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Chastity and Eternal Life
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The clearest teaching of our faith on the necessity of chastity for attaining eternal life is in Christ's sermon on the mount. He is telling his followers that the Old Testament prohibition of adultery is not enough. If we wish to reach heaven we must not only control our bodies, we must master even our minds.
Christian Chastity, therefore, requires that we avoid anything that would be a source of irresistible temptation to lust, says our Lord:
If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell (Matthew 5:29-30).
In order to gain eternal life, therefore, we must practice chastity, including custody of the eyes and modesty of our sense of touch.
All our conferences so far have assumed what I think needs to be made more explicit. Either we practice chastity here on earth or we shall not reach heaven in the life to come.
Enemies of Eternal Life
If we are going to understand the need for chastity to reach heaven, we must realize that not everyone believes this. In fact, over the centuries this has been one of the main tests of authentic Christianity. In our day, whole schools of thought have risen that water down and even deny Christs uncompromising teaching.
Situation Ethics is only one brand of moral heresy that has deeply pervaded Western society.
One of the leading spokesmen for situation ethics, whose writings have reached millions, simply declares:
Jesus said nothing about birth control, large or small families, childlessness, homosexuality, masturbation, fornication or premarital intercourse, sterilization, artificial insemination, abortion, sex play, petting, and courtship. Whether any form of sex (hetero, homo, or auto) is good or evil depends on whether love is fully served.
The philosophy of situation ethics has become part of our national, in fact international culture. It is now one of the principles of the business world. The potency of sex as a sales promoter is no longer used by the advertising industry as a mere eye stopper.
Professional psychologists have explored the sexual emotions of men and women. Hired by the business industry, they have revolutionized advertising beyond anything conceivable even a generation ago, The annual cost of advertising in the United States has risen from less than six billion dollars in 1950 to one hundred and forty billion by the mid-nineties. Much of this ocean of wealth is being spent to sell people what they do not need with money they do not have, by appealing to their debased sexual instincts.
The exploration of venereal pleasure has penetrated the precincts of Christianity. When Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968, the bishops' conferences of many Western countries disclaimed the binding authority of the papal teaching. The French hierarchy declared that "this document does not have the character of infallibility." Similar statements were made by the Belgian, Canadian, and German hierarchies. All began with the principle that, since Humanae Vitae was not a solemn definition, its prohibition of contraception was not "unchangeable" (Belgium), did "not demand the absolute assent of faith" (Canada), was a "temporary, doctrinal decision" (Germany).
Is it any wonder that professedly Catholic moralists are now writing about the sacrament of marriage as though chastity was a remnant of preconciliar theology. They are asking why the Church "should prevent homosexual men and women from entering into lifetime commitments." They are saying, "We should encourage, not discourage, lifetime commitments of love from the ordained and from the homosexuals" (Rethinking Sacraments, 145).
We began this section of our conference with the strange title "Enemies of Eternal Life.'' The title makes sense only on the premise that divine revelation prescribes chastity as a condition for entering eternal life. Saint Paul warned the Ephesians that, "Among you there must be not even a mention of fornication or impurity in any of its forms of promiscuity." Indeed, nobody who actually indulges in fornication or impurity or promiscuity which is worshipping a false god can inherit anything of the Kingdom of God" (Ephesians 5:3,5).
The language may seem strained, but the reality is part of our fiat. Without chastity there is not heavenly eternity.
The Price of Eternal Life
No one who understands Christianity has any doubt that reaching heaven is demanding on human nature. The Savior tells us:
Enter by the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many there are who enter that way. How narrow the gate and close the way that leads to life! And few there are who find it (Matthew 7:13-14).
Christ tells us that we are His followers if we carry our daily cross. During His three years' ministry in Palestine, He never minimized the cost He would have to pay if we wish to reach our heavenly destiny.
In His closing discourse before entering the Passion, He spelled out explicitly who would be called to "come possess the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." It will be those who during their stay on earth had loved others with selfless generosity.
As we have seen, in one conference after another, the heart of Christian chastity is the practice of unselfish charity. Every sin against chastity is an indulgence in selfishness.
Consequently, when we speak of the price of chastity, we are really talking about the price of selfless charity.
Perceptive writers in the Christian tradition have never minimalized the power of the sex instinct in our fallen human nature. They describe the sexual act as, in a sense, the central act of the body. We might almost say it is the awakening of our corporeal nature, otherwise asleep. It represents the most vital and most intense experience of which the human body is capable. It is the only experience in which all of our bodily powers are brought into action at the same time. Sex represents the greatest power latent in our bodily human nature.
We do not often quote poets in our reflection on Christian chastity, but I think it is worth quoting Chaucer to illustrate the naturally uncontrollable force of the sex impulse.
We dare not dismiss these words of the master of English poetry as the exaggeration of rhetoric, they are the common verdict of human history.
The price of eternal life is high. And the reason is because human nature is so naturally prone to lust. In order to master this tendency of our fallen humanity we must be ready to make any sacrifice which God demands of us.
What makes it so difficult to preserve our chastity is that the world in which we live no longer believes that venereal pleasure, outside of marriage, is morally wrong. In fact it believes just the opposite. Chastity in the vocabulary of modern man is emotional stifling and psychological repression.
Yet, there is nothing which the world more needs than the witness of a chaste life inspired by a deep faith in Jesus Christ.
Preoccupation with sex has reached an all time high in the Western world. The writings of Freud are twenty volumes of analysis into every kind of sexual aberration. Critics like Julian Huxley testify to the extent to which sex has almost become identified with modern culture and the advancement of sex pleasure a standard of modern progress.
