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St. Thomas on Chastity and Unchastity

January 21, 2010

Josef Pieper continues with his summary of St. Thomas’ thoughts on Chastity and Unchastity. As someone who has fallen and who has continued to fall despite his conversion, I find in the following some powerful tools for self-understanding. There was a time in my life when Unchastity had totally undone my powers of Prudence. Yet to all who may have observed me, I appeared greatly in control. The highlighted “This second mode of chastity is not the perfected virtue of temperance and moderation, but a strenuous control; and this mode of unchastity is not a consummate intemperance, but a mere lack of control. “ could be read as a kind of nonsense but not if you have lived it. Having lived it, I found those sentences truly profound.

IN CURRENT TREATISES OF chastity and unchastity, the air one breathes is not always bracing.

This state of affairs may have various causes, one of which is certainly this: in contradiction to the true grading and order of things, the realm of sex — again for many different reasons — has moved to the center of attention in the general moral consciousness. In addition to this, and despite all contrary statements of principle, a smoldering subterranean Manichaeism casts suspicion on everything pertaining to physical reproduction as being somehow impure, defiling, and beneath the true dignity of man. From all these and other hidden discords are brewed the oppressive mists of casuistry and distortion, of embarrassment and importunity, which frequently pervade discussions of chastity and unchastity.

On the other hand, it is a refreshing and emancipating experience to read the tractate on the same subject by Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, written with truly holy candor and concise cleanness. Then we realize with joy that we have the right (and more than the right!) to adhere to the principles taught by this “universal teacher” of the Church.

To begin with: for Thomas it is plainly self-evident — indeed so self-evident that it need hardly be mentioned even to those but moderately instructed (while it may still be well not to remain silent on this point) — that the sexual powers are not a “necessary evil” but really a good. With Aristotle, he says incisively that there is something divine in human seed.’ It is equally self-evident to Thomas’s thinking that, “like eating and drinking,” the fulfillment of the natural sexual urge and its accompanying pleasure are good and not in the least sinful, assuming, of course, that order and moderation are preserved. For the intrinsic purpose of sexual power, namely, that not only now but also in days to come the children of man may dwell upon the earth and in the Kingdom of God, is not merely a good, but, as Thomas says, “a surpassing good.” Indeed, complete asensuality, unfeelingly adverse to all sexual pleasure, which some would like to regard as “properly” perfect and ideal according to Christian doctrine, is described in the Summa Theologica not only as an imperfection but actually as a moral defect (vitium).

At this point, a deliberate digression is called for. The progenitive purpose of sexuality is not the sole and exclusive purpose of marriage. Yet marriage is the proper fulfillment of sexual power. Of the three goods of marriage — community of life, offspring, and sacramental blessing (fides, proles, sacramentum) — it is the mutually benevolent and inviolable community of life which, according to Aquinas, is the special benefit conferred on man “as man.” [Note that none of these “goods” is available to what is called “gay marriage”]

This affirmative position is clear to Thomas beyond any doubt because, more perhaps than any other Christian teacher, he takes seriously the fundamental thought of revelation, “Everything created by God is good,” and thinks it through to its conclusion. These words were used by the Apostle Paul in order to reprimand, with the same reference to creation, those “hypocritical liars” who carry a “torch in their conscience” and “forbid men to marry and to enjoy certain foods” (1 Timothy 4, 2f.). Heresy and hyper-asceticism are and always have been close neighbors. The Father of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, has expressed this with great emphasis; in a sermon he links the words of Scripture concerning “two in one flesh” to the physical union of the spouses and adds: “Why do you blush? Is it not pure? You are behaving like heretics!”

“The more necessary something is, the more the order of reason must be preserved in it. “For the very reason that sexual power is so noble and necessary a good, it needs the preserving and defending order of reason.

Chastity as a virtue, therefore, is constituted in its essence by this and nothing else, namely, that it realizes the order of reason in the province of sexuality. Unchastity as a sin, on the other hand, is in its essence the transgression and violation of the rational order in the province of sexuality.

