The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 48, No 4, Jul.-Aug. 1995

Theology for the Laity
The Freedom of Purity - Part II
By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.
The following is a continuation of a chapter entitled “The Freedom of Purity” in Volume III of A COMPANION TO THE SUMMA by Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P. published over 50 years ago. It is even more applicable today. Emphasis and paragraph headings are ours. Printed with permission.

The Catholic position on sex has frequently been misunderstood because men and women have been content to contrast the Church’s high esteem of virginity with its unrelenting, unconditional condemnation of lust. Both of these are facts; but the important thing is the reason behind these facts. All slander to the contrary, neither of these facts constitute a condemnation of sex, nor are they the product of an aversion to sex.

There is much less likelihood of mistaking the Catholic attitude if we consider the Catholic view of matrimony and the purposes of virginity as the means of arriving at the beauty of the Catholic doctrine. These two considerations emphasize the character of the Church as continuing the life of Christ. Its viewpoint is also divinely human; it, too, lifts men up to divine heights yet fights every encroachment on the humanity of man. The Church is a most human mother, not condemning food, drink, or any aspect or manifestation of man’s human love.


It is from the nature of love that the human character of sex is alone intelligible. . . . All benevolent love, all love of friendship, is defined as wishing good to another. In its last analysis it is no less than an attempt to identify the wills of the two friends; as far as is possible, we are one with our friend, his good is our good, his evil, our evil. In the case of high human love, men and women labor all their lives to make that love clear, to show that they have really and completely identified themselves with those they love. It is this desire to express the genuine character of love that is the force behind all sacrifice, all dedication, all surrender in love.

It is not surprising that when the Church, or Christ Himself, was seeking a fitting expression for the highest things a man can reach, both Christ and the Church should come back again and again to the same figure: the nun’s vows which dedicate her life to God make her the spouse of Christ; at Holy Communion the Catholic receives the bridegroom of his soul; the saint, scaling the last peak of heroic sanctity, is said to be mystically married to Christ; the Church itself is the spouse of Christ. This seems to be the only figure that even approximates these sublime things. Why? The reason is because matrimony and the acts proper to matrimony are the highest physical expressions of human love. We must always take love on faith. We try to make that love evident by clumsy words, by a kiss, and embrace; but only in heaven can we be sure of the mutual character of that love, for only in heaven shall we be privileged to see the very souls of others in the essence of God. Until such a time, we must build our lives on the signs of love.


Sex in human life has two outstanding purposes. One is the expression of love. It is something uniquely human, for only human passion can carry a message and has a message to carry; only human passion can have a meaning given it by the individual. It is a messenger; if its message is not authentic, it ceases to be human. It exists for a purpose and must never be considered apart from that purpose; with that purpose in mind, it can never be identified with anything else but the high holiness of human love. The second purpose, also uniquely human, gives human beings a share in the greatest work of God, a share in the procreation of the completely spiritual, the mortal soul that comes from God and goes to Him, the soul that was purchased by the blood of God and is destined to eternal citizenship in heaven.

When the Church insists that the marriage contract is a matter of strict justice, she is not replacing love by a heartless commercialism; she is merely insisting on a guarantee of the absolute minimum necessary for love. Surely the man who refuses the demands of justice to another cannot pretend to be wishing this other good. Marriage, then, is a consecration. Everything about it has the air of the sacred, everything. It is not something to be tolerated, to be smirked at, to be nonchalantly handled. The celebration of a marriage is always a fitting place for the presence of Christ, even when the provisions for that celebration are so inadequate as to demand a miracle to supplement them. It is divinely fitting that marriage should be a sacrament, one of those channels down which gushes the grace that is the life of the soul; for it is beautifully fitting that the highest expression of human love should be a means of that grace, by which it is possible for us to share in divine love.

