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.