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.
What is the risk we are concerned with here? It is the subtle movement from mere romantic feelings into “curiosity” (wanting knowledge of something – in this case, a person – which is not helpful for you to have… like certain kinds of immodest glances and even discussion, which are then “annexed” to lust) into more impure thoughts and indeliberate desire, into morose delectation (often manifested in and aided by outward motions, as already described), then often even into fornication, many or even most times in an unnatural way (viz., in a way that ensures no offspring, which character aggravates the sin even further).
Looking at people who are attractive is obviously necessary for one who is in the market for love. Of course, looking longer or looking at more than is really necessary starts the downward trajectory we have described above. One must use some discipline and honesty in these matters, without being unnaturally cold or rigid, allowing for some authenticity of expressions of affection. (Certainly, voyeurism, looking at indecent images, etc., for the pleasure of satisfying curiosity is always at least a venial sin, and if one is deliberately purposing to take pleasure in the desire to “go all the way” by means of such looks, even without self-abuse, the words of Our Lord in Matthew 5:28 have been fulfilled – it is “adultery of the heart.” The satisfaction of curiosity which simply arouses desire as an effect is not necessarily mortal sin, except if one has the wherewithal to consider or at least has the time to consider and experience to know that this is indeed a proximate occasion to mortal sin, as it is for most people before they are middle-aged, then even such acts become mortal sins on account of the treatment of one’s soul with such recklessness.)
It is very difficult to be perfect in this regard during extended courtship. There will be small slips into sin, as the desire for propagating the human race is extremely strong on account of the good that it seeks, and it is also the most corrupted desire we have (which, says St. Thomas, is due to the fact that original sin is transmitted on account of generation). But the risk of a person foregoing marriage who doesn’t have the strength to do so is far worse than the risks involved with courtship, at least in the long-term. So, there is a risk, but a proportionate reward, for most. These risks do need to be taken seriously, with clear boundaries discussed honestly between a couple – not first date conversation material, but maybe 4th or 5th date…
TL;DR: It’s okay to expose oneself to risks of some sin in romancing to avoid habitual falls into unchastity in the long-term.
But if none of this is much of a challenge, then we reach the fifth and final principle…
So I watch a lot on this channel – he has a series (he argues it is the longest running show on YouTube, which is probably actually correct) that is mostly him giving relationship advice to high school and college kids, and it is absolutely hilarious – but this one was a bit more serious. And as a major cultural-pastoral concern of today in the West, I thought I’d share. (The original video he’s reacting to is here.)
After an inappropriately long break, we are continuing our moral analysis of romance. First post here, on the principle “distinguish between the passions of love, desire, and delight.” I am preparing some lectures on a related topic for some of my students – so I have these things on the brain a bit. I may publish some of those notes another time.
The second great principle: don’t start what you can’t finish.
We were talking about an analogy with food…
It’s not obligatory to finish the cheeseburger. We are much more masters over our own bodies in terms of regulating our self-preservation than we are masters over how to regulate the preservation of the human race. We can, for example, choose to eat more or less in one “instance” of eating. It is not exactly the same with the sexual faculty. It is true one can choose to engage in sexual activity or not, but it is not so true that one can licitly decide ahead of time to “half eat the cheeseburger,” or even “eat the cheeseburger and then spit it out.” Nor may one deliberately enjoy the feelings that come with “pretending to eat the cheeseburger,” as we have said in our discussion of morose delectation.
While the Council of Vienne declared that kissing is not intrinsically immoral (yes – this was an issue brought up at an ecumenical council, in the 14th century, due to the odd teachings of various beguinages), let’s read St. Thomas on this point (II-II:154:4), as he makes a helpful (but challenging) distinction, namely, that while not sins in themselves, kisses and touches can be mortal sins from their cause. Let’s carefully consider the following text (it is not a simple one, despite its appearance): “Now it has been stated above (I-II:74:8), that it is a mortal sin not only to consent to the act, but also to the delectation of a mortal sin. Wherefore since fornication is a mortal sin, and much more so the other kinds of lust, it follows that in such like sins not only consent to the act but also consent to the pleasure is a mortal sin. Consequently, when these kisses and caresses are done for this delectation, it follows that they are mortal sins, and only in this way are they said to be lustful. Therefore in so far as they are lustful, they are mortal sins.”
