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Moral Theology

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Chapter IX
Sex and Chastity

by John A. Hardon, S.J.

It is not a new thing for Christianity to be accused of trying to take the fun out of life, especially in matters of sex, by upholding taboos which are simply contradictory to human nature. The pagan contemporaries of the early Christians scoffed at their insistence on premarital chastity and marital fidelity, and more than one martyr in the first centuries was a victim of what we now understand to have been acts of sadism. Exercise of power by individuals and groups was often associated with a wanton cruelty that had its origins in sexual pleasure heightened by causing others to have pain.

In the neo-pagan renascence of the twelfth and thirteen centuries, poets were suggesting that the only hope of indulging the passions was to ignore the Christian norms, and, in rising crescendo, writers who advocate sexual license have been saying the same thing ever since. "Continence, mysticism, melancholia – three new infirmities introduced by Christ," was written in 1935. And about thirty years later Swinberne wrote the blasphemy, "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey with thy breath."

Present-day literature is eloquent in extolling the cultus of sex, to a point that no aspect of human life, no phase of human activity has been left untouched by the mystic symbol of carnal intercourse. Students of history believe we have come to the age of eroticism, in which every science and art is interpreted as an expression of the sex urge, and the most sacred relations of family and social living are construed in terms of the libido. "Condemnation of all fornication," Bertrand Russell complained, "was a novelty in the Christian religion." He regretted the innovation and excoriated the faith which brought such inhuman repression on a biological drive.

Yet much of the opposition to the Christian religion for its stand on sex and chastity stems from a misunderstanding. The simple fact is that Christianity was never opposed to sex and, so far from repressing a basic human instinct, raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament and crowned the conjugal acts of husband and wife with the aura of holiness. This is not to deny that individuals have sometimes made the mistake of confusing chastity with prudery, nor that there have been movements inside and outside the Catholic Church that stand at variance to the Church's official teaching on matters sexual. But these are no more representative of Catholic teaching than the conduct of certain members of the Church is an index of Catholic morals. Jansenism sought to infect the Catholic faith with its rigorous exclusion of married women from the Eucharist, and Puritanism became an exaggerated form of piety that forbade husbands to kiss their wives in public. Both were reincarnations of ancient Manicheism which held that the body is evil and therefore all bodily pleasure sinful, whether sexual or merely carnal, and whether enjoyed by married people or those who were still single.

No other area of the Christian faith requires more careful scrutiny of sources than the matter of chastity, because it is so easy to misquote or quote out of context in support of almost any opinion, from the most rigid kind of moralism to complete self-indulgence. W.E.H. Lecky, whose History of European Morals is still a Bible of abuse against the Church, wrote that the writings of the Fathers are full of invectives against women. "Woman," he said, "was represented as the door of hell, as the mother of all human ills. She should be ashamed at the very thought that she is a woman." But he failed to explain that the bizarre statements on which he relied were either inconsistent with the Church's tradition or unapproved by the Church's authority. It is true that Tertullian wrote in the third century, addressing women, "The Judgment of God upon your sex endures even today; and with it inevitably endures your position of criminal at the bar of justice. You are the gateway of the devil." But by the time he penned that polemic, he already ceased to be a Catholic because he was excommunicated for that very rigorism which Lecky claims was typical of the Church to which Tertullian had once belonged.

Psychology and Morals

A rational approach to the ethics of sex requires some appraisal of the psychology that stands behind the libidinal drive, at the risk of confusing issues and of making Christian morals say something it never meant about the sinfulness or virtue of sexual acts. Men and women are naturally attracted to each other, and this attraction is as natural as the air they breathe. It must, therefore, answer to a fundamental instinct of human nature which, in turn, responds to the providential order established by God.

At the broadest level, men and women are drawn to each other in a generic way, where each sex sees in the other a compliment of its own personality. Men are naturally pleased with the gracefulness, emotional sensitivity, quiet beauty and warm tenderness of women. Women are attracted by the courage, strength, energy and calm deliberation which succeeds in action of men. Without this underlying magnetism between the sexes, not only marriage but the whole fabric of society would be torn asunder, where instead we find the inborn tendency of men to be in the company of women as their alter ego, and of women to cherish the society of men as their help and inspiration.

Properly controlled this innate attraction is good and wholesome and serves to make community living the pleasant experience which the author of nature intended. Even curiosity about the opposite sex, which derives from this kind of attraction, is natural – and does not of itself imply anything unchaste.

At some time in a person's life the generic appeal becomes distinctive and gradually focused on one. Depending on the circumstances in which the two find themselves, personal attraction may be mainly (or even exclusively) spiritual, or it also becomes bodily. Only a sordid mind would question the capacity of men and women to be attracted along intellectual or academic lines, or find in each other’s company a spiritual satisfaction which they mutually share.

But generally the two forms are not separated, and what may have begun in the spirit flows over into the body, until a definite person is attracted exclusively by another person. Their mutual attraction wants complete possession of the other, so that even the presence of a third person can be resented. Just the thought of having someone else enter as a rival will cause the rising of jealousy. As all the poets say, even a short absence is hard to bear for this kind of exclusive love.

In spite of the cheap publicity that sex receives from modern literature, it is a sacred experience that normally leads to marriage. When two people come to share so much in common, when their tastes and temperaments are remolded to a degree never thought possible, so that their hearts become locked together in feeling and desire – what other social institution than marriage could tolerate, not to say profit from, such mutual exclusiveness?

Two cautions are in place regarding sex attraction. Those who are not yet married should anticipate its rise and make a rational appraisal of the man or woman they are dating. Otherwise the strong overtones that come with exclusive sex appeal may blind the intellect to grave defects in the other party or to serious incompatibilities that would make married life extremely difficult. The emotion passes away and then only the cold, hard facts may be seen – perhaps too late to change the partner one has chosen under the mesmerism of her voice or the pretended generosity of his love. Married people ought not be surprised that their life together lacks the emotional appeal it once had. The romance was a stage on the road and, though every effort should be made to maintain the romantic element in marriage, something more stable than sentiment must finally unite the two partners.

