Marital Chastity


THERE ARE many conflicting opinions about the supremacy of the true goods of marriage and the methods most effective in preserving these goods. The misconceptions often cloud the judgment of well-meaning Christians and lead them into a life of unfulfillment and deception.

  • What place does virtue have in marriage and how is chastity an integral aspect of any healthy marriage?

  • What are the true goods of marriage?

  • What are violations against the dignity of marriage and the chaste nature of the spouses?

  • Why is contraception wrong?

Regardless of any misconceptions or cultural ambiguities, the teaching of the Scriptures is steadfast when it tells us that “marriage is to be held in honor by all.” The following analysis will look at how contemporary couples are intended to honor the dignity and vocation of marriage.

What is Chastity?

Chastity is a virtue closely linked with the cardinal virtue of temperance. Possession of this virtue enables and necessitates the integration of man's sexuality with his entire being: intellectual and spiritual. Chaste behavior leads to the self-possession necessary for self-donation, not only physically within marriage but also spiritually to God. Chastity is not achieved quickly nor is it attained easily. The ongoing pursuit of the virtue through grace and effort is in portion what makes its fruits so sweet.

St. Augustine calls the disordered desires of man's heart struck with concupiscence a loss of integretas. The complete harmony which characterized man before the fall was lost with Adam's sin of disobedience in Genesis 3. Man no longer loved God above all else; rather, man held himself and others in highest esteem.

 One of the consequences of the Fall most applicable in the sexual life of man is the now disordered ordination of the passions. After the Fall these lower passions, including the sexual drive, are no longer naturally subordinate to the intellect and will. These passions, thanks to concupiscence, now have the inclination and tendency to overtake man's intellect and will to act on their own.

 This manifestation of concupiscence is clearly portrayed in the words of St. Paul: “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want . . . For I take delight in the law of god, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind.” Romans 7:19, 22-23.

The only remedy for the dilemma facing the Apostle Paul is the grace that flows from the redeeming side of Christ on the cross of Calvary. This grace provides the virtue necessary for the re-integration of man's spiritual powers and his passions. “Chastity can be described as a virtue concerned with the intelligent and loving integration of our sexual desires and affections into our beings as persons.” Ronald Lawler et al., Catholic Sexual Ethics (1985).

Chastity, a virtue cultivated by grace and effort, necessitates an ordering within the human heart—a true transformation of one's innermost desires from those of self-fulfillment, satisfaction, pleasure, and power to those of self-donation, acceptance, love, and freedom.

The practice of chastity does not involve suppressing one's natural desires for affection and sexual intimacy but rather recognizes these desires and integrates them as a part of one's entire person. The emphasis should be on the integration rather than denial of parts.

An analogy illustrating this reality is the experience of hunger. While the desire for food is natural and the consumption of food is inherently good since it prevents starvation, an obsession with food and habitually eating whatever one wants whenever the desire is aroused demonstrates what Augustine would call a disordered desire.

Similarly, the desire for affection and conjugal union is natural and the marital act is inherently good because of the goods that flow from the act itself, yet the disordered sexual desire manifests itself as lust of the flesh. An unchaste, unintegrated man is characterized by an undue importance upon his sexuality so that it becomes disproportionate to all other areas in his life.

Before his pontificate, Karol Wojtyla wrote Love and Responsibility in which he defines chastity as having “a transparent attitude to a person of the other sex—chastity means just that—the interior ‘transparency’ without which love is not itself, for it cannot be itself until the desire to ‘enjoy’ is subordinated to a readiness to show loving kindness in every situation . . .”

This readiness comes only from the sublimation or control of carnal desires and the subsequent cultivation and development of virtue. The cultivation of chastity is an ongoing discovery of self and an assent to the truth that man was not created for himself. A daily effort in achieving self-mastery is imperative to man's growth in chastity. “Man's dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice . . . and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint . . . and by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end.” Gaudium et Spes, ¶ 17 (1965). Man must keep continual watch over his passions and he must repeatedly check his motives. He must seek to temper his passions in every way possible. Self-mastery enables man to have the originally, divinely intended dominion over the passions in his body and also to reap the benefits of the ensuing harmony that exists in his spirit.