We have already unpacked a lot of this in the foregoing section. What this Article means is the following, at least on my reading of it (together with supporting texts, including the Article referenced – Article 8 of Question 74, which is rather complex)… After the first passion (love), the second passion (desire) begins soon enough. The third passion (delight) can then be taken in the second passion’s act itself. If this is willed deliberately, there is mortal sin, as the appetite has been conformed to a mortal sin, even though one is not actually committing the sin for whatever reason (others are watching, inconvenience, etc.). The more closely one is simulating actual sexual union, including by engaging in its accompanying acts, the more likely it is that one is taking delight in the desire for mortal sin, as evidenced by one’s clear intent to arouse the passion of desire for the sake of the pleasure it brings.
Thus we can start to get a grip on how to understand what is going on morally in various kinds of pre-sexual recreation (including, unfortunately, many things which go on at an average high school dance). Some amount of “kisses and touches” are indeed appropriate, especially given the societal context (our psychology being wired by our environment to expect courtship to contain certain signs of affection), but there are some more or less objective lines that we can draw. To reiterate, the more an action looks like it belongs to the marriage bed, the more dangerous it is, and one must also consider carefully the possibility of slipping into further acts – or occasioning this in the other person. Some of these lines are a little less clear.
What is certain, however, is that recreational simulation of sexual activity planned ahead of time with the intent to derive pleasure from the desire to “go further” is totally without excuse – they are acts that simply are lustful “from their cause,” as St. Thomas explains. One uses the other person for the sake of a sexual fantasy that he is conforming his appetite to by willfully enjoying the pleasure which that fantasy brings. These are also actions which have a definite trajectory – real sexual union, right now, and it is precisely this trajectory which makes them so enjoyable. They cry out to be finished, and we know from experience that playing with fire in this way eventually leads to being burned.
With married couples the case of “mere” kisses and touches is different, as there is at least an habitual desire and licit ability to finish the trajectory – however, looks, touches, kisses, etc. should be done in relation to this habitual intention towards actual sexual union, rather than done only for the sake of the pleasure of the moment. In other words, such things should be ordered towards building desire for an actually possible future sexual act, rather than simply as an isolated event for its own pleasures, lest it become autoerotic – for sure, to start the actual process of direct stimulation with the intention not to complete the trajectory would come under this unfortunate category. Thankfully, sincere and pious couples typically fall into this chaste mode of action rather naturally.
TL;DR: To try deliberately to have the feeling of anticipating sexual union (“desire”) is to want to have the appetite conformed to a mortal sin, which is mortal sin itself (morose delectation), and outward acts that cause this feeling (kisses, touches, etc.) must be treated very carefully, especially if they are very closely associated with actual sexual union (i.e. heavy petting). To “make out” or otherwise touch or even look at someone specifically to derive this pleasure of “wanting to go further”, with sufficient deliberation, is to use the other’s body to engage in the mortal sin of morose delectation of fornication (or whatever species of lust, i.e. adultery, an unnatural act, etc.).
This leads us to the third great principle – the emotions are not the body. We’ll explore that soon…
“How far is too far?” This is simultaneously the most popular and most wrongheaded question that star-crossed lovers can ask. And they are often given well-meaning but misguided advice based on intuitive but terrible or at least incomplete ideas. These latter are often dependent on a rightly developed sense of shame – guidelines like “Would you do this in front of x person” fall into this category.
I don’t think depending on such principles is all that bad for group talks with high schoolers, but it leaves much to be desired. It does not explain the “why” behind chastity’s concrete applications in courtship, and it is insufficient for a real examination of conscience; it is thus especially unhelpful for confessors and preachers trying to sort through these complex issues when souls are really on the line. We can do better by going to the heart of the matter, though it takes some work. Let’s take on the question in appropriate detail then, shall we?
In this series of posts, we will investigate 5 great principles for chaste courtship. They are:
Distinguish between love, desire, and delight (the three positive concupiscible passions)
Don’t start what you can’t finish
The emotions are not the body
Risks can be justified by proportionate rewards
If you can raise your mind, do that
First of all, the entire idea of “courtship” or “dating” is quickly being replaced by a bizarre imitator… Nowadays, one is either “hooking up” or going around in a group or just carrying on a “relationship” by text and social media. Men don’t care for the challenge and risk of a serious “pre-commitment commitment” by asking a girl out on a proper date – and unfortunately, many women don’t care to wait around for a man willing to do this. That’s a shame. But we’ll leave this aside and assume that we have two fine young people who are seeing each other regularly, alone, with romantic intentions clearly expressed, but without “benefits” being openly offered by either.