There is something uncomfortable about the straightforward use of the terms “reason” and “the order of reason” for us modem Christians. But this mistrust, for which, by the way, there is ample cause and reason, must not prevent us from a frank inquiry into what Thomas would have us understand by “reason” and “the order of reason.”

Four facts have to be borne in mind if we wish to escape the danger of simply missing St. Thomas’s meaning, even before taking a position ourselves. We must consider that Thomas’s concept of “reason” and “the order of reason” is to be taken realistically, not idealistically; that it is free of all rationalistic restrictions; that it has none of the connotations of the ratio of the Enlightenment; and, finally, that it is not in the least spiritualistic.

  1. The concept “order of reason,” first of all, does not signify that something must agree with the imperative of an “absolute reason” detached from its object. Reason includes a reference to reality; indeed, it is itself this reference. “In accord with reason” is in this sense that which is right “in itself,” that which corresponds to reality itself. The order of reason accordingly signifies that something is disposed in accordance with the truth of real things.
  2. Secondly, ratio is not that reason which arbitrarily restricts itself to the province of purely natural cognition. Ratio here signifies — in its widest sense — man’s power to grasp reality. Now, man grasps reality not only in natural cognition but also — and this reality is a higher object of knowledge and the process of grasping it a higher process — by faith in the revelation of God. If therefore the Summa Theologica states that Christ is the chief Lord (principalis Dóminus), the first owner of our bodies, and that one who uses his body in a manner contrary to order, injures Christ the Lord Himself. Thomas is not of the opinion that this proposition exceeds the pattern of “mere” rational order, but rather that for Christian thought to be guided by divine revelation is the very highest form of “accord with reason” — this in spite of the fact that elsewhere Thomas knows how to distinguish sharply between natural and supernatural cognition. “The order of reason,” accordingly, is the order which corresponds to the reality made evident to man through faith and knowledge.
  3. Thirdly, the emphatic and ever recurrent stress on reason and the order of reason in works of Aquinas is obviously not to be understood in the sense which the Enlightenment has given to these terms. “To realize the order of reason in the province of sexuality” is a proposition which one most certainly would not want to understand as an incitement or permission to lift that which natural feeling and propriety surround and protect with the sheltering obscurity of concealment and silence into the crude and artificial light of a shallow “know-it-all” view. Rather, Thomas expressly co-ordinates modesty with chastity, whose function is to see to it that this silence and this obscurity are not destroyed either by shamelessness or uninhibited rationalizing, or spotlighted by the methods of “sexual instruction.” This, therefore, forms part of the “order of reason” too.
  4. Fourthly, the Thomistic concept of reason might be misinterpreted spiritualistically, a facile temptation to some. The proposition that “the essential and proper good of man is existence in accord with reason” could be read to mean: “Constant spiritual awareness is what distinguishes the specifically human condition; everything that clouds this awareness is unspiritual, consequently unworthy of the human condition, and therefore evil.” Applied to the province here under discussion such a spiritualistic interpretation might easily lead to the following conclusion: “In the act of procreation, reason is so overwhelmed by the abundance of pleasure that, as the philosopher says, spiritual cognition becomes impossible…thus there can be no act of begetting without sin.”
    Now this last sentence is actually to be found in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas — but as an “objection,” that is, as an expressly confuted opinion, as a negation to which a clear affirmation is opposed. The affirmation is worded as follows: “As long as the sexual act itself corresponds to the rational order, the abundance of pleasure does not conflict with the proper mean of virtue…And even the fact that reason is unable to make a free act of cognition of spiritual things simultaneously with that pleasure does not prove that the sexual act conflicts with virtue. For it is not against virtue that the workings of reason sometimes are interrupted by something that takes place in accordance with reason: otherwise it would be contrary to virtue to sleep. Do we need any further explanation in order to show how much St. Thomas’s concept of reason has regard to the whole man — to body and soul, sensuality and spirituality?
    St. Thomas designates as “not in accord with reason” the opinion of some Fathers of the Church that “in Paradise the propagation of mankind would have taken place in some other manner, such as that of the angels”; indeed, St. Thomas says: The pleasure that accompanies intercourse must have been even stronger in Paradise — since mental awareness was unclouded and because of the greater delicacy of human nature and the higher sensitivity of the body. But enough of this.

