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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

Religious Vows: The Teaching of the Church - Chastity

December 26, 1983 — Evening Conference

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

As we have so far seen, Pope John Paul told the American Bishops that the consecration of Religious to Jesus Christ is "through the profession of the evangelical counsels by public vows." The Pope further identifies the sources of the Church's teaching, especially the Second Vatican Council. And then he ends by declaring where this doctrine on the vows is found in definitive, legislative form, namely, the new Code of Canon Law.

My purpose will be first of all to see what the Code says in general about the three counsels that a Religious undertakes to practice under vows, and then we shall concentrate first on the counsel and vow of chastity, and reserve the next two vows for later reflection.

First, the text of the Code. The three counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience occur in sequence in the new Code. What does the Church tell us about the first of these commitments? "The evangelical counsel of chastity embraced for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is a sign of the world to come and a source of greater fruitfulness in an undivided heart. It involves the obligation of perfect continence observed in celibacy."

Why is chastity now given first place, why, in other words, do we no longer begin with poverty? There are several reasons for the change in emphasis. First of all, the revelation of the evangelical counsels in the New Testament has this sequence. First, chastity. Recall the context of Christ being tested by the Pharisees who were trying to trap Him in asking whether it was lawful for a man to put away his wife for any reason and marry another. It was in that atmosphere that Christ first revealed consecrated chastity.

Moreover, consecrated chastity is especially under fire in today's sex-mad world. Some years ago, our Father General told us Jesuits, "The main reason for so many people leaving the Society of Jesus is chastity." A book that I am not recommending except for judicious readers is Father Rueda's The Homosexual Network, incredible in research and information on the degree to which failure in observing this vow of chastity is near the bottom of the disintegration of so many once flourishing institutes of men and women.

We are still considering why chastity is listed first and will be for generations to come in the Church's description of what Religious Life means: first, living a life of consecrated chastity. The final reason we can offer is that the witness of faithful chastity is of paramount importance today. Somebody must testify to the power of grace over fallen human nature with the almost universal breakdown of family life in the Western world.

In the sentence we earlier read, the Code of Canon Law begins by giving the fundamental motive for consecrated chastity. It is for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. As we know, these are the words of Christ Himself from the Gospels when laying down the law of monogamy, one man and one woman until death. For the past twenty-five years I have been teaching world religions. There has never been any other religion in history, there is not now and I am sure there never will be, except Christianity that makes fidelity in marriage and unity of one husband with one wife until death as a condition for salvation. And within Christianity, only Catholicism; and within Catholicism, only where it is still true, authentic Catholic Christianity.

Martin Luther wrote no less than sixty-seven volumes when he broke with Catholic unity in the sixteenth century. By now thousands of volumes have been written in commentary on why there was a so called Protestant Reformation. I'll give you the reason in one word; it is a monosyllable: sex. Married people wanted to remarry and vowed celibates wanted to be released from their celibacy.

The underlying motive, then, for consecrated chastity is "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." What did Christ mean and what does the Church understand by "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven"? Many things. Those who under God's grace promise God to live a consecrated chaste life do so in order to more surely reach heaven. Again, they do so in order to gain greater happiness in the life to come. They are moved by the desire to win graces for others to reach heaven. St. Alphonsus Liguori, the Founder of the Redemptorists and the Patron of Spiritual Directors, without a qualm says, "Most of those in hell are there because of sins against the sixth and ninth commandments." Whatever we can do by our faithful chastity to help others remain chaste is a most powerful way of preserving people from hell.

The Church's Code of Canon Law also tells us that our consecrated chastity is to be a sign of the world to come. Christ tells us that in the world to come there will be no more marrying or giving in marriage. The number of the predestined will have been completed; there will be no more children, no more procreation, and therefore no more marriage. That is heaven.

Moreover, consecrated chastity testifies to a deep faith, and it must be very deep. For the sake of the world to come, a normally sane, sober human being will do the humanly unimaginable, of sacrificing that for which over the centuries kingdoms have been destroyed.

The Church further tells us that this vow of chastity is to be "a source of greater fruitfulness in an undivided heart." Memorize that. This is evidently fruitfulness of spirit that the Church is talking about. We are all to be reproductive, we are all to multiply ourselves - not all of us in body, but all of us in spirit. No one will get to heaven alone; either we help ethers get there or we won't reach heaven ourselves. As experience of the Church's teaching has shown, one of the conditions for even minimal fruitfulness of spirit is bodily chastity. Who over the generations of the Church's far flung missionary enterprise have been the most zealous, evangelizing whole nations? Francis Xavier in ten short years baptized over one-hundred thousand people, wearing himself out for souls. Who have been the zealous to reproduce Christ in others? Have they not been those who have sacrificed their perfectly natural and understandable pleasures of marriage in order to reproduce themselves in those whom they would bring to Christ? In all honesty, we will have as much influence over others as we are absolutely selfless in our zeal. Selfish people convert nobody. All they can do, depending on the measure of their selfishness is pervert. So the Church tells us that it is the undivided love of a chaste soul that God blesses with a remarkable, nothing less than miraculous, fertility of spirit.

