Principles for Chaste Relationships – Part V

Eamonn Clark, STL

This is the conclusion to a short series on the topic of chastity and courtship from a Thomistic perspective. See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. I am more or less confident in the content laid out therein, but what writing this series has taught me, and what other studies I have been undertaking on marriage ethics have taught me, is that this subject is far under-treated in today’s popular Catholic literature, and when it is discussed, it’s often poorly discussed. As for the current academic literature, I am still largely unaware of what the threads are. The problems in the popular literature are generally laxist – but even the more rigorous sources are frequently lacking in the distinctions and precision that would fully satisfy a truly astute reader. Part of the problem is that it can be very difficult to parse through many different kinds of experiences or feelings, and this difficulty is aggravated by the delicacy of the subject – one cannot (or at least should not) “experiment” with impurity and lust in order to get a better grasp on the topic!

I’ve written a very beefy article on NFP recently and am looking for the right place to publish – but I think it may be better put into a book, as a series of longer essays. (For instance, I would rework this very series into a chapter.) If you think that’s a good idea, please let me know, as I need the encouragement. Eventually I want to write a much larger work on the topic of sexual ethics, but a thematic exploration is something which I could realistically take on in the near future, while the larger work I have in mind would not be so easy – more like the work of a lifetime.

At any rate, here is the last installment of this series. (It’s the first real series I have actually finished on these pages, – I must eventually get back around to the Trinity series… God deserves it!)

The fifth great principle: if you can raise your mind, do that.

There are three fundamental precepts of the natural law: self-preservation, generation and rearing of offspring, and the pursuit of truth in community. They are interwoven with each other, but there is a hierarchy as well: if we don’t stay alive, we cannot continue the human species, and if the human species dies out then we have no natural community, and if we ourselves die we can neither naturally participate in community nor pursue truth. So it is this third precept which marks out the highest thing in natural law… the rational delights of encountering persons (and Divine Persons) as such.

The one who can simply relate with the opposite sex without much of the struggle to keep away from impurity will do better to forego marriage altogether. And the couple that is busy romancing who could easily be engaging in more intellectual – while still personal and sincere – conversation should do that. These rational pleasures are more lasting, and they are more fulfilling when rightly perceived. Lower pleasures must always be used in the service of the higher pleasures… We eat to stay alive, and we stay alive to… what? To know, love, and serve God according to our natural status as rational animals in this life.

There are lower kinds of love, such as the kind which the senses have for their proper object (i.e. sight and color, hearing and sound) or which characterize other natural desires (i.e. the pull of gravity on a body). Rational love is chosen freely by the lover. When fully actualized, it is reciprocal and becomes friendship. Friendship has two great poles, or elements – sacrifice and contemplation. A true friendship is one where there is delight in the thought of the other, and there is a willingness to suffer for the other. This is what healthy romantic relationships entail on the part of both parties, taking for granted the other virtues being present. We can see that these two poles also exist in the liturgy – sacrifice and contemplation. The Liturgy of the Word is primarily for contemplation, though it is also sacrificial, as the readings are an incarnational offering to God of what He has done for us. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is obviously sacrificial primarily, though the ultimate point is in fact contemplative – to meet Christ here and now, as our greatest Friend.

The best advice is the advice of Christ, echoed by St. Paul, and then taken up and elaborated many times by the saints – if you can go without marriage, go without it. It will be easier to reach the higher places of the spiritual life. In fact, if one has made good progress in the virtue of chastity while yet unmarried, it is a very good sign that he or she should simply remain celibate, unless one’s self-mastery is somehow deeply integrated with the expectation of marriage such that it depends upon it.

But it isn’t something to worry about – neurosis is not the way of the spiritual life, charity is. As St. Augustine said, “Love God and do what you will.” But keep trying to elevate your mind and heart as well, knowing that this task will eventually be accomplished for you by God in Heaven.

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