Those who dabble in the writings of the great moralists, especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori, might come away from their writings on chastity aghast – “Did he really just say what I think he did? He is SO out of touch!” Well, maybe he didn’t say what you think he said, and maybe his being “out of touch” with what is actually going on in your own life is why it’s difficult for you to grasp the point, as you are not his main audience (which was the confessors of their own times and places, though many points still stand). On the other hand, they do both lay down some hard (but freeing) truths, and sometimes being “out of touch” is just what one needs in order to get perspective on an issue – so maybe there is some wisdom to take from anyone who is “disconnected,” let alone from great saints who are geniuses of moral theology. Let’s dive in then, with these two saintly friends as guides… (I won’t quote much, but I will synthesize instead with just a few references.) NB: These are principles especially useful for courtship, but plenty would also apply for married life, albeit in a slightly different way.
The first great principle: distinguish between love, desire, and delight (the three positive concupiscible passions).
The paradigm of “love-desire-delight” is the road map for our appetites’ relationship with pleasant things that are easily achieved; love corresponds with the perception of a good, desire with the motion towards a good, and delight (also called “pleasure” or “joy” in some cases) with the possession of a good. (With unpleasant things, we have “hatred-aversion-sorrow.” And with difficult goods and evils, we have the passions of fear, despair, hope, daring, and anger, the passions of the “irascible” appetite.)
“Desire” is also sometimes called “concupiscence.” Both are words with diverse meanings. Here, by “desire” and “concupiscence” we mean the felt inclination towards a definite sensible good to be obtained by a particular kind of act.
Let’s go through these emotions – or “passions” – one by one.
I see the cheeseburger, and I know that it is a good thing to eat, full of juicy grade-A beef, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, and maybe even some bacon. “That looks so good to eat! I bet it’s delicious!” Maybe my love is so strong that my salivary glands start to work as well, and my stomach starts to make itself felt. This is love, in the sense we mean it.
When I start actively wanting to eat the cheeseburger, feeling myself impelled towards picking it up and sinking my teeth into it, I have desire, or concupiscence, towards the cheeseburger. In desire, (which passion is accompanied by pleasure St. Alphonsus calls “inchoate” to the act one is being inclined toward,) I actually begin to anticipate having its succulent and savory goodness. This desire is separate from the sensation of merely perceiving that the cheeseburger is a good thing to eat, and also even from some kind of remote preparation for eating in the future, should I be so lucky.
Finally, the glorious moment has come: I devour the cheeseburger, and I have the passion proper to possession of the good – delight. This is a unique sensation of feeling fully satisfied in relation to the cheeseburger. It is also distinct from the actual taste and feeling of the physical consumption of the cheeseburger. I enjoy the pleasures that come from eating the cheeseburger. This completes the passions’ arc.
It would also be possible to create an imaginary act of eating the cheeseburger, whether it was really in front of me or not. If I am attempting to derive the pleasures of eating the cheeseburger without actually eating it, even just by running it through my mind, I have moved into a kind of delight in its possession without actually possessing it. And I could physically mimic the act of eating the cheeseburger, even with the cheeseburger itself! My stomach will remain empty, but I have a kind of mental satisfaction nevertheless in enjoying the desire itself for the cheeseburger for its own sake, which feeling is spurred on by the imagined act of eating the cheeseburger – and this act might actually impel me even more strongly towards really eating the cheeseburger moments later, when I snap out of my food fantasy back into reality.
It’s also the case that I could simply have the pleasant experience of imagining eating the cheeseburger without feeling a real desire to eat it. This is a subtly different act, but it is important, as we will see.
Digestion deals with self-preservation. Sex deals with the preservation of humanity. So while eating is important for the individual, sex is more important for the whole community as such. As it turns out, we can map this paradigm onto sexual attraction quite easily. He sees and even feels the woman’s beauty… He feels various inclinations in anticipating the possibilities right in front of him that he is moving towards fulfilling… He obtains what he was looking for. It is certainly no problem to have love for sexual goods – in fact, it would be unnatural not to have a disposition towards the opposite sex as such, just as it would be unnatural not to want good food – but unlike food, sex is not appropriate for everyone to “possess,” or even to have the desire for (in the strict sense of the word which we are using).
