What Is Chastity?
In this article chastity is considered as a virtue; its consideration as an evangelical counsel will be found in the articles on CELIBACY OF THE CLERGY, CONTINENCY, and VIRGINITY. As a vow, chastity is discussed in the article VOW.
As a virtue
Chastity is the virtue which excludes or moderates the indulgence of the sexual appetite. It is a form of the virtue of temperance, which controls according to right reason the desire for and use of those things which afford the greatest sensual pleasures. The sources of such delectation are food and drink, by means of which the life of the individual is conserved, and the union of the sexes, by means of which the permanence of the species is secured.
Chastity, therefore, is allied to abstinence and sobriety; for, as by these latter the pleasures of the nutritive functions are rightly regulated, so by chastity the procreative appetite is duly restricted. Understood as interdicting all carnal pleasures, chastity is taken generally to be the same as continency, though between these two, Aristotle, as pointed out in the article on CONTINENCY, drew a marked distinction. With chastity is often confounded modesty, though this latter is properly but a special circumstance of chastity or rather, we might say, its complement. For modesty is the quality of delicate reserve and constraint with reference to all acts that give rise to shame, and is therefore the outpost and safeguard of chastity. It is hardly necessary to observe that the virtue under discussion may be a purely natural one. As such, its motive would be the natural decency seen in the control of the sexual appetite, according to the norm of reason. Such a motive springs from the dignity of human nature, which, without this rational sway, is degraded to brutish levels. But it is more particularly as a supernatural virtue that we would consider chastity. Viewed thus, its motives are discovered in the light of faith. These are particularly the words and example of Jesus Christ and the reverence that is owing to the human body as the temple of the Holy Ghost, as incorporated into that mystic body of which Christ is the head, as the recipient of the Blessed Eucharist, and finally, as destined to share hereafter with the soul a life of eternal glory. According as chastity would exclude all voluntary Carnal pleasures, or allow this gratification only within prescribed limits, it is known as absolute or relative. The former is enjoined upon the unmarried, the latter is incumbent upon those within the marriage state. The indulgence of the sexual appetite being prohibited to all outside of legitimate wedlock, the wilful impulse to it in the unmarried, like the wilful impulse to anything unlawful, is forbidden. Moreover, such is the intensity of the sexual passion that this impulse is perilously apt to bear away the will before it. Hence, when wilful, it is a grave offence of its very nature. It must be observed too, that this impulse is constituted, not merely by an effective desire, but by every voluntary impure thought. Besides the classification already given, there is another, according to which chastity is distinguished as perfect, or imperfect. The first-mentioned is the virtue of those who, in order to devote themselves more unreservedly to God and their spiritual interests, resolve to refrain perpetually from even the licit pleasures of the marital state. When this resolution is made by one who has never known the gratification allowed in marriage, perfect chastity becomes virginity. Because of these two elements — the high purpose and the absolute inexperience — just referred to, virginal chastity takes on the character of a special virtue distinct from that which connotes abstinence merely from illicit carnal pleasure. Nor is it necessary that the resolution implied in virginity be fortified by a vow, though as practised ordinarily and in the most perfect manner, virginal chastity, as St. Thomas following St. Augustine, would imply, supposes a vow. (Summa Theologiæ II-II.152.3 ad 4) The special virtue we are here considering involves a physical integrity. Yet while the Church demands this integrity in those who would wear the veil of consecrated virgins, it is but an accidental quality and may be lost without detriment to that higher spiritual integrity in which formally the virtue of virginity resides. The latter integrity is necessary and is alone sufficient to win the aureole said to await virgins as a special heavenly reward (St. Thomas, Suppl., Q. xcvi, a. 5). Imperfect chastity is that which is proper to the state of those who have not as yet entered wedlock without however having renounced the intention of doing so, of those also who are joined by the bonds of legitimate marriage, and finally of those who have outlived their marital partners. However in the case of those last mentioned the resolution may be taken which obviously would make the chastity practised that which we have defined as the perfect kind.
The practice of chastity
To point out the untenableness of the arguments advanced by McLennon, Lubbock, Morgan, Spencer, and others, for an original state of sexual promiscuity among mankind, belongs more immediately to the natural history of marriage. Westermarck, in his “History of Human Marriage” (London, 1891), has clearly shown that many of the representations made of people living promiscuously are false and that this low condition may not be looked upon as characteristic of savages, much less be taken as evidencing an original promiscuity (History of Human Marriage, 61 sqq.). According to this author, “the number of uncivilized peoples among whom chastity, at least as regards women, is held in honour and as a rule cultivated, is very considerable” (op. cit., 66). A fact which cannot be overlooked, of which travellers give unfailing testimony is the pernicious effect, as a rule, upon savages of contact with those who come to them from higher civilization. According to Dr. Nansen, “the Eskimo women of the larger colonies are freer in their ways than those of the small outlying settlements where there are no Europeans” (Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland, II, 329). Of the tribes of the Adelaide plains of South Australia, Mr. Edward Stephens says: “Those who speak of the natives as a naturally degraded race, either do not speak from experience, or they judge them by what they have become when the abuse of intoxicants and contact with the most wicked of the white race have begun their deadly work. I saw the natives and was much with them before those dreadful immoralities were known and I say it fearlessly that nearly all their evils they owed to the white man’s immorality and to the white man’s drink” (Stephens, The Aborigines of Australia, in Jour. Roy. Soc. N. S. Wales, XXIII, 480). Of the primitive Turko-Tatars, Professor Vambrey observes: “The difference in immorality which exists between the Turks affected by a foreign civilization and kindred tribes inhabiting the steppes becomes very conspicuous to anyone living among the Turkomans and Kara Kalpaks, for whether in Africa or Asia certain vices are introduced only by the so-called bearers of culture” (Vambrey, Die primitive Cultur des Turks tartarischen Volkes, 72). Testimonies to the same effect could be multiplied indefinitely.
