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Sex and Sanctity

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The first reaction to a subject like sex and sanctity is wonder or misgiving. We have become so accustomed to associate sex with sin that even our vocabulary has been affected by the association. The first thought that comes to most people’s minds on hearing words like impurity or immorality is some failure against chastity, as though there was something inherently wrong with the use of the sexual faculties, or as though the essence of evil was sin against the sixth and ninth commandments of the Decalogue.

I think there is some explanation for this unwarranted connection between sex and sin in the Manichaean virus that first infected the stream of Christianity in the third and fourth centuries, that became a major heresy in Europe, as Albigenseanism in the thirteenth century, that re-entered Western society under Calvin and Jansenius, and that still deeply affects large segments of Euro-American culture today.

My purpose in the present conference is not to disprove Manichaean dualism, which postulates that matter, and therefore the human body, is evil. I wish rather to show that, as Catholic Christianity understands the body and the functions of the organs of reproduction, sex is a creature that, in God’s providence, is intended to help mankind reach not only their eternal destiny but to become holy. It is not as though we can be saved in spite of sex, but sex is a divinely instituted means of achieving our salvation, in fact our sanctification.

The stress in my presentation, therefore, is on sex as a means, and sanctity as the end. I assume that sanctity is achieved by doing the will of God according to one’s state of life; and sex is an inevitable part of everyone’s state of life. Sex is inescapable, sanctity is attainable. And a major factor in attaining sanctity depends on how a person copes with sex in his or her particular state of life.

For the sake of convenience, I will distinguish three general states of life in each of which sex is divinely intended to be a means of sustaining and growing in the life of God.

There is the state of marriage; the single state in the world; and the state of consecrated celibacy.

In what follows, I plan to deal with each of these three in terms of sex that I will call

  • Sex as experience

  • Sex as temperance and

  • Sex as sacrifice.

Sex As Experience

Since the origins of Christianity, the Church has uniformly held that Christian marriage is holy. It is moreover not only sacred because instituted by God as the Author of nature and human society. It is a sacrament because instituted by the Son of God as the Author of grace and of the supernatural society which is the Church.

But marriage is not only holy in its origins. It is also holy in its purpose. This purpose is to sanctify husband and wife and, through them, the children they may bring into the world. Since sex is an essential part of marriage, it stands to reason (and faith) that the experience of sex is also part of the sanctifying purpose of marriage.

Since all the faithful are called to holiness, it is only to be expected that the married faithful are to become holy too. Their experience of sex within marriage must be one of the divinely-appointed means of becoming holy.

How so? How is the experience of sex sanctifying? It is sanctifying as joy, as charity, as restraint and as generosity.

  1. Sexual experience is sanctifying as joy because the intense satisfaction associated with the marital act is intended by God to be enjoyed. Enjoyment is sanctifying insofar as the pleasure experience is accepted with gratitude from the Almighty and received from Him as a gift of His bounty.

    After all, we are sanctified by every conscious act we perform according to the will of God. The more noble the act, the more it contributes to our sanctification. Who would doubt that marital intercourse is a noble action, or that properly performed it is pleasing to God. What pleases God sanctifies man, which means that by their “coming together,” as the biblical phrase has it, husband and wife grow in the divine life in their souls through the loving union of their bodies.

  2. Sexual experience is sanctifying as charity because by it the married spouses express their mutual love. We are to love one another, as Christ told us; and loving one another means showing this affection not only in words but also and especially in deeds.

    By their marital embrace, the husband tells his wife that he loves her—as his wife with an exclusivity that no other woman on earth has a right to share. And she tells him that she loves him—as her husband, with the same uniqueness to which no other man on earth has a claim.

    If even the least act of kindness is elevating and every token of charity makes us more God-like, what shall we say of the sanctifying power of the marital experience where, among Christians, it partakes of the sacrament they have received?

  3. Sexual experience is sanctifying as restraint because in every marriage sometimes, and in some marriages many times, the married couple must sublimate their natural desire for intercourse and express their mutual affection in other ways.

    No two marriages are the same in this respect. But, given the normal differences between the sexes and the additional differences of mood, and temperament and state of health and attitude of mind—married people are to expect that each must often practice sexual self-restraint in a hundred different ways—if their love is to be promoted and not injured by marital intercourse. Whatever patience, prudence and forebearance this calls for is immensely sanctifying. After all, where there is true love between the spouses, they know it is fostered by mutual restraint and injured by selfish indulgence, no matter how the selfishness is popularly named.