Loving the cheeseburger is a good and natural act. However, when the circumstances do not call for eating the cheeseburger there could be a problem if this passion is allowed to remain very long – rather, one should move the mind away to other things, like work or study or healthy recreation. (To deny this passion’s movement entirely is typically not healthy suppression but unhealthy repression, which can cause neurosis and possibly even despair, ending not infrequently in giving in to all manner of illicit pleasures. To acknowledge that one finds the lettuce or tomatoes of the cheeseburger to look delicious could be fine once in a while simply to relieve mental pressure which keeps pulling one away from other considerations and tasks; this acknowledgement might cause an accidental and momentary swelling of love and even could begin a movement of desire. Even though an accidental movement of desire would still be venial sin if delight is taken in it without deliberation, it would not seem to be a sin to indulge in this psychological release in cases of acute pressure unless done frequently or, of course, if done for the sake of arousing desire. This is my own view on the basic dynamic of suppression vis-à-vis repression… Take it for what it’s worth. There are better ways to avoid such temptations, which should be used more frequently… of course, I am not talking about cheeseburgers.) When one starts actively “desiring” (not simply “loving”) an object of an act which is not allowed (and in this case, feeling that desire by an inclination towards an individual instance of that act), that passion needs to be suppressed or fought against somehow immediately, often by distraction, such as moving around, a short prayer, etc. When desire begins, one is already in venial sin. (See my other post on practical chastity here.) To be sure, the line between love and desire is a bit blurry, though love is mostly felt in higher parts of the body like the head and chest, while desire has a lower “center of gravity,” more around the stomach. Whatever the case, the motion of desire, which already contains a kind of “pre-delight,” can itself become the object of “delight,” namely, when one enjoys the feeling of anticipation of the exterior act, often by imagining the act or simulating it in some way.
St. Thomas calls this pleasant and deliberate attention to anticipation “morose delectation.” (See Articles 6, 7, and 8 – they are complex.) It’s one thing to take delight in the thought of a sin (a kind of “curiosity”), it’s another to delight in the sin which one is thinking of. Deliberately enjoying the “desire” for a sin is itself convertible with the commission of the sin which is being virtually enjoyed. Such a thought, to be clear, has to have been chosen with sufficient deliberation, more than a split second or two, somewhat depending on the person – and if we are honest, one can generally determine the moment when one really has the freedom to choose… it’s the moment where one has gotten over the initial intrigue or shock of the pleasant thing and realizes that he could stop if he wanted to but freely decides to simulate the immoral act as a kind of virtual-reality playground, actually wanting to do this act despite really refraining from it for whatever reason. (This arguably even extends to the reason, “Because it is immoral,” as one then shows a kind of contempt for the Wisdom of God which has ordered things thus – we are bound to want to follow the moral law because it is actually good for us. But it is a bit dubious – and this is a more complex discussion.) And given enough time, one will have forfeited the excuse for not driving away desire in the first place even without positive deliberate consent, which reduces to morose delectation. This feeling is also distinct from the actual physical preparation of the body, which means morose delectation is not the same as autoeroticism – though clearly, the one can lead to the other. It seems important also that the anticipation must be of a concrete or determinate exterior act, even if virtual (“not really going to happen”), and it needs to be considered without circumstances which would excuse the action (viz., being married to this individual). While St. Thomas balks on a strong position on morose delectation of mortal sin as being mortal sin itself (stating merely that it is the more common opinion and is more likely than not), with the distinction of determinacy and proximity to circumstance, we begin to see how to solve the puzzle. The more concrete the action is which one desires (i.e. “to go home with this person right now, and … etc.”), and the less one is concerned with remotely achievable circumstances (viz., marriage, which consideration will both quickly melt away and would not excuse from venial sin anyway), the more likely it is to be mortal sin, because the latter is more tied to the passion of desire inclined toward a real act which is (or would be) mortal sin. So, the average “impure thought” is venial sin, even if dwelt upon (barring the advertence to the danger of slipping further – which does need to be considered in a moral evaluation), as long as there is not desire which develops and then is deliberately taken pleasure in. That is my take, at least.
If you wanted a simple explanation, there really isn’t one. The passions are not simple things. But, as close to a shortcut as you can get might be to say that mere desire to sin, without deliberation, is “to want to sin,” while deliberately enjoying that desire to sin is “to want to want to sin,” and just enjoying thinking of something which would be a sin on account of its illicit pleasures is “to want to think about sin.” The first is venial, the second is mortal if it has a concrete goal and venial if it does not, the third is venial.