Finally, the Church tells us what the vow of chastity involves. It may be clearly stated in one short sentence. It involves "the obligation of perfect continence in celibacy." Three words, all beginning with a "c" and all meaning almost (but not quite) the same thing: chastity, continence, and celibacy. Chastity is basically the virtue of temperance in the reasonable restraint of our sexual passions according to our state of life. Chastity is a precondition for salvation. No unchaste person will reach heaven. Remember the Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on Christian Marriage? It had what was for some people a strange title, in the Latin Casti Connubii, "Chaste Wedlock". Married people also have to practice chastity to be saved. And the two most depressingly widespread forms of unchastity in marriage are infidelity and contraception; these are the two grave sins against marital chastity.

Those who are not married are forbidden by divine law the external and internal sins against chastity in response to Christ's new focus of teaching on the sixth and ninth commandments. None of us takes a vow to simply keep the sixth and ninth commandments. Chastity is an obligation, binding according to one's state of life, on every human being.

Continence, depending again on one's state of life, is the control of even the least sexual impulse to which I in my state of life do not have a right. Continence is a perfection of chastity. But the Church tells us that those living a consecrated life are to practice the obligation of perfect continence voluntarily undertaken. As Religious we bind ourselves to not deliberately arouse or, if indeliberately stimulated to enjoy, what people in other states of life (say, the married) may; or what even the unmarried who are contemplating marriage or who at least are open to marriage may legitimately experience. Naturally speaking, men enjoy the company of women and women enjoy the company of men. Perfect continence means that we not only surrender the external sense experience but even the interior motions of one's soul.

Celibacy means the sacrifice of marriage. There is a difference, however, between not being married and sacrificing marriage. The first may be sheer necessity; the second is freely undertaken out of love for God.

What are the practical implications?

First. No one who understands human nature has any doubt that the faithful life-long practice of consecrated chastity calls for exceptional grace from God. Therefore, the first practical implication is the need for obtaining this grace from God and to be sustained in grace, to keep getting grace; otherwise, having generously undertaken to live a life of celibacy you will give up, as so many have already sadly done. There is no possibility of remaining chaste faithfully in consecrated life without much assiduous, constant prayer. There are no exceptions. Every person who proves unfaithful to their consecrated chastity has failed to pray. And the stronger the impulses, the more demanding the passions, the more subtle the sex stimulation, the more you must pray. There should be a daily examination of conscience, even if for just a moment, of how faithfully I have kept my chastity today. Cultivate the habit of immediately calling upon God when tempted. Keep united with God, especially when you are exposed, as the circumstances of our lives may demand, to sex stimulation that we know from past experience may be too strong for us.

Second. There is a very close relationship between charity and chastity. This means that we as Religious must cultivate charity as a necessary precondition for chastity. Selfish people become unchaste people. Our hearts were made to love, and love does not mean getting; love means giving of myself selflessly. And the degree to which I do so before God, He will enable me to practice chastity so that in loving others, no matter how amiable or amenable or attractive or appealing or delightful or delicious or pleasant their company may be, we may love them for themselves and not for ourselves. The armor of chastity is selfless charity.

Third. In much the same way there is a close connection between chastity and humility. St. Paul told the dissolute Romans of his day that God had allowed them to follow the most debase vices and fall into the most lecherous crimes of unchastity because of their pride. Such is happening in our own beloved United States today. If we want control of our passions so that they will obey our will, then we must submit our wills to God. Proud people cannot remain chaste. If we want to remain faithful to our consecrated chastity, not to say develop this precious angelic virtue, we must be humble.

Four. Keep busy, not with a lot of muscular motion but psychologically busy. This is no cheap proverb, that "an idle mind is the devil's workshop". It is. Chastity begins in the mind so that if we wish not only to keep chastity but develop the virtue, we must be sure that our imagination is under control. For some people this can mean great austerity inside, and you won't even get credit from people from watching your penance and saying, "My, how mortified she is!" Watch what you think; otherwise you will lose control over what you desire. Every thought tends to become a desire.

Fifth. To remain chaste we must be prudent in our contacts with people: whom we speak with, for how long, what time of the day or night, what we say. To men I say, "Have a heart"; to women I tell them, "Use your head". You don't lose ten thousand Priests in the United States in less than twenty years without a reason; you don't lose almost sixty-thousand Sisters in our country since the Council without a reason. There are many reasons, but one is the lack of prudence in dealing with other people and not just with people of the opposite, but people of the same sex. There is no one more seductive than a lesbian woman.

Sixth. Chastity in our bodies requires discipline of our bodies. We are, after all, one of a piece. We must especially discipline our eyes. They are the windows of the soul, and that is no cheap aphorism.

Lord Jesus, You were conceived and born of a Virgin Mother. All Your life on earth You practiced the most perfect chastity. All of this was to teach us how you want us Religious to live - as You did. Teach us to see that our celibacy is the normal price you ask for bringing Your love to others. Help us to remain pure on earth so that we may join the company of those saintly souls who sacrificed their bodies in chastity and who are now enjoying Your virginal presence for all eternity.

Retreat given to and recorded by the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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