Chastity, Morality, and Continence in Catholic Life.

Source: Catholic Encyclopedia
"As firstfruits are the most delicious, so virgins consecrated to God are most pleasing and dear to him. The spouse in the canticles feedeth among the lilies? One of the sacred interpreters, explaining these words, says, that "as the devil revels in the uncleanness of lust, so Christ feeds on the lilies of chastity." Venerable Bede asserts that the hymn of the virgins is more agreeable to the Lamb than that of all the other saints."

As a virtue

Chastity is the virtue which excludes or moderates the indulgence of the sexual appetite. It is a form of the virtue of temperance, which controls according to right reason the desire for and use of those things which afford the greatest sensual pleasures. The sources of such delectation are food and drink, by means of which the life of the individual is conserved, and the union of the sexes, by means of which the permanence of the species is secured. Chastity, therefore, is allied to abstinence and sobriety; for, as by these latter the pleasures of the nutritive functions are rightly regulated, so by chastity the procreative appetite is duly restricted. Understood as interdicting all carnal pleasures, chastity is taken generally to be the same as continency, though between these two, Aristotle, as pointed out in the article on CONTINENCY, drew a marked distinction. With chastity is often confounded modesty, though this latter is properly but a special circumstance of chastity or rather, we might say, its complement. For modesty is the quality of delicate reserve and constraint with reference to all acts that give rise to shame, and is therefore the outpost and safeguard of chastity.

It is hardly necessary to observe that the virtue under discussion may be a purely natural one. As such, its motive would be the natural decency seen in the control of the sexual appetite, according to the norm of reason. Such a motive springs from the dignity of human nature, which, without this rational sway, is degraded to brutish levels. But it is more particularly as a supernatural virtue that we would consider chastity. Viewed thus, its motives are discovered in the light of faith. These are particularly the words and example of Jesus Christ and the reverence that is owing to the human body as the temple of the Holy Ghost, as incorporated into that mystic body of which Christ is the head, as the recipient of the Blessed Eucharist, and finally, as destined to share hereafter with the soul a life of eternal glory. According as chastity would exclude all voluntary Carnal pleasures, or allow this gratification only within prescribed limits, it is known as absolute or relative. The former is enjoined upon the unmarried, the latter is incumbent upon those within the marriage state. The indulgence of the sexual appetite being prohibited to all outside of legitimate wedlock, the wilful impulse to it in the unmarried, like the wilful impulse to anything unlawful, is forbidden. Moreover, such is the intensity of the sexual passion that this impulse is perilously apt to bear away the will before it. Hence, when wilful, it is a grave offence of its very nature.

It must be observed too, that this impulse is constituted, not merely by an effective desire, but by every voluntary impure thought. Besides the classification already given, there is another, according to which chastity is distinguished as perfect, or imperfect. The first-mentioned is the virtue of those who, in order to devote themselves more unreservedly to God and their spiritual interests, resolve to refrain perpetually from even the licit pleasures of the marital state. When this resolution is made by one who has never known the gratification allowed in marriage, perfect chastity becomes virginity. Because of these two elements � the high purpose and the absolute inexperience � just referred to, virginal chastity takes on the character of a special virtue distinct from that which connotes abstinence merely from illicit carnal pleasure. Nor is it necessary that the resolution implied in virginity be fortified by a vow, though as practised ordinarily and in the most perfect manner, virginal chastity, as St. Thomas, following St. Augustine, would imply, supposes a vow. (Summa Theologi� II-II.152.3 ad 4) The special virtue we are here considering involves a physical integrity.

Yet while the Church demands this integrity in those who would wear the veil of consecrated virgins, it is but an accidental quality and may be lost without detriment to that higher spiritual integrity in which formally the virtue of virginity resides. The latter integrity is necessary and is alone sufficient to win the aureole said to await virgins as a special heavenly reward (St. Thomas, Suppl., Q. xcvi, a. 5). Imperfect chastity is that which is proper to the state of those who have not as yet entered wedlock without however having renounced the intention of doing so, of those also who are joined by the bonds of legitimate marriage, and finally of those who have outlived their marital partners. However in the case of those last mentioned the resolution may be taken which obviously would make the chastity practised that which we have defined as the perfect kind.

