Achieving Chastity in an Unchaste World
By Rev. Thomas G. Morrow, S.T.D.
Introduction: The Problem
With the advent of the internet, and its huge number of pornographic web sites, the pastoral problem of sexual struggles and addiction has skyrocketed. The advance of cable TV has not helped matters. Many have developed addictions of varying intensity to pornography and other sexual activities such as masturbation, fornication, adultery and homosexual acts.
People get into these things for various reasons: boredom, isolation, pleasure-seeking, or hurt. In many cases the sexual activity acts as a temporary alleviation from the pain one is experiencing, but sometimes it is just a seeking of pleasure. Sexual addictions are much like drug or other substance addiction, insofar as they provide a temporary high as a relief from sadness or boredom, but exact a price for the addict. In physical addictions the price is, most visibly, physical, in sexual, the price is often psychological (and sometimes physical as well).
Sexual addiction comes in many forms, and in varying degrees. It ranges from the religious young man (or woman) trying to overcome masturbation, to a high-ranking religious leader being exposed as an exhibitionist, to the CEO of a large manufacturing company being caught leading a child pornography ring.1 Whatever the degree, sexual addiction or even problems of sexual insobriety are a big challenge to the person of faith.
I have found, in helping scores of people over the past fifteen years try to overcome bad sexual habits, that the majority are not hard-core “sex addicts” as the CEO or the religious leader mentioned above. Most are simply people who have gotten into immoral sex and find it difficult to break free from the habit. Some have underlying psychological problems, such as a father wound, or unresolved anger, or a gender identity deficit. Others have been the victims of sexual abuse. For all those cases, it seems that counseling with a good, Christian therapist would be called for, and in some cases participation in a Sexaholics Anonymous group as well (which we will discuss later). Also, for the more compulsive sex addict, therapy might be necessary as well. This book is not aimed at taking the place of such therapy.
It is primarily aimed at the vast majority of men and women who struggle with a sex habit such as the use of pornography, or daily masturbation or frequent fornication or other acting out. The issue addressed herein is how to use prayer and various methods from Moral Theology to overcome such habits. It’s about the sex habit, not the more complex issues that may underlie the habit. Indeed, I believe some therapists, and ministers as well could benefit from some of the ideas in this book, as part of their particular approach, tailored to the individual they are counseling.
Ultimately, the question at hand is, how can we help people overcome such excesses? What steps can those involved take to free themselves from the “sex drug”? The answer lies not just in exercising a rigid self-control, but in trying to harmonize moral behavior with human nature, in trying to change one’s behavior in a way that is adapted to the psyche, and what fulfills it. By accommodating both the truth about human sexuality and the nature of the human soul, and an overall healthy lifestyle, a person can find inner peace in living the Gospel, a peace that is lasting and joy-filled.
Chapter 1: Training The Sexual Appetite
Some time ago I was giving spiritual direction to a young man who struggled with unchaste thoughts and desires. He was praying a good deal each day, and attending daily Mass. He had a reasonably balanced life, with some sports activities each week, and was happy in his job. Nonetheless, in this one area, he felt quite inadequate.
So, I explained to him the need to convert, rather than suppress his appetite, as recommended by Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope John Paul II (certainly a credible trio!). He was to present to his mind, repeatedly, the values he would gain by living chastely, things like "treating others as persons, not objects," "living by reason, not by his urges," and "upholding the sacredness of sex." I had him make a list of these reasons, and encouraged him to read the list several times a day. He began to do this, and within a year, he told me he was over the struggle. He was able to live chastely without having to battle his sexual appetite. It had finally been trained, and was not trying to move him in the direction of impure thoughts or acts. He had found chastity.
I have proposed similar routines to others, many of whom struggled with pornography, especially on the internet. A number of these people have indicated, after only a few months, that it was helping them a great deal.
It seems that all of this points to the fact that with a good deal of grace, and using the proper approach to the psyche, those struggling with addictions to pornography and unchaste thoughts and actions can be set free from their slavery to lust. How important is this emancipation? Very. Any addiction draws us away from our ultimate vocation, that of love, since only one who is free can give himself totally to another in love. Pope John Paul II spoke eloquently of the need for us to live out this love vocation:
Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.2
It is only in love that we are fulfilled as persons, love for God and for our neighbors.
