One of the most challenging aspects of religious vocation today in the Church is to view the area around sexuality as it is expressed in virginity, celibacy, continence and chastity as a positive choice in life and for life. Very few external supports exist in our societies today which help one to remain chaste, never mind find the confidence and grace to embrace the other expressions of our sexual selves. And yet, it’s clear, both from the joyful, if often humanly demanding, lived experience of persons in the Church and the Church’s own constant teaching and tradition in this matter that one who, after careful discernment and the right guidance and spiritual support, chooses to live in this way chooses to live as a dynamic sexual person, in a specific way of life.
The starting point must always be that the sexual aspect of the human person is precisely that – one aspect among many; certainly, important and expressive of the self, but not the whole person. One of the most striking features of life today in secular society is the tendency to reduce the person to a tag, and in a very particular way, a sexual tag, using a descriptor which, fundamentally, refers only to perceived sexual identity or orientation, but makes that the overriding and dominant aspect of a person’s identity. The reasons for this taking place are many and complex and not our focus of attention here. But it should be enough to note that it is and has become the basis for the promotion of gender ideologies and communities which identify themselves first and foremost with a sexual descriptor. From any healthy point of view this is relativist and reductionist.
It also promotes the identification of the person based almost solely on a sexual-gender characteristic to a new level, and often one in which terms like virginity, celibacy, continence and chastity disappear. One of the very important things that Catholic teaching and understanding can do in the discussion around vocation (not just religious vocation, by the way – any baptismal vocation lived as a witness to the Gospel!) is to reclaim the essential core content in the matter of the sexual dynamism of the human person, and how that sexual dynamism stands at the service of the growth of the individual, and the growth of human society, and the growth of the kingdom of God. In this sense, virginity, celibacy, continence and chastity become rich expressions of the sexual human person who is graced both as person and as one called in vocation.
What is it, in the first instance, to identify virginity and to appreciate its value as a way of life or characteristic which expresses a human fullness? Virginity has been understood – and misunderstood – on many levels. That fundamental level – the physical – is, even of itself, often presented in a narrow sense. To lose one’s virginity, while perhaps not today having the same misplaced social kudos that it seems once to have had, still is bound to a purely physical reality, because it is penetrative. And there is the knowledge with it that, once lost, it cannot be restored. Undoubtedly the loss of virginity can seem like the opening of the door to further sexual encounter, and it takes courage, humility, awareness, the support of others to be able to set aside until the right time that next fully sexual engagement with another.
Scripture does set immense evangelical store by the living out of virginity, and especially in the New Testament writings a life of virginity acquires a symbolic kingdom value which lifts the physical reality to another level, or rather adds another layer of witness to the sign of physical and lived virginity. And we should note at this point that preserving that virginity which is a matter of reality, for some part of our lives, for all of us is a matter of a decision which the person makes – I choose to lay aside my virginity, or I choose to preserve it. Only with that choice, made freely by myself, is my virginity preserved or set aside. This is true, also, of these other states and virtues – continence, celibacy, chastity – which are expressive of the sexual aspect of the human person: all involve very definite choice, mature choice which involves me at a deep and reflective level, a choice which represents me acting as a free human person.
Father Raniero Cantalamessa writes:
“Virgins are not people who renounce marriage. They are people who renounce life-long commitment to a creature. This becomes true and obvious for virgins from the moment when they make the personal discovery of Jesus as “Lord” of their life, and realise that this Lord is not Someone who belongs only to the past (when he was on earth), or only to the future (when we too will be with Him in heaven), but that, in virtue of his resurrection he is alive “in the Spirit” and is present at every moment in his Church. So it is not a question of a virgin man or woman renouncing a “concrete” love for the sake of an “abstract” one, a real person for an imaginary one. It is a matter of renouncing one concrete love for another concrete love, one real person for Another Who is infinitely more real. The difference is that in one case the union is “according to the flesh”, in the other “according to the Spirit”Raniero Cantalamessa OFM Cap, Virginity
And with this we are led into the very sphere in which the Christian gift of lived virginity must be situated – it is an expression of and participation in love, and love of the one who is love himself and who comes to us as love and in love.
