Chastity Before Marriage: a Fresh PerspectiveMARK LOWERY
The experience of chastity as a negative phenomenon must be replaced with an experience of chastity as an entirely positive phenomenon.
And yet, even such admirable young couples with the best of intentions find themselves in situations of grave temptation. Some yield to that temptation, sometimes with pregnancy as a result. One reason this occurs is a faulty attitude toward the Church’s condemnation of fornication. It is seen as something to avoid, and to avoid for very good reasons. But it is still seen as a negative phenomenon: “We don’t get to have this great expression of our love for another how many years.”
Once it is viewed as a primarily negative phenomenon, it is all too easy — especially given the fierceness of passion between two people very much in love — to rationalize: we’re mature enough to handle just one taste of it now. We want so badly to be a real married couple now, we’ll act just a little older than our age. We can handle it. It’s not quite entirely fair that we have to wait.
An entirely different attitude is needed. The experience of chastity as a negative phenomenon must be replaced with an experience of chastity as an entirely positive phenomenon. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2350) wonderfully contains this positive message: “Those who are engaged to marry are called to live chastity in continence. They should see in this time of testing a discovery of mutual respect, an apprenticeship in fidelity, and the hope of receiving one another from God. They should reserve for marriage the expression of affection that belongs to married love. They will help each other grow in chastity.” What follows is a meditation on, an unraveling of, that message.
You cannot have a healthy marriage without chastity — that virtue by which we are in control of our sexual appetite rather than it being in control of us. And chastity is a tough virtue to develop. If it is not in full development before marriage, it is going to be very hard to develop after marriage. So, before marriage is the time to accomplish this very positive thing, the virtue of chastity.
This is a courageous thing to do, a positive thing to do. Males need to see it as the ultimate manly thing to do, and they need to take the lead in the couple’s mutual accomplishment of moral toughness. Note the complete change in perspective: abstaining before marriage is not a matter of “sticking it out” — for with that attitude, what real difference does it make if you don’t quite make it? Rather, it is a matter of accomplishing, finishing, a great task. It is an “apprenticeship in fidelity.”
Consider some concrete steps for accomplishing this great task — and remember that no matter how far you’ve gone in the opposite direction you can turn around now.
Too many couples who have the best intentions easily get caught in that trap — and with one step after another, their resolve gradually vanishes. A direct about-face in attitude is required. The time prior to marriage is a time of preparation, a time to accomplish a great task: demonstrating to each of and to the world that you are not ruled by your passions. It is not “kind of unfair” to have to wait right at the time when sexual passion is so pronounced; rather it is eminently fair that so challenging a task be given right at that time. There exists an inherent commensurability between the difficulty of the task of preparation and the gravity of that which one is preparing for. If sexual passion can be mastered now, when that passion is at a certain height, it is mastered for a lifetime, a lifetime that will provide challenges of all sorts and intensities.
Encouraging such attitudes is also enormously important for helping young people discern whether their vocation is to marry or to remain celibate (entering religious life or the priesthood). Too often, young people think that if they have a good dose of libido, they probably aren’t called to celibacy. But in point of fact, everyone is called to master sexual passion, in preparation for either the married state or the celibate state.
Only when sexual passion is under control is one fit to make a mature decision about either marriage or celibacy. With this attitude, there will be many more vocations to priesthood and religious life, many marriages with more stability and happiness, and many pre-married couples with much happier courtships.
One final suggestion for the “apprenticeship in fidelity.” John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor 52 notes that “...there are kinds of behavior which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person.” This article has focused on those acts incompatible with the apprenticeship in fidelity. The pope goes on to make a startling and profound exhortation: “Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil” (emphasis added). One way to express this point is to say “I’d rather die than violate a moral norm.” This is a good motto for the apprenticeship in fidelity. Say it every day.
Mark Lowery. “Chastity Before Marriage: A Fresh Perspective.” The Catholic Faith (May, 1998): 14-16.
Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.
Mark Lowery is an associate professor of theology at the University of Dallas. He holds advanced degrees in theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee. Mark Lowery is the author of Living the Good Life: What Every Catholic Needs to Know About Moral Issues.
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