TL;DR: wanting sex in general is natural and good unless dwelt on too much, feeling the pleasure of anticipation of a real and illicit sexual act is venial sin, and deliberately enjoying that feeling of anticipation, especially including by simulating sexual activity, is mortal sin.
In the next post, we will explore the second great principle: don’t start what you can’t finish.
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There is an article at LifeSite about a controversy boiling at Notre Dame. Apparently, a mother wrote a letter to the editor of the school paper to express shock at the sartorial inclinations of some women at the basilica on campus. The letter was published, and a sensitive nerve was touched. I want to take the opportunity to sketch out the debate and offer some thoughts about deeper issues involved. For the first part, I’m going to use the quaestio format of the Summa Theologica. (You can read St. Thomas’ own blistering critique of immodest clothing here, though he is mostly talking about over-dressing.) For the second, I am just going to ramble. Bear with me.
Whether it is a
sin for women to wear revealing clothing in public?
Objection 1. It seems it is not a sin. For the man who lusts after such a woman does so from his own volition which the woman does not control. Thus does Our Lord warn against adultery of the heart: “He who even thinks lustfully of a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) But there is no commission of adultery by mere outward appearance. Thus, it is only the man who sins by his lust, not the woman by her attire which attracts his desire.
Objection 2. Further, modesty is a cultural norm which changes according to the tides of custom, which is easily proved by the fact that in two different nations the same attire might be looked at altogether differently. Given that more traditional restrictions of dress are more serious and burdensome for women, it is in fact laudable that these customs be gradually changed to bring about a more equal standard of modesty for men and women.
Objection 3. Further, just as it is natural for a stone to fall to the earth, so too are human beings inclined to seek what is most natural to them and thereby satisfies their God-given desires. But restrictive dresscodes contradict this tendency toward goods such as comfort, self-esteem, and the like. Therefore, whatever feels most desirable in itself ought to be licit to wear.
On the contrary, It is written (1 Timothy 2:9): “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” Since the Apostle identifies immodest dress with women in particular, it seems it is especially incumbent upon women to adhere to a strict standard of modesty.
I answer that, Modesty in outward attire, in the sense we are speaking of it, seeks a middle-path between two extremes – repression and vulgarity.
On the one hand, to subject women habitually to the total covering of the entire body even including the face, is illicit for at least two reasons, even though it would remove the occasion of lust. First, it is necessary for women to be able to attract husbands through means of their appearance, which is altogether impossible by such an arrangement, leaving some other method to take the place of self-determination. Second, identification of one person among many is much easier without exorbitantly restrictive coverings, especially of the face, which makes the public life of women and the men who interact with them much more efficient. Thus, the complete repression of individual identity and bodily features through extensive covering is undesirable.
On the other hand, the more one reveals the body, the more one tends to increase the occasion to lust through vulgarity. Therefore, if one is to incur the risk of scandal being taken by one’s attire, namely, lust, some proportionate good to that risk must be gained. Where there is only small potential of scandal being taken, only light reasons are necessary to avoid sin, such as serious inconvenience, moderate discomfort due to heat, and so on; where there is large potential of scandal being taken, only the gravest of reasons will excuse, such as the risk of one’s life. The offense will be in proportion to the similitude between one’s necessity and the risk of scandal. Given that men are more easily drawn to women by appearance than women are to men, women are especially susceptible to this vice and should guard against it most closely, which also promotes the common good by requiring men to seek them for their virtue and honor. Thus it is written, “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of robes, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” (1 Peter 3:3-4) Therefore, to safeguard morals and common decency among the sexes, which are graver motives than mere pleasantries of comfort and convenience, errors ought to favor the more restrictive vice.
All of this is especially important in sacred places. As the Psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in holy attire.” (Psalm 69:6) For what is moderate in profane spaces becomes immoderate in sacred spaces due to a lack of fittingness with the outward worship of God which the space is specially consecrated to. Thus is it licit to throw darts in a pub, but it is not licit in an oratory. Likewise, dress in churches or other sacred places ought to be especially reverent and safe from occasioning sin, lest men be drawn to lower their eyes from the worship of God toward the delectation of a woman’s flesh.
Reply to Objection 1. It is also written, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it is better that a great millstone was hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42) The argument in favor of individual liberty holds to the degree of custom which reason has communally decided upon, and regarding which one should make errors on the side of safety, as said above.
Reply to Objection 2. Custom cannot eradicate concupiscence, nor can it change the greater proclivities of men to delight in the appearance of women than women do in the appearance of men. Therefore, while custom may be altered, human nature will not be altered and must be adverted to.