  4. Sexual experience is sanctifying as generosity because it is by their marital embrace that husband with wife generously welcome new human life into their lives according to the will of God. Their readiness to accept whatever children the Lord may wish to send them is more than avoiding sin. It is an expression of selfless altruism that puts into practice Christ’s mandate of love sometimes to a heroic degree.

As the Savior made it plain throughout His public life, but especially at the Last Supper, love is always self-giving and self-effacing. Can anyone doubt that marital intercourse that is open to new life, in today’s contraceptive world, is self-giving? Can anyone further doubt that such conjugal love is sanctifying? It is authentically Christian love because it is selfless love, with a selflessness that requires much grace and merits further grace from the God whose name is love.

Underlying this exalted concept of love is profession of faith in Christ’s divinity. When He told His disciples to love others as He loved them, He was telling them to love their fellowman as He, Who is God, loves the world He created and then became man to redeem. God’s love is boundless and totally generous. It is not coerced, but totally free. It is not self-seeking, but looks only to benefit the creatures whom God lovingly brought out of nothing to communicate to them, not yet existing, a share in His own infinitely happy being. The same God, with the same freedom and generosity, took on man’s humanity—not to enrich Himself, since it meant suffering and the Cross—in order to give of His goodness and (as God) to receive no profit from man in return.

This is the kind of love that Christ, through His merits, enables the married faithful to practice not only between themselves but from themselves (as one flesh) toward the yet unknown and unconceived children whom Providence wants to entrust to their care.

The realism of this love is intelligible only where the faith on which it is based is strong and ready to give testimony to what it believes.

Hence the new-found role of matrimony as a sacrament of sanctification twice over: once to themselves, because God enriches with His blessings those who for love of Him love the children He wants to send them; and once again to other people who see such Christian witness of generosity in the midst of a sexually selfish and self-preoccupied world.

To such couples the Lord has entrusted the task of making visible to men the holiness and sweetness of the law which joins the mutual love of husband and wife to their cooperation with the love of God who is the Author of human life.

In this way, Christian husbands and wives help to sanctify the world by their witness in making visible to the world Christ’s law of love by a two-fold visibility: by their marital fidelity, which testifies to their unitive love for each other; and by their marital generosity, which testifies to their procreative love of the children whom they bear.

Sex As Temperance

Our second level of reflection on the relationship between sex and sanctity is to see how sex as temperance is a means of growing in holiness.

Before we say anything more, however, it should be noted that God’s creatures, here sex, can lead us to heaven and make us holy not only by being used but also by not being used. Everything that God made is good, because God made it; but its goodness for us depends on its being used in conformity with the will of God according to each one’s state of life.

For those who are not married, or even though married in their relationship to anyone else than their own spouse, sex is sanctifying if it is not deliberately experienced. Another word for this is temperance.

We usually associate temperance with avoiding excess in food and especially drink. But actually temperance refers to the proper control of all our bodily and emotional impulses. When temperance refers to the control of the urge for sexual gratification it is called the moral virtue of chastity.

As such, it is morally binding on everybody, men, women and children; the married and the unmarried; priests, religious and the laity. All are bound by an obligation that is grave, to deliberately not indulge in sexual pleasure except in marriage, according to one’s married state in life.

For the unmarried, therefore, the nature of chastity means total abstention from any deliberate desire for or indulgence of sexual (or, as we also call it, venereal) pleasure.

Hence, as the latest declaration of the Holy See makes clear, premarital relations are mortally sinful, so also are masturbation and homosexuality, and no amount of sentimentalism or psychologism can make these sins sinless.

Basically, then, sex as temperance is the virtue of chastity, but chastity as self-control. It means that through self-discipline and the help of God’s grace a person refrains from deliberately giving in to a powerful human drive. The drive is powerful because on it finally depends the continuation of the human race. It has been compared with the instinct for self-preservation; only here it is the preservation of human society.

As such, sex as the virtue of temperance is knowable by reason and provable by human logic. If nothing else, we know that people who do not control their sex appetite end up not controlling other desires. They become victims of their lusts, and the hospitals and mental institutions have their share of the slaves of sex passion.

But one question still remains. How is sex as the virtue of temperance sanctifying? The answer is simple. Everything morally good we do in God’s friendship is ipso facto sanctifying. We gain supernatural merit which means we grow in the divine life, every time we perform the least good action in the state of grace. And the degree of merit is proportionate, other things being equal, to the effort we put into whatever we do in the practice of virtue.

