Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Gift of Chastity

I've been challenged recently to provide some suggestions for how we can actually reach out to LBGTQ people. This is a very large and complex question. I'd like to begin with this single point. We must offer something before we demand something.

This is consistently the modus operandi of Our Lord when dealing with people, and especially when dealing with sinners. The call to repentance comes after, not before, the healing, the feeding, or the deliverance. Christ begins by finding out what it is that His people need and then offers the thing that they are hungry or thirsty for. Only once He has established His credibility by making it clear that He is able to deliver on His promises does He tell people to “go and sin no more.”

We very often have this backwards. We point out that Christ told the woman in adultery to stop committing adultery, and so we think that we are following Him if we go around telling sinners not to sin. What we've missed here is that Christ doesn't tell the woman not to sin until He has dealt with all of her accusers. Let's look at this story in more detail, from an existential point of view, in order to understand the full psychological thrust of what it is that Christ is accomplishing with this woman.

The woman caught in adultery was guilty of sin and under the Mosaic code she was supposed to be condemned to death. At the point when Christ catches up with her she has already been tried and the Pharisees and faithful Jews are gathered around ready to subject her to a very painful death. We can all imagine the terror that this woman felt, her fear of her accusers. I think if we go a little deeper we can also imagine what kind of internal dialogue the woman must have felt. It's unlikely that she was prepared to think of her execution as a just and proportionate punishment – rarely do we understand punishment in this way. Almost certainly her head was churning with justifications, excuses, reasons why she had behaved the way that she had, counter-accusations to sling at her accusers. Her sense of powerlessness in the face of those who had the capacity to put her death would have made it very difficult for her to understand or deal with her own guilt.

Christ comes into the scene and does not begin by giving the woman a lecture on why adultery is sinful. He begins by giving her accusers a taste of their own medicine. In a very beautiful gloss on this passage it is explained that when Christ bends down to write in the dirt – a very mysterious action – what He writes are the mortal sins of the men who stand ready to stone the adulteress. These men lower their stones and go away leaving her unmolested, because each of them has seen his own guilt and knows that he too is condemned to death under the Law. I think it's safe to assume that Christ writes in the mud in order to avoid causing scandal or damage to the individual reputations of those gathered at the stoning. He respects their privacy and so simply makes a list of sins and allows each one to quietly and privately accept his guilt in the silence of his own heart.

Christ then says “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The mob disbands and the woman is left with no one to accuse her. This is tremendously important: Christ has first shown the woman that her sin is not greater than the sins of other men, that she is a normal human being, and that God's mercy is real and abundant. We can imagine the gratitude that she must have felt, realizing that there was no one left to condemn her and that she wasn't going to die for her transgressions. It is here, at this moment when she has received the mercy of God as an emotional reality that He says to her “Sin no more.”

Okay, so this means that if we stand up and defend people against those who would accuse them and condemn them it gives us the right to make demands on them, right? No. When Christ says “Go and sin no more,” He is not saying “Quid pro quo.” He's offering her a further gift: the gift of chastity. God's generosity is pretty boundless, and He doesn't expect repayment. He's a Father. When you have kids and you impose rules on them, it's not because you think that by following the rules the children will somehow make themselves worthy of your love and of the life that you have bestowed on them. Any parent can see that that's just a crazy way of thinking about it – even though most of us have kids who think of it that way from time to time. The rules exist in order to keep the children happy and safe, not in order to make the kids pleasing to the parents. The kids are pleasing by default, even when they're cranky, or get toothache, or snivel, or throw things at their siblings. There's nothing that they can do in order to earn our love, or in order to make that love go away. In so far as we're good parents, the things that we “demand” of our kids are actually gifts that we try to give them which happen to be arduous to receive. The gift of peace between siblings, the gift of self-control, the gift of a healthy body, the gift of a well-formed intellect, these are all gifts which we can bestow only if the child is willing to co-operate and is willing to work, trusting in the benevolent will of their mother or father. None the less, they are gifts which are intended for the good of the child.

It's the same with God. Avoiding sin is not a bargaining chip that we offer to Jesus in order to make us worthy of His Body and Blood poured out on the cross. We are not called to avoid sin to pay our way out of Hell (which we can't do anyways) or to prove to God that we really love Him. We are called to avoid sin because in doing so we are empowered to trust in God enough to recieve the gifts that He desperately wants to give to us.

This is why it is disastrous when the gift of chastity is presented to people as a demand, an exchange of happiness in this life for happiness in the next life. It's not that at all. Chastity is good, not merely as a means of becoming a Saint in some future existence, but as a means of preserving dignity, integrity and happiness right now, in the present. The problem with Catholic outreach to sexual sinners is not that we don't tell them the truth about the sinfulness of sin, but rather that we do not show them, by our actions and our words, that God's love is bountiful, without limit, unmerited and unmeritable, available to all, capable of healing the most profound kinds of pain, utterly trustworthy, and directed towards the authentic goods of human life.


  1. Thank you so much for this post. I often fall because I fear that I am missing out on what is best and most beautiful. I know, or at least want to know and be certain, that Christ desires me and that only his Fatherly and Filial love can give me the communion and freedom I truly desire in every moment of life. Yet, I often fear the sacrifice this abounds and other routes promise short-cuts that bypass the Cross, and although these routes always prove to be dead-ends that enslave and impede me from truly living and following my vocation, I take them. I am weak and wounded, thus my sin ought to be unsurprising for me--it isn't surprising that I am totally dependent on grace in every moment. I see and recognize the correspondences between my desire and Christ's gifted grace, the beautiful correspondences in the language of his creation. Yet, I fear that I may cease to be moved to recognize and follow these correspondences--as someone who tires of the beauty of literature and settles for taking everything at face-value as a positivist. That is the travail of our times--the detour to conversion--we want to reduce Christianity, grace, redemption, salvation and true freedom--to positive knowledge; we are all positivists with hardened hearts and numb minds.

