On Chastity and Abstinence

Our present culture, speaking through a thousand movies, magazine articles, and television shows, takes it for granted that people will be sexually active, and that sexual activity has little or nothing to do with marriage. This activity is called “hooking up”, and there is apparently a kind of behavioural code governing it—for example, one is required to check back with one’s sexual partner after a day or two to see how they are. People not sexually active by the time they are twenty are regarded as abnormal, and as slightly comic, which is why “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin” is the subject and title of a comedy. Avoiding sex before marriage is no longer regarded as required by all in respectable society, but as at least quixotic, and perhaps as slightly pathological. What was once the virtue of chastity and self-control is now derided as evidence of retarded development, for all adults are sexual active, by definition. Abstinence is not regarded as a laudable but impossible goal (like running a three-minute mile), but as a kind of defect or disorder (like an inability to see colour or experience taste). She’s never ever had sex and she just turned twenty-one? Poor thing.   Who can we fix her up with?

The mores of present culture notwithstanding, the Church continues to insist that self-control is a virtue, that this virtue is attainable by anyone who really wants it, and that sexual activity is best experienced when confined to marriage. As C.S. Lewis once observed (in his book Mere Christianity), this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct as it now is has gone wrong.   In our day, all our impulses, instincts, and desires are declared to be “natural”, and therefore good. We “naturally” want to have sex, and so therefore we should. We use the word “natural” as a term of unqualified approval—“natural” food is better than artificial food, and “natural” ways of getting exercise are preferred to artificial ones. If something therefore is “natural” it by definition cannot be wrong.

This argument however must be used with care, for not all our instincts and desires are good. For example, we “naturally” want to overeat, but this desire, if continually indulged, will result in obesity, heart disease, and possibly early death. Some people “naturally” find themselves drawn to sexual perversion (such as bestiality), even though many will still say that such a desire is not a good one.   Apparently by “a natural desire”, our culture means nothing more than “a desire we happen to have”—which constitutes no great commendation of it. It is possible to have a natural desire to overeat, to lay around and get no exercise, and to view pornography every day, but the fact that we have these innate desires does not justify overeating, being a couch potato, or an addiction to porn. We therefore need to challenge the use of the term “natural” as a synonym for “innate”. We have innate desires for all kinds of harmful things, but this does not make them natural desires. A natural desire, according to Christianity, is a desire which God implanted in us as a part of our nature and as part of how we were meant to function, but it is possible for these natural desires to become inflamed or diseased. The natural desire for eating food, for example, can be inflamed so as to lead to gluttony, overeating, and obesity. Why cannot the natural desire for sex become similarly inflamed? In fact, the Church says, that is precisely what has happened to it. The desire for sex is natural, but like the desire for food, it must be limited and contained if it is not to do us harm. People have no trouble with acknowledging that we must exercise self-control when it comes to food; why the cultural hysteria when the Church counsels the same self-control when it comes to sex?

So, it is possible that even though sexual desire is natural, it need not be indulged every time it presents itself. But it still needs arguing that the Church is wise and correct in counselling such chastity and abstinence. To put it bluntly, what’s wrong with fornication (or “hooking up” as it is often called)? If two consenting adults want to have sex, what’s the problem?

The answer is that the Church forbids fornication because fornication gets in the way of one of the main purposes of authentic human sexuality, frustrating the first intended goal of sex, and diluting it. Note that I deliberately use the phrase, “authentic human sexuality” to differentiate it from animal sexuality. Obviously, “hooking up” presents no moral problems for animals. Cats and dogs regularly “hook up”, and that is pretty much the beginning and end of it. All things being equal, lots of feline and canine hooking up produces lots of kittens and puppies, but apart from the release of the moment and the eventual birth of offspring, nothing more is involved. Cats and dogs do not feel the necessity to exchange phone numbers afterward, or to call in a few days to see how the other is doing. There is no emotional baggage, and no psychological or spiritual connection. In other words, there is no possibility for love, self-transcendence, sacrifice, or growth. After the moment is concluded, Fido and Mitzi go their separate ways, and that’s about it.

Looking at the limited components of animal sexuality (or “mating”, as most people call it), gives us an opportunity to better understand the components and possibilities and goals of authentic human sexuality. The tragedy and glory of being human, of course, is that nothing is automatic with us, as it mostly is for the animals. We are not compelled by our human natures to grow, or to become holy, or even to become nice. We can become self-sacrificing and loving, or we can refuse and become self-indulgent and selfish. We can use our sexuality as a vehicle to grow in authenticity, or we can choose otherwise. Animals have no choice. Moral choice (and with it, the possibility of sin) is peculiar to humanity. We can treat our sexuality as a part of what separates us from the animal kingdom, or we can simply “hook up”. But God invented sex as a pathway to human growth, and merely hooking up does not set us upon this path to authenticity. People tend to forget that the Church teaches that God is the One who invented sex, and that He thought it was a good idea. Read Genesis, and the Song of Solomon. The Church is not “down on sex”, merely down on its misuse.

