Why can’t the Church stop harping on purity?!
In the wake of yesterday’s conviction of comedian Bill Cosby for sexual assault, we might well revisit what many regard as the obnoxious Catholic emphasis on purity. While we hear less about it in a secularized Church, everybody knows the traditional emphasis is always just beneath the surface. This is so obvious to outsiders that the Church has often been accused of not really caring about any other kind of sin. That’s not true, of course. But the barest whiff of Catholic emphasis on sins of the flesh is enough to send the world into paroxysms of denunciation.
As a natural counter-argument, we can say that purity is vitally important because sexual feelings, attractions and temptations have a huge impact on our human affections. And our affections—whatever they may be—are powerful underlying motives for everything we do. Now of course we could have an overriding attraction for money or power. But we are, after all, sexual beings, and the easiest and most intensely personal way for our affections to become disordered is through a lack of discipline regarding our sexual appetites. Might this explain the Catholic preoccupation with impurity?
Or perhaps it is a matter of Divine command. I alluded to this in my last commentary (“Christian insistence on purity and moral change”) by quoting St. Paul: “God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God” (1 Thes 4:8).
Both of these broad arguments are true, but a closer examination reveals three gigantic and very specific reasons why sexual purity is emphasized again and again in Catholic land, from the Old Covenant to the present day. Together they explain exactly why the Catholic Church is such a pest about these things. For a failure in purity always and everywhere leads to extraordinarily grave evils.
1. Separation from God
We cannot expect pagans easily to grasp the first evil, but it is important to place separation from God at the head of the list, because the end for which we have all been created is union with God. When all is said and done, the Church traditionally pesters us constantly about sex not only because its pleasures so easily become disordered but because, in becoming so, they distract and ultimately separate us from God. It is true that some people never experience strong sexual temptations, but lust of one kind or another is always widespread in human society. When it comes to promoting “happiness” in our world, sexual attraction is the poster child.
Sexual desires can take many distorted forms, but even in forms which are distorted only by their unbalanced intensity, such desires are at best a huge spiritual distraction. It is very difficult to think clearly about ourselves, about God, and about our relationship with Him when we itch, when we want desperately to scratch, and when we identify this scratching with personal fulfillment. Unless strictly and habitually controlled, sexual attraction disrupts our serenity, leads us to value things incorrectly, undercuts the active desire for God experienced in our higher nature, and so impedes or even destroys Divine union.
In our culture, this problem is often thought of as the least of our worries—or even as a decidedly foolish source of anxiety—but the entire Catholic system treats it as the highest priority for the simple reason that sexual temptation is the simplest and most common way to deflect us from our ultimate end. While Christ’s warnings encompass every kind of sin, we must always bear in mind the most important of Our Lord’s beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8).
2. Loss of Personal Integrity
The reason impurity is able to separate us from God so easily is that it destroys our personal integrity. People today typically fail to grasp what it means to have “integrity”. We settle immediately on a concept similar to “honesty”. Consequently we can fall to see that the debauched man has lost his integrity, even if he does not lie to his friends or act unjustly in business. If we were to think of honesty as referring to a clear and correct interior evaluation of our own character we would strike far closer to the truth.
Integrity is the proper integration—that is, the proper ordering—of all of our human faculties, creating an “integral” whole. The person of integrity seeks to join himself to God in the highest part of his soul, making this union of being the foundation of his intellectual life, and using his intellect to guide his imagination and instruct his will. Together, then, these faculties govern all human affections, disciplining the emotions and the senses so as to develop and maintain in the whole person that unified order which he or she was designed to possess. The opposite of integrity is, of course, disintegration, in which the various faculties of the human person war against each other and, as a result, function in the wrong way.
To take the most common example—the very example which causes so many people to ignore the problem of impurity—let us compare two approaches to thought and action. In a person of integrity, the intellect (acting as freely as possible) grasps truths and, in consequence, perceives values, and so instructs the will to act in accordance with these values. When integrity breaks down, however, the will refuses to act on the value proposed by the intellect. Instead, it instructs the intellect to stop thinking along those lines and instead to justify the course of action the will has already chosen to pursue. Following the orders of the will, then, the intellect rationalizes. Integrity is lost.