It should strike us as bizarre that we baulk at the use of the term “renunciation”. After all, when we commit ourselves in a lifelong relationship with another person the very nature of that relationship – which is built upon respect for myself and respect for the other, acceptance of myself and acceptance of the other, love of self and love of the other – brings with it the renunciation of other relationships which might be seen as its equal. To do otherwise is to offer a sham commitment to another, or a qualified commitment to another, a commitment which is, at best, partial and non-committal! Unfortunately, for a considerable amount of time now, the idea of commitment has become a very watered down reality and is often a matter of legal exceptions and “get out” clauses. This commitment becomes premised on the notion that I will stick with this for as long as it suits me and benefits me, but when things become tough, complex, or appear to be beyond acceptable reconciliation, I reserve the right to dissolve the partnership. Such a commitment never really prepares itself for the long haul and for patient perseverance, and rarely looks to establish the tools and trust which will allow for the growth which is so central to real human relationship.
When I renounce one thing in favour of another I make a clear statement – the thing which I accept now is the best of its kind for me, and nothing else will supplant it, challenge it, replace it. If this is the bottom line in Christian marriage, it is also the bottom line in the spousal relationship which sees one who values exterior and interior virginity cleave to Christ as the one who cannot be replaced by any other. And using the word spousal is important here: it’s Christ himself who speaks of himself as the Bridegroom and that immediately places an exclusive relationship with him in a spousal context.
Virginity, then – both exterior, physical virginity and interior spiritual virginity which aims at the promotion of purity of heart – provides a context for the one who seeks to live a religious vocation also as a sexual person. It is not a denial of the sexual person, nor a nullifying of one’s sexual identity – on the contrary, it places sexual identity and personhood to the fore in the framework of an exclusive relationship with Christ, a relationship which is known to be and desired as the single most formative personal relationship in a consecrated person’s life.
When we speak of chastity we speak about a graced virtue which is not exclusive to vowed religious, but is one which is the common calling of all Christians. The Church teaches in the YouCat that
“Chastity is the virtue by which a person who is capable of passion deliberately and resoluelty reserves his or her erotic desires for love and resists the temptation to fnd lewd images in the media or to use other means of achieving his or her own satisfaction. A person who lives chastely is not the plaything of his lusts but, rather, lives his sexuality deliberately, motivated by love, and as an expression of that love. The Catholic Church advocates a holistic-ecological approach to sexuality. This includes sexual pleasure, which is something good and beautiful; personal love; and fruitfulness, which is openness to having children. It is the understanding of the Catholic Church that these three aspects of sexuality belong together”YouCat 404
This very dense and yet very beautiful statement recognises, in the first place, the immense beauty of human sexuality and its entirely positive nature, origin and end. One cannot avoid saying that, in the matter of sexuality, the dignity of the human person has to occupy first place, and that the use of one’s sexuality must always be an expression of that profound and incontrovertible dignity. This is precisely where chastity, and chaste love, comes in – it respects the person at all times. Chastity is not prudishness, nor some kind of effected embarrassment about the body or the sexual expression proper to the person. Nor is it some kind of moral straitjacket designed to curtail a person’s sexual being. On the contrary, it is a realm of freedom in which the person becomes truly themselves by exercising the choice to present one’s sexuaity and expression as worthy in itself. Chastity, therefore, is a context in which sexual being is realised. A married couple are asked to express their love for one another in a chaste way, in other words, in a way which gives the other the respect which human dignity asks, in which the sexual act is seen as truly human, and in which it unites and at the same time remains open to fruitfulness. Chastity in marriage makes real the love which the spouses profess for one another, because it gives their sexual life meaning and context.
In the same way, by extension and analogy, those who are not called to married life, who remain in the single life, or who live their lives in the vocation to priesthood or consecrated religious life, must seek out that mature and maturing human response to the invitation to live a chaste sexual existence according to their state. This recognises that the sexual aspect of our being is dynamic, and never static. As such, we journey with it, and it journeys with us, and with every other aspect of who we are, and who we are becoming. Each of us, then, must discern how our living of love, in all its forms – erotic, friendship and transcendent – is coloured by our living it through chastity. Chastity will ask each of us, as we discover the true depth of our own human dignity, to choose that which respects both self and other.