The Goal: Chastity
To begin with, it’s important to have the goal in mind. That goal must be real chastity. What exactly is the virtue of chastity? According to Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, chastity is the habitual moderation of the sexual appetite in accord with right reason. In other words, it’s bringing the sexual appetite consistently under reason.
Notice it is not just the regulation of behavior, which would be self-control, but of the very desires that lead to sexual behavior. Note too, the norm is “right” reason, i.e., reason in conformity with God's Eternal Law, not merely worldly reason, which sees any sex which avoids unwanted pregnancy or disease as “reasonable.”
Certainly, as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, chastity is not something a person can arrive at without considerable prayer and effort. The fruits of a tree appear last, and so it is with the Holy Spirit's fruits: they require a good deal of cultivation under the influence of God's grace.
Are there any methods one can employ to effectively use the grace received from spiritual exercises to develop chastity? Yes there are. A person begins by observing with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas,3 that the sexual appetite seems to have a life of its own, and it listens not only to reason, but to the senses and the imagination as well. If I want to raise my hand, I direct it to move, and it moves. But, if my sexual appetite is attracted to something illicit, I must do more than tell it, “Forget it.” It can be very persistent.
St. Paul wrote,
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do... For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! (Rom. 7:19, 23, 24)4
This is the battle we have with the appetites, especially the sexual appetite.
Thus, one must find a way to “convince” his sexual appetite to obey reason and not the senses or the imagination. Alas, many who are addicted to sex are addicted to visual stimuli, especially pornography (senses), and sexual fantasies (imagination). We will consider how to deal with these elements below, but first, a general approach to convert the sexual appetite.
Since there are competing voices for the control of the sexual appetite, it doesn't work for reason to deal with the appetite “despotically,” i.e., simply saying “no” to the appetite's appeal, and when it asks why not, saying “because I said no.” If it does, it will repress the appetite into the unconscious where it will wait for a chance to explode.5 In a moment of weakness the appetite will indeed explode with an outburst of sexual activity. We see this in the person who contains himself/herself for several weeks but then goes on a spree, and repeats this cycle over and over.
The intellect must deal “politically” with the appetite, setting forth the values which will be gained by living chastity, to make up for the value of the sexual pleasure which is sacrificed. One must, in a sense, convince his (“or her” understood) appetite that it will not make him happy to give in to it.
As Pope John Paul II put it,
...the promptings of carnal desire do not disappear merely because they are contained by willpower, although superficially they appear to do so; for them to disappear completely a man must know 'why' he is containing them... We can speak of objectivization only when the will is confronted by a value which fully explains the necessity for containing impulses aroused by carnal desire and sensuality. Only as this value gradually takes possession of the mind and the will does the will become calm and free itself from a characteristic sense of loss.6
The person, then, must hammer away with reason, to convert his heart to the truth. In the long run, we are more attracted to the truth than to pleasure. In fact, Jesus identified himself with the truth (“I am the way, the truth and the life” Jn. 14:6). Pleasure is a fleeting thing; truth lasts forever. It’s not enough to know what is right and wrong. To survive in this world, chastity has got to be in one’s blood. A person must be completely convinced, mind and heart.
Chapter 2: Chastity’s Values
What are some of these values (goods) of which a person can remind himself so as to alleviate any interior resentment and find peace in the chaste decision? I would propose at least six:
1. Sex is holy, not a plaything. It should never be trivialized.
2. Created in the image of God, I can live by reason, not just by urges (as the animals do).
3. Persons are to be loved, not merely used as objects of enjoyment.
4. I must not treat persons as objects, even in the mind, lest I become a user of persons in practice.
5. Unchaste activity destroys my most precious friendship, that with God, the source of all happiness.
6. Unchaste activity brings pleasure but not happiness.
(A card with these points can be found under the title, The Truth About Chastity)