Naturally the Catholic is indignant at the psychologists who see no difference between these human physical acts and the physical acts of the animals. Naturally he is disgusted with the brazen champions of license and selfish perversion. He does not look upon these people as slightly imprudent juveniles who have dragged dusty skeletons out of a dark closet; they are vandals, desecrators of most sacred things. Of course sex is a serious threat; but only because it is so necessary to nature that it carries with it the supreme sense pleasure. Its possible threat is not a reason for surrendering to it or for discarding it; but for protecting it with a virtue, the virtue of chastity. With that protection, sex becomes, not a threat to human life, but a means to eternal life.


It is only with all this in mind that we can understand the Church’s attitude towards virginity. Virginity, as such, has nothing desirable about it: it might be a vicious fruit of the vice of insensibility; among the Jews it was a source of shame to a woman, and rightly so in view of each woman’s hope of mothering the Messiah. It has its special value in Christian thought, not for what it is but for what it aims at, not as an end but as a means. As has been said so often in this work, man’s goods can be summed up under three headings: external goods, goods of the body and goods of the soul. External goods are ordained to the body; the goods of the body are ordered to the soul; and the goods of the soul are ordered to God. To abstain from external goods for the sake of the body is reasonable; to abstain from corporal things for the good of the soul is eminently reasonable. It is because of this higher spiritual end that virginity has its privileged place in Christian thought. . . .

Virginity is not the surrender of illegal pleasure for divine good; it is a joyous discarding of perfectly legitimate pleasure for a more perfect and more direct surrender to God. Sacred as matrimony is, virginity is its superior. Here we approach the heroic; here the human is put aside for the divine, the body for the soul. Christ, choosing a virgin mother, taking a virgin disciple for His closest friend, or Paul championing virginity was not an enemy of love. Rather they recognized the truth so many ages have missed: the Christian virgin is head over heels in love. So true is this that the sacrifice of human love, this utter dedication to the divine, is demanded as the only adequate expression of the virgin’s love. The difference between the love of the virgin and the love of the wife is that the virgin rushes directly and immediately into the arms of God, while the wife goes to Him through the holy, natural, and beautifully graduated steps of human love.

For all its bright, young beauty, virginity is not the greatest of virtues. It reaches the heights of chastity, but those are not the supreme heights of virtue. Even among the virtues whose work is to sacrifice, virginity must take a low place: the martyr gives up his life, the religious gives up his will, the virgin merely surrenders the legitimate pleasures of the physical side of man.


Man heartily dislikes to have his sins wandering about the house of his soul naked; he must clothe them, even though the best he can offer is the shabby garments of sophistry. He is, after all, a rational animal to the very roots of his being; he may give up reason, but he cannot altogether do away with the appearance of reason even in his sins. As a result, every age has alleged its reasons for lust; though of course there are no reasons. In our own day, the variety of excuses is positively bewildering. There is, for instance, the psychological excuse that chastity injures a man, makes him neurotic in its fight against nature. The sophistry proceeds from an identification of human and animal nature. For the control of man’s passion is not an unnatural thing, even for those passions; as an integral part of man’s nature, they are fulfilled only in their obedience to the rule of man’s nature, to reason.

A little more subtle is the personality excuse. It argues that sex experience is necessary for a full development of personality, for an emotional richness that can be had in no other way. And this in contradiction to history: in spite of the splendor of Dominic’s apostolate, the beauty and depth of Thomas’ poems, the sweeping accomplishments of the tender maid of Sienna. When, please, should emotional richness be reached for? At ten, or twelve, or sixteen, or thirty, or ninety? Why then? Less convincing (if possible) is the “wild-oats” excuse; early unchastity is necessary for later stability in chastity, though even modern psychologists have a great deal to say in direct contradiction, in their investigations of habit formation.

Then there is the supposedly unanswerable excuse of impossibility, the excuse that rests on facts, the sweepingly insulting excuse that judges all men and all women from subjective evidence. It is an insult to human nature when it argues from natural powers; it is an insult to God when it does not admit the effectiveness of His omnipotent help. Perhaps the climax of irrationality is reached in the spineless plea that personal impurity does no damage to anyone else. As a matter of fact its damage is widespread; not only does it damage the individual, but all those with whom he comes into contact by his sin, his future family, his wife, the society in which he lives, the soul of the individual and all the souls he will drag to hell along with himself. There is still one more excuse: the Christian standard of purity, we are told, is out of date, it is a relic of a medieval ethical system. The argument is based on the absurd proposition that human nature comes out in a different model from age to age; that its ends are not the same, that the steps by which it reaches those ends are not the same, and that the powers within a man by which he takes those steps are different from age to age.


