The Basics of Marital Chastity
The previous post was about marital chastity and why it is a good thing. This post is about some practical tips on how to grow in chastity to enjoy its benefits in your marriage.
This series is focused on abstaining when there are serious reasons to avoid pregnancy. Deciding whether to avoid or achieve pregnancy, or “just see what happens” is beyond the scope of this series.
I start from the ground up if you need to start from the ground up and to encourage you if you are struggling along the path by reminding you of your progress.
Step 0: Respect Each Other.
Before we can even start talking about chastity, the relationship must be one based on mutual love and respect. If one partner or both have an attitude of selfish entitlement, then they have no chance of mastering chastity until this attitude changes. Although ALL women can benefit from charting, using NFP is extremely difficult outside of a committed relationship and does not work without cooperation of both of the partners. (Note Jenny Burger’s freudian slip when she talks about going on the pill–it’s even more obvious in the video.)
Step 1: Respect Her Body.
For the ladies, the first step to chastity in marriage is to respect your body. Women, your body is beautiful and a Gift from God, including your fertility. Damaging your body with artificial hormones, biomechanical devices, or even permanent surgery in order to be more sexually available will not gain anyone freedom, but will only serve to keep you and husbands slaves to your passions and each other’s passions. If this is currently an issue, I urge you to get rid of your contraceptives, stop damaging your body, start learning how it works, and begin tracking your cycle.
Secular fertility awareness advocate Toni Weschler wrote, “Charting is a privilege, not a burden.” If charting is burdensome, remember that every woman is different; so do not be discouraged if you need to try a different approach to learn how YOUR body works. There are several different methods of learning your body: Some methods are very simple, others more complex. Don’t be afraid to mix and match. Take the time and the effort to find one that works FOR YOU.
Loving yourself and loving your body as God made it is an important step to true freedom. Our bodies matter. As St. Paul wrote: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. Learning the science of fertility awareness is a way of appreciating your body.
For the men, respecting your own body is important, but generally less of an issue. Husbands, you should learn to appreciate the beauty of your wife’s body. Your body is constant; Hers changes during the cycle. She is different from you, and although you will never quite understand it, recognize that this is the way God made her and that it is a beautiful thing.
If you are not harming your bodies and you are already tracking her cycle, congratulations! Even if you are still struggling with chastity, and even if you two still keep a box of condoms in the nightstand to get you through the fertile period, you have already made an important, positive, life-changing decision.
* For those of you who are especially open to life, and feel no need to prevent pregnancy, fertility awareness is useful for monitoring reproductive health, achieving pregnancy, and dating a pregnancy. Pope Benedict XVI affirms that learning fertility awareness is important for married couples.
Step 2: Respect Your Marriage
Your sexuality is a gift to each other. The Catechism tells us sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure in marriage. CCC § 2362. Misusing your sexuality outside your marital relationship will inevitably undermine your sexual relationship in your marriage.
This is an area that many couples struggle with. The fertile period is not only emotionally difficult because you cannot physically unite with your spouse, but often, it can become physically uncomfortable after a few days. Taking matters into your own hands, so to speak, is not the answer. Letting your sexuality stray outside your marriage, even in your mind, is not the answer.
Even if you and your spouse are still struggling, do work to keep your sexuality inside your relationship. Continue to love each other while respecting each other’s personal boundaries. As you learn to master chastity, the fertile phase will get easier.
Step 3: Respect the Sacrament
Sex in marriage is special. It is designed to be a source of pleasure and joy to married couples. It is designed to bring couples together and to create new life. It is part of the Sacrament of Marriage. CCC § 2363. Contraception ruins the marital act. It is a lie. The marital act says by its very language – “We are one and we are open to life.” Contraception says by its very language – “We are NOT one and we are NOT open to life.” CCC § 2370. You cannot have unity and a barrier. You cannot have unity and withdrawal.
If you still do have that box of condoms in your nightstand, throw them away and make a commitment that when you do make love, you will only have what Toni Weschler calls “deliciously natural intercourse” with your spouse. You will not regret it.*
If you are not yet married, then you respect the sacrament by abstaining from sex. CCC § 2350, 2353. Not using condoms doesn’t make the fornication any less sinful; instead, it makes it more sinful due to the higher risk of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and STDs, neither of which should be an issue in marriage.
*Note: If STD transmission between spouses is an issue in your marriage or other unusual medical issues make using a condom during intercourse advisable for reasons not related to preventing pregnancy, these problems should be discussed with a priest or spiritual adviser, NOT strangers on the internet.