At quiet moments, people often recognize something of this loss of integrity within themselves, which can take the form of chronic unhappiness, disgust, depression, or just a deep sense of being on the wrong track. This is one reason our world hates silence. Endless activity and endless pleasure—constant distraction—are a kind of defense mechanism against the psychic penetration of truth. Moreover, this disorder darkens the intellect, which takes instruction from the will rather than the other way around. Ancient Greek philosophers recognized this very clearly. But Christians know that this disorder also leads the whole person to refuse grace.
What we experience, then, is a loss of personal integrity owing to a lack of purity, which we sometimes also call “single-heartedness”. Undisciplined sexual desire (sometimes manifesting itself more sweetly through what we call romance) is the most common and, for most people, the most powerful and pervasive form of impurity. As such, it is typically the primary driver of the loss of personal integrity. It is no wonder that the Church keeps a close eye on purity, guarding against its loss as carefully as possible.
3. Social Destruction
We come now to Social Theory 101. The reader may wish to take notes. The human person was made for love and is always oriented to love. This alone is sufficient to explain why love’s counterfeits, such as sexual attraction, so commonly mislead us. But the highest capacity of our nature is to love. We are not only designed for love but called into being to love. Love, in fact, is necessary not only to our happiness but to our very stability as persons.
As nature suggests—and again, as the greatest philosophers have realized even without the benefit of revealed religion—the human person is designed for a nuptial destiny (think here of St. John Paul II’s theology of the body). Most commonly, this design is brought to completion in this world through a life-long monogamous marital union in which, through acts of love which engage the whole person, children are conceived. These children are then nurtured and raised in a familial relationship of reciprocal love, which of course can and should be perfected through the love of God—including the growth of Divine love within us through the Catholic sacramental system.
Now the first social principle arising from a consideration of sexual purity is simply this: Each and every departure from purity disrupts our ability to love, weakens or destroys the bonds of love, and so has inescapable social consequences. We see this first within the family, but the consequences rapidly extend beyond the family to the social order as a whole. When impurity becomes widespread, so too does familial destruction, with the result that whole societies collapse. What we call the modern West is approaching the end point of this destructive process even as I write.
Unfortunately, the darkening of the intellect—due to impurity, and the consequent loss of integrity—causes most people who are thus afflicted to deny the obvious, to deny the chronic social destruction caused by the free rein given to wayward sexual desires in our time. It is one of the clearest signs of this darkness that a society either cannot or will not recognize how the god of sexual pleasure and sexual “fulfillment” not only destroys personal integrity but destroys families, cripples spouses and children emotionally, isolates us from our primary natural nurturing and support system, imprisons millions in a kind of chronic and wounded insecurity, impoverishes the majority (particularly women and children), and even kills (especially through sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, drug abuse and suicide).
Undisciplined sexual desire—from pornography and contraception to homosexuality, sex abuse, human trafficking and beyond—is a primary cause of loss of personal integrity, the destruction of the family, and an immense social destabilization and decline. Over the past few generations, the entire West has become a society populated by vast numbers of men and women who are not only personally warped of their own accord but emotionally injured through no great fault of their own, and who have a dramatically reduced ability to live coherent and productive lives—not to mention a dramatically reduced capacity to love.
We attempt to cope with what any sane observer would recognize as a disintegrating civilization through ever-increasing regulation. Larger and larger numbers of people (those least able to cope with their psychic injuries and the social destruction by which they are surrounded) fall into despair, institutionalization, or death. Meanwhile, the elites (who tend to be insulated by comfort and prestige from the most immediate consequences of the chaos) continue (astonishingly) to preach the gospel of death, a gospel that is rooted deeply in personal impurity. This is a very great darkness indeed!
These, then, are the reasons that it is such a healthy sign of Catholic seriousness to harp so annoyingly on sexual sins, on sins of the flesh. We have three sufficient reasons: Separation from God, loss of personal integrity, and social destruction. These justifications ought to be obvious enough for us to place St. Paul’s warning in a new light.
Paul wrote that to disregard the horror of impurity is to disregard not man but God, for our instruction in this matter is not a human theory but a Divine revelation. But in another sense, he who disregards these things is really denying not only what has always been hidden in God but what is patently obvious in the world around us. Truly, then, he who ignores these things disregards not only God, but man—all his brothers and sisters as well.
See also the previous commentary: Christian insistence on purity and moral change
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