The practice of chastity among the Jews
Several of the Mosaic ordinances must have operated strongly among the ancient Jews, to prevent sins against chastity. The legislation of Deuteronomy 22:20-21, according to which a bride who had deceived her husband into thinking her a virgin was stoned to death at her father’s door, must in the circumstances have powerfully deterred young women from all impure practices. The effect, too, of the law, Deuteronomy 22:28-29, must have been wholesome. According to this enactment, if a man sinned with a virgin “he shall give to the father of the maid fifty sides of silver and shall have her to wife because he hath humbled her. He may not put her away all the days of his life.” The Mosaic law against prostitution of Jewish women was severe, nevertheless through foreign women this evil became widespread in Israel. It is to be observed that the Hebrews were ever prone to fall into the sexual sins of their heathen neighbours, and the inevitable result of polygamy was seen in the absence of a recognized obligation of continence in the husband parallel to that imposed on the wife.
The unchastity of the post-Homeric Greeks was notorious. With this people marriage was but an institution to supply the State with strong and sturdy soldiers. The consequence of this to the position of women was most baneful. We are told by Polybius that sometimes four Spartans had one wife in common. (Fragm. in Scr. Vet. Nov. Coll., ed. Mai, II, 384.) The Athenians were not so degraded, yet here the wife was excluded from the society of her husband, who sought pleasure in the company of hetairai and concubines. The hetairai were not social pariahs among the Athenians. Indeed many of them attained to the influence of queens. Although the Romans styled excess of debauchery “Græcizing”, they nevertheless sounded greater depths of filthy wantonness in the days following the early republic than ever did their eastern neighbours. The Greeks threw a glamour of romance and sentiment about their sexual sins. But with the Romans, immorality, even of the abnormal kind, stalked about, its repulsiveness undisguised. We gather this clearly from the pages of Juvenal, Martial, and Suetonius. Cicero makes the public statement that intercourse with prostitutes had never been a thing condemned in Rome (Pro Cælio, xv), and we know that as a rule marriage was looked upon as a mere temporary relation to be severed directly it became irksome to either party. Never did woman sink to such degradation as in Rome. In Greece the enforced seclusion of the wife acted as a moral protection. The Roman matron was not thus restricted, and many of these of highest social rank did not hesitate in the time of Tiberius to have their names inscribed upon the ædiles’ list as common prostitutes in order thus to escape the penalties which the Julian Law attached to adultery.
Christianity and the practice of chastity
Under Christianity chastity has been practised in a manner unknown under any other influence. Christian morality prescribes the right order of relations. It therefore must direct and control the manner of relationship sustained to each other by soul and body. Between these two there is an ineradicable opposition, the flesh with its concupiscences contending unceasingly against the spirit, blinding the latter and weaning it away from the pursuit of its true life. Harmony and due order between these two must prevail. But this means the pre-eminence and mastery of the spirit, which in turn can only mean the castigation of the body. The real as well as the etymological kinship between chastity and chastisement then is obvious. Necessarily, therefore, chastity is a thing stern and austere. The effect of the example as well as of the words of Our Saviour (Matthew 19:11-12) is seen in the lives of the many celibates and virgins who have graced the history of the Christian Church, while the idea of marriage as the sign and symbol of the ineffable union of Christ with His spotless spouse the Church — a union in which fidelity no less than love is mutual — has borne its fruit in beautifying the world with patterns of conjugal chastity.
St. THOMAS, Summa, II-II, Q. cli-clii; Cont. Gent., L. III, c. cxxxvi; LESSIUS, De Just. et jure ceterisque virt. card., L, IV, c. ii, n. 92 sq.; ESCHBACH, Disputationes Physiologico-Theologicæ, Disp. v; DÖLLINGER, The Gentile and the Jew etc., II, Book IX; CRAISSON, De Rebus Venereis; BONAL, De Virtute Castitatis; WESTERMARCK, The History of Human Marriage, ch. iv, v, vi; GAY, The Christian Life and Virtues; II, Chastity.
About this page
- APA citation. Melody, J. (1908). Chastity. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 1, 2012 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03637d.htm
- MLA citation. Melody, John. “Chastity.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 1 May 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03637d.htm>.
- Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
- Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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