Reply to Objection 3. Outward attire exists primarily for three reasons. First, to protect against physical harm, such as from heat or cold or blows in battle. Second, to mark or distinguish ourselves among other people in society. Third, to protect against lust and shame, as it is written (Genesis 3:7): “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” Therefore, these considerations hold primacy of place in the reasonable choice of outward apparel, and only afterward can other motives be evaluated.
Now on to the rambling.
Notre Dame has been plagued with “Catholic identity” troubles over the past few years. Without repeating them all, I will simply point the reader’s attention to another recent story there which broke when a large number of students asked for content filters for their internet connections to help avoid “inappropriate” content. The administration balked, and now we are seeing a rather vile backlash over a concerned mother asking young girls to dress for church better than they dress for the gym – as if it is any wonder. There are hundreds and hundreds of comments under the main story, almost all of them deeply critical.
No doubt, many of the people screeching wild accusations of bad parenting at this poor concerned mother and proclaiming the virtue of individual liberties are the same people who complain about a “rape culture” on college campuses. While there is no demonstrable systemic toleration or support of verifiable rape in universities in the West – and thus no “rape culture” – there is what one might call a “culture of promiscuity.” This is the toleration and support of every kind of sexual activity, as long as it’s consensual (with a few arbitrary exceptions, like student-teacher relationships and incest). What to say then about the high amounts of regretful sex and he-said-she-said cases of assault? One might say that it’s almost as if a climate of loose sexual mores disposes people to make dumb sexual choices, whether by not avoiding bad situations or by crossing over nearly invisible lines in the heat of already sinful passion. While wearing this or that trashy piece of clothing in public is not immediately inducing assault, the broad acceptance of such things is part and parcel of the larger paradigm of just not giving a hoot about any kind of sexual activity short of what suffices to call the cops.
What you wear (or don’t wear) in public, it should be noted, is not consensual… You make others see you as you are without their consent. It is almost never a reasonable argument to say, “They can look away if they want.” The problem with revealing clothing is precisely that many people won’t want to look away but should for the good of their souls, and for the good of your relationship with them. Heard of the phrase, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have”? How about this: dress for the respect and real love you want, not the respect and real love you have. Those who already respect you and love you won’t care about your appearance – only new people will, who still have to be won over to a special valuation of your personhood. The better a person you are, the less you will have to compensate by flaunting your mere appearance. And if you aren’t a good person, get to work on that first.
A lot of people don’t think about this topic much for one of a few different reasons. First, they don’t understand sin in general. This is a common and large problem requiring more basic catechesis and evangelization. Second, they are so hardened by sins against chastity that they cannot even begin to see the problem with revealing a little skin. To them I say, I am sorry for you – it must be terrible to miss out on all the little joys of physicality which come along with modest courtship. (See Prof. Esolen’s wonderful article on that here.) Third, they are out of touch with how men and women actually relate with each other, both in general and in today’s particular circumstances, for whatever reason. These could even include well-meaning people who are sincerely trying to be holy but who just for the life of them can’t see why wearing skin-tight leggings to church is such a big deal. My advice to them is to accept that holiness sometimes involves giving up things that you don’t see the harm of, even if it’s simply because other people find your behavior to disturb their over-sensitive conscience. (See St. Paul’s discussion of abstaining from food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8.)
Whatever the case, there seems to be a need to address this topic more seriously at Catholic universities. Perhaps a standard chapel dress-code, for men and women, could be implemented… Or asking some of the more committed Mass-goers to step up their fashion-game to help other people see that the church is not a gym, a dance floor, or a couch… Especially at universities named after Mary, the Mother of God!
End of rant. I didn’t even get to discuss 1 Corinthians
“Oh Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”
The words of a wizened St. Augustine, reflecting on the prayer of his younger heart, are deeply insightful. They reveal us to ourselves, no doubt, and they give us a hint as to the path forward in our own journey towards sanctity: we must become chaste now. Not next week, not tomorrow, not this Lent, but right this very moment.
Where to start? Well, first it will be helpful to recognize that lust is a sin which must be faced by getting away from the delight toward which the passion moves. As St. Thomas says, some sins must be fled from due to the sweetness of their object, while some sins must be faced by meditation on the opposing good (like how the slothful person should consider the goodness of spiritual things and thus be more drawn to them). All this is to say, the first step on the road to chastity is to step away from the cliff. In other words, remove the occasion of sin, or at least make the occasion as weak as possible. Here are just a few suggestions to consider.