Only on the basis of these four delimitations and refutations is our vision liberated so that we can see the true core of the proposition that chastity, by disciplining sexuality, realizes the order of reason.

The order of reason, however, implies, first, that the immanent purpose of sexual power be not perverted but fulfilled (in marriage, with its threefold “good”); second, that the inner structure of the moral person be kept intact; and, third, that justice between men be not infringed. What we are concerned with here is the purpose of sex as it was intended originally in the first creation, and ennobled by Christ in the New Creation; what we are concerned with is the existential structure of the moral person, as established in nature and in grace; what we are concerned with is order among men as guaranteed not merely by natural justice, but also by the higher justice of caritas, that is, supernatural love of God and man.

Chastity realizes in the province of sex the order which corresponds to the truth of the world and of man both as experienced and as revealed, and which accords with the twofold form of this truth — not that of unveiled evidence alone, but that of veiled evidence also — that is, of mystery.

It is not adultery only which touches upon the provinces of both temperantia and justice; rather, any unchastity has these two aspects: to be at once intemperance and injustice. St. Thomas relates the totality of all sins against chastity to the “commonweal” — taking this term in a very profound and far-reaching sense — and to justice as well; similarly, he relates all the Ten Commandments, not excepting the sixth and the ninth, to justice.

We have become used to see in adultery, and even more in adulterous desire and cupidity, as in sexual transgressions generally, almost exclusively the element of lust, neglecting almost completely the element of injustice. Yet it is very important that the collective moral consciousness of Christianity should again assign greater weight to this objective side of chastity, which is concerned with the commonweal and with justice, as against a view limited exclusively to the subjective factor. To restore the proper emphasis is evidently important not only because it corresponds to actual fact and truth, but also because the neglect or insufficient observation of the objective element of justice in chastity and its opposite derives from an erroneous conception of man and at the same time causes and perpetuates this error.

In this book, which treats of temperantia and not of the sixth commandment nor of marriage nor of the Christian idea of man as a whole, nor of justice, it is quite enough that this thought has been given emphatic expression.

Here, however, it is our purpose to consider chastity and unchastity expressly from the point of view of moderation and its opposite, being fully aware, at the same time, of the limitations inherent in the subject. We shall speak first not of its outward repercussions, but of its root in the inner man: of the disciplining of the sex urge by the spiritual directing power of reason, and also of the abdication of the spirit, which opens the way for sex to destroy the moral person.

In what way and why does unchastity destroy the structure of the person?

Unchastity most effectively falsifies and corrupts the virtue of prudence. All that conflicts with the virtue of prudence stems for the most part from unchastity; unchastity begets a blindness of spirit which practically excludes all understanding of the goods of the spirit; unchastity splits the power of decision; conversely, the virtue of chastity more than any other makes man capable and ready for contemplation.

All these propositions of St. Thomas do not refer to isolated effects and consequences; if the spirit is blinded by unchastity, it is not by a process similar to the wilting of a plant in a rainless period. This blindness is of the essence of unchastity itself, which is by its very nature destructive. It is not its outward effect and consequence, but its immanent essential property.

“The being of man in its essential significance consists in this: to be in accord with reason. If therefore a man keeps to what is in accord with reason, he is said ‘to keep himself in himself.’ Unchastity destroys in a very special manner this self-possession and this human “keeping of oneself in oneself.” Unchaste abandon and the self-surrender of the soul to the world of sensuality paralyzes the primordial powers of the moral person: the ability to perceive, in silence, the call of reality, and to make, in the retreat of this silence, the decision appropriate to the concrete situation of concrete action. This is the meaning inherent in all those propositions which speak of the falsification and corruption of prudence, of the blindness of the spirit, and of the splitting of the power of decision.

