I have been planning to write another piece on singleness. In fact, I was going to write a piece on chastity. But then there was a shooting in Isla Vista, and I took a step back to wonder whether it was appropriate to write about chastity in light of someone who killed due to psychotic rage that took shape in his inability to “get some.”
I have decided that this is exactly the context in which we need to talk about chastity. Because while the shooter (whom I will not name and perpetuate his post mortem infamy) quite clearly articulates his unwilled abstinence, I would argue he neither possessed virginity in the way that the Church thinks about virginity, nor was he truly chaste.
So let’s talk about sex. Or rather, not-sex. Not-sex is when you are not having sex. Which, at least in a temporal context, includes everyone reading this article, I hope. You could be engaging in not-sex for a variety of reasons: because your spouse is not home, because my writing is super engaging, because you are a priest, because you are not married, because you took a vow, because your Tindr date stood you up, because he’s just not that into you. None of these things implies virtue. You could be a technical virgin, watching pornography to engage in self-stimulation. You could be an unintentional Manichean, hating the body and physical pleasure. You could be a good Catholic who simply isn’t married and is trying very hard to follow what that means. You could be a good Catholic who isn’t married and maybe has a history and is still trying to follow very hard what being a good Catholic means. You could live in one of those towns of population five, and are genetically related to everyone you encounter. You could be taking the GRE. What I am getting at is that you are not having sex. And that says nothing about anything.
Now that we have talked about nothing, let’s talk about something. Like virtue. Virtue is traditionally seen as excellence. If you possess the virtue of dental hygiene, your teeth probably sparkle. Virtue, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, is what disposes an agent to perform its proper operation or movement. That relies on a huge philosophical scaffolding that sums up to this: Things are supposed to do something, and if they fail to do what they intended to do, the are not excellent things in that respect. So when Comcast tells me they will be at my house “around ten-thirty” and they don’t show up due to “internal communication failures,” they are failing at their end of providing me with internet—we can say they failed because their purpose was to show up and provide me with wifi. Likewise, if you tell me you “are in a band,” you better be able to play more than Stairway to Heaven and that one Blink-182 song, bro; otherwise I would say your band will likely fail in its end. This is pretty common in our lives—we expect chairs to hold us up, doors to open, and Pinterest crafts to turn out just like the pictures.
So what about us? What is human excellence? A pretty good summary is “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” but since that isn’t very specific, Christ gave us the Holy Spirit to inspire various members of the Body of Christ, including the illumination of our conscience, to spell these things out for us. So after lots of thought, praying, fasting, Councils, and other such things, the Church helps us spell such things out.
One of the (many) virtues that humans are called to is the virtue of chastity. As a virtue in the wholly Christian sense, disposing us to our supernatural end that is Divine Union, chastity is a virtue for all of us, though it takes different forms and expressions. Again St. Thomas helps us out by instructing that chastity lets “a man make moderate use of bodily members in accordance with the judgment of his reason and the choice of his will.”
Okay, but is this the same as not having sex? Again, St. Thomas presupposes our questions: While discussing virginity (in the sense of a vowed intention), he turns to those who may have engaged in sexual intimacy and then repented. In their case he notes that the material integrity of the sexual organs is “accidental to virginity” as an indication of the material part of virginity—not having sex—whereas the formal aspect is the intention of the mind to not do this for God’s sake. Now, for those of us not seeking to take a vow of virginity, our chastity still bears a similar divide: the formal and material parts. Materially, it means we aren’t engaging in improper sexual activity given our state in life. Formally, it means that we do this because we seek to order our sexuality as God intended it: to the spousal union and the bringing about of children, or because we have made an intended vow to give up that particular good for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. Moreover, in a modified sense, chasity applies in marriage, where it means not having sex in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and with the wrong person, and because we seek to order our sexuality as God intended it.