Put the computer by the window, or in a common area, or use some monitoring program.
Take cold showers.
Avoid “attractive” people who are off-limits.
If you must associate with such people, don’t drink alcohol around them.
When tempted to unchastity, pray a rosary, or sing a pious hymn, and then make a decision about whether you still want to sin… You are quite likely to be repulsed at the thought.
Go to bed tired, but more importantly, get out of bed when you wake up. No lazing around.
Purge your life from things which remind you of or move you toward unchastity… images, books, music, etc.
But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes the passion creeps up, and the fire burns, and you’ve done nothing to occasion it. Then what? Well, run away. And I mean this quite literally. You see, the urge to the preservation of the species (the sexual urge) is strong, but the urge to self-preservation is much greater. To put it another way, make yourself uncomfortable by some kind of ascesis – recovering from pain is much more urgent than the pursuit of pleasure. The body will work to get back to “equilibrium” before reaching for a further good.
Fasting. The old penitential manuals recommend it as well!
Some other acute (but minor) self-affliction, like holding your breath, biting your tongue, etc.
Beyond moderate ascetic practices, generally making yourself (ideally keeping yourself) busy is helpful. Even simply getting up and moving around can distract the body and mind enough to drive out temptation. On top of this, here are some more “spiritual” remedies…
Laughter. As an overflow of a delight of the rational soul into the senses, laughter is an extremely effective cure for lust.
Cultivating humility with respect to an off-limits “person of interest,” such as realizing that they almost certainly don’t have the same feelings for you and never will, and that they would be horrified if they knew your desires. Seeing as the entirety of the natural “social” pleasure annexed to carnal pleasure is derived from the ego, this can be huge.
Frequenting the Sacraments, especially confession, addressing struggles openly and with special resolution to amend your life in this regard.
Prayer, especially placing yourself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, even in an urgent moment of temptation.
Resisting despair. One of the “daughters” of lust is a deadening of any desire for spiritual goods (which can become full-blown acedia in addition to serious violations of the 6th Commandment). The pursuit of chastity can also be very difficult, and therefore frustrating. This means that hope, as both the desire for the good of Heaven and the trust that the necessary help will be given to reach it, is a fundamental enemy of lust, and it should be cultivated through prayer, spiritual reading, healthy friendships, and an unwavering confidence in God’s mercy and desire to satisfy those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
We expect monsters to stay under the bed. In the closet. In the dark. When they do come into the open, it’s usually easy to spot them, but it can be particularly difficult when they masquerade as something good, benign, or even necessary. It’s the sickest when these sorts of things target kids.
Enter Bunny Token.
Anyone who regularly watches YouTube (even kids watching cat videos!) will by now have seen the ubiquitous advertisements for “Bunny Tokens,” a cryptocurrency designed to unify the “adult” entertainment industry. The currency is, unlike BitCoin, (which you may have heard of,) limited, meaning that once they’re gone from the first shelf, you have to buy them later on at a higher price. This adds a real sense of urgency to the market. (Apparently, they’ve reached their soft cap for initial investments.) It’s not the first cryptocurrency for the industry, but it looks like it’s going to be extremely dominant based on the strength of their advertising campaign.
The monster has come out of its hiding place into the digital version of primetime, apparently with a plan to crawl back home into the darkness with its prey. (Cryptocurrencies allow for a much higher rate of anonymity of the buyer and seller than do currencies regulated by the government. It is actually an ingenious business move. Wise in the ways of the world indeed.) While this cute little bunny-monster is in the light of day, it provides us with a good opportunity to call pornography what it is – childish, unnatural, shameful, and deadly.
Childish – The qualifier “adult” is usually applied to pornography and the things that go with it. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine a more childish activity than watching people abuse themselves and each other, let alone paying for it. Why an 18-year-old instantly becomes eligible for this kind of thing makes no sense whatsoever, and deep down we all know this. (And you can safely bet that the industry subtly pushes towards younger kids with a voluptuous wink and an approving nod.) We expect little kids to have no sense of self-control. We expect adults to be above what most people still consider perverted or at least think should stay hidden in the dark, even if they won’t admit that view in polite company. We teach our children not to be selfish. We teach them to respect others’ bodies and privacy (although this one is being threatened with trans-bathrooms and trans-lockerrooms). We teach them that some pleasures are immoderate, even if there’s no evident and immediate harm done. Pornography unteaches all of this, and study after study shows the long-term damage that an addiction can do to social and psychological flourishing. And now, hundreds of millions of kids who just wanted to watch a harmless cat video are being tempted to buy some Bunny Tokens. Wonderful.