Step 4: Keep the Goal in Mind—Chaste Love and Self-Control, not following the “Rules”.
The Catechism defines lust as a “disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure.” CCC § 2351. Sexuality is designed to be a source of joy and pleasure in a marriage, but if one has a disordered desire for sexual pleasure, this is lust. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes. CCC § 2351
But different misuses of our sexuality are disordered to different degrees. For example, masturbation is nowhere near as disordered as rape.** Applied to marital relationships, the least disordered misuse of sexuality is mutually loving activities that do not interfere with the marital act, but are not fully unitive or naturally procreative either. Of course, such acts ARE disordered, they ARE sins, they can cause problems if they are abused, and they are no substitute for proper use of our sexuality. Still, couples should not think merely refraining from certain activities is what Catholic sexual morality is all about. The so-called “One Rule” is not the base of Catholic sexual morality, it is the apex of it. It is just the tip of the iceberg.
An obsession with “rules” while forgetting to love is what leads to many couples becoming frustrated with NFP and even to their marriage failing. Remember that sexual sins are not the only sins and sexual acts are not the only form of unchastity. (“I confess . . . that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words in what I have done and what I have failed to do.”)
Instead, the goal of chastity is to learn to master our desires in order to love more perfectly. Without love, our efforts are for nothing. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
The “rules” are to show us how to love, they are not love in themselves. The Gospel tells us of Jesus himself disregarding mosaic law multiple times to spread the Kingdom. “Man is not made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath is made for man.” Mark 2:23-28. This is not to say that the end justifies the means, but to put the rules in perspective. The rules have a purpose and we should be focusing on the purpose, not the rules.
If the abstinence puts a strain on your marriage or is making you less in control of your passions and not more, then you may want to re-evaluate how to really love your spouse so that you can move closer to the goal of chaste marital love. God calls us to mastery of our passions and sexual sobriety, not to being a sexual dry drunk, who can avoid improper activities but is mastering nothing. Marital chastity should bring you closer to your spouse, not be a wedge that drives you apart.
**St. Thomas Aquinas thought otherwise, but he reasoning was based on an ancient misunderstanding of biology that saw masturbation as a form of abortion. Likewise, the Sin of Onan was not Onan “wasting his seed” in itself, but him doing this so he could use Tamar for sexual gratification. He was willing to have sex with her, but he was not willing to fulfill his duty to give her a child, which she wanted. This was not a sacramental marriage based on mutual love, mutual giving, and mutual consent, but a levirate marriage based strictly on a duty to give the brother’s widow a child.
Step 5: Remember That God Is Always In Control
Even if you have discerned very serious reasons to avoid pregnancy and practice NFP very carefully, there is still a chance of an unexpected blessing (or unexpected blessings). Instead of complaining about your fate, remember that God is in control. Children ARE a blessing, even when they are unexpected and inconvenient. Another child may be God’s way of calling you to greater spiritual growth and may actually help you be a better parent instead of stretching you thinner. Plus, another child gives the children you already have the gift of another brother or sister, “who could help them to grow in humanity and to realize the beauty of life at all its ages and in all its variety.”
At the same time, spiritual growth through pregnancy and childbearing does not mean that you should forget to prayerfully discern whether you have serious reasons to avoid pregnancy. As John Paul II said before he became Pope, “Responsible parenthood is realized both by those couples who, thanks to their generous and meditated decision, produce a large family, as well as by those couples who for “[reasonable]* motives and with due respect for the moral law” (H.V. 10) decide to limit the number of their offspring.
* JPII’s commentary uses “grave motives” in quoting H.V., while H.V. uses “reasonable motives” on the Vatican website. The Catechism uses “just reasons . . . [and] not out of selfishness”. The difference is in the English translation, not in the meaning.
Advanced Training in Chastity:
These are the basics of chastity in marriage and a good starting point for couples. A couple who can get Steps 1-5 is doing very well and will be richly rewarded in their marriage. Many couples can get this far by simply loving and respecting each other and having a basic understanding of the true nature of sex and marriage.
The Church’s full teaching on marital chastity is far richer and deeper than this, but living the teaching is not easy. Self-mastery is a challenge, but one that brings many rewards. The importance and truth of the Church’s FULL teachings on chastity, the reasons behind them, and a strategy for bringing this fullness and beauty into your life is the subject of the next post.