John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
Katelyn Beaty in the June 17 New York Times laments what she describes as baneful effects of the “purity culture” promoted among American Protestant Evangelicals in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Purity culture” was “a term … that stressed the sexual abstinence before marriage.” It emphasized remaining “a virgin until marriage.” The editor decked the column with a description of purity culture” as “harmful and dangerous.”
Reading Beaty’s musings, I find a woman who is dissatisfied. She considers purity culture as marked by “rituals” that are “almost innocuous” but, on balance, thinks it had “damaging effects.” She seems disillusioned by the bill of goods she was sold: maintaining one’s virginity would lead to a “good husband,” but at 34 she’s unmarried. She complains that purity culture “never had anything to say to Christians past the age of 23.” In sum, purity culture is hopelessly romantic and naïve, not part of the world young and marriageable people live in today.
But neither is she satisfied with the secular alternative. An ethic of consent is “flimsy” because, while consent may be a conditio sine qua non to sex, it is hardly an exhaustive sexual ethic. Human sexuality means more than what two people may be inclined to agree to at here and now. “I yearn for guidance on how to integrate faith and sexuality in ways that honor more than my own desires in a given moment.”
She’s right, and she’s on to something. Consent establishes the “nonnegotiable baseline” of sexual activity, but baselines merely demarcate borders between right and wrong. We need to know where that line is, but we ought not to operate on how close we can veer to it without crossing over. Such an approach hardly aims at higher values: it seems rather content with “what can I get away with,” an attitude that seems to suggest “but were I a Christian there would go I.”
She’s also right when she suggests that “matter matters. So when a person engages another person sexually, Christians would say it’s not ‘just’ bodies enacting natural evolutionary urges but also an encounter with another soul. To reassert this truth feels embarrassingly retrograde and precious by today’s standards. But even the nonreligious attest that in sex, something ‘more’ is happening, however shrouded that more might be” (emphasis original).
Beaty recognizes something that contemporary Catholic sexual ethics, influenced by the thought of John Paul II, should be recapturing: sexual ethics is tied to one’s understanding of the human person, a body-soul person, for whom matter matters. The problem of ethics and the problem of anthropology go together. Jesus’ question to His disciples is precisely also the first question posed today when it comes to sexual morality: “who do you say that I am?” Not “do we agree to what we’re doing?” “Who do you say that I am?”
Among John Paul II’s earliest pre-papal writings on sexual ethics included a pair of articles on the question of purity: “Instinct, Love, and Marriage” and “The Religious Meaning of Chastity.” They should be read in conjunction with Part III—which also deals with purity and chastity—of his master work, Love and Responsibility.
Already 67 years ago, Wojtyła warned against a sexual ethic that started with “no.” An approach to chastity and purity that does not begin with the positive meaning of those virtues can hardly guide people to a Christian sexual ethic without exploding on some moral mine. Already in Love and Responsibility, almost 60 years ago, Wojtyła argued that chastity was seen primarily in negative terms, an adversary to “love.” Chastity is equated with prudery, frigidity, inability to relate to others, puritanism, and ignorance of “sex.” And, because human beings always choose what appears to be good to them (whether that good is real or illusory), those who do not understand the positive significance of purity and chastity will often reject them, considering those virtues as vices, as “barriers” to “love.” On the one hand, this is a consequence of wrong thinking and wrong choices; on the other hand, its positive side is that because man always chooses what he deems “good” – real or illusory – he reorients his moral world to accommodate his faithful or flawed understanding of goodness.
Beaty is right: something “more” is happening in sex than a mere hookup. The truth of that something is what fills in the rest of sexual ethics beyond the “flimsy” ethic of consent and insists that what we do sexually can be wrong even if we both agree to do it.
For Wojtyła, that “positive meaning” of chastity and purity is that those virtues affirm the value of the person over and against partial perspectives on the person. We can “love” a person because they are sexually or erotically attractive to us. We can “love” a person because we find an “emotional attachment” or “bond” with that person. But both of these are just parts of the person: their physical attraction or their emotional compatibility. They’re important—but they are not enough.
In the end, Wojtyła insists that the “positive value” is the person in his or her whole truth: a person with whom, by this act, I express a desire to give myself totally, permanently, exclusively, and indissolubly because real “love” for a person is never satisfied with being limited, does not come with an expiration date, is not a time- or individual-share, and remains “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, until death do us part.” And that “positive value” values the person in his or her totality, i.e., as a being who is gifted by God with the possibility of parenthood through his or her fertility which, together with mine, makes the creation of new life possible. Acknowledging the whole truth of the person means acknowledging that aspect of the person, too.
Teaching and appreciating these values—which are not just matters of the mind but of the heart, of one’s affections and one’s life vision—requires time, requires training, and requires clear communication. Only when we set Catholic/Christian sexual ethics in the light of our understanding of the person as a whole will we give “purity culture” the depth and seriousness it deserves, because only then will its positive value and significance be apparent. “Purity culture” is not about “an exposed bra strap” or the power of “a scribbled signature of a teenager” on a card pledging to value one’s virginity. It is certainly not primarily about “shame” (although shame has a positive value in human life) nor even less about a kind of puritanism that treats sex as “dirty” until one is married. An ethic of purity has to focus on “save your love for the person with whom you truly mean it,” not “save the dirt for your spouse.”
For those who envision ethics as a few “rules” to be whipped out to provide “guidance” in the heat of the moment, Wojtyła’s advice may seem as unrealistic as the Evangelical “purity culture” Beaty scores. Ethics here is not rules; it is a vision of a way of life and living, grounded in the revelation of the human person as redeemed and loved by God, from which downstream flow those “thou shalt nots.” But “thou shalt not” really only makes sense when we start with why “thou shalt,” and that is why reconstructing Catholic sexual ethics and how we transmit it is a huge task before us. It’s also a task that has to reckon with sin, because sin is pervasively part of the human condition, including the domain of sex.
I’m not saying Ms. Beaty would agree with me. She abandons “purity culture” but thinks “consent culture” too sheer. The vision of sexual ethics propounded by Wojtyła/John Paul is thick, dense, and – as a consequence of that – normative. Ms. Beaty seems inclined to want a “sexual ethic grounded in the goodness of bodies and of sexual expression based in consent, mutuality, and care.” That’s just what John Paul is offering in a positive key. One suspects, however, that particularly (but not just) in Protestant circles, that ethic may be too thick and dense for some, because it demands a certain conversion … and, like St. Augustine, many moderns seem to be praying for conversion mañana. But we can still propose.
It was George Weigel I think who, late last year, suggested that Pope Francis think about calling a synod on chastity. Such a move would certainly raise eyebrows and guffaws, but it would also address a question pertinent to Catholics and Christians (including Ms. Beaty) at all stages of their lives. Chastity is not just a question for premarital sexual ethics; it is a question for married, and it is a question for the unmarried. The morass of clergy sexual abuse clearly has a link to it. But how we transmit our sexual ethic in a coherent and meaningful way, and how we show that it also has something to say to people “past the age of 23,” demands we grapple with it. If the Pope really wants to go out to the “peripheries,” to be “counter-cultural,” and to address the injured and suffering inside (and outside) of the ecclesial “field hospital,” then the tackling the meaning of chastity and purity in the modern world will lead him there. Because while the Evangelical version of 20 years ago might not be the right fit, the world still needs a culture of purity.
All views expressed herein are exclusively those of the author.