The reality is that sex involves what was once called “becoming one flesh”. This mingling and unity occurs whether one is married or not, and whether one intends it or not. Presumably those deciding to casually hook up have no intention of becoming one flesh with the partner, or of having any real long-term relationship. But becoming one flesh (or “one organism”, to use more modern language) occurs anyway, even if the hooking up is simply with a paid prostitute. St. Paul informs us that this is the case in 1 Cor. 6:16: “Do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute [Greek pornē] becomes one body with her? For He says, ‘The two will become one flesh’.”

One can deny St. Paul’s assertion all one likes, but the heart and the emotions know differently. “Casual sex” is a contradiction in terms. All sexual union involves opening up parts of one’s innermost self to another at a tremendously intimate and vulnerable level. That is why one instinctively seeks to “get a room” for privacy. That is why one feels the obligation afterward to say, “I’ll call you”, even when there is no real intention of doing so. Our secular culture does its best to deny this, and bombards us with movies, celebrity examples, books, and magazines which insist that casual sex is possible, and that no such inner connections are established by the sexual act. The secret inner history of young people, however, tells a different story, one of heartbreak, misunderstanding, and longing. In this as in so many other areas, our secular culture is lying. Any sexual act unites on a basic and lasting level.

As said above, nothing is automatic for human beings. The sexual act establishes an inner emotional connection with the partner, but one is not forced to nurture it. One can choose to instantly sever the connection, to pretend that it was never established and does not exist, and so to go cheerfully from partner to partner. But there is a cost attached to such pretending, and by this I do not refer to the possibility of unwanted pregnancy or sexually-transmitted disease, though these should not be discounted. I refer to the secret cost to the inner ability to make connections, to the creeping insensibility to the other, and the denied possibilities for growth. We see this insensibility in an advanced degree in those suffering from sexual addiction to pornography—for such persons, sex is no longer about love. It is no longer even about the other person with whom one is having sex. Sex has become distorted and diluted to such an extent that it is simply about having an orgasm. One such sufferer who had become addicted to pornographic fantasy described such sex with one’s partner as simply masturbating with another person. In such extreme cases the divinely-intended purpose of sex has been entirely overthrown. Sex was always meant to be about love and to nurture human connections.

When it is used the way God intended, repeated sexual union opens up the possibility of mutual long-term enrichment. By having sex with one’s marital partner, one has the possibility of investing in the other person, so that each is strengthened by the other, moulded by the other, given deeper identity by the other. Of course this is not automatic, and can be thwarted by selfishness and sin. But the possibility remains, and this is the goal of sexual union. (Having children is of course another goal, but I am speaking now merely the unitive power of sexuality, not its ultimate fruitfulness in creating other persons.) Even our culture recognizes this to some degree, in its fascination for couples who have been married to each other for many years and retain their love for each other.

Casual sex, therefore, involves sundering the act from the relationship and from love. Love is almost completely misunderstood in our culture. We define it as a feeling, an emotion, and speak of infatuation as “being in love”. In fact, love is not an emotion, but an action. We love the other not by feeling strong emotions of attachment, delight and infatuation (lovely as these emotions are), but by serving them and meeting their needs. If we love someone, we refuse to abandon them, but will stay with them despite the cost. This is the definition of marriage—to commit oneself to another in service and self-sacrifice, “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer”. This commitment provides the framework and the possibility for love to endure. Love says, “Even if you become old, and sick, and wrinkled, and poor, I will not abandon you. Nothing but death will drive me from your side.” Since we may become poor, and certainly will become old and sick and wrinkled, this assurance and the promise are necessary if love is to endure. Sex is meant to serve this love, and to bring the two lovers closer in a continually-reinforced emotional bond. That is why the Church insists that sex be reserved for marriage, for sex was created to lead the couple to this lasting fulfillment. Fornication short-circuits the real purpose of sex.

One last word about sex: the center of Christian morality is not here. Fornication is a sin, since it takes sexuality and wastes it on lesser things, and lessens our capacity for lasting joy. (That is partly what St. Paul means when he says in 1 Cor. 6:18 that the fornicator sins against his own body.) But there are worse sins than the sexual ones, and these involve the spirit and its temptations to pride more than they involve the body. To quote C.S. Lewis once again, “a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But of course,” he says, “it is better to be neither.”


  1. Fr, thank you for your post. Could you give a citation for the Mere Christianity reference in your second paragraph?

    1. Tristan: Happy to do so: the relevant bit is in Book III “Christian Behaviour”, chapter 5 “Christian Morality”. In the Collins Fount paperback edition it is on p. 86.

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