Physical attraction adds a new dimension to the natural appeal that men and women have for each other, and the equally natural tapering of that appeal from many to a few and finally to one. Unless the physical desire to give one's own and receive another's body were present, nature would not have provided for the propagation of the human race since impulses are always related to actions and, in this case, without the action of intercourse there would be no conception of children.

It is of paramount importance to know that Catholic morality considers this physical desire normal and part of the divine plan for the extension of the human family. But its satisfaction must be confined to marriage, where alone the children brought into the world can be adequately reared. Sex is unselfish twice over. It begins by offering oneself to another in complete surrender, and it ends by bringing into the world a new life on which father and mother can expend their love.

Whenever sex is used for selfish gratification it becomes perverse, and the perversion may take on a variety of forms. In contraception there is intercourse while positive means are used to prevent a child from being conceived. In fornication and adultery the sex experience is divorced from any responsibility for the upbringing and education of children that might result. In self-abuse nothing else is sought except personal satisfaction.

Sex is truly selfless when experienced between husband and wife. They may freely enjoy the fullness of bodily pleasure in the love play that precedes intercourse, during coition, and in reflecting on their past marital actions. As explained before, the only practical limit to their enjoyment is contraception; but in every other way they are permitted complete liberty to touch, feel, see, speak or imagine whatever gives sexual pleasure in their conjugal relations.

Outside of marriage and, for married people, outside of their relationship as husband and wife, venereal pleasure may not be directly sought or stimulated or enjoyed, and every deliberate excitation of such pleasure (if fully consented to) is a grave sin. Venereal pleasure is in a class by itself. It is felt when the sex organs are aroused and involves a stirring sensation of the organs of generation. Thus it differs from merely sense feelings, like inhaling the fragrance of a rose or enjoying a good meal; it also differs from sensual pleasure, as some call it, which refers to such experiences as a general "good feeling" or rise of emotion (not in the sex organs) that comes from almost any contact with someone who is loved.

Venereal pleasure is complete when it terminates in orgasm; it is incomplete in all other cases. Yet any kind of sexual indulgence, even incomplete, is gravely sinful if deliberately sought or experienced. This should be carefully distinguished from indirect venereal actions, which serve some other purpose than sex pleasure but may result in sexual excitation. Indirectly venereal actions are not sinful if a person has sufficient reason for starting or continuing them. Bodily needs of all kinds come under this category and may be summarily described as actions which it is reasonable to perform although sexual pleasure is expected or known to occur. This is an application of the principle of the twofold effect where arousal is permitted (but not indulged) for the sake of a proportionate good.

While there is no "minimum limit" in matters of sex, so that the amount of carnal pleasure a person derives does not change the essential gravity of guilt, yet the degree of awareness of what he is doing and the fullness of volitional consent he gives make a great difference. Unless there is complete awareness of mind and full consent of the will a mortal sin is not committed, no matter how strong the pleasure or how long it lasts or what reactions take place in the body.

It cannot be overemphasized that venereal pleasure in itself is not sinful, otherwise married people could not indulge it and, in fact, have a sacrament instituted by Christ to regulate its enjoyment. Even in the unmarried, such pleasure is natural and responds to a divinely-implanted instinct whose purpose is the noble one of leading men and women to conceive and procreate children. It may last for hours without a shred of guilt. But for the unmarried it is wrong to yield to that pleasure in the sense of wanting it in the body by knowing it is there, consenting to its presence and enjoying the genital stimulation which it gives. All three elements must be verified to constitute sin for the unmarried. It is indifferent whether the pleasure is deliberately procured or arises spontaneously; what is forbidden is the intentional yielding to an excitation of the generative organs.

Sex Revolution

Preoccupation with sex has reached an all-time high in the Western world. The writings of Freud, for example, are twenty volumes of analysis into the lives of men and women whose mental balance had become inhinged through every kind of sexual aberration. Critics like Julian Huxley further testify to the extent to which sex has almost become identified with modern culture and the advancement of sex pleasure a desideratum that centuries of Puritanical rigor have sought unsuccessfully to repress. They claim that repression of knowledge about sex has led to the discredit of religion and the outlawing of God. "Our greatest taboo," according to Huxley, "has been the discussion of sex. The child who begins to ask awkward questions and to display its perfectly natural curiosities on these as on all other matters, is, for the most part, simply told not to, and in a shocked voice. Here, on the one hand, is the natural desire of curiosity, on the other, repression by authority, and by authority mixed up with ideas of right and wrong." (1) The result is that religion is first associated with suppressing urgent knowledge and then discarded for hiding "the facts of life."

There is just enough truth about Puritanism among Protestants and of Jansenism in the Catholic tradition to make it seem plausible that the present outburst of sexuality is a reaction against generations of a hush-hush attitude among Christians. But actually the issue lies much deeper. If there has been a reaction it is against the ideas germinated in the first half of the sixteenth century which claimed that concupiscence is a sin and every rise of sexual feeling a sinful expression of man’s utter depravity.

No one familiar with the consequences of this theory of human nature would disclaim the criticism made of it by more trustworthy critics than Julian Huxley or Bertrand Russell. Authentic Christian teaching has ever held that the loss of integrity because of Adam's sin does not deprive people of their free will nor of the power, with divine grace, to overcome the risings of passion. Accordingly to charge Christianity (notably the Catholic Church) with suppressing necessary information about sex and keeping it hidden in Latin tomes is naive. The Kinsey report in this respect does an injustice to Catholicism.

