What Is Chastity?

I talk a lot about chastity on this blog, so it’s probably a good idea to define it as I see it since there are so many faulty definitions of it floating around.

My understanding of chastity comes naturally from my Catholic faith, but I don’t think the definition I use is strictly “big C” Catholic. I believe it is also “small c” catholic, meaning universal. All but the most ardent atheists and sexual revolutionaries should be able to understand the truth in it.

First, chastity is not the same as abstinence. Abstinence is the form chastity takes outside marriage, but married couples are called to chastity too. So what is chastity? Let’s first look at some popular definitions:

First, from Wikipedia:

“Chastity is sexual behavior of a man or woman that is acceptable to the moral standards and guidelines of their culture, civilization or religion.”

Given how sex-obsessed and immoral our modern culture is, let’s just call this one inadequate. In a society where, sexually speaking, anything goes, this definition of chastity is literally meaningless.

Next we check the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (though dictionaries, despite the popular misconception, merely state how words are currently used):

“The quality or state of being chaste: as (a) abstention from unlawful sexual intercourse; (b) abstention from all sexual intercourse; (c) purity in conduct and intention.”

Here, option “a” is too legalistic and too limiting and “b” is too restrictive. Option “c” is closest to the mark but, still, it’s too broad.

Now let’s turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2337) and the definition I think best defines the fundamental principles of chastity and the promise it holds for those who practice it:

“Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman. The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.”

Therefore, chastity is not just about sex at all. It’s about fully integrating our sexuality and the unity of our bodily and spiritual natures. But this also hinges on the purpose of our sexuality. Sadly, modern Western society sees sex as predominantly a recreational activity, not even necessarily an act of love. By society’s view of sex, we may as well be dogs humping everything that walks.

Rightly understood, sexuality is a gift from our Creator to a man and woman who join in the one flesh union of marriage and open themselves to life. In this way, we are all called to lives of chastity in different ways, even the married.

  • Married couples are called to chastity even in the marital act by always offering themselves as a gift of love to the other, and never using the sexual gift as a mere satisfaction of urges.
  • Singles are called to express chastity in sexual abstinence, but also in how we look upon members of the opposite sex, seeing them as priceless children of God, not as objects of desire, even when we feel an attraction to them.
  • The ordained, religious, and those choosing celibacy for the kingdom are also called in the same way singles are (sexual abstinence), but for the same reason married couples are, as a gift of love to the other, but in their case their spouse is Christ or the Church.

Isn’t that a lot more awesome than “don’t have sex”?