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Consecrated Chastity - A Mystery of Faith

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

It is remarkable how frequently we now hear or read about celibacy, among priests or religious, and how comparatively less often we hear about consecrated chastity.

One reason may simply be a cultural preference. The word “celibate” has a definite meaning in our society and people use it without a second thought.

But then again, there may be a deeper and less admirable reason for the preference.

As commonly used, celibacy essentially means not being married again, and a celibate is one who, though marriageable, is single for a variety of motives. There are celibate scientists who find that they are thus more free to devote themselves to science; there are celibate educators and scholars and writers and diplomats. They are not married because, perhaps, they would find marriage a hindrance to their profession or, perhaps, their spouse in marriage would find them so preoccupied with their career as to have little time for their married partner and even less time to rear a normal family.

Moreover, and this touches on the heart of the issue, as the modern world understands celibacy it means the exclusion of marriage, of course, but it does not necessarily exclude sexual activity. A man or a woman may be quite celibate, because not married, but may also be quite active sexually, and our pansexual society accepts the double standard without moral qualm.

Hence the value of being clear about what we mean when we speak about the consecrated chastity of a religious, and not merely its celibacy.

In order to probe more deeply into our subject and clarify what may otherwise be confusing, let me deal with this matter from several different perspectives, whose main purpose in this conference is to get a clear and distinct idea about what consecrated chastity means.

We shall approach this delicate topic under the following headings:

  1. Chastity as the virtue of temperance.

  2. Chastity as the virtue of charity.

  3. Chastity as a lifetime imitation of Jesus Christ.

Chastity as the Virtue of Temperance

We all know what the virtue of temperance means. Temperance is the virtue that governs our bodily and emotional desires, in two different ways. Concretely this means that a temperate person is able to restrain his natural appetite for food and drink, for ease and comfort and for sexual gratification.

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.

We are all bound by an obligation which is grave to deliberately not indulge sexual pleasure except in marriage, according to one’s married state of life.

For the married this means they are allowed full sexual pleasure within the marital embrace—provided they do nothing to deliberately prevent conception. But outside of their own mutual relations as husband and wife, married people too must practice chastity. They are forbidden the indulgence of their sexual appetites except in the sacramental union between themselves. This is not easy, as married people will tell you, since they see so much moral laxity all around them. Adultery is in the air they breathe. For the unmarried, the virtue of chastity as temperance means total abstention from any fully deliberate desire for or indulgence of sexual (or as we also call it, venereal) pleasure.

Hence, as the latest papal declaration on sexual morality declares, 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, chastity as temperance is essentially self-control. It means that through self-discipline and the helps 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 drive for self-preservation; only here it is the preservation of human society.

As such, chastity as temperance is knowable by reason and provable by human logic. If nothing else, we know from history and experience that people who do not control their sex appetite end up not controlling other appetites. They become victims of their lusts, and the hospitals and mental institutions are filled with the slaves of their sexual passions.

But chastity, through the same word is used, can also mean something more than mere temperance. It can mean the practice of chastity as the love of God and the greater love of one’s fellowman.

Chastity as the Virtue of Charity

Except for Christ’s revelation on the subject, we should hardly know about the existence of chastity as charity, 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; when I practice chastity as charity, I am more than abstaining. I am willing and (with divine grace) cheerfully offering God the pleasure that I do not so much fear as that I consider precious—and, therefore, pleasing to God—as an oblation to His divine majesty.

Notice, too, we said that chastity as charity is motivated by love, whereas chastity as temperance is basically motivated by fear. When I practice chastity out of love I sublimate the virtue of temperance; I elevate it to a higher sphere. I surrender what God and I know is a source of great natural 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 chastity. 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. Those who wished to signalize themselves in the service of their neighbor, in the corporal or spiritual works of mercy were, with rare exception, persons that sacrificed 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 more generously to others than, in God’s ordinary providence, is possible for those who are married.

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

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

  • It enlarges the human horizons to see beyond one’s own surroundings—certainly one’s own immediate kin—and thus gives those who are chaste, because they love, the capacity for loving more people, more effectively, and more selflessly than any other single gift to God can produce.

We might almost say that chastity as charity is animated by two great loves: the love of God for whom chastity is embraced, and the love of others in whose service chastity is exercised.

If chastity is the love of God as sacrifice; chastity is the love of our neighbor as service.

Chaste people are loving people. They give up a great personal satisfaction in order to say, not only in words but in action, and not only in spirit but in body. “I love You, My God.” And they proceed to put this love into practice by serving those whom God puts into their lives to prove that their chastity is sincere.