The practice of chastity

To point out the untenableness of the arguments advanced by McLennon, Lubbock, Morgan, Spencer, and others, for an original state of sexual promiscuity among mankind, belongs more immediately to the natural history of marriage. Westermarck, in his "History of Human Marriage" (London, 1891), has clearly shown that many of the representations made of people living promiscuously are false and that this low condition may not be looked upon as characteristic of savages, much less be taken as evidencing an original promiscuity (History of Human Marriage, 61 sqq.). According to this author, "the number of uncivilized peoples among whom chastity, at least as regards women, is held in honour and as a rule cultivated, is very considerable" (op. cit., 66). A fact which cannot be overlooked, of which travellers give unfailing testimony is the pernicious effect, as a rule, upon savages of contact with those who come to them from higher civilization. According to Dr. Nansen, "the Eskimo women of the larger colonies are freer in their ways than those of the small outlying settlements where there are no Europeans" (Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland, II, 329). Of the tribes of the Adelaide plains of South Australia, Mr. Edward Stephens says: "Those who speak of the natives as a naturally degraded race, either do not speak from experience, or they judge them by what they have become when the abuse of intoxicants and contact with the most wicked of the white race have begun their deadly work. I saw the natives and was much with them before those dreadful immoralities were known and I say it fearlessly that nearly all their evils they owed to the white man's immorality and to the white man's drink" (Stephens, The Aborigines of Australia, in Jour. Roy. Soc. N. S. Wales, XXIII, 480). Of the primitive Turko-Tatars, Professor Vambrey observes: "The difference in immorality which exists between the Turks affected by a foreign civilization and kindred tribes inhabiting the steppes becomes very conspicuous to anyone living among the Turkomans and Kara Kalpaks, for whether in Africa or Asia certain vices are introduced only by the so-called bearers of culture" (Vambrey, Die primitive Cultur des Turks tartarischen Volkes, 72). Testimonies to the same effect could be multiplied indefinitely.

The practice of chastity among the Jews

Several of the Mosaic ordinances must have operated strongly among the ancient Jews, to prevent sins against chastity. The legislation of Deuteronomy 22:20-21, according to which a bride who had deceived her husband into thinking her a virgin was stoned to death at her father's door, must in the circumstances have powerfully deterred young women from all impure practices. The effect, too, of the law, Deuteronomy 22:28-29, must have been wholesome. According to this enactment, if a man sinned with a virgin "he shall give to the father of the maid fifty sides of silver and shall have her to wife because he hath humbled her. He may not put her away all the days of his life." The Mosaic law against prostitution of Jewish women was severe, nevertheless through foreign women this evil became widespread in Israel. It is to be observed that the Hebrews were ever prone to fall into the sexual sins of their heathen neighbours, and the inevitable result of polygamy was seen in the absence of a recognized obligation of continence in the husband parallel to that imposed on the wife.

The unchastity of the post-Homeric Greeks was notorious. With this people marriage was but an institution to supply the State with strong and sturdy soldiers. The consequence of this to the position of women was most baneful. We are told by Polybius that sometimes four Spartans had one wife in common. (Fragm. in Scr. Vet. Nov. Coll., ed. Mai, II, 384.) The Athenians were not so degraded, yet here the wife was excluded from the society of her husband, who sought pleasure in the company of hetairai and concubines. The hetairai were not social pariahs among the Athenians. Indeed many of them attained to the influence of queens. Although the Romans styled excess of debauchery "Gr�cizing", they nevertheless sounded greater depths of filthy wantonness in the days following the early republic than ever did their eastern neighbours. The Greeks threw a glamour of romance and sentiment about their sexual sins. But with the Romans, immorality, even of the abnormal kind, stalked about, its repulsiveness undisguised. We gather this clearly from the pages of Juvenal, Martial, and Suetonius. Cicero makes the public statement that intercourse with prostitutes had never been a thing condemned in Rome (Pro C�lio, xv), and we know that as a rule marriage was looked upon as a mere temporary relation to be severed directly it became irksome to either party. Never did woman sink to such degradation as in Rome. In Greece the enforced seclusion of the wife acted as a moral protection. The Roman matron was not thus restricted, and many of these of highest social rank did not hesitate in the time of Tiberius to have their names inscribed upon the �diles' list as common prostitutes in order thus to escape the penalties which the Julian Law attached to adultery.

Christianity and the practice of chastity

Under Christianity chastity has been practised in a manner unknown under any other influence. Christian morality prescribes the right order of relations. It therefore must direct and control the manner of relationship sustained to each other by soul and body. Between these two there is an ineradicable opposition, the flesh with its concupiscences contending unceasingly against the spirit, blinding the latter and weaning it away from the pursuit of its true life. Harmony and due order between these two must prevail. But this means the pre-eminence and mastery of the spirit, which in turn can only mean the castigation of the body. The real as well as the etymological kinship between chastity and chastisement then is obvious. Necessarily, therefore, chastity is a thing stern and austere. The effect of the example as well as of the words of Our Saviour (Matthew 19:11-12) is seen in the lives of the many celibates and virgins who have graced the history of the Christian Church, while the idea of marriage as the sign and symbol of the ineffable union of Christ with His spotless spouse the Church � a union in which fidelity no less than love is mutual � has borne its fruit in beautifying the world with patterns of conjugal chastity.