As in other areas of science, the restriction of sexual knowledge to a limited number of professionally trained persons, to physicians, to priests, to those who can read Latin, has not sufficiently served the millions of boys and girls, men and women, who need such knowledge to guide them in their everyday affairs. (2)

Those who know the background of the work of the Institute for Sex Research vouch for the fact that other and lesser motives than science prompted the publication of the Sexual Behavior of the Male and its companion volumes. Not the least was an implicit thesis spread through over two thousand pages of print, that since men and women today are so constantly and consistently breaking through the morals of sex we should appraise the whole structure of Christian ethics and revise its outmoded standards. Of particular concern are the sexual habits of unmarried youth.

Neither the law nor custom can change the age of onset of adolescence, nor the development of the sexual capacities of teenage youths. Consequently they continue to be aroused sexually, and to respond to the point of orgasm. There is no evidence that it is possible for any male who is adolescent, and not physically incapacitated, to get along without some kind of regular outlet until old age finally reduces his responsiveness and his capacity to function sexually. While there are many females who appear to get along without such an outlet during their teens, the chances that a female can adjust sexually after marriage seem to be materially improved if she has experienced orgasm at an earlier age.
The attempt to ignore and suppress the physiologic needs of the sexually most capable segment of the population has led to more complications than most persons are willing to recognize. This is why so many of our American youth, both females and males, depend upon masturbation instead of coitus as a pre-marital outlet. Restraints on pre-marital heterosexual contacts appear to be primary factors in the development of homosexual activities among both females and males. The considerable development of pre-marital petting, which many foreigners consider one of the unique aspects of the sexual pattern in this country, is similarly an outgrowth of this restraint on pre-marital coitus. The law specifies the right of the married adult to have regular intercourse, but it makes no provision whatsoever for the approximately forty per cent of the population which is sexually mature but unmarried. Many youths and older unmarried females and males are seriously disturbed because the only sources of sexual outlet available to them are either legally or socially disapproved. (3)

Most people, it is argued, would like to know how to resolve this conflict between their physiologic capacities and the legal and moral codes. They would like to know whether self-abuse is physically harmful and deleterious to later enjoyment of marriage. "They would like to know whether they should or should not engage in petting; and, apart from the moral issues that may be involved, they would like to know what pre-marital petting experience may actually do to their marital adjustments." On all of these matters, the dominant question is not the moral one, but "what correlations the scientific data show between pre-marital and marital experience." (4)

Needless to say this approach to sexual problems is revolutionary. If problems are still admitted, the conflict is not between human passion and an objective code of morals, sanctioned by two thousand years of Christian history, but between the legal and social restraints imposed by a stodgy religious culture and the newly discovered spirit of liberty that seeks only the maximum of sex pleasure before and after marriage, and is willing to break through any barriers to find gratification.

The net effect of ignoring moral values has been to flood the atmosphere with a sexual miasma of books and magazines, movies and television, and all the means of communication, whose incessant pressure places heavy demands on the virtue of men and women that 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.

Periodicals are a good example. The number of otherwise acceptable publications that cater to the prurient tastes of their readers is legion, and occasional efforts of civic-minded groups to control the tide only emphasize the powerful influence which magazines have on the impressionable minds of the young.

But in the last two decades another, more pernicious form of sexual indoctrination has come on the scene. Obscenity merchants are doing a multimillion dollar business annually and only a fraction ever collide with the law. A typical story is the case of a young widow who receives a plain envelope addressed to her husband, four days after the funeral. She opens the envelope and to her horror finds inside a packet of obscene pictures, along with a bill noting that the "merchandise" he had ordered was enclosed. An ominous postscript urged that payment should be prompt. The man never ordered the pictures, but his widow was being taken in by a racket that preys on the innocent and seduces the young with equal cynicism.

Like the dope peddler, the pornography dealer likes to lure his customers while they are young. A favorite device is the placement of deceptive ads in pulp and "confession" magazines with a special appeal to teen-agers. The ads offer stamps, air rifles, dolls, pocketknives, rings and so on. In responding to one, an unsuspecting youngster can receive the most lurid pornographic material. A boy answering an ad for a model airplane may receive a photograph of two boys engaged in homosexual play. An accompanying letter asks, "Want to see more?" A girl answering an ad for a free novelty catalogue may get back a pamphlet, obscene in itself, which details the excitements of a book, How to Make a Woman Happy. Any youngster, expecting information about rare coins, may end up with a brochure featuring photographs of women in lascivious undress.

Even without trickery, the profit is enormous. Still photographs and movie film remain the staple commodity, but the racket also has moved into erotic books, pamphlets, phonograph records, color slides, wood carvings and even plaster casts.

One of the latest is a national publication that advertized itself as "this country's first attempt to produce a worthy magazine on the ever fascinating subject of love and sex. Until now, these subjects have been relegated to cheap and tawdry periodicals." It boasts that the talents of the world's most gifted writers, artists and photographers have been harnessed and applied to a periodical of elegance and good taste, ranging from feature stories on the contraceptive industry to an illustrated article, "Was Shakespeare a Homosexual?" Its main theme is a repetitious quantity of nudes, in color, intended as "a major breakthrough in the battle for the liberation of the human spirit," which in just a few months of existence "has become the rave of the American intellectual community, and the rage of prudes everywhere."

If aggressive pornography has to skulk behind fictitious magazine ads and resort to devious ways of plying its trade, the bulk of American fiction has an easier way of reaching millions of readers with a calculated sex appeal. Literary critics speak of a new cult whose faith is the belief that orgasm is the goal of man's existence, whose language is studded with fertility symbols and whose heroes and heroines are pimps and harlots that parade their obscenity before the minds of a reading public drugged into moral insensibility. Novels have become best sellers, and required reading in high school and college, that pervert every decent instinct and arouse instead the basest drives of fallen human nature.

Yet the most serious aspect of this sex revolution is not the amount of pornography or the ease with 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 courts to convict anyone who is making a fortune on his neighbor's concupiscence.

When in 1957 the Supreme Court ruled against Samuel Roth, a big-time smut peddler in New York City, denying his appeal against previous convictions, it looked for a moment as though a new policy was in the offing. But subsequent decisions by the nation's highest judiciary indicate that such is not the case.