Now all this is not to be understood as if the corruptive effect of unchastity derived from the fact that the spirit turns to the “sensual” and “inferior” in general. On the contrary, such turning is altogether inevitable for any decision. It is indeed of the essence of the virtue of prudence that it face squarely all those concrete realities which surround man’s concrete actions. Accordingly, it is not the reference to the province of sexuality that produces the blindness and deafness brought about by unchastity; such an opinion would be Manichaean at bottom, and therefore anti-Christian.

Rather, the destructiveness lies in the fact that unchastity constricts man and thus renders him incapable of seeing objective reality. An unchaste man wants above all something for himself; he is distracted by an unobjective “interest”; his constantly strained will-to-pleasure prevents him from confronting reality with that selfless detachment which alone makes genuine knowledge possible. St. Thomas here uses the comparison of a lion who, at the sight of a stag, is unable to perceive anything but the anticipated meal. In an unchaste heart, attention is not merely fixed upon a certain track, but the “window” of the soul has lost its “transparency,” that is, its capacity for perceiving existence, as if a selfish interest had covered it, as it were, with a film of dust. (We cannot repeat too often: only he who is silent hears, only the invisible is transparent.)

This kind of interestedness is altogether selfish. The abandonment of an unchaste heart to the sensual world has nothing in common with the genuine dedication of a searcher for truth to the reality of being, of a lover to his beloved. Unchastity does not dedicate itself, it offers itself. It is selfishly intent upon the “prize,” upon the reward of illicit lust. “Chaste,” says St. Augustine, “is the heart that loves God without looking for reward.” One further comment: For anyone whose function it is to lead and counsel young people, it is extremely important to keep in mind and to make known that it is this selfishness which characterizes the inner nature of unchastity (as intemperance). Where the selfish motive is absent, we may speak of thoughtlessness, curiosity, or of impulses so completely natural that they lie outside the scope of moral judgment — but not of unchastity.

This perversion of a genuine process of knowing is all the more destructive the more immediately a given knowledge concerns man himself and the more it can be the foundation of moral decisions. Not only is the cognitive process thereby poisoned and perverted, but also the power of decision itself, and even more so; “most of all prudence,” says Aquinas. It is prudence, however, which, as the perfection of conscience, is the innermost source-region of the moral person. Prudence implies a transformation of the knowledge of truth into decisions corresponding to reality.

This transformation is achieved in three steps: deliberation, judgment, decision. Upon each of these three steps the destructive power of intemperance manifests itself: in place of deliberation guided by the truth of things, we find complete recklessness and inconsideration; a hasty judgment that will not wait until reason has weighed the pros and cons; and even if a correct decision were reached, it would always be endangered by the fickleness of a heart that abandons itself indiscriminately to the surging mass of sensual impressions. This is inevitable: if you do not move a knife in the plane of the thing to be cut, it cannot cut at all. So without a direct, innocent, and selfless vision of reality there can be no interior order of the moral person and no honest moral decision.

Chastity, on the other hand, renders one able to perceive reality and ready not only for the perception and thus also for decision corresponding to reality, but also for that highest mode of relating oneself to reality in which the purest dedication to knowledge and the most selfless dedication in love become one, namely, contemplation, in which man turns toward the divine Being and becomes aware of that truth which is at once the highest good.

To be open to the truth of real things and to live by the truth that one has grasped is the essence of the moral being. Only when we recognize this state of things can we likewise understand the depths to which the unchaste heart permits destruction to invade its very being.

This dark portrayal of the destructive force of unchastity applies in all its harshness only to unchastity as intemperantia, but not to unchastity as incontinentia; just as that which has been said of chastity is fully pertinent only to chastity as temperantia but not to chastity as continentia. This significant distinction must be briefly explained.

