We hear a lot about what it means to be chaste before marriage, but what about when you are married? In this two-part series, we will take a look at the important points of purity within marriage. If you are married or preparing for marriage, we hope this series blesses you.
Our Desires Never Go Away
Holy Mother Church knows the human person well. She knows that our desire for things of the flesh does not simply go away after time has passed. Our natural desires for food, drink, sex, comfort, freedom from pain, shelter, and like will continue to persist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church admits this quite pointedly:
“Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. On can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life (CCC 2342).”
As life progresses, the way that we interact with the people and things around us changes. Therefore, at all stages of life, we must work to renew our knowledge and mastery of our passions and appetites. In the context of the Sacrament of Matrimony, chastity is still a long and exacting work. To be sure, “all Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life” (CCC 2348). However, in marriage, this virtue of chastity takes on a whole different meaning because of the blessed inclusion of the conjugal act within the relationship.
Confused About Sex
There is no disputing that our society is confused about human sexuality. The vast majority of the world does not hold what the Church has laid out about the good news of sex and marriage. The good news is that sex is good, pleasurable, and meaningful. Unfortunately, we usually hear two extremes: either sex is dirty, shameful, and purely a practical thing or it is a casual recreational activity between two consenting adults for pleasure alone. Both of these extremes have their downfalls, and neither understands sex as the good gift from God that it is.
Sexuality is a Gift
In the fullness of truth, human sexuality is a gift from God. The Catechism even says that “Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure” (CCC 2362). This does not, however, mean that every exercise of human sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure. Sexuality is only life-giving and life-affirming if it is exercised between a married man and woman in an act of total self-gift. St. John Paul II articulates this beautifully:
“… Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present: if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally” (FC 11).
So, the sexual act is meant to be a total self-gift. The husband gives himself completely to his wife and the wife returns a total gift of herself. Anything less than this total self-gift between spouses is actually harmful to the human person.
When Is Sexuality Disordered?
Sexuality can only be expressed within marriage because human sexuality must always include both a unitive and procreative dimension. In other words, sex is meant to be a joy and pleasure between spouses in which the two become one flesh. Of course, through marriage the two become one flesh in a mystical way, and the conjugal act makes this reality physical manifested. The procreative element, simply said, means that the spouses are open to the possibility of a new life being created by their act.
This conjugal act is actually holy when it is expressed out of a unitive love within marriage, open to life. The love between husband and wife is an inseparable bond. The Church goes as far as to say that, “in marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion” (CCC 2360). This is perfectly Scriptural. As St. Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… (Eph 5:25).” Throughout all of Sacred Scripture there has been a lot of marital language to describe God’s relationship to His people. Christ is the Bridegroom and His Church is the Bride.
When we receive Holy Communion at Mass, we receive the total self-gift of Christ Himself who becomes one with us. This is exactly what communion means: to become “one with.” So, sex within marriage is similar, in a way, to receiving the Eucharist worthily at Mass. When we receive Christ in Holy Communion and become more united to Him, we are experiencing a sacred foretaste of Heaven. When husband and wife freely become one flesh in the marital act, this is likewise a sacred foretaste of Heaven. On the other hand, if we receive Holy Communion while out of a state of grace, we are committing a form of sacrilege. To misuse the gift of human sexuality is similarly a form of sacrilege.
The Virtue Of Chastity
In a hyper-sexual society, and as a human being, chastity can be tough. As a virtue, chastity has to become a lifestyle. In other words, it needs to be an intentional daily practice and a habit. When exercised, this virtue becomes something beautiful and life-giving. St. Josemaria Escriva once said, “When you decide firmly to lead a clean life, chastity will not be a burden on you; it will be a crown of triumph.”
To be very clear, chastity, in marriage or otherwise, is not an easy thing, but it is absolutely vital for a healthy marriage. St. John Paul II said, “Only the chaste man and the chaste woman are capable of true love.” Achieving chastity, like achieving holiness, is not a once-and-done activity; for some, it can truly be a lifelong activity. If we struggle with chastity, remember that the enemy of purity is not always easily vanquished. St. Josemaria Escriva also said, “To defend his purity, Saint Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, Saint Benedict threw himself into a thorn bush, Saint Bernard plunged into an icy pond… You… what have you done?”
Photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez / unsplash.com
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