As everyone knows, the practice of self-control in sex demands more than ordinary effort. It has been called “The Difficult Commandment.” Accordingly sex-control is not only pleasing to God but extraordinarily sanctifying.

Sex As Sacrifice

Our third and final reflection on sex as a means of sanctification goes beyond chastity as temperance. We may call it the practice of chastity as the love of God and the greater love of one’s fellowman—but its essence is sacrifice.

Except for Christ’s revelation on the subject, we should hardly know about the existence of this virtue, let alone would we see it put into practice.

What does this mean? It means that provided a person has the grace to make the sacrifice, he or she is able not only to restrain the sexual appetite but actually can offer up to God the pleasure to which we have a perfect natural right.

What are we saying? We are saying that, since the grace of Christ has been given to the human race, it is possible not only to practice sexual self-control but to make what we may call sexual self-sacrifice.

There is quite a difference between controlling, in the sense of not indulging, and surrendering, in the sense of freely and voluntarily giving up to God.

When I practice chastity as temperance, I am abstaining from a pleasure; and the abstention pleases God; and it makes me more holy because I am doing the will of God.

When I practice chastity as sacrifice, I am more than abstaining. I am willingly and (with divine grace) cheerfully offering God the pleasure as an oblation to the divine majesty. I am offering a sacrifice, which is the surrender of something precious, and sex is precious, out of love for God.

No other motive is adequate because no other will inspire a lifetime surrender of sexual experience except love. I elevate the virtue of temperance to a divine plane. I surrender what God and I know is a source of great and (in marriage) legitimate satisfaction not only because I fear to offend God but because I want to do something more for God by pleasing Him through this noble sacrifice.

But it is not only out of love of God that people undertake to practice consecrated chastity that we are calling sexual sacrifice. They are also moved by their love for others.

How so? We have the answer by now in the annals’ of human history since the time of Christ. Tens of thousands who wished to signalize themselves in the service of their neighbor, in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, sacrificed the blessings of marriage. They knew what experience testifies, that loving chastity is really loving charity. It does many things:

  • It liberates the human spirit to give itself generously to the service of others.

  • It enlightens the human mind to see the needs of others and become extraordinarily thoughtful of their wants.

  • It sensitizes the human heart to know human problems and want to relieve human misery.

And all the while, chastity as sexual sacrifice out of love sanctifies those who are faithful to their chaste commitment. It empowers them to draw close to the chaste Christ and His virgin Mother; and again, provided they are faithful to their generous surrender, it enables them to sanctify everyone who enters their lives and draw them nearer to God.


We began this conference by emphasizing the fact that Catholic Christianity considers the human body sacred. It was made by God as man’s creator and was assumed by the Son of God in the Incarnation. I would like to close the conference by making this observation. It is unrealistic to even talk about sanctity, and impossible to achieve it unless a person takes sex seriously and sees it as a measure of his desire to please God.

Not all have the same calling and not all receive the same grace from the Almighty. But no believer in Christ can become holy unless the sexual desires in his or her life are in harmony with the will of God. Or, put it another way, everyone who loves God knows he must live a chaste life according to his vocation. Chastity in every state of life is the norm of a person’s charity. Chaste people, whether married or single, whether priests, religious or the laity, are selfless people. They love God more than themselves and are therefore ready to prove their love always by self-control; if they are married, by the grateful use of their powers of generation according to the divine will; and if they are called to celibacy, by the generous surrender of an experience that divine revelation compares to the enjoyment of Paradise.

If we shall all finally be judged by our practice of charity, it is not too much to say we shall also be judged by our practice of chastity. Why? Because only the pure of heart shall see God; all others will be excluded from the marriage feast that God has prepared for those who love Him.

But chastity has its rewards already in this life, as anyone who sincerely tries to keep himself chaste can testify. It is not as though chastity were oppressive and sex indulgence exhilarating. Just the opposite. Chaste people are happy people; the unchaste are not happy. What a discovery for some people to make! That as they grow in self-mastery and use or sacrifice sex experience as God wants them to do, they grow in holiness, which is known to God alone. They also grow in happiness, which God wants us to have now as a foretaste of the heaven where “there will no longer be marriage or giving in marriage,” and which is our destiny in the life to come.

Human Sexuality in Our Time: What the Church Teaches
Edited by Msgr. George A. Kelly, © 1979
Daughters of St. Paul, pp. 138-147

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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