18). Here, Jesus tells us (1) that divorce goes against the natural order of creation and God’s plan for mankind, and (2) that marriage is permanent, in accordance with the natural law— “what God has separated let not man put asunder.” Of course, divorce is a complicated topic that deserves a more detailed discussion than this post allows, but don’t worry: we will re-visit it in another post!

Now, Catholics not only believe that God instituted natural marriage, but also that Christ elevated the natural institution of marriage to a sacrament, into a sign of His love for His Bride, the Church, and a source of sanctifying grace. Through the sacraments we receive in our soul the supernatural life of Christ and are helped on our journey to heaven. Now, the graces conferred in each Sacrament differ with respect to the ends of the Sacrament received. As such, the sacrament of marriage infuses the spouses with graces that are “intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity” (CCC, 1641). Jesus makes marriage a vehicle for grace, and “the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life” (CCC, 1661).  A quality willed by God from the beginning (permanence) takes on a new meaning—pointing to the union of Christ and the Church. As Cardinal Müller explains, “Through the sacrament, the indissolubility of marriage acquires a new and deeper sense: it becomes the image of God’s enduring love for his people and of Christ’s irrevocable fidelity to his Church.”[3] In other words, the marital relationship is modeled on the relationship between Christ and his Church, and the love of the spouses reflects the love that God has for us. It is no mere reflection, however. The marital relationship, enriched by its special gifts and graces, is “merged with the divine” and uniquely manifests and participates in God’s divine love.

While not diminishing the importance and beauty of the spousal relationship in itself, we must remember that this intimate spousal relationship is essentially ordered to the procreation of children. The husband and wife unite totally in the conjugal relationship, body and soul. This is another way that the marital relationship is “merged with the divine”: to be open to life is to participate in God’s own love and creative work. The spouses’ openness to children is an expression of their love for each other and of their cooperation in God’s design. In this way, we see that the natural purposes of marriage, the good of the spouses and the begetting of offspring, take on new meanings when elevated to the level of a sacrament; aided by grace, the married couple, by loving and giving themselves to each other, participate in the love of God himself.

[1] See  “Why is Marriage a Natural Institution?”

[2] All references to the Catechism taken from: Catechism of the Catholic Church, Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops–Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000.

[3] Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller . Testimony to the Power of Grace: On the Indissolubility of Marriage and the Debate Concerning the Civilly Remarried and the Sacraments. Vatican: the Holy See. Rome, 23 Oct. 1965. Web.

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

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What is a Natural Institution? Why is Marriage One?

Posted Dec. 18, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

Why is Marriage a Natural Institution?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, marriage is “written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC, 1603). [1] If this is true; if marriage is written in the nature of the human being, then despite the many variations that the institution has undergone throughout history, “These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics.”[2] Marriage’s basis is not in history, then, but in our God-given human nature. That means that marriage cannot be a purely conventional, political, or social institution, but a natural one. In this post, we are going to examine what it means for something to be a natural institution and why marriage is one.

Recall from our last three posts that the word “nature” is said in different ways. [3] We can talk about the whole world of nature and all the natural things that make it up. In this sense, we contrast natural things with artificial ones. Or, we can talk about the inherent natures of living things and the behaviors or activities that derive from and fulfill a thing’s nature. When considering whether a behavior or activity is natural, we must always look to the nature of the thing engaging in that activity. Remember our potato-chip eating beaver? With this refresher, we are now going to see how an institution can be natural.

The word institution has two different senses. Sometimes, it means an establishment such as a school or a financial organization. But it also means a practice or custom that has become thoroughly integrated into society. For example, the annual televised reveal of Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day is considered by many to be a “national institution.” If someone were to try to cancel this event, there would be widespread objection. These two senses of “institution” mean that something has been established or put in place, and that we consider it to be important.

Now, both the financial organization and Groundhog Day are what we could call conventional institutions; a human being (or many human beings) started them and put them in place. On the other hand, to call something a natural institution implies that the institution was established or put in place by nature, not people.  Now, remember that when considering if a behavior or activity is natural, we must consider the nature of the subject which undergoes the activity. An institution likewise is evaluated according to its subjects. The subject of marriage is, of course, the human being; I argue here that marriage is a practice that is rooted in and also fulfills human nature. This is why we say marriage is a natural institution.

Aristotle explains in his Politics[4] why the impulse to marry is a natural one. Men and women, like all other animals, desire sexual union with one another. This desire goes hand-in-hand with the fact that men and women in partnerships take care of each other and look out for one another. Each bring different strengths to their relationship that make their individual lives better. They help each other to live a good life. Of course, when a man and a woman become one in the sexual union, they have the potential to create new life. To nurture, protect, and educate their offspring is another natural impulse of the male-female relationship. This impulse is, of course, present not only in men and women, but also in most animals to various degrees. So, insofar as human beings are animals, they are inclined to sexual union and inclined to care for their offspring.

At this point one might object: but what do these things have to do with marriage? No other animal declares its love before a priest or a judge! And what about things like marriage licenses, wedding rings, and wedding ceremonies? It seems like people had to make a conscious decision to institute these practices, so they can’t be natural. St. Thomas is helpful in answering this question. He says:

…the begetting of offspring is common to all animals. Yet nature does not incline thereto in the same way in all animals; since there are animals whose offspring are able to seek food immediately after birth, or are sufficiently fed by their mother; and in these there is no tie between male and female…; In man, however, since the child needs the parents’ care for a long time, there is a very great tie between male and female, to which tie even the generic nature inclines…[5]

The institution of marriage arose in men and women in virtue of the complex and long-lasting needs of human children. Human beings are born in an incredible state of vulnerability; They cannot even walk on their own two feet for almost a year. Their demands are intense and constant. It does not take a highly developed intelligence to discern that human children need their parents.[6] Penguin mates do not get married, but neither do their children expect to move back in with them after college. Further, while it is true that people created and instituted certain marriage customs, we might say that these customs are actually just the expression or manifestation of a much more basic and foundational reality: the impulse to marry rooted in human nature. The customs surrounding a wedding are accidental to the essence of marriage. So, while the institution of matrimony and its various customs does not simply arise through nature, it is because of the human being’s rational and free nature that the institution exists.

Can you think of other examples of natural institutions? Stay tuned for our next post on the sacrament of matrimony!

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1603. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops–Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Part One; Part Two; Part Three

[4] Politics I.1.1253a30.

[5] ST Suppl., 41, Ad.1, Co.

[6] Children raised in intact married families are more likely to attend college, are physically and emotionally healthier, are less likely to be physically or sexually abused, less likely to use drugs or alcohol and to commit delinquent behaviors, have a decreased risk of divorcing when they get married, are less likely to become pregnant/impregnate someone as a teenager, and are less likely to be raised in poverty. (“Why Marriage Matters: 26 Conclusions from the Social Sciences,” Bradford Wilcox, Institute for American Values, www.americanvalues.org/html/r-wmm.html)

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

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