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It’s so easy, even for good Catholics, to fall into the temptation of thinking that “there must be an exception for me,” since my situation is somehow unique. I’m thinking particularly of emotionally intense romantic relationships, especially those that have moved in a quite serious direction, often discussing marriage and perhaps even engaged. Sometimes the long-held and cherished reasons for chastity begin to lose their sway precisely at this stage.
The simple truth is the “body will follow the heart.” In other words, as a relationship gets more emotionally intense — unless it’s grounded in the firm conviction of virtue—failure in chastity is right around the corner. Karol Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) puts the matter this way:
“When affectivity is not strengthened with virtue but left to its own devices, and in this way made to face the powerful concupiscence of the flesh, it is most often reduced to that role.”
Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, trans. Grzegorz Ignatik, 134
The Person and Pleasure
Of course, there are always sound reasons for virtue and charity. In fact, for Wojtyła, chastity is best understood as a virtue that makes authentic love possible: it liberates from use and frees us to truly love the other for their own sake, not simply for what they can do for us (see Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 154-5).
Catholic sexual morality ultimately stems from two pillars: the personal order and the natural order. From the latter, we recognize the moral meaning and purpose in and through the natural order, seeing in it ultimately the embodiment of divine wisdom. Accordingly, an integral part of any rightly ordered sexual act is its orientation to procreation, which is the natural end and purpose of the sexual drive. That is, a rightly ordered sexual act must be the kind of act which, of its nature, is open to the possibility of procreation (thus, excluding masturbation, oral sex, contraceptive acts, and same sex acts; for more here, see my book John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, 67-8).
In addition, the personal order calls us to love and not use another person as a mere means to an end. The sexual act must always remain a personal act, not a mere means to pleasure.
For Wojtyła, sex before marriage is always using, pure and simple:
“Sexual intercourse outside of marriage ipso facto places one person in the position of an object of use for another person. Which for which? It is not ruled out that the man is also placed in this position in relation to the woman; however, it is always the case that the woman is placed in this position in relation to the man …. Sexual intercourse outside the institution of marriage is always objectively speaking detrimental to the woman. This is always the case, even when she herself permits it, or, what is more, when she herself strives and longs for it.”
Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 204-5
It’s really difficult to say with a straight face that engaging in a sexual act outside of marriage is solely and entirely ordered to the objective good of the other person. But that’s exactly what true love is all about—to will the good of the other, to be concerned first and foremost with what is objectively best for the other person. When one’s desire for physical and emotional intimacy is placed above what is objectively best for the other, this is by definition using.
And for Wojtyła, when the possibility of procreation is deliberately excluded in the context of marriage, the accent mark of the sexual act devolves to pleasure. For this reason, in Wojtyła’s view, contraceptive sex is also always de facto using. For him, the natural order and the personal order stand or fall together; that is, when the moral meaning of the natural order is violated, the personal order is simultaneously undermined (Wojtyła, Love and Responsibilty, 211-2). He writes:
“If the potential parental moment is positively excluded from the conjugal act, the reciprocal configuration of the person partaking in this act is thereby changed. This change progresses from a union in love to a shared or, rather, merely mutual ‘use’ …. This change of configuration … shifts their reciprocal relation beyond the sphere of objective demands of the personalistic norm [i.e., the personal order] …. When they positively exclude parenthood, a danger occurs that—objectively speaking—nothing else remains in this act but use, the object of which, of course, is a person for another person.”
Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 214-5
What Can Experience Tell Us?
While all the above is true and represents rich Catholic thinking on the divine meaning and purpose of our sexuality, Wojtyła does seem to be up to more than this. Consider, for example, the following statement from his treatment on shame:
“Sexual shame in a certain measure charts the direction of all sexual morality.”
Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 162
In other words, while Wojtyła assumes the above thinking on the meaning of our sexuality, he does think that appealing to the personal order can provide a way in for the modern person; in other words, the truth of the natural order will often find resonance in human experience.
Even though good Catholics sometimes find themselves struggling with chastity — especially when they “love someone” and believe they will one day marry this person — the key is the following: the way one feels is never a sure guide to truth. Consider how often in our experience our desires are at odds with right reason: on the one hand, we can realign our desires to conform to right reason; but more often than not, we seek to devise our own reasons to justify doing what we want to do.
This common phenomenon should alert us to the danger of allowing our feelings to be decisive. If the above scenario of “justification” and “rationalization” is so common in ordinary affairs, how much more is this true in the romantic and sexual arena? In other words, temptation against chastity is exhibit “A” of our desires weakening and distorting what reason tells us.