In the case of Sunshine Book Co. v. Summerfeld, the Supreme Court overruled a circuit court decision and in so doing held that the Postmaster General could not bar nudist magazines from the mails. In United States v. 31 Photographs the District Court upheld the prohibition of Customs officials against the importation of obscene material imported by Indiana University's Institute for Sex Research. The material was ostensibly to be used only in connection with research projects, but the prosecution argued that the Kinsey reports and other productions of the Institute were notoriously not limited to research purposes. The Supreme Court overruled the District Court without giving a written decision.

Another decision of the Supreme Court indicating that no substantial change had taken place in giving pornography free rein was that of Times Film Corporation v. City of Chicago. The Federal Circuit Court had held that a Chicago ordinance authorizing the censorship of motion pictures found to be "immoral or obscene" was valid. The Supreme Court overruled the Circuit Court but did not give a written opinion.

In a celebrated decision that provoked wide reaction in religious circles, the Supreme Court passed judgment in favor of Kingsley's International Pictures Corporation v. Regents of State of New York. The case involved the censorship of a motion picture known as "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" which advocated adultery as morally acceptable. The opinion of the Court held that the New York statute under which the motion picture was banned is unconstitutional since it prevents the advocacy of an idea, in this case that adultery may be legitimate behavior. The Court asserted that the First Amendment protects such advocacy, on the score of literary freedom.

Parallel with this procedure was a ruling on the unexpurgated book version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." In this action the Federal District Court had outlawed the mail ban of the Post Office and stated that undoubtedly much of the book would be shocking to many people. However, "even it be assumed that these passages arouse shameful, morbid and lustful sexual desires to the average reader they are an integral and, to the author, a necessary part of the development of theme, plot and character." Accordingly no matter how salacious the contents of a book intended for public consumption, their publication may not be hindered because they advance the purpose for which the book was written.

A forceful commentary on the present situation is the preface of D.H. Lawrence to one edition of his "Lady Chatterley's Lover." He argued that if the world would resume the free, uninhibited use of the Anglo-Saxon monosyllables relating to elimination and copulation, all our neuroses would melt away. Sober critics admit there is much charm in this simple doctrine, but its only drawback is that it is not true. "They tell you," say the critics, "sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But it has not. I think it is the other way around. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess." (5)

Implicit in the rise of sexualism through all the media of communication is the denial of original sin, which, by definition, means that men have lost their perfect dominance of the passions and therefore the sex urge should be controlled rather than stimulated for the sake of the pleasure it gives.

Sex Stimuli

Extra marital self-control is not easy, and anyone who claims the opposite is either deceived or deceiving. Yet much of the effort expended in controlling the sex drive can be wasted in other channels when it should be given to acquiring self-knowledge and acting on the information thus gained.

Carnal impulses can take on different forms. Normally they are directed to sexual union between men and women, and to the intimate acts that are the natural preliminaries to such union. Nevertheless the impulses may also be directed elsewhere: to oneself for the solitary enjoyment of venereal pleasure which is commonly called masturbation; to another person of the same sex which is homosexuality; or to any of a multitude of approximations or combinations of the three prototypes. Other sex perversions are rare and have been treated in many standard works on the subject.

What brings on a rise of venereal emotion? There is no limit to the number and variety of such stimuli, which differ with different people and with the same people at different times, while a certain kind are inevitably for any normal man or woman.

There are many things that are innocuous in themselves but, under given circumstances, may be stimulating. Books, movies, television, decent dancing, conversation about certain topics, the study of physiology or the social sciences, the dress, posture and gesture of self or others – are all capable of affecting the generative nervous system, cause sexual pleasure, and then incline the will to indulge the feelings aroused just for the pleasure they give.

A person's subjective disposition can itself be conducive to sexual arousal. Fatigue or emotional stress, disappointment or humiliation, time of the day or night are all contributing factors. There is also a correlation between arousal and the activity of the endocrine glands, and especially stronger venereal desires when the body is biologically prepared for fertile intercourse, around the time of ovulation for women and of accumulation of semen for men.

Sex stimuli differ quite as much as different kinds of food appeal to various people. Boys and men are usually more affected physically than girls and women; but here, too, there are notable exceptions. Yet this single fact can be of great importance for women in dealing with men. They normally have no personal experience that even resembles the powerful sexual drive of the male, and must take on faith that such is really the case. Some people are decidedly hypersensitive along sex lines; they can be excited strongly by something that leaves other people cold. In this matter, a prudent insight into one's own drives and tendencies is worth any amount of theoretical knowledge that maybe found in books or secured from lectures.

As might be expected, the sex appetite works in much the same way as other emotions. When we become angry, what happens? Someone says a harsh word, we immediately feel a boiling state inside, and get the urge to strike back with a harsh word in return. Before we heard the word we were not angry; the fact that he spoke was a stimulus to our feelings. The feelings themselves were a response to that stimulus. Suddenly from perfect calm our whole body and mental outlook change. A state of unpleasant tension occurs and we have a natural urge to relieve the conflict. In sequence, therefore, we follow a logical pattern: from stimulus to response to impulse urging us to do something about it. That is the elementary S-I-R process of every stimulation.

Sex follows the same order. We may be quietly seated reading a novel when we come on a suggestive passage, some bedroom scene that triggers the generative faculties. The stimulus-response stirs the impulse to keep reading more or dwelling on the scene or performing some sexual action that will heighten the emotional state. A basic law of psychology is that any pleasurable feeling carries its own inclination to continue unless checked by some agency outside itself, e.g., the will or another emotion.

Men and women differ so greatly in responsiveness to sex stimuli that some knowledge of this difference is necessary to make an objective application of moral principles to one’s own case. The very concept of sex is suffused with distinctive connotations for men that are not verified for women, and vice versa. Kinsey and associates discuss thirty-three kinds of psychologic factors in sexual response, and their conclusions are very pertinent to a better understanding of the ethical dimension of sex stimulation.