Because it is not always the same thing when two people do the same thing, a moral doctrine which regards only the actions of man but not his being, is always in danger of seeing only the sameness (or the difference) of the actions, and missing important differences (or samenesses) at a greater depth. Since, however, the moral theology of the universal teacher of the Church is a doctrine of virtue — that is, a doctrine of the being of man as the source of his actions — the difference between temperantia-intemperantia on the one hand and continentia-incontinentia on the other hand could not easily escape him.

Chastity as temperantia, or unchastity as intemperantia: This means that each, respectively, has become a deep-rooted basic attitude of man, and, as it were, a second nature to him. Chastity as continentia, or unchastity as incontinentia: This means that neither is necessarily based on what might be called a natural inclination of being; neither has as yet grown firm roots in the existential core of man. This second mode of chastity is not the perfected virtue of temperance and moderation, but a strenuous control; and this mode of unchastity is not a consummate intemperance, but a mere lack of control.

Chastity as control is only a tentative sketch; chastity as temperantia is perfected realization. The first is less perfect than the second, because by the former, the directing power of reason has been able to mold only the conscious will, but not yet the sensual urge, whereas by the latter will and urge are both stamped with “rational order.” In Thomas’s explicit opinion, the effort of self-control pertains only to the less perfect steps of the beginner, whereas real, perfected virtue, by the very nature of its concept, bears the joyous, radiant seal of ease, of effortlessness, of self-evident inclination.

On the other hand, unchastity in the form of lack of self-control is less pernicious, less sinful, than unchastity the form of actual intemperance. In the first case, as Aristotle and St. Thomas say, the best is not lost; the principle, the ground of being, subsists, namely, the right conception of the direction of will toward the true goal; and through this unblemished rightness even the sensual urge can be reintegrated again and again into its order: he who sins from lack of control is quick to repent; and repentance is the repudiation of sin. On the other hand, he who sins from a deep-rooted basic attitude of intemperance directs his will expressly toward sin; he does not repent easily; indeed, “he is happy to have sinned, because sinning has become ‘natural’ for him.” The merely uncontrolled can be “recalled” to order; actual intemperance, however, is not easily revocable. To sin from a basic attitude of one’s will is real malice; to sin in a gust of passion is weakness — infirmitas. One who is merely uncontrolled is not unchaste, even though he acts unchastely.

It is no doubt easy to see that to stress this difference is not to indulge in the pleasure of theoretical hair-splitting. Rather, it is an attempt to establish a contrast which acquires an immediately practical significance, both pedagogical and pastoral.

It is temperantia, the virtue that realizes the inner order of man in himself, which St. Thomas has in mind when — in contrast to justice, in whose province that which is “properly and in itself right” can and must be determined — speaking of “the other moral virtues which refer to the passions and in which right or wrong cannot be determined in the same fashion, because men vary in their attitudes toward the passions,” he says, “therefore it is necessary that what is right and reasonable in the passions should be determined with reference to ourselves, who are moved by the passions. But especially in the province of temperantia “we ourselves” have the choice of innumerable possibilities: for example, to desire halfheartedly or wholeheartedly, to tolerate, to let things take their course, to give in to pressure or to be carried away. “Who could determine,” writes the perceptive Thomas, H. D. Noble, in his commentary on the French edition of Aquinas — “who could determine when lack of control ends and when actual intemperance begins?”

St. Thomas says that the realization of temperantia varies too much according to individuals and periods to allow the establishment of hard and fast, universally valid commandments on temperantia. The whole realm of “unchaste thoughts, desires, words, looks, etc.,” which in the casuistic manuals occupies so much space, is treated ill the Summa Theologica in a single article not quite one page in length. It determines the general principle only, that it is not the accomplished sinful act alone that is sinful, but also the willing consent to the pleasure imagined and implicit in this act; for this willing consent is inconceivable without an attitude of acceptance toward the accomplished act itself; everything, therefore, which derives from such willing consent is likewise a sin.

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