Being specific about continence asks us to be specific about our genital sexual expression. If in general virginity asks for renunciation then continence asks for discerned abstinence. Again, this applies to all who, from a Church point of view, see their sexuality being fulfilled in conjunction with the living out of vocation. Continence is a matter of the will and the exercise of free choice – I choose to be continent, to abstain from the pleasure of genital activity: if it is imposed on me then, in truth, it becomes a lifeless thing, in which some part of me is “put on hold”, and for no good reason. As with all these aspects of the expression of self, we choose for a reason, and discern that that reason is in harmony with God’s will for me and others. After all, my sexuality should be an expression of my createdness, having been made by God in his image and likeness. It therefore asks for truthful living, discerned living, humble living. In my sexuality I also enter into the mystery of my personhood. Taking my sexuality for granted and taking for granted how I express my sexual self can either enhance that sense of the mystery of my creation and call to be as fully as possible God’s image, or it can lead to degradation of that great call and reality. This is why the use of and promotion of pornography, and all those media which depend upon it, in all its many very grave forms, strikes fundamentally against the goodness and beauty of the human person – the reduction of the sexual person to object to be used purely for pleasure is to reduce God’s plan for the fulfillment of the human person to nothing. Pornography belittles and dehumanises those who make it and produce it and take part as “actors” in it, and it does the same for the user and promoter. Needless to say it also projects an idea of sexual relationship which is reduced to purely a pleasurable state, and one in which the use of the other person is the accepted norm. At its extreme it also promotes abuse and violence towards the human person, in its most distressing form when it is directed against children and infants and those who are most vulnerable in any society.
Continence, be it temporary or permanent, is then good when it is willed for a good reason. Generally, it is a long term choice and practice, otherwise it is simply periodic abstinence.
When we speak about celibacy we are speaking about the reality of a charism – a gift asked for and given by the Holy Spirit – which exists for the fulfilling of a ministry within the Church and in service of the People of God. There can be no doubt but that when a man is asked to choose celibacy as part of his ministerial priestly life (and he must choose it, otherwise it is an imposition against his will) he does so in order the better and more fully to devote himself to service of God and the kingdom. We can’t lose sight of this. Often it is said that priests, if they were able to marry, might be in a better position to see and speak to the difficulties of their people; that being married a man who is a priest will find that role of husband-spouse-father a complement to his priestly function and so find greater fulfillment as a human person; that a priest who is married will have less chance to fall into loneliness and isolation, and perhaps avoid pitfalls like passing and casual sexual relationships, or a tendency to use and overuse social media and other outlets because he has in some way experienced the affective need as a man which all men feel and desire to be fulfilled, but finds it unfulfilled; that being married he might avoid compensating in other ways for lack of a spouse and for that complementary human companionship. And so it goes on.
A great many of those things might be true. And a great many of those things might be lacking in men who are married and have families; or in ministers in other ecclesial communities and churches who are married and have families. How many married men who are fathers and spouses betray their partners and children and family life by sustaining, often over very long periods of time, another relationship, with a woman, or indeed another man? How many compensate for a lack of fulfillment in marriage by looking to the consolation of pornography, or gambling, or addicition, or material interest, or other diversions? And how many beat and abuse their wives and children, even though married and fathers?
What we are speaking about here in the celibate male who is a priest or religious is the fundamental human development of the person, a development which is, first and foremost, physical, emotional, psychological, mental, affective and intellectual, and which is given glue and depth by the grace of the spiritual. Celibacy will never work for a man if he is not already looking to his own holistic human development, recognising that his celibacy is a hermeneutic for the interpretation of his entire self and service, and that, if he is to make a beginning of living as a celibate and consecrated male, he must ask for the renewal of the gift of celibacy every day. Otherwise, he runs the risk of living simply as a man neutered by his call, and that will only ever lead to darkness and bitterness and hatred, of self, others and God.
Of course, in all these graces and choices there will be moments when we fall apart! Choosing to be virgin, chaste, continent or celibate doesn’t mean that I stop being human, and being human I’m going to slip every now and again! Those slips come for a variety of reasons, most of them nothing whatever to do with the sexual side of myself. What counts is the embrace of real compunction and a recognition that, in humility and in humiliation, I can’t manage to live these aspects of my life by myself – I am called to a graced existence, one lived with God’s love for me which supports me along the way, forgiving me when I need it, ask it and allow it to penetrate my hardness of heart, redeeming me when I recognise that he must be the one controlling my waywardness, but only when I offer it to him, and transforming me into a lover, who loves because he knows that he is loved already, and who wants to bring his entire self, sexual and all, into God’s loving and transforming embrace. And more often than not I will never be able to live these gifts and challenges if I do not seek the comfort, support, understanding, friendship, affection, and love which other men and women can give me, and seek to open myself fully to them so that I can return the same comfort, support, understanding, friendship, affection and love.
Then, virginity, chastity, continence and celibacy are on the way to become signs of the kingdom, that is to say, signs of God, who is love, present among us now, and of the fulfilling of the kingdom, when God’s love will make us, and all things, complete and new. And I can become a sign – not just sexually, but as myself – with them.
-Part of our series on ‘Vocation’-