Observing the opposite sex, for example, was found to be several times as arousing for men as for women. And about the same ratio was true of all other possible kinds of sex stimulation in which the physical element was dominant. In the same way, once aroused, the stimulation among men more often involved indulging in erotic fantasies of past sexual experiences, or of potential future ones – out of all proportion to similar situations among women. Correspondingly where men sought to excite themselves, they regularly used erotic books or pictures as sources of stimulation, which seldom occurred among women.

But two areas of excitation were discovered to be as appealing to women as to men, and often more so, with important implications in the moral order. Movies (and television) and reading romantic literature were found to affect women as much as or more than men. Emotional and romantic factors, it appears, are the more common prelude to sex stimulation among women – as in the case of movies or television.

Some of the stimulation provided by a moving picture may depend on the romantic action which it portrays, and some of it may depend on the portrayal of some particular person. In a large number of instances, the erotic stimulation may depend on the emotional atmosphere created by the picture as a whole, just as viewing a landscape, reading a book, or sitting with another person before an open fire may lead to emotional responses which then become erotic. Sometimes the erotic element in the picture may have no obvious sexual meaning except to the individual who has been conditioned by the particular element. Sometimes the erotic arousal may depend upon the presence of the companion with whom one is attending the performance. (6)

From the ethical standpoint this is of paramount importance. It highlights an aspect of temptations against chastity that too seldom appear in books on morals or in conferences and sermons from the pulpit. While there are many exceptions and it is impossible to generalize absolutely, yet by and large the opening wedge to erotic response among men is something physically and directly connected with sex, whether seen, heard, read, touched, or thought about. But among women, the more usual beginnings of sex stimulation (and therefore of temptation) are psychic and emotional, romantic and personal – where the initial stimulus may have nothing to do with coitus except, perhaps, the vague feeling of being loved, or a sudden mood of depression, or the soft caress of a friendly hand.

The amorphous idea of "atmosphere" has much to do with evoking sex stimulation in anyone, but never more so than in women. Hence the need for avoiding those emotional situations which previous experience has shown are sexually inciting, even when their immediate function is not erotic at all.

One form of stimulation that deserves special attention is petting and kissing, that moralists distinguish on permissiveness and gravity, depending on the venereal pleasure they excite. Passionate kissing, where the mark of affection is prolonged or intensified to the point that erotic reactions take place in the body, is gravely illicit for unmarried people. The same with petting, which means some handling of another's body in such a way as ordinarily to produce genital pleasure in the one fondling or the person fondled. Always the norm of sinfulness is whether touching another orally or tactilely was either intended to arouse the sex passion or, if that was not the original intention, continued once the passion was aroused in order to enjoy it.

A passage in Freud may help focus attention on a subject that too many people take lightly and tend to ignore as part of the complex of eroticism. In context he is talking about sexual perversity and wishes to clarify the precise nature of a sexually perverse act. Such acts, he argues, may be relatively or absolutely perverse; they are relatively perverted (or better, diverted) in different ways: when they overstep the sexual aim because they are not strictly necessary for intercourse, when contact is had between other bodily organs than those requisite for conception, when some other part of the body than generative is aroused in one or both parties. But only one kind of sex act is absolutely perverse, when erotic pleasure is sought while deliberately excluding the possibility of reproduction.

This Freudian passage is classic. It illustrates what he thinks of contraception as the prototype of sexual perversity, of kissing as often in its effect on the body, and of the infinite variety of sex stimuli to which people may respond.

I must still add something more in order to complete our assessment of the sexual perversions. Abominated as they are, sharply distinguished from normal sexual activity as they may be, simple observation will show that very rarely is one feature or another of them absent from the sexual life of a normal person.
The kiss, to begin with, has some claim to be called a perverse act, for it consists of the union of the two erotogenic mouth zones…But no one condemns it as perverse; on the contrary, in the theatre it is permitted as a refined indication of the sexual act. Nevertheless, kissing is a thing that can easily become an absolute perversion – namely, when it occurs in such intensity that orgasm and emission directly accompany it, which happens not at all uncommonly.
Further, it will be found that gazing at and handling the object are in one person an indispensable condition of sexual enjoyment, another lover not always the genital region, but some other bodily region in the object provokes the greatest excitement, and so on in endless variety.
It would be absurd to exclude people with single idiosyncrasies of this kind from the ranks of the normal and place them among perverts; rather, it becomes more and more clear that what is essential to the perversion lies...solely in the exclusiveness with which these deviations are maintained, so that the sexual act which serves the reproductive process is rejected altogether. In so far as perverse performances are included in order to intensify or to lead up to the performance of the normal sexual act, they are no longer actually perverse. (7)

Freud's shrewd analysis confirms the teaching of Christian morality in two important ways. He shows that contraception is perverse because it looks for sexual pleasure while excluding the possibility of reproduction. He also shows that numerous stimuli are closely connected with sex because they either prepare a person for intercourse or intensify the conjugal act. Since the act itself is forbidden to the unmarried, so also are the stimuli designed to achieve or increase its enjoyment.

Christian Chastity

Chastity or the control of the sex appetite is an integral part of the Christian religion, and from the earliest centuries has been strictly enjoined on the followers of Christ. In the sermon on the mount, He recalled the Mosaic law which He then intensified and explained in a way that no one could mistake His meaning. "You have heard," He told the people, "that it was said to the ancients, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that anyone who even looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (8)

The Master proceeded to draw the conclusion from this premise. If unchastity is sinful and commissible even internally, every means should be taken to avoid the occasions of sin. "If your right eye leads you astray, tear it out and fling it away; it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for the whole of it to be thrown into hell." (9) While the injunction is directly addressed to men, its scope is universal and applies equally to men and women. Of course the energetic language in which Christ warns against the occasions of sin must not be taken literally. Nevertheless the cost of sacrificing a known sinful occasion may be as high as plucking out an eye or cutting off a limb. Yet it must be done if virtue is to be preserved.