Chastity as a Lifetime Imitation of Christ

But we are not finished yet. Religious chastity does, of course, include the practice of the virtue of temperance. It also means that I am moved by the love of God and my neighbor. But when I vow myself by chastity I do more than practice the virtue of temperance or, for that matter, the virtue of charity.

What do I do? I bind myself, and I do so voluntarily, and I do so for a lifetime, and I do so under vow. Each of these four elements deserves special attention.

I bind myself voluntarily. Notice that there is no obligation, as precept, requiring anyone to a life of consecrated chastity. So far from its being a precept, before I do the self-binding, the Church is careful in the extreme to make sure that no one undertakes this responsibility without years of probation and years of formation. No one, antecedent to my desire to do so, tells me I must be a religious. I choose to become one. And then I have to wait a long time, some might feel too long a time, before I am permitted to make the oblation.

I do so for a lifetime. This is the acid test of a true vocation to consecrated chastity: the willingness, even before I take my final vows, to live a life of sacrificial chastity. I cannot foresee or predict the future. No matter. God knows my future and I trust Him that He will not allow me to be either deceived or deluded. The fact that He inspires me with the desire to live until death in faithful chastity I trust is a sign of His enduring grace to keep me faithful to my consecration.

I do so under vow. What does this add to my readiness to live a chaste life, until I surrender my body in death to God? My vow is the oath I pronounce by which I testify to God the sincerity of my commitment.

A vow is, therefore, no simple promise. It is a sacred affirmation by which I enter into covenant with the Almighty.

  • On my part I call upon God to witness that I am telling the truth. I am resolved to keep what I am offering to His hands, and never to retract or call the oblation back.

  • On God’s part, He ratifies the covenant by assuring me a lifetime of light and strength that I will need to remain faithful to my promise.

The vow of chastity is at once a pledge and a prediction. It is my pledge of loyalty to God. It is God’s prediction of His loyalty to me. He will never go back on His prediction, provided I do not go back on my pledge.

There is one more dimension, however, to consecrated chastity. This is the pattern and inspiration for anyone undertaking this generous form of life at all.

Why ultimately does a religious do it? He or she does it because of the prior inspiration from God. True, but God as God cannot practice chastity—no more than He can practice poverty or obedience.

Here we enter the precincts of mystery. Faith tells us that God became man to redeem us from our sins. So He did. But was that all?

No, God became man also to sanctify us in holiness. He not only wants us delivered from the slavery of the devil and enslavement by our own conceits. He wants us to be like Him, who is all-perfect. And our holiness is essentially Godlikeness.

So what did God do? He became man in order to reveal to us in human form what God is like so that, by becoming like Jesus, we shall be becoming like God.

Our final question is the critical one. What attribute are we imitating in God when we are imitating the chastity of Christ?

More than one attribute, we might say, but none more surely than God’s spirituality. He has no body. He is perfectly independent of all material things—beyond space and beyond time, beyond size, shape, or color, or sound; beyond all dimensions and extension. He has no bulk or quantity, no mass or corporal need. In a word, God is pure spirit.

In imitating Jesus in His chastity as man, we are imitating Jesus in His spirituality as God. Our chastity is a sign of what God can do with weak, fallen human nature. He can, by His grace, so master our bodily impulses that we become more and more like God, independent of that most imperious of all human drives—the drive for sexual satisfaction.

Christ, we believe, had perfect self-mastery, as man, over all His bodily emotions. We should expect this, since Christ is God. But we are called upon to imitate Him, the virginal Son of the Virgin Mary, to become like Him by grace what He was as the natural Son of God. All it takes is confidence in His goodness and complete reliance on His grace.

Unless He had first called us to this sublime state of life, we should not even be talking about consecrated chastity, let alone striving to live it out faithfully. But having called us, we may be sure He will not abandon us to our own weakness or whim.

The secret is to keep telling Him how much we need His aid. And since He gave us His Mother as the mediatrix of all graces, and in particular the grace of chastity, we should often invoke her and trust that she will hear our prayer, which may go something like this:

“Immaculate Virgin Mary, I confide my vow of chastity to your maternal heart. I ask your help to guard my senses, especially my eyes, for an unchaste eye is the messenger of an unchaste heart. Knowing my pride, I pray for that humility which invites the mercy of God. Knowing that I am human, I shall not be surprised at the urge of concupiscence, but trusting in your care I rely on your protection in all the graces that I need from your divine Son. Amen.”

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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