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Catholic Teaching and Human Sexuality

Catholic teaching has consistently, for many years, described human sexuality as a wonderful gift of God which, like all of God’s gifts, carries a significant measure of responsibility.

While it is quite common to hear expressions like a “wholesome, healthy, or integrated sexuality,” it is less common these days to hear about “chastity.”

Some encourage use of the term without knowing what it means in its fullness. Others reject this “old-fashioned Catholic” word as out of date and out of touch with a modern understanding of human sexuality.

Human sexuality can be fully understood as a gift only if it is discussed within the broader understanding of the sacredness of the human body:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within – the Spirit you have received from God?
(1 Corinthians 6:19)

World Youth Day

In preparation for World Youth Day 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offered the following teaching in their World Youth Day Manual:

  • Most Catholic young adults are very “body-conscious.” They are concerned about their physique and their physical health. It’s natural to want to take care of our bodies. Flesh and blood are integral to our nature.

  • Oftentimes when we talk about the use of the body in a religious context, it somehow involves sexual relations. But we need to go beyond this. First and foremost, the body must be seen as a good and beautiful gift from God and as part of our very being and personhood. As such, the body is our physical instrument in which to serve God. As the Christian is sanctified by the grace of Christ, so too the body takes on a new life and dignity. As Pope John Paul II wrote to young adults before World Youth Day 2002, “through Baptism, our whole being has been profoundly changed, because it has been ‘seasoned’ with the new life which comes from Christ (cf. Romans 6:4). The salt which keeps our Christian identity intact even in a very secularized world is the grace of Baptism….’ Through Baptism as well, the Holy Trinity dwells within the Christian. The body is elevated to a new holiness.

  • While many young adults may know certain elements of Catholic teaching which describe what they cannot do with their bodies… the context for this teaching is rarely understood. The body must be viewed from the positive perspective of what we can do with it. The primary attitude must be that the body is oriented towards the service of God….

  • For Catholic young adults, whether they be single or married, a renewed sense of the value and integrity of the human body will contribute much to their personal growth in holiness, social interaction, self-esteem, etc. As Pope John Paul II has articulated, a Christian theology of the body is an essential element in the creative, healthy, and holy use of our physical nature and our physical world.

Pontifical Council for the Family

In a document published in 1995 (The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality) the Pontifical Council for the Family spoke of sexuality and chastity in this way:

  • … Sexuality is not something purely biological; rather it concerns the intimate nucleus of the person. The use of sexuality as physical giving has its own truth and reaches its full meaning when it expresses the personal giving of man and woman even unto death….

  • So chastity is not to be understood as a repressive attitude. On the contrary, chastity should be understood rather as the purity and temporary stewardship of a precious and rich gift of love. In view of the self-giving realized in each person’s specific vocation. Chastity is thus that “spiritual energy capable of defending love from the perils of selfishness and aggressiveness, and able to advance it towards its full realization.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes chastity in this way:

  • Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of (the person) in (one’s) bodily and spiritual being.

  • The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love…. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech.

  • The virtue of chastity comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance, which seeks to permeate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason. Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is an “interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.”

  • Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.

Wonderful Gift, Awesome Responsibility

  • In the article, “Human Sexuality: ‘Wonderful Gift’ and ‘Awesome Responsibility,’” The Catholic Update offers an overview of Church teaching based on the U.S. bishops’ 1990 document, Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning. In this document, the bishops corrected the misperception that the Church views sex-related failings as the most serious sins of all and all things sexual as, at least, suspect.

  • The bishops speak of human sexuality as a wonderful gift, to be treasured, respected and nurtured. So too, they speak positively about sex, a narrower reality, which refers “either to the biological aspects of being male or female (i.e., a synonym for one’s gender) or to the expressions of sexuality, which have physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions, particularly genital actions resulting in sexual intercourse and/or orgasm.”

  • Acknowledging the potential for abuse or misuse of our sexuality – sometimes intentional (i.e., sin), often not – the bishops highlight the challenge, the “awesome responsibility” that befalls the steward entrusted with any precious gift.

  • Whether one is married, single or a vowed celibate, whether one is heterosexual or homosexual, and regardless of one’s age or maturity, dealing creatively with sexuality remains a fundamental and lifelong task. The art of loving wisely and well is multifaceted. In First Corinthians, Paul reminds us that true love is “patient and kind, not self-seeking.” Laying down one’s life for the beloved is Jesus’ benchmark for love at its fullest.

  • Chastity is a positive force for good and the essential virtue needed to live one’s sexuality responsibly and appropriately, given each person’s unique state in life. Often misunderstood as a synonym for the suppression or repression of sexual feelings, chastity “truly consists in the long-term integration of one’s thoughts, feelings and actions in a way that values, esteems and respects the dignity of oneself and others.