Writing in the same spirit a generation later, St. Paul outlined what some have called the magna charta of chastity. His letter to the Corinthians, whose city was notorious for profligacy, is steeped in Oriental imagery and revolutionary in its demands on fallen human nature.

Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God. Such were some of you.
It is not true that the body is for lust; it is for the Lord – and the Lord for the body. God not only raised our Lord from the dead; He will also raise us by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are limbs and organs of Christ? Shall I then take from Christ His bodily parts and make them over to a harlot? Never! You surely know that anyone who binds himself with a harlot becomes physically one with her…but he who links himself with Christ is one with Him, spiritually.
Shun fornication. Every other sin that a man can commit is outside his body; but the fornicator sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a shrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is God’s gift to you? You do not belong to yourselves; you were bought at a price. Then honor God in your body. (10)

For a believing Christian no more need be said. In his weakness he may sin and dishonor the body which houses the Holy Spirit, but he does not question the authority that stands behind the injunction to chastity, nor does he doubt that with God’s grace chastity can be practiced.

Every manner of sin is identified by St. Paul: fornication which is intercourse between unmarried persons, adultery or sexual relations in which one or both parties are married, self-abuse (the effeminate) or masturbation that indulges sex pleasure on one's own body, sodomy or homosexuality where two men or two women have carnal relations, and finally a sweeping condemnation of all kinds of immorality.

The gravity of these sins is implied in the consequence that follows on their commission. Those who sin against chastity will be excluded from the kingdom of heaven. Salvation therefore depends on the practice of chastity. In fact, even pagans are said to be guilty of unchastity because in the preceding context, St. Paul told the Corinthians they had to be washed of their sins (through baptism), which assumes they were culpable even before receiving the gift of faith. The natural law of reason tells people that unchastity is sinful, and they are correspondingly responsible, whether they are Christians or Moslems or of no religious affiliation.

Basically the sinfulness of unchastity derives from its violation of one's own body, which for a Christian includes the additional crime of dishonoring a member of Christ, defiling a body redeemed by the blood of the Savior and destined to rise with Him on the last day, and desecrating a shrine of the Holy Spirit.

The teachings of faith are strengthened by the insight of reason into the sinfulness of unchastity in all its forms. As a backdrop for the evidence of reason we know that the natural purpose of sexual activity is at once biological, psychological and social. It is biological because the built-in function of intercourse is to fertilize the female cell and thus conceive a human being. Not every act of coitus results in the conception of a child, but no conception is possible (except by a stupendous miracle) without carnal intercourse. It is psychological because conjugal relations among humans, otherwise than mating in animals, should be the culmination of love and the acme of deepest affection. It is finally social because children need the on-going care of father and mother, whose own mutual love is fostered by intercourse and whose love of their offspring must first be stabilized by their love for one another.

All sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage defeats one or more of these natural functions and is therefore morally wrong. Moreover since these functions are transcendently important, whatever actions contradict them are gravely wrong. They are by their very nature mortal sins.

Fornication defeats the social purpose of sexual activity. For although children can be physically conceived outside of marriage, unmarried partners cannot give their children the education and moral nurture they require. Without the stability of married life, and given the example of unwed cohabitation, children cannot be brought up to respect their parents or to practice the fundamental virtues of decent living. Premarital intercourse also contravenes the psychological purpose of sex experience. By implication coitus is a total self-surrender and a symbol of mutual and abiding love. But without the stay of marriage and the guarantee of permanence which only matrimony can assure, the self-surrender is really self-deception, since only the marriage contract says "until death do us part." Until that commitment has been made, either party is free to withdraw his or her affection and leave the other a victim of caprice.

A fortiori adultery defeats the social and psychological purposes of sex activity by adding to the sin of fornication the further crime of injustice against one's lawful spouse. In the Old Testament this breach of contract was considered basically a sin of inequity, where the rights of a husband or wife were invaded by a third party. And the commandment of the Decalogue which forbade a man to covet his neighbor's wife was correlated with the sin of avarice since it assumed that, like avarice, to desire any man’s spouse is theft by intention. Like robbery, adultery takes what belongs to someone else by the strongest ties of personal affection.

Solitary use of the reproductive faculty is sinful because it defeats all the purposes of the sexual powers. Biologically a child cannot be conceived, socially and psychologically the function of marriage is inverted when the sex organs are stimulated by thoughts or external manipulation in order to excite venereal pleasure.

It is incredible to read how widely accepted is masturbation as a normal outlet for sexual tension, and how many sociologists, psychiatrists, counselors and medical practitioners permit or even advocate the practice. The clash between Christian and pagan standards of morality could not be clearer than here, where two contradictory philosophies of life teach the very opposite about solitary self-abuse. Kinsey and the staff on the Institute for Sex Research devote thousands of words to defending solitary sexual activity. "When no guilt, anxieties, or fears are involved, the physical satisfactions which may be found in any type of sexual activity, whether socio-sexual or solitary, should leave an individual well adjusted psychologically." (11) It would be hard to find anywhere in modern literature a more damaging indictment of Western civilization than the foregoing statement, italicized for emphasis. Not only masturbation but any type of sexual activity which gives physical satisfaction is commendable and should be psychologically beneficial, once a person rids himself of what the new prophets of sexualism call the tyranny of conscience.

Too seldom has a connection been made between this license to enjoy any kind of sexual activity, especially solitary sins, and the widespread practice and promotion of birth control. Yet nothing appears more certain than the transfer from one to the other. Persons who have indulged their passions in self-abuse during the years before marriage will continue to indulge after marriage, and with perfect consistency. Why should contraception be avoided in marriage if solitary sex pleasure has been practiced (and rationalized) before a couple marry? The same reasons hold good in both cases: gratification without fear of begetting a child, satisfaction without self-sacrifice, and self-indulgence with no concern for the welfare of others. Masturbation and contraception are related as cause and effect. People (and especially men, accustomed to gratify their passions alone with no scruple about committing sin will continue to gratify those same passions, alone, although in the company of the person they marry. The basic gratification has not changed, but only its technique. The only check on a continuum from one indulgence to the other is the certainty that sex is morally good only if altruistic – directed to please the partner in marriage and benefit whatever children may be born of their selfless love.

