Godtalk: Chastity is about love
Chastity and celibacy are often confused. Celibacy means single either by choice or circumstance. Chastity for the married means faithfulness; for celibates it means abstaining.
One of the main goals of chastity is to love as many people as possible as deeply as possible. That may seem strange to those used to defining chastity negatively - that is, as not having sex. But this has long been the tradition of the Church. Chastity is another way to love and, as such, has a great deal to teach everyone, not just members of religious orders.
Chastity is not for everyone. Most people are called to romantic love, marriage, sexual intimacy, children, and family life. Their primary way of loving is through their spouses and children. It is a more focussed, more exclusive, way of loving. That is not to say that married couples and parents do not love others outside their families. Rather, the main focus of their love is God and their families.
For the person in a religious order, the situation is the opposite. You vow chastity to offer yourself to love God and make yourself available to love as many others as possible. Once again, this is not to say that married and single men and women cannot do this. Rather, this is the way that works best for us.
Chastity is also a reminder that it’s possible to love well without being in an exclusive relationship and without being sexually active. In this way, the chaste person can serve as a signpost in our hypersexualised society, where loving someone may be confused with sexual intimacy. So chastity can help us to refocus our priorities: the goal of life, whether single, married, or religious, is to love.
Who is more loving? The head-over-heels-in-love couple with an active sex life; the committed middle-aged couple who have sex less frequently due to the demands of family life; or the tender elderly couple who, because of illness, are not sexually active at all? Who is more loving - the married man who loves his wife or the single woman who loves her friends? Who is more loving - the celibate priest or the sexually active wife? The answer is: they are all loving, but in different ways.
Chastity doesn't lead to unhealthy behaviour. The sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was more about a small percentage of psychologically unhealthy men who should never have been admitted into seminaries or religious orders in the first place, and some bishops who should have never shuttled them from one parish to another, than it was about chastity per se.
Chastity also takes practice. You don't become a perfect husband or wife on the day of your wedding. Nor can you understand your chastity completely on the day of your vows. It takes time to grow into your vows in an integrated way. That's one reason for novitiates and seminaries - they function almost like an engagement, to see if this way of life is right for a person.
What about lust? Well, chaste persons can still have their head turned by an attractive person. We're human, after all. But when that happens, you remind yourself of a few things. First, it's natural. Second, the life you've chosen does not allow that. And third, if you're completely overcome with a constant desire for sexual intimacy, then something may be missing in your affective life. Is it an intimate relationship with God in prayer? Fulfilling friendships? Satisfying work? Not responding to God's love in everyday life in some way? Because those making a vow of chastity believe that God will help them in this.
One of the greatest gifts that the chaste person can offer is to show not only that there are many ways to love, but that loving a person freely, without clinging to him or her, is a gift to both the lover and the beloved. Often we are tempted to think that loving someone – a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, or any friend, means clinging to them, which is a subtle form of ownership. But love means embracing the poverty of not owning the other. So chastity can teach the world about a free way to love and a loving way to be free.
Some question whether celibate chastity is really possible, with any degree of healthiness, integrity, or honesty. With God's help it is. Priests, and men and women in religious orders, have to accept the possibility that they will fall in love. If you hope to be a loving man or woman, you will run the risk of falling in love. Jesus, as a fully human person, also opened himself to that possibility, when he offered his heart to others and opened himself to receiving their love.
Despite what you might read in popular novels, Jesus was not secretly married. It is clear from the New Testament that Jesus remained unmarried throughout his life. The Gospels often speak about Jesus' relatives. Not mentioning a wife - if he had one - would be strange. Jesus, in his humanity, was as prone as anyone to falling in love and having others fall in love with him. His response was to love others both chastely and deeply.
What happens when a member of a religious order falls in love? This is somewhat similar to the situation for a married person who falls in love with someone other than their spouse. In both cases, you remind yourself of your commitment and take the right steps to honour it.
Falling in love is part of being human. It shows that you are a loving person. Falling in love enables one to grow in wisdom, with some insights into the human condition that help when counselling others. It helps one to become more human.
We are often presented with competing desires in life. We have to discern which the greater desire - the governing desire is. Competing desires do not negate the choice that you have made: they simply make it more real. What married person does not occasionally feel the same? Who doesn't feel the occasional pang of regret over a life changing decision? The key is understanding your governing desire, as well as honouring your original commitment.
Chastity is not easy. The more loving you are, the more likely it is that you will fall in love, and the more likely it is that others will fall in love with you. The life of religious chastity can also be lonely. No matter how many friends you have, how close you are to your family, how supportive your religious community is, and how satisfying your ministry is, you still have to face an empty bed at night. There is no one person with whom you can share good news, on whose shoulder you can cry, or on whom you can always count for a hug after a hard day. Single, divorced, or widowed men and women know this feeling too.
Chastity means you will never be the most important person in anyone's life. Ultimately, the vow becomes not something that you do, but something deeper. You can say, ‘I know who I am.' It's about integrity and commitment. This is what one could call 'special' for me’ in the same way that married couples might speak of their love: a special gift. ‘There are some who choose to be celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.’ Matt 19.12
The insights of religious chastity can help you even if you're not a Catholic priest or in a religious order - namely, as a reminder that there are ways other than sexual intimacy by which you can give and receive love which can be as valuable, meaningful, and important as a sexual expression of love.
Religious chastity means that you love people outside the context of a romantic relationship. And that covers most people in their own life. If you're single, widowed, or divorced, it covers everyone; if you're in a committed relationship (married, engaged, etc.), it covers all but one person. So the insights of chaste love are relevant to everyone’s life.
Peter Knott SJ
Adapted from The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin SJ