It is necessary at the outset of this article to distinguish between morality and ethics, terms not seldom employed synonymously. Morality is antecedent to ethics: it denotes those concrete activities of which ethics is the science. It may be defined as human conduct in so far as it is freely subordinated to the ideal of what is right and fitting.

This ideal governing our free actions is common to the race. Though there is wide divergence as to theories of ethics, there is a fundamental agreement among men regarding the general lines of conduct desirable in public and private life. Thus Mr. Hobhouse has well said:

"The comparative study of ethics, which is apt in its earlier stages to impress the student with a bewildering sense of the diversity of moral judgments, ends rather by impressing them with a more fundamental and far-reaching uniformity. Through the greatest extent of time and space over which we have records, we find a recurrence of the common features of ordinary morality, which to my mind at least is not less impressive than the variations which also appear" (Morals in Evolution, I, i, n. 11).
Plainly this uniformity regards principles rather than their application. The actual rules of conduct differ widely. While reverence to parents may be universally acknowledged as obligatory, certain savage tribes believe that filial piety requires them to despatch their parents when the infirmities of old age appear. Yet making allowance for all such diversities, it may be said that the common voice of the race proclaims it to be right for a man to reverence his parents; to care and provide for his children; to be master of his lower appetites; to be honest and just in his dealings, even to his own damage; to show benevolence to his fellows in time of distress; to bear pain and misfortune with fortitude. And only within comparatively recent years has anyone been found to deny that beyond this a man is bound to honour God and to prefer his country's interests to his own. Thus, indeed, the advance of morality lies not so much in the discovery of new principles as in the better application of those already accepted, in the recognition of their true basis and their ultimate sanction, in the widening of the area within which they are held to bind, and in the removal of corruptions inconsistent with their observance.

The relation of morality to religion has been a subject of keen debate during the past century. In much recent ethical philosophy it is strenuously maintained that right moral action is altogether independent of religion. Such is the teaching alike of the Evolutionary, Positivist, and Idealist schools. And an active propaganda is being carried on with a view to the general substitution of this independent morality for morality based on the beliefs of Theism. On the other hand, the Church has ever affirmed that the two are essentially connected, and that apart from religion the observance of the moral law is impossible. This, indeed, follows as a necessary consequence from the Church's teaching as to the nature of morality. She admits that the moral law is knowable to reason: for the due regulation of our free actions, in which morality consists, is simply their right ordering with a view to the perfecting of our rational nature. But she insists that the law has its ultimate obligation in the will of the Creator by whom our nature was fashioned, and who imposes on us its right ordering as a duty; and that its ultimate sanction is the loss of God which its violation must entail. Further, among the duties which the moral law prescribes are some which are directly concerned with God Himself, and as such are of supreme importance.

Where morality is divorced from religion, reason will, it is true, enable a man to recognize to a large extent the ideal to which his nature points. But much will be wanting. He will disregard some of his most essential duties. He will, further, be destitute of the strong motives for obedience to the law afforded by the sense of obligation to God and the knowledge of the tremendous sanction attached to its neglect � motives which experience has proved to be necessary as a safeguard against the influence of the passions. And, finally, his actions even if in accordance with the moral law, will be based not on the obligation imposed by the Divine will, but on considerations of human dignity and on the good of human society. Such motives, however, cannot present themselves as, strictly speaking, obligatory. But where the motive of obligation is wanting, acting lacks an element essential to true morality. Moreover, in this connection the Church insists upon the doctrine of original sin. She teaches that in our present state there is a certain obscurity in reason's vision of the moral law, together with a morbid craving for independence impelling us to transgress it, and a lack of complete control over the passions; and that by reason of this inherited taint, man, unless supported by Divine aid, is unable to observe the moral law for any length of time. Newman has admirably described from the psychological point of view this weakness in our grasp of the moral law: 