Method and Means

Anyone who wants to remain chaste in the modern world has work on his hands. All around him are floating ideas about the harmfulness of sex restraint that nothing but direct contradiction of these theories will maintain a person's balance. Pseudo-scientific testimony about the injury to mental health or personality from the practice of continence is to be measured by more weighty evidence to the contrary from reputable physicians who are not biased in favor of sex indulgence. A report of some four hundred doctors at Brussels, for example, declared "There is no known disease resulting from the practice of continence, while many are found to originate in the opposite vice." The British Social Hygiene Council published a statement that neither psychology nor experience shows any need of sexual intercourse for either physical or mental health.

Another aspect of sex propaganda that tends to weaken resistance is the current penchant for making polls. College people are often polled to discover what their attitudes are on sex. One depressing effect is the impression that all but a handful of men and women in college are unchaste. Harvard University conducted such a poll recently. Ninety-five percent favored birth control, eighty percent approved premarital intercourse, seventy percent saw nothing wrong with extra marital intercourse, ninety percent accepted divorce with remarriage, eighty percent had no moral objections against homosexuality or legalized abortion. The trouble with these surveys is the size of sampling, the character of the people who take them, and the impossibility of knowing how seriously or sincerely the answers were given.

Yet even without surveys, anyone attending college knows that sex is one of the main problems that a student must cope with if he wants to come through four years of campus and dormitory life unscathed.

When the president of Vassar College told the students that the administration meant to stand behind its injunction against premarital sex relations and dismiss offenders, a violent protest was raised on and off campus. Yet, as a national authority on marriage problems explained, most people missed the point. The issue is not whether administrators or the law should come out against premarital sex experience. The issue is not even whether a man or woman may indulge their passions privately and society show no concern about their conduct. The real issue is a new code of morals that has infected American culture and that sees nothing wrong with girls becoming the mothers of illegitimate children, or brides of hasty and premature marriages. Mainly because marriage is increasingly looked upon as a non-permanent institution, a new moral alignment has taken place, one in which the idea is accepted that premarital sex is all right provided it ends in marriage.

By accepting this new morality, parents, teachers, guidance authorities and preachers have abdicated their responsibility to young people. Instead of encouraging them to realize the opportunity to remain single and abstinent during their developing student years, the college has turned into a place where pregnancy – if it ends in marriage – is not penalized but rewarded. Parents and colleges have, in effect, put a social shotgun into the hands of young people. A girl and a boy who want to get married have, today, a new thought at the back of their minds: if the girl gets pregnant, they can get married, with everyone's blessing. (12)

Clarity of mind is essential if a young person wants to withstand the pressure to conformity all around him, whether in high school or college, at work or in the world of human relations. Christians from the earliest times had to recognize the difference between themselves and others, and present-day Christian youth are no exception. The teachings of Christ are not out-moded, and the injunctions He placed on His followers are equally binding now as they were when first spoken.

Two virtues are indispensable if a man or woman hopes to preserve chastity: modesty or a sense of shame, and prudence in avoiding needless sex stimulation. Both are seldom mentioned in literature on the subject, yet without them sexual indulgence is inevitable.

Modesty regulates our conduct in things that are liable to evoke forbidden pleasure, notably dress, language and general deportment. It is midway between prudishness which sees sin in everything, and pruriency that ignores the most fundamental laws on the stimulus-response psychology of sex. A sense of shame, therefore, is the greatest protective force we have in the sphere of sex, and whoever denies its value in safeguarding chastity has lost his grip on sane morality. Few women know how easily men are stimulated by what they see and how much they can do to help men control their passions by feminine modesty.

False modesty has done a great deal of harm, and some of the present reaction in favor of sexual liberty was provoked by the senseless secretiveness about everything concerning sex that we still call Puritanism. The Scriptures are not puritanical, as almost any chapter of the Old Law will demonstrate, and as Christ in His own teaching amply proved. He could speak of sexual matters without inhibition. But granting the existence of false modesty does not exclude the need of a modesty that seeks to attract without seducing and is more interested in displaying one's charm and personality than exposing the body.

But modesty or a sense of shame is not enough. It must be joined with prudence if chastity is ever to be preserved. Custody of the eyes and ears may sound like a monastic regulation, but it is simple common sense if a man wants to remain pure or a woman retain her chastity. Movies and theatres, magazines and comic books, jokes and risqué stories, night clubs and parked automobiles are danger areas for anyone seriously concerned about his virtue.

Not infrequently an otherwise prudent man or woman will take unnecessary risks only because they do not want to be thought different. The psychology of ridicule or estrangement from the crowd is easy to understand. Everybody knows it is easier to indulge sexual desire than to restrain it. Those who let themselves go must admit, if they are honest with themselves, that those who refuse to do so are holding themselves to the hard task of restraining a powerful desire, and are thereby displaying superior self-control. To escape the feeling of inferiority involved in admitting this even to themselves, loose-minded people do all they can to coax, tease, or otherwise persuade a fellow or girl to go with them, and thus bring them down to their own level. Failing in this, they next try to belittle. By calling him (or her) names and poking fun at him they assert their superiority, and thus evade the discomforts of feeling inferior. The more persistent their efforts, the more probable it is that at heart they greatly respect their victim. Even when the motivation is less selfish, and the relationship between friends more noble, the pattern of persuasion is about the same and it takes more than passing courage to resist these blandishments.

Great reserves of strength to meet the challenge of chastity are open to every person of good will. Periodic reflection on one's conduct is so obvious that the marvel is more people do not take time out every day, if only for a minute or two, to ask themselves how they stand before God, and what they should do to avoid occasions of sin or overcome the temptations they cannot avoid.