Unnatural – We are talking about the proper functioning of the reproductive part of the “vegetal soul,” which also has nutrition and augmentation (growth) as essential parts. The twisting of the sexual faculty to order it towards one’s own immediate gratification “free of consequences” is an unnatural vice (which would include the free and willful choices of self-abuse, contraception, sodomy, etc. – anything which pre-excludes the possibility of human generation based on the lack of the complementary organ in the faculty’s system, or based on the willed introduction or willed perdurance of some deficiency which destroys the faculty’s proper functioning, like a hysterectomy which is presumed upon for its contraceptive power in each sexual act)… It is not merely an excess or deficiency, as most vices are, it is something different. If we switch the faculty in question from the sexual to the nutritive (or digestive), we can see this relationship quite clearly. An excess of eating is bad because it causes obesity and sometimes even the death of the body through contracting diabetes or high cholesterol. A deficiency of eating is bad because it causes malnutrition and can also, obviously, be deadly. An unnatural digestive vice, if practiced with the full consent of the will, would look something like this. (NB: of course, true eating disorders usually involve a constraint of the will which inhibits moral freedom and therefore reduces culpability proportionately.) We know that “food porn” is not to be treated like actual porn – that should tell us something, shouldn’t it… The unnaturalness of this kind of thing could possibly be bad for the body, but it won’t kill a person who’s careful enough. Why, then, does the clip above work as a means of demonstrating the vice of the characters? (Yes, go watch it!) The aspect of exploitation of other people adds to the seriousness of the offense, just like physical violence adds to the gravity of fornication or adultery. With pornography, let us remember, the person acting or posing on the screen, despite definitely being a son or daughter to real parents and being created in the image and likeness of God, might by some chance be one’s own friend or relative. Imagine the horror of such a discovery, when an anonymous and faceless actor or actress turns out to be your sibling, or parent, or child. It’s also possible that those people aren’t even alive anymore, and the pleasure being derived is from a person whose body is now ash or rotting in the ground. Let that one sink in.
Shameful – A proper sense of shame is one which causes repulsion from immoderate acts of the lower powers of the soul. The acts of which one should be ashamed are the ones that are most properly called “shameful.” While there is less guilt in sins against the Sixth Commandment than in other sins (like theft or lying, which don’t “tug” as hard on our wills as the fires of the lower passions for bodily pleasure do), there is certainly more shame. And the more removed the act becomes from its proper mode, the more shameful it becomes. I recall learning in seminary about how to deal with people – usually lonely, elderly men – who come to confess the sin of bestiality. (No, not the kind with another human – though that is wrong too.) They will usually mutter something about their dog… and, well… struggle to mention it. The lesson was that the best thing to do, other than perhaps gently mentioning the possibility of finding the dog a new home, is to ignore it. The penitent likely knows full well how shameful that act is and doesn’t need to be reminded. He’s just that lonely. Well, a quick glance at St. Thomas’ list of the order of gravity in the parts of lust – probably one of the most studied Articles in one of the most studied Questions in the Summa – reveals that the sin of self-abuse is only a few steps away from being too friendly with an animal, and resides above other sins in its essential gravity which even Western society considers wicked. (Of course, there can be mitigating factors in this sin, as the Catechism explains. Personally, I think they are often over-applied, but surely, someone who is going out of their way to invest in a cryptocurrency to purchase pornography long-term does not deserve as delicate of a treatment as an 8-year-old who is just discovering that touching down there feels good.)
Deadly – Pornography is a scourge that can and does pull souls down into the darkness of sin, killing the life of grace within the soul, ruining social functioning, brain chemistry, and actual relationships in the meantime, not to mention exploiting often very vulnerable people who become the objects of one’s lust. If you are a parent, and you have been shying away from this topic, RIGHT NOW is a good moment… Bunny Token ads have been all over YouTube, and they have provided you, ironically, with a great occasion to bring this subject up, into the light, with your kids, in order to root out vice. (And no, you don’t have to be already watching questionable content for these ads to find you. The industry is looking to grow its audience.) What are you waiting for? Wake up and smell the concupiscence!
The further the monster comes into the light – especially if it is dragged there – the less it will seem like an innocent bunny, and the more it will seem like what it really is.