  2. Thanks, good piece. That said, it seems like you are still giving big picture concepts, ir talking about what is ultimately the reality of grace. What about practical behavior? What do you do with someone who hasn't had a metanoia, and is stridently pro-homosexual lifestyle, and who has no interest in the faith? An example would be a family member or childhood friend. On the other hand, how about those who do want to live chaste, Catholic lives, are working toward that, or struggling with their desires? For ex in a parish community. It is utopian thinking to believe that widespread definite knowledge in a parish of a person's homosexual inclination would be a good thing. Is the solution Courage? Or . . . .? Lastly, unless it is a family member or coworker, or childhood friend, someone you already have a relationship with, it is unlikely most of us readers will ever come into the sort of contact with a homosexual that would allow anything more than social politeness that we'd give to anyone else. I.e. only a horrible person who is prob defrauding widows n the side wouldn't tip a waiter/waitress who is gay, but that doesn't necessarily provide an opportunity to get into the cycle of grace in their lives, other than prayers. -Joe

  3. Great post. The 'he who is without sin' story is so often repeated in our culture that it's become a cliche, but you brought it alive again.

    Having said that, I kind of agree with Joe. Most people in gay relationships look at an organisation like Courage and say 'so you're inviting me to be unhappy and lonely and struggling like these people? but I'm happy with the person I love. Life's never been better.' Also straight people will say 'contraception's been great for my marriage. Good luck with the unplanned pregnancies.' What has chastity got to offer?

  4. Thank you for writing this. It comes at a needful time.

  5. I think JPII brilliantly focused on this in his chapter "The Rehabilitation of Chastity" in Love and Responsibility, where he first spoke about chastity being a great "yes" with certain "nos" that result.

    Have you read that yet? I agree with you--I tend to think the Church sometimes seems embarrassed by chastity, and is apologetic for it, and relegates it to a list of "do nots," rather than proclaiming it as a gift for us.

    I hope you're well!

  6. Hi All,

    I'm hoping to carry the idea of this post forward in a couple of future posts. Like I said, it's a big topic. I wanted to start with the highest level concept -- the idea that chastity is a grace -- and then move down into more specific applications. But my husband has forbidden me to blog because it's Sunday, and apparently I need to rest sometimes... :)

  7. One word for this post -- beautiful!

  8. Ignore the patriarchal male!!!! You're an empowered woman don't ya know!!

    1. I know I'm an empowered woman, but my husband is a Ninja. (No seriously, he actually is.) :)

  9. There are two levels on which Jesus touched people. He spoke to the crowds and, in those, sermons, did preach to repent and abandon sin as did his precursor, St. John the Baptist. What, after all, does a priest do in a sermon?

    When Jesus met individual sinners, he dealt with them on a more personal level before challenging them on their sins. The key, I think, is to know when to do each. I once heard a talk by a nun who made a beautiful point -- Unless someone knows you love them, you cannot say anything that will change them. So we need to pray to love sinners like the little shepherd children of Fatima did -- by sacrificing them and having a heart of compassion for them.

    An additional thought comes to mind. The priest , Fr. Shaffer, at George Washington U. is under attack for speaking the truth to homosexuals that they must lead a celibate lifestyle. He's been pillories, although many students have given testimony of his kindness. But the homosexual students who went after him want approval for their lifestyle and that would be a violation of truth. Truth and charity: it is a difficult balance.

    1. I'm going to assume that you mean "sacrificing *for* them" not "sacrificing them" :)
      w/r/t people being under attack for speaking the truth, there are kind of two sides to that. One is that some people have a lot of anger towards the Church and it comes out in an irrational insistence that the Church can only love them by agreeing with them about everything -- Dan Savage's attack on the Marin Foundation comes to mind. ( On the other hand, I think it's really important to always try to listen to people who criticise us. It's a point that I got from Benedict XVI -- someone asked him how he felt about all of the media flack that he gets, and he said that he uses the criticisms as an opportunity for self-reflection. I thought that was so profound. Even when people are angry, they're usually articulating something that can help us to tell the truth more charitably next time.
      God bless!

  10. I think one key part of understanding the story of the woman caught in adultery is that it seems to be understood that she knew her action was sinful. Jesus wasn't so genital to people who failed to recognize there sin (eg the Pharisees and the money changers in the temple.) How do we communicate with people today who don't even see their sin?

    I've also been thinking about Catholics who while thinking they were being faithful to church teaching only discovered well into their marriage that contraception was gravely immoral. Fortunately, this didn't happen to me, but I can only imagine how traumatic that would be. What a burden on one's conscience that must be. Just think about it. After you're married and had discussed and planned how you're going to space your children to find out that your not allowed to use birth control. What if one spouse isn't open to ending contraception? Even if both spouse are ok with it, imagine the pressure to learn NFP after you've been married and sexually intimate for some time. It just seems to be a truly unjust situation to put faithful Catholics in. I think that some of us who may be more sympathetic to Voris' style are concerned that many priests are so worried about offending anyone that they've been negligent in actually teaching the faith to those who want to follow it.

    I'm not a homosexual. I don't know what it's like to carry that burden. I want to learn about the experiences and struggles of homosexuals. I'm want to learn how to be compassionate. I open to the fact my heterosexuality may be a blind spot in understanding the struggles of homosexuals. However, I also want to make sure that church teaching is articulated accurately, clearly, and truthfully.


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