This can be highly effective in overcoming unchaste thoughts. By recalling the kind of thoughts I wish to control and planning on a positive method of controlling them, I give myself the best assurance of success. The reason is the thoughts are more elusive than overt actions; the power of the will over them is described by Aristotle as diplomatic instead of despotic. I cannot say to my mind, "Don't think of this," as I would to my hand, "Don't touch that," and hope for immediate response. I need to substitute another thought-complex for the undesirable one and hope that the latter will be driven into the subconscious.

Through the examination of conscience I foresee what actions can be substituted for the usual ones, with consequently different thoughts evoked in the mind. I may have found that certain reading – perhaps innocuous in itself – brings on a train of thought that will cause me trouble with carnal images. The foresight gained by examination will recommend changes in my reading habits, company keeping, conversation pattern, with corresponding freedom from disturbance in the mind. I can even use my examination to plan on what kind of thoughts to substitute for the salacious ones; how I should maintain myself in peace when the body is aroused, and how to divert my attention to what is attractive but harmless, and away from what is sexually attractive but potentially sinful. This single rule: to overcome pleasure with pleasure, venereal satisfaction with innocent enjoyment, is a talisman of spiritual psychology and has been found effective whenever tried.

Chastity is impossible without prayer. Whoever thinks he can control the sex drive without help from God, obtained through prayer, is ignorant of a basic principle of the Christian faith. We have a fallen human nature whose appetites lack the inner control they once enjoyed. Instead of perfect dominance of the sex urge, concupiscence allows this powerful instinct free rein. Sometimes on the slightest provocation, like a single glance of the eye or the mere touch of the hand, the whole body is aroused to seek carnal satisfaction. And once aroused, the desires are not easily quieted down but may require great effort of resistance to keep the will from "giving in" to the venereal pleasure being experienced.

At every point in the sexual process, human weakness is so manifest that even people who have no sympathy with the Christian religion admit the need for calling upon divine assistance. The Old Testament axiom that "No man can otherwise be continent, unless God gives it to him," epitomizes the teachings of Judaeo-Christianity on the supernatural means that every adult must take if he seriously hopes to remain chaste – whether unmarried and avoiding all deliberate sex pleasure or married and remaining faithful to his wedded partner. (13)

Between human weakness and the prospect of restraining the sex appetite is divine grace, which Christianity insists is indispensable for observing even the natural law in its entirety and for resisting the imperious demands of the flesh. The classic description of this tension between what we know is right and what we are constantly tempted to do against conscience was given by St. Paul where he concludes that nothing but the grace of God can deliver him from enslavement.

The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will; and if what I do is against my will, clearly it is no longer I who am the agent, but sin that has its lodging in me.
I discover this principle, then: that when I want to do what is right, only the wrong is within my reach. In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I preceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting against the law that my reason approves and making me a prisoner under the law that is in my members, the law of sin. Miserable creature that I am, who is there to rescue me out of this body doomed to death? God alone, through Jesus Christ our Lord. (14.)

The tradition of nineteen centuries of Christian thought confirms this dictum, that chastity and prayer are correlatives. Only a person who prays is chaste, and those who have trouble with chastity either do not pray, or pray enough. God does not command the impossible, and control of sex is no exception. But He bids us pray to obtain the strength to keep His commandments, and assures us the light and power of resistance if we ask for His grace.

Proof of the power of prayer over concupiscence is the evidence of tens of thousands of persons who dedicate themselves to a life of celibacy and virginity and, with the help of God, maintain themselves in His friendship through a life time.

The prayer need not be formal and certainly not protracted, but it should be as frequent as occasion demands or as the pressure of temptations requires. A simple, "God, help me!" may be enough to check the first risings of passions or quell the beginnings of undesirable thoughts or desires. If temptations become stronger, even though occasioned by our own carelessness, prayer should be more urgent and the petition for divine help more insistent. Among the ways that God reminds us of our constant dependence on Him, few are more obvious than the matter of chastity, especially for men and particularly for the unmarried whose conscience tells them they are obliged to control the seductions of the flesh under penalty of displeasing God and endangering their salvation.

A Catholic has other supernatural means at his disposal for restraining the irrational drives of sex. Reception of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, is not only recommended by the Church but has been found remarkably effective from people's experience. One of the immediate effects of the Eucharist is to assist the will in calming the sexual urge; for although we no longer have the gift of integrity enjoyed by our first parents, we have an effective means of approaching that integrity through the frequent and fervent reception of Christ’s body and blood. Too seldom do Catholics reflect on the warning of Christ, that "unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you." The life in question is the life of grace, which for many people is most easily lost, or at least most constantly threatened because of their sex passions getting out of control.

Those who believe in Christ and recognize the validity of His claims, know from their own lives how readily God's help is available for the asking and how effective it is in liberating a person from the slavery of his passions. Each conquest of self is another proof of Christ's warning, to "pray lest you enter temptation," and of His promise, "anything you ask in my name, I will do." The only limitation on this aid is a person's own unwillingness to be helped.

Chapter IX

Sex and Chastity References

  1. Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation, New York, 1957, p. 119.

  2. Alfred C. Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Philadelphia, 1953 p. 11.

  3. Ibid., pp. 14-15.

  4. Ibid., p. 15.

  5. Edmund Fuller, Man in Modern Fiction, New York, 1958, p. 119.

  6. Kinsey, op. cit., pp. 659-660.

  7. Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, New York, 1960, pp. 331-332.

  8. Matthew 5:27-28.

  9. Matthew 5:29.

  10. I Corinthians 6:9-20.

  11. Kinsey, op. cit., p. 169.

  12. Margaret Mead, "Sex on Campus: The Real Issue," Redbook, October 1962.

  13. Wisdom 8:21.

  14. Romans 7:19-25.

Copyright © 2004 by Inter Mirifica

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