"The sense of right and wrong . . . is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressionable by education, so biassed by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, the sense is at once the highest of all teachers yet the least luminous" (Newman, "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk", in section on conscience).
In dealing with this subject, however, it is further necessary to take account of the historical argument. Various facts are adduced, which, it is alleged, show that morality is, in point of fact, capable of dissociation from religion. It is urged (1) that the most primitive peoples do not connect their religious beliefs with such moral code as they possess; and (2) that even where the moral consciousness and the religious system have reached a high degree of development, the spheres of religion and morality are sometimes regarded as separate. Thus the Greeks of classical times were in moral questions influenced rather by non-religious conceptions such as that of aidos (natural shame) than by fear of the gods; while one great religious system, namely Buddhism, explicitly taught the entire independence of the moral code from any belief in God. To these arguments we reply, first: that the savages of today are not primitives, but degenerates. It is the merest superstition to suppose that these degraded races can enlighten us as to what were the beliefs of man in his primitive state. It is among civilized races, where man has developed normally, that we must seek for knowledge as to what is natural to man. The evidence gathered from them is overwhelmingly in favour of the contention that human reason proclaims the essential dependence of morality on religious belief. In regard to the contrary instances alleged, it must be denied that the morality of the Greeks was unconnected with religion. Though they may not have realized that the laws prescribed by natural shame were derived from a divine command, they most certainly believed that their violation would be punished by the gods. As to Buddhist belief, a distinction must be drawn between the metaphysical teaching of the Buddha or of some of his disciples, and the practical interpretation of that teaching as expressed in the lives of the great mass of the adherents of the creed.

It is only the Buddhist monks who have really followed the speculative teaching of their master on this point and have dissociated the moral law from belief in God. The mass of adherents never did so. Yet even the monks, while denying the existence of a personal God, regarded as a heretic any who disputed the existence of heaven and hell. Thus they too help to bear witness to the universal consensus that the moral law is based on supernatural sanctions. We may, however, readily admit that where the religious conceptions and the moral code were alike immature and inadequate, the relation between them was less clearly grasped in thought, and less intimate in practice, than it became when man found himself in possession of a fuller truth regarding them. A Greek or a Buddhist community may have preserved a certain healthiness of moral tone even though the religious obligation of the moral law was but obscurely felt, while ancestral precept and civic obligation were viewed as the preponderating motives. A broad distinction must be made between such cases and that of those nations which having once accepted the Christian faith with its clear profession of the connection between moral obligation and a Divine law, have subsequently repudiated this belief in favour of a purely natural morality. There is no parity between "Fore-Christians" and "After-Christians". The evidence at our command seems to establish as certain that it is impossible for these latter to return to the inadequate grounds of obligation which may sometimes suffice for nations still in the immaturity of their knowledge; and that for them the rejection of the religious sanction is invariably followed by a moral decay, leading rapidly to the corruptions of the most degraded periods of our history.

We may see this wherever the great revolt from Christianity, which began in the eighteenth century, and which is so potent a factor today, has spread. It is naturally in France, where the revolt began, that the movement has attained its fullest development. There its effects are not disputed. The birth-rate has shrunk until the population, were it not for the immigration of Flemings and Italians, would be a diminishing quantity; Christian family life is disappearing; the number of divorces and of suicides multiplies annually; while one of the most ominous of all symptoms is the alarming increase of juvenile crime. But these effects are not peculiar to France. The movement away from Christianity has spread to certain sections of the population in the United States in England, in Germany, in Australia, countries providing in other respects a wide variety of circumstances. Wherever it is found, there in varying degrees he same results have followed, so that the unprejudiced observer can draw but one conclusion, namely: that for a nation which has attained maturity, morality is essentially dependent on the religious sanction, and that when this is rejected, morality will soon decay.

Granting religion to be the essential basis of moral action, we may further inquire what are the chief conditions requisite for the growth and development of morality in the individual and in the community. Three such may be singled out as of primary moment, namely: (1) a right education of the young, (2) a healthy public opinion, (3) sound legislation. It will be unnecessary for us to do more than touch in the briefest manner on these points.

(1) Under education we include the early training of the home as well as the subsequent years of school life. The family is the true school of morality, a school which nothing can replace. There the child is taught obedience, truthfulness, self-restraint, and the other primary virtues. The obligation to practise them is impressed upon him by those whose claim on him he at once recognizes, and whose word he does not dream of doubting; while the observance of the precept is made easy by the affection which unites him with those who impose it. It is, therefore, with reason that the Church has ever declared divorce to be fatal to the truest interests of a nation. Where divorce is frequent, family life in its higher form disappears and with it perishes the foundation of a nation's morality. Similarly the Church maintains, that during the years of school life, the moral and religious atmosphere is of vital importance, and that apart from this the possession of intellectual culture is a danger rather than a safeguard.