A defense of impurity simply will not stand rational criticism from the point of view of experience, of history, of psychology, or of principle. Men and women of today realize this, at least vaguely. For, in spite of all the modern talk in defense of intemperance, in the concrete they are disgusted with those who carried these modern principles to their logical conclusion: the glutton, the drunkard, the libertine. These are the wrecks of humanity. Men and women today may be willing to smile at the rocks upon which they have been wrecked; but they have little sympathy or understanding, certainly no love, for the hulks of men these principles produce and abandon.

It would seem that our modern world is cherishing an impossible dream. There is, regardless of the principles, a demand for moderation because of the disgust and distaste for the ultimate excess dictated by the principles. But it is a moderation to be dictated by the individual and by social appearances; ultimately such a moderation is reducible either to satiety or to what the community will tolerate. For if there be no standard objective of the individual, the limit can be set only by this individual’s appetite or the appetite of his fellows; that is, by a satiety which becomes constantly harder to achieve.

These moderns expect to achieve moderation without a norm; they expect a man to be human without being pure, for they shrink in horror from the excesses of impurity, thereby emphasizing their demands for humanity in the actions and life of a man. Yet the control of reason, the control of virtue, by which alone such purity can be achieved, is lightly dismissed or violently ejected.


Allegedly, this modern campaign is based on a protective affection for men, aimed against the absurdity of taking peccadilloes seriously, or the tragedy of thwarting nature by artificial limitations. Actually it has come about through a depreciation of personal human ends. An individual must have personal ends if he is to live a personal life; and if he has such ends, he will face conflicts in attaining them. Moderation, purity, humanity, all imply severe conflicts; the lack of them means the absence of conflict through abject surrender. The modern conflict is rather a mass conflict; we are seeking mass ends rather than individual ends. This gives us the comforting anonymity of a crowd and the coward’s strength in the violence of a mob; but it also condemns us to personal oblivion, to being lost in the crowd. If we renounce the responsibility of personal, individual conflict, we must also renounce personal, individual ends.


The underlying tragedy of this situation awakes real pity in any thinking observer. For the men and women of our day who are championing or practicing unchastity have not, for the most part, come to that state by any long process of neglect, corruption and self-indulgence. It is something that has been imposed upon them from above. They have not come to this condition of them selves; they have been led into it. This generation is a generation that has been betrayed, betrayed by its intellectual leaders, its teachers and its writers, those whose solemn responsibility it is to lead men, not into the depths of slavery, but to the heights of human freedom.


This fact is one that must be seen by the Catholic; and it immediately abolishes any excuse he might have, or think he has, for joining the mass movement away from purity. The Catholic has not been betrayed. His leaders have insisted now, as always, upon the essentials of purity, its absolute necessity for human life. He has not been trapped, or coaxed, or threatened into a sacrifice of his humanity; rather every force has been brought to bear to make him realize more and more keenly the place of purity in human life. The modern pagan may have some excuse for his disregard for purity; in fact, it seems to me quite possible that many of them may escape a great deal of moral responsibility. But for a Catholic, there is no escape from these facts of life and his responsibility toward them.

To the Catholic it has always been apparent that a man, to remain a man, must be free in the all-important sense of internal freedom. He may be beaten to earth by the might of a dictator; he might be sold into bondage by the greed of a usurer; but no force in heaven or on earth can throw his intellect and will into chains. The Catholic has known, and knows today, that there is no more serious threat to that internal freedom, that sovereignty by which the humanity of man is guaranteed, than the threat involved in the appeal of unreasonable pleasures. So the Catholic has known, and knows today, that purity and the demands of purity are not an infringement on his freedom, not a high fence enclosing his actions in a narrow, sterile field; rather they are the solid protectors, the solid guarantees of the freedom man must have, if he is to be a man.

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