Yet, as St. John Paul II reminds us, we cannot be too quick to take St. Thomas’s logical distinction as a real distinction. In life, the form and matter are deeply integrated: “the meaning of the body... is the way of living the body. It is a measure which the interior man, that is, that heart which Christ referred to in the Sermon on the Mount, applies to the human body with regard to his masculinity/femininity.” Ultimately, lust turns us against the purpose of our masculinity and femininity: a deep interpersonal communion with another in the masculine/feminine dichotomy. The love of this union serves as a common trail marker (the less common being the immediate union of vowed virgins to Christ) for the love Christ has for His Church, God for His Creation, and ultimately the interpersonal Trinitarian love of the Godhead. Our sexuality, and the actions expressing that sexuality, have a significance transcending the individual, towards a cosmic resonance.
This isn’t the same as “not getting any,” not at all.
Many articles have touched on the tendency to make an idol of sex in our culture, although this is an ancient tradition. While sex is a cosmic sort of thing, it is also an awkward and funny and frustrating (even when you are “getting some”) and normal kind of thing—somewhat reminiscent of man himself. Sex, not-sex, virginity, chastity—all with their own joys and struggles, really aren’t the summation of man any more than eating cake, not eating cake, gluten intolerance, or not wanting to eat cake are the summation of man. However, the way that our interior intentions shape our actions leaves an impression on our character. Sex is, from all accounts, pretty awesome. It should be, as “the world must be peopled.” But there are right and wrong ways to go about it, and there are right and wrong ways to think about it. I would suggest if your all-consuming analysis of the world is through the lens of what any given man/woman can do for you in bed, you might be missing the point of existence.
You know what? Chastity is hard. It’s hard for priests, it’s hard for members of the religious life, it’s hard for married couples, often particularly for those who are practicing NFP, it’s hard for engaged folks, it’s hard for intentional and vowed singles, and it’s hard for all the rest of us. Zedd and Haley Williams quite clearly articulate the only kind of intimacy our culture acknowledges: “Are you gonna stay the night? Doesn’t mean we’re bound for life. So, are you gonna stay the night?” Let’s be real—no one actually thinks that a one-night stand will solve her desire for intimacy, and most people will openly admit that they desire intimacy and companionship. But, in the case of a one-night stand, at least it might make you forget for a little bit, and sometimes that’s all we expect. This goes back to more troubling issues including disassociation from our families and the way that friendships are often separated by the trajectories of place and life. I ultimately believe that those topics are also essential to this discussion on the single life.
However, the topic at hand is virginity and chastity. Neither stand in contradiction to our desire for intimacy—the fact is, we were not made to be alone. Yet the resolution of this desire is not found in the sex/not-sex dichotomy. The resolution is found in realizing that our sexuality is one facet of the totality of being human. And thus, the complications of our wills, our desires, our ends all come into play in any sort of sexual expression. This interior reality—our admiration, desire, love, cherishing, pain, anger, desire to hurt—are determinative of, all the while shaped by, our external presentation. Being chaste has far less to do with when and if to kiss people, or who has or has not participated in sexual activities, and far more to do with whether our interior determination of the will is ordered to the proper end of sexual expression. Not every material virgin is chaste, not every formal virgin retains material intactness. One thing that this shooting, and the round of coverage surrounding it has demonstrated quite clearly is that morality is more than our materiality. While “man looks on the outward appearance … the LORD sees the heart.”
So yes—sometimes virtue is difficult. Sometimes it is lonely. Sometimes you feel like the last one standing. Sometimes you wonder if it is worth trying again, and if it even matters now. None of these feelings are unique to chastity. But I get it. Practicing chastity, singles, will not guarantee you a spouse, or a perfect spouse, or a perfect sex life, or fertility. Practicing chastity, married couples, will not guarantee that sex is always ecstatic, or that you will have children, or that your children will always come at your ideal moment, or that you will never have NFP angst. I hope it does, but those aren’t the rewards we pursue in seeking virtue. The reason to pursue virtue, and particularly the virtues that are most difficult, is simple. Pursue virtue because you love God: While you were still a sinner, Christ died for you. Union with the Divine Love of the Trinity through our union with Christ is the only thing that makes the struggle for holiness worth it.