Redeeming Abstinence (Part2)

It’s not in vogue to talk about abstinence, for the reasons Calah outlined so well–that the term has been hijacked so that it means different things to different people, and to most people it has a very negative connotation.

We live in a culture that doesn’t want to tell anyone no. And as Catholics, we are not immune to adopting a mentality that sacrifice and self-denial are somehow in conflict with our dignity as persons. Not true.

Christ on the Cross loved sacrifice and self-denial, not for their own sake, but for their redemptive value in the economy of salvation. Through sacrifice and self-denial, or abstinence, as it is manifest in some cases (paired with prayer and offering), we protect our own souls, we protect the freedom of others, and we gain salvation which is the ultimate goal of Christian life.

We talk about arbitrary lines that people draw in the sexual sphere, whether that line is at some physical touchpoint before intercourse, or at marriage where “no” turns to “yes.” But such lines do occasionally postpone the sexual debut of teenagers who are forming their first romantic alliances and testing the waters of their sexuality.

Can I tell you how happy I am that I didn’t have sex when I was fourteen? It wasn’t for lack of opportunities or because I was so busy channeling my sex drive into positive things; it’s because I had committed to abstain, and so in that stupid sweaty car on the side of the road, things came to an arbitrary stopping point. I have never regretted not having sex with my high school boyfriend.

Did it make me feel sad several years later when that arbitrary line was crossed? Yes, but it was a sadness, a sense of shame you might say, a discomfort with my condition as a divided person that led me to repentance. We cannot let our failure to live up to our ideals become an opportunity to throw out our ideals.

I think we need to get real that this “channeling” of the sex drive into other creative activities is something that priests and religious accomplish through contemplative prayer, religious vows, and rules of living that look nothing like the lives of most teenagers. I’m thirty seven years old, and I’m still waiting for that ecstatic union with God to channel my desire to have sex into community service.  But I still have to abstain occasionally for the health of my body and the good of my family.

It’s tempting for Catholics to compare ourselves to a contraceptive culture where married people never have to practice abstinence. Protestant kids might look forward to marriage as a time of unbridled sexual delight, but this has never been a Catholic teaching–that marriage is the vocation where you get to do whatever you want–and such misconceptions sell kids an illusion of marriage that leads to great disappointment and misunderstanding when they realize that indeed, they do not get whatever they want, and somehow marriage hasn’t solved all their sexual problems.

The virtue of chastity does not take away our sex drive. It doesn’t place us in a magical world where we only desire what is good for our souls. In striving for the virtue of chastity we are not immune to urges that are not good or healthy for us–the desire to gorge ourselves on cookie dough, for instance, the desire to drink to excess, the desire cheat a little on the NFP at times when it is imprudent to conceive again, because gosh, it feels so much better when we’re fertile.

These temptations are not a failure of chastity. They are temptations, roadblocks designed to throw us off our path to salvation, and the soul striving for chastity will choose self-abnegation, abstinence, whatever you want to call it, in the face of them. Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan.” He smacked temptation down with a decisive “no,” and in so doing his chastity, his authenticity of person, his beautiful and substantial wholeness (that we rightly elevate as the fruit of Christian belief) was maintained.

But you don’t get to “Yes” without a few “No’s” along the way. Let’s make peace with them.

About Elizabeth Duffy
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  • Petro

    Our sexuality is not akin to our desire to get drunk or eat cookie dough. It is far more complex than that. Carnal desire is what our secular culture reduces sexuality to. There is much more going on than biological urges to procreate in the minds of teenagers. This devaluation of sexuality sits at the base of my concern for restricting instruction about sexuality and sexual ethics to a Just Say No approach. I do not have any problem with teaching self-denial nor saying no. My concern is that Just Say No is an error-ridden path that too often leads to failure because it lacks the robustness to develop mature sexualities.

    Self-denial is not the core of chastity. It is an important part of chastity that needs to be explained in the context of an integrated sexuality.

    CCC 2337:

    “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.”

    Demanding self-denial alone is segregation and not integration. It is critical that our introduction of sexuality to our children be founded on dignity and integrity, and centered on self-worth and the value of sexuality. This can easily be done while also teaching self-denial. If it is not done, then we are not truly fostering chastity nor its value.

    From Gaudium et Spes 17:

    “Hence man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end.”

    This is the goal of chastity. It is not that we react to external pressures nor blind impulses engendered through cultural indoctrination, but that we are maturely motivated to seek the good and empowered with the tools to do so.