Secular psychologists claim that withholding knowledge about sex has led to the discredit of religion and the outlawing of God.
Learned books used in prestigious universities are saying in thousands of pages that we must revise our whole philosophy about sex. They say that since men and women today are so constantly and consistently breaking through the morals of sex, we must reappraise the whole structure of Christian ethics and revise its outmoded standard. Of particular concern are the sexual habits of unmarried youth.
Over the centuries of Christian history there have been advocates of sexual license. In fact, I dare make a statement that I have not used in our whole course of conferences on Christian chastity. All the departures from Catholic Christianity; every break with Catholic unity, every exodus from union with the Church founded by Christ has been occasioned by the scandal of the Saviors teaching on chastity.
But something dreadfully new has entered our society. It is nothing less than a sexual revolution. The conflict now is not between human passion and an objective code of morals, sanctioned by two thousand years of Christian morality. It is now a conflict between the legal and social restraints imposed by a stodgy religious culture and the newly discovered spirit of liberty. This Freedom seeks only the maximum of sex pleasure before and after and outside of marriage, and is willing to break through any barriers to find gratification.
The net effect of ignoring moral values has been to fill the atmosphere with a deluge of sex magazines and books, movies and television, and all the means of communication. This incessant pressure places superhuman demands on the virtue of men and women who still believe in the Decalogue and hold that Christ was not a dreamer when He enjoined restraint of the passions even in the secret thoughts of one's heart.
However. the most serious aspect of this sex revolution is not the amount of pornography or the ease which it is propagated. The worst feature is the complacency that a radical change of moral climate finds among the people and the difficulty of getting the State to convict anyone who is making a fortune on his neighbors concupiscence.
Implicit in the rise of this sexual epidemic is the denial of original sin which, by definition, means that we have lost our dominance of the passions and therefore the sex urge should be controlled rather than stimulated for the pleasure it gives.
Even more fundamental is the practical denial of a life after bodily death. Unless you believe that our behavior on earth is a condition for our happiness in eternity, why should anyone be concerned about sexual restraint or the practice of chastity?
Saint Alphonsus Liguori has written that, in his judgment, most of the souls in hell are there because of unrepentant sins against chastity.
As we are speaking on the price of eternal life, it is worth reminding ourselves that the alternative is eternal death. Saint Ignatius Loyola had lived an unchaste life before his conversion. A large part of his conversion was due to his fear of losing his soul. In the Spiritual Exercises which he wrote during his year of repentant seclusion in the cave of Manresa, he made sure that those who wish to follow Christ first reflect on the justice of God in punishing sinners who do not repent.
In the first week of the Exercises, Ignatius proposes a meditation on hell, which comes in several parts:
First Prelude: This is a representation of the place. Here it will be to see in imagination the length, breadth, and depth of hell.
Second Prelude: I shall ask for what I desire. Here it will be to beg for a deep sense of the pain which the lost suffer, that if because of my faults I forget the love of the eternal Lord, at least the fear of these punishments will keep me from falling into sin.
Our present conference is on "Chastity and Eternal Life." It could just as well be on "Unchastity and Eternal Death." The experience of directors of souls has been uniform. The single deepest problem of most young people and adults in our country is with chastity.
Having said this, one important conclusion follows. The weakest word I could use is to speak of the price" of eternal life. In our sex-intoxicated culture, the price of maintaining one's chastity is nothing less than a living martyrdom. I mean this literally. Ordinary adolescents will not survive the demonic pressure on their purity. Ordinary men and women will not survive, ordinary priests and bishops will not survive. Ordinary religious will not survive. Nothing less than heroic chastity is necessary, and the price of heroism is a deep faith, even at the sacrifice of one's life, in Christ's teaching that only the pure of heart shall see God.
The Joys of Eternal Life
Before we conclude this conference, the last of our series on chastity, one thing should be made clear. Eternal life is not only heavenly beatitude with God. It is fullness of life which the believer possesses already here and now through participation in the life of God.
If there is one thing that our Lord stresses in the Gospels it is the joy that we are to experience, not only in heaven but also here on earth.
It all began at Bethlehem, when the angels first appeared to the shepherds watching their flock. When they saw him they were terrified. So he told them, "Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people" (Luke 2:10).
It was all explained in great detail by the Savior at the Sermon on the Mount, when He taught the disciples of all future ages what we commonly call the beatitudes, but that could more literally be called the eight-fold path to happiness. In plain language, Christ assured the happiness here and now, and not only in heaven later on, to all who believe in him strongly enough to take Him at His word. The beatitudes bring happiness infallibly, provided they are taken seriously and put into practice literally,
Then at the Last Supper, Christ went out of His way to tell us of the joy that awaits us if only we listen to His teaching.
If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in His love. I have told you this that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete (John 15:11).
Saint Paul understood this well. He often exhorted the Christians to spiritual joy and warned them against sadness and worry of any kind. "1 want you to be happy," he insisted, "always happy in the Lord. I repeat, what I want is your happiness" (Philippians 4:4).
To be strongly emphasized is that this joy is not absolute but conditional. The condition is the faithful following of Christ. If we are faithful, we shall be happy in our practice of fidelity; if we are not, we cannot expect God to keep His part of the covenant unless we keep ours. Moreover, we can establish a proportion: the more faithful we are, the more joyful we shall be, since there can be no spiritual joy without sacrifice.
On these premises, we can make this unqualified declaration. Only chaste people are happy people, no one else is. Our spiritual joy depends on our chastity. Of course this requires sacrifice. We must sacrifice not only unlawful sexual pleasure. We may have to sacrifice friendships that are a danger to our virtue. We may have to give up many things that the world offers us as a substitute for the joy that only God can give.
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