(2) It is hardly necessary to do more than call attention to the necessity of a sound public opinion. The great mass of men have neither opportunity nor leisure to determine a standard of morals for themselves. They accept that which prevails around them. If it is high, they will not question it. If it is low, they will aim no higher. When the nations were Catholic, public opinion was predominantly swayed by the teaching of the Church. In these days it is largely formed by the press; and since the press as a whole views morality apart from religion, the standard proposed is inevitably very different from what the Church would desiderate. Hence the immense importance of a Catholic press, which even in a non-Catholic environment will keep a true view before the minds of those who recognize the Church's authority. But public opinion is also largely influenced by voluntary associations of one form or another; and of recent years immense work has been done by Catholics in organizing associations with this purpose, the most notable instance being the German Volksverein.

(3) It may be said with truth that the greater part of a nation's legislation affects its morality in some way or other. This is of course manifestly the case with all laws connected with the family or with education; and with those, which like the laws regarding the drink traffic and the restriction of bad literature, have the public morals for their immediate object. But it is also true of all legislation which deals with the circumstances of the lives of the people. Laws, for instance, determining the conditions of labour and protecting the poor from the hands of the usurer, promote morality, for they save men from that degradation and despair in which moral life is practically impossible. It is thus evident how necessary it is, that in all such questions the Church should in every country have a definitely formed opinion and should make her voice heard.


Continence may be defined as abstinence from even the licit gratifications of marriage. It is a form of the virtue of temperance, though Aristotle did not accord it this high character since it involved a conflict with wrong desires--an element, in the mind of the philosopher, foreign to the content of a virtue in the strict sense. Continence, it is seen, has a more restricted significance than chastity, since the latter finds place in the condition of marriage. The abstinence we are discussing, then, belongs to the state of celibacy, though clearly the notion of this latter does not necessarily involve that of continence.


In considering its practice we regard continence as a state of life. Though among savages and barbarians every one, as a rule, seeks to contract an early marriage, yet even among these peoples continence is frequently practiced by those who discharge the public duties of religion. Thus according to authorities cited by Westmarck, the male wizards of Patagonia embraced a life of continence, as did the priests of the Mosquito Islands and of ancient Mexico. According to Chinese law such condition of abstinence is made obligatory upon all priests, Buddhist or Taoist. Among the Greeks continence was required of several orders of priests and priestesses, as it was of the vestals among the Romans. The continence extensively observed among the Essenes, the Manich�ans, and some of the Gnostics, though not confined to a priestly class, was reckoned the means to a greater sanctification.

Such widespread practice offers evidence of an instinctive feeling that the indulgence of our sensual nature is in a measure degrading, and that it is particularly incompatible with the perfect purity that should characterize one consecrated to the worship of the All Holy. That the attitude of a number of sects towards the lower side of human nature has taken on a character of unreasonable, and even absurd, severity is clear. This is observed especially in the case of the Manich�ans and branches of the Gnostics in the past and of the Shakers and other unimportant communities in our time. The law of the Catholic Church imposing a state of continence upon its ministers and upon its religious orders of men and women is set forth in the articles

Two general objections are frequently urged against the state of continence. First, it is said that the condition of continence is detrimental to the well-being of the individual. In such a statement, it will be frequently found, continence is understood as an unchaste celibacy, and such surely is not only a moral but a physical evil most pernicious. Certain it is, however, that the self-sacrifice and control involved in true continence finds fruitage in a greater measure of moral power. The words of Jesus Christ (Matthew 19:12) may be here appealed to. Moreover, the abstinence of which we speak is a condition of increased physical vigor and energy. Of this many savages are not unmindful; for among a number of these continence is imposed upon the braves during times of war as a means of fostering and strengthening their daring and courage.

A second objection rests upon considerations of the social good. It is contended that a state of continence means failure to discharge the social obligation of conserving the species. But such an obligation falls, not upon every member of the community, but upon society at large, and is amply discharged though there be individual exceptions. Indeed the non-fulfillment of this duty is never threatened by a too general observance of sexual abstinence. On the contrary it is only the unlawful gratification of carnal passion that can menace the due growth of population. But it may be said that the practice of continence withdraws form the function of reproduction the worthier members of society-those whose possible offspring would be the most desirable citizens of the State. This contention, however, overlooks the social service of the example set by such observance-a service which, in view of the duty incumbent upon every individual of society of observing absolute chastity for periods of greater or less duration, is of highest value.


Chastity, Morality, and Continence in Catholic Life.

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