    At the core of what I am saying is the idea that seemingly arbitrary prohibitions will not hold up against the mix of an immature sexuality and the bombardment of encouragement and undermining of self-worth from the secular culture. Thus, as parents, we must seek to build mature sexualities in the context of spirituality and self-worth. This involves the concept of sexuality being about creative action and life-giving service at any level, including in the context of marriage. We need to let young people know the true purpose of their sexual energies, and the meaning of their desire for consummation, not just tell them to avoid these energies—which is impossible—or only consummate them when we tell them to do so. This negative approach undermines the value and gift of our sexuality, which is right in-step with what the secular culture does from an entirely different angle.

    In order to help young people understand the full worth of their sexual energies, we should place them into the context of our desire to be loved and receive acceptance, while ensuring that our youth are loved and accepted, not only by us but by others. We should help youth understand that the idea of not being held captive by their passions is applicable to sex as it is to any activity or thing, therefore also making sure to foster an attitude of self-denial and self-mastery in all things, not just sex. We should direct their desire for experience into a creative life that grows and expands through selecting the right path rather than building walls that narrow the path into one of our choosing. These are all real possibilities for young people that, when used to explain sexuality contextually, can build mature sexualities capable of truly withstanding the torrents of our culture with joy.

    “I think we need to get real that this “channeling” of the sex drive into other creative activities is something that priests and religious accomplish through contemplative prayer, religious vows, and rules of living that look nothing like the lives of most teenagers.”

    I have worked with religious for much of my life. I lived three years alongside them in community. They have no secret to how they accomplish celibacy. Some have mature sexualities. Some do not. Some keep their vows. Some abandon them. I would argue that some of them live lives much closer to teenagers than to married adults raising children do. They are freed from certain mundane responsibilities just as teenagers might be. And, as is quite clear, too many have let their immature sexualities dominate them just as teenagers—or adults—might.

    What allows the most successful of these men and women to accomplish what they do is not only prayer, nor vows, nor rules, but a relationship with Christ that gives them the strength to understand their worth and importance, as well as the value of their sexuality. Just saying no fosters no value. Often, it can undermine the building up of worth and importance because if these energies are worthless outside of marriage then I might also be worthless for having these energies. These holy men and women understand the great value of their sexuality and realize the importance of their sexual energies rather than trying to bury them beneath a collar or habit.

    We must do more than just recapture the meaning of abstinence, we must recapture the value of sexuality. This does not mean creating some form of sex cult, but merely rejecting the ideas that sexuality is an unholy beast that must be tamed lest it lead us to a fall. This is also what the secular world teaches. That’s why contraception and abortion exists, to save people from their fall at the hands of the sex monster. We must accept sexuality in all of its complexities, and not hide these complexities from our youth or bury them in restrictions that only confuse. We must build mature sexualities by teaching a chastity that includes self-denial, but also self-worth and empowerment.

    • Petro

      Yikes! That was way too long. Sorry.

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  • dabhidh

    “Did it make me feel sad several years later when that arbitrary line was crossed? Yes, but it was a sadness, a sense of shame you might say, a discomfort with my condition as a divided person that led me to repentance. We cannot let our failure to live up to our ideals become an opportunity to throw out our ideals.”

    This is a brilliant statement. Thank you.

    • James

      What I have found is that failure to live up to high ideals shows me where I need to improve. Knowing that I was having trouble living up to these ideals pushed me to find out why. Sometimes it involved working to improve the circumstances, other times it was working to improve myself.

      Lowering the standards denies people this opportunity for growth.

  • James

    I think a lot of Catholic chastity advocates and NFP promoters need to read this article.

    With some NFP literature, you’d get the impression that the abstinence is better than the sex! (If it is, you’re doing it wrong.)

  • Rose

    I am a nurse who had boy-children in my local Catholic grade school. The sex education they received included the term “marital embrace” in lieu of mentioning (sex) out loud. (head hits the desk). Really people? All my kiddo’s were conceived with sex! Sweaty, hanging off the bed, romping in the sheets, laughing, joyous SEX! Though I have embraced my husband, probably daily, during our marriage, not one hug has produced an offspring for us!

    I just wanted Them to help Me in the explaining the beauty of the act and the worthy, beautiful reasons to wait in their exploration of that part of their whole. But pretending it was not even available to them until marriage is just lunacy. Tagging sex with pretend names makes the presenters borderline……. irrelevant. Let’s get real and acknowledge that OH YEA! You are really going to like this and OH BOY, you body is going to be ready and willing ( horny. yes. HORNY) ( I can’t be the only teenage girl whose body was just buzzing with it?) but…….hear are some things that will add to all that beauty and fun and bring you more joy. Only if we can meet them in reality can we guide them.
    Well thanks for the discussion. I think that had been lurking in my caw for a couple of years!

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  • Helen

    Sarah Swafford of Benedictine University has a good message on emotional chastity which more young girls and women need to hear, one that sets them up for a more meaningful practice of abstinence. It’s worth a look.