Self-mastery allows man to give himself freely to his spouse. If one has control over his passions and freely chooses to give himself physically to his spouse (rather than engage in physical union merely as a reaction to the physiological drive) he is truly giving himself in the nature of self-donation proper to marriage.

Of course the marital act can and will occasionally occur when either partner is not ruling his passion but his passions are ruling him. This act is passionate, physical and still an expression of love but it is not the purest, most perfect expression of love. The self-donation is not pure and therefore the act is lacking in spiritual communion and virtue. In his book, Sex, Marriage, and Chastity, William E. May says that “because it (sexual intercourse) is an act of conjugal union it signifies a giving and receiving that are unconditioned, total, unreserved. In order to give oneself, one must possess oneself and this self-possession is acquired through self-knowledge and virtue.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the acquiring of self-mastery a “long and exacting work.” As with any of the virtues, chastity takes time to develop and perfect. This life-long process begins at Baptism and continues to death aided by the supernatural graces of the sacraments.

Although a man, learning to live chastely and attempting to acquire self-mastery, will at times fall into sin and violate this virtue, it is the healing and fortifying grace of Reconciliation and the Eucharist which enables him to persevere and transforms his failings into experiences by which he can measure his growth. The man who falls and makes a firm resolution to rely more heavily upon grace and allow it to transform his being will become the man of virtue. He does not simply refrain from unchaste behavior because he knows it is wrong, but he allows his very way of being to be transformed. He becomes chaste to the very core of his being. He possesses the motivation of a virtuous person: love of God. He recognizes the dignity and value in his own sexuality and that of others and therefore works diligently to have his actions and attitude reflect the truth he knows. The ongoing cultivation of virtue contributes greatly to the sexual health and happiness of man.

Basic Understanding of Christian Marriage

“Since God created man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man.” Catechism, ¶ 1604. The image of God that married persons embody and the love they share in the sacramental union is characterized by what Augustine calls the tripartite goods of marriage. The sacramental bond, procreation and fidelity are all goods of marriage that are served by daily life and love of the spouses as well as the conjugal union they share.

In Casti Connubii, Pius XI describes the sacramental bond of marriage as indissoluble. He asserts that the spouses are more intimately conjoined spiritually than physically thus forming a “sacred and inviolable bond.” The spouses have come from two completely separate, individual existences and are now living as one. The free choice that brought them to marriage is no longer relevant due to the binding power of the sacrament. A spouse cannot choose to no longer be a spouse; and even if for grave reasons the two must separate, they will always be bound to one another in marriage. Christ makes the indissolubility of marriage clear when he tells the Pharisees the meaning of marriage, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” The sacramental bond of marriage is considered the highest good because it is of a divine nature.

Of the two goods that are of a more human nature, procreation is the literal fruit of marriage while fidelity is a more spiritual fruit. “Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves.” Catechism, ¶ 1652.

All marital acts must be open to the transmission of life and should themselves symbolize the complete self-donating love of the Holy Trinity. Of course, not every marital act is going to result in conception of a new life but every act should in essence be communicating the spousal openness to the will of God and new life. Not only does this understanding of marriage eliminate the possibility of moral contraception but, on a more positive theological approach, it illustrates the absolute good of procreation.

God in his generous love not only created man in His image, but also gave him the power and ability to create with Him. The Almighty did not need man to create man, as shown to us in the creation narrative in Genesis, but he chose to use man, masculine and feminine, to create new life. The special privilege of being co-creators with God is proper only to the union of marriage and it is within marriage that this sharing in divine life can be a source of grace for the spouses.

The integrity and union of the spouses is fortified by, and at the same time results in, the marital good of fidelity. Marriage is a visible sign to the world of God' s steadfast, faithful, and unchanging love. It can only be this sign when the love of the spouses is steadfast, faithful and unchanging. Although life can become weary and burdensome, and giving up is often more appealing than persevering, married couples are called to open themselves to the grace necessary to continue in their journey.

The fruits of fidelity, achieved in time, are a deep trust in the other, ease in being, a lack of fear, a profound joy, and a peace in knowing the commitment is for life. It is the witness of faithful married couples that proclaims to the world that our “God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love.” Catechism, ¶ 1648.

Marital Chastity and Violations Against Marital Chastity

As previously described, chastity is the proper integration of one's sexuality with his spiritual and intellectual self. This integration and self-mastery is not necessary for single people and celibates alone. Over time and with the cultivation of the virtue of chastity, living in a chaste manner may become second nature to one in a cloister, or at least one not in an affective relationship with a member of the opposite sex. On the contrary, married persons are intended to live out their vocation in a physical, affective, conjugal context. They are daily faced with decisions of chastity and charity.

In Wojtyla's book he illustrates the need for chastity within marriage and says, “The virtue of moderation helps reasonable beings to live reasonably, and so to attain the perfection proper to their nature.” Married persons, as we have already noted, are called to be visible signs to the world of God's love. Chastity enables each spouse to live a selfless love thus reflecting the love of God. One will put the other's needs and desires before his own and therefore imitate the sacrificial love of Christ. Chastity within marriage governs the proper use of sexuality and is the vessel through which grace is attained in the sexual act. The sexual acts are “noble and honorable” and are meant to be enjoyed by the spouses. Chastity is a catalyst for the reasonable enjoyment of the objective good of conjugal union.

“The marriage bed is to be undefiled; adulterers and fornicators will be judged by God.” Hebrews 13:4. The exhortation to refrain from defiling the marriage bed is made in the context of a general exhortation to the Christian life. This plea was made to early Christians. It is as applicable today as it was in the first century. There are many today who continually violate the dignity of marriage through adultery, contraception, and other immoral sexual behavior.

A brief illustration of these violations will illustrate just how gravely they infringe upon the dignity of the conjugal union of spouses.
In May's Sex, Marriage and Chastity he points out that adultery “is morally wicked precisely because it consists in an act in which one chooses to unite his or her person, his or her life, his or her irreplaceable and non-substitutable spouse.” He makes it very clear that adultery is completely antithetical to the end of marriage because it attacks the goods of marriage and belittles the covenantal significance of the sacrament.

Not only are the individuals involved negatively affected by adultery but the entire community is cheated of the witness they need and deserve of God' s faithful love. May expounds that the very act of adultery is wicked by showing that even thoughts or intent of adultery damage the profound good of marriage. The Catholic Church does not deny the need for married persons to have deep, spiritual friendships with individuals of the opposite sex but She insists that these friendships be governed by chastity.

There are specific violations of marital chastity that attack the unifying good of marriage. All forms of sexual sin such as rape, mutual masturbation, and sodomy are grave offenses against the value of sex and the dignity of marriage. In marriage, sexual intercourse is meant to be a time when the spouses give themselves fully to one another. This mutual self-donation brings intense pleasure and joy, yet its fundamental motivation is the renewal of the marriage vow: the complete giving of oneself and receiving of the other. The renewal of the profound and intimate love shared between a husband and his wife is a fruit of their special time together spent in mutual self-giving.

Each sexual union is intended to be a ratification of the covenant between the spouses. When one partner is unwilling while a full physical coital union occurs, or no full physical union occurs and sexual pleasure is the motivation of any physical affective activity, the act is thoroughly wicked and immoral.

The varied possible motivations of anti-unitive and anti-procreative acts do not alter the immoral nature of said acts. Any act that violates any of the goods of marriage is immoral. “Contraception's failure to respect the full meaningfulness of sex, to treat the sexual act as unrelated to the goods that give it its profound meaning, is ultimately destructive.”

Many Christian couples contend that using contraceptives within marriage serves the unitive good and is therefore morally acceptable. Philip S. Keane, for example, is of the opinion that the unitive good of marriage is objectively superior to that of procreation. In his view, contraception, therefore, is moral because one intends the evil of destroying fertility to serve a higher good. Contrary to this opinion, Paul VI represented the age-old Tradition of the Catholic Church in Humanae Vitae and said that “it is never permissible, however, to do evil so that a good might result, not even for the most serious reasons.”

Therefore, every sexual act that in any way inhibits or destroys openness to the transmission of life is intrinsically evil. This violation of the procreative good and dignity of marriage is morally unacceptable and antithetical to the will of God for man.


The marital bond between a man and a woman is intended by God and therefore elevated by Christ to the level of a sacrament.

This bond is indissoluble because of its sacramental nature and is meant to bring the spouses closer together in unity and love.

The love of spouses is meant to imitate the sacrificial, total love of the Holy Trinity as they pour themselves into one another with trust and affection.

The virtue of chastity is easily seen to be the spirit and the law that governs the love of spouses.


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