Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Chastity and the natural thirst for happiness: A follow-up

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 24, 2016

In response to the sixth part of my series on Gender Ideology—Gender Ideology 6: The common denominator of chastity—one reader posted a Sound Off! comment that raised interesting questions:

Without a concrete description of what God's grace actually looks like, advice to trust it can be dangerous. What you have said, which is a more intellectual elaboration on things that have been said by others, amounts to: “You must become a saint as holy as Augustine in order to fulfill the natural law regarding chastity.” Frightening, indeed. Who is your audience? Is the problem of unchastity due to a lack of knowledge? Knowledge cannot help someone who lacks the integrity to act on it.

I fear I have created some confusion by switching between the natural and the supernatural in discussing the virtue of chastity. It is difficult to offer “a concrete description of what God’s grace actually looks like”, since it can be experienced in so many different ways, but what is of most interest to me is the question of whether Christian holiness is necessary to follow the natural law. If it is, the writer is right to wonder—when I speak of chastity as a response to gender ideology—what audience I could possibly have in mind.

If we examine the question in terms of a complete separation of the natural state from the state of grace, we would have to make a Hobbesian choice. We might argue that the natural law can in theory be followed purely through our natural perceptions and abilities. But we might also admit that nobody, by natural ability alone, can discern and obey the natural law perfectly, at all times and in every respect.

Fortunately, there is no need to press the issue in such stark terms. It was one of the correctives offered by the best mid to late twentieth-century philosophers and theologians—from Gilson and de Lubac to Wojtyla and Ratzinger—that there is no such thing for the human person as a purely natural state that is prior to and independent of the presence of God. Since we are by our very nature ordered to God, some measure of grace is always at work in us, and the Holy Spirit is always somehow involved in our apprehension of the Truth and our turning toward the Good.

God is always active in our lives

Virtue in the human person is never purely “natural” in the sense in which our materialistic culture thinks of nature. Human nature is spiritual as well as material. Moreover, all personhood presupposes and depends on the creative power and active presence of God. Jesus Christ is the completest possible Revelation of that Presence, but we are not to suppose that there is no Divine agency at all in the lives of those who lived before Christ or who have never heard of Him.

If that were the case, the Church would be completely wrong in teaching that salvation is possible to all those who do their best to seek to know and do the Good. Without God’s activity in our lives, this proposition would be pure Pelagianism. Moreover, whenever and however received, every grace in every time comes through the obedience of Christ. Every person who is saved, then, is joined to Christ and the Church by living in accordance with whatever understanding of the true and the good the Holy Spirit has written in his heart. Everyone who is lost is divided from Christ and the Church through a failure to respond wholeheartedly to this same enlightening action of the Holy Spirit. (This is nothing but the briefest possible summary of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.)

What this means is that everyone is my audience, just as everyone is God’s. In covering both the natural and supernatural appropriation of chastity, I obviously wished to express the matter in ways that might reassure and inspire the greater portion of our readers, who have already received and accepted the Christian message. But by no means does that make the presentation useless for those who have not yet heard of, or responded to, Our Lord and Savior.

Attraction to chastity is “natural”

Every human person seeks happiness, and the vast majority of us, whether Christian or not, experience the difference between pleasure and happiness. We have ample opportunity to realize that sexual pleasure and the deeper happiness for which we yearn are not the same thing. Thus, at various times, everyone experiences both excitement and shame; we all know both the desirability of personal union and the emptiness left by unions which are inappropriate or, at least, incomplete.

In fact, all human unions are incomplete. This means that even without the Christian message, everyone experiences moments in which his or her heart is attracted by chastity. At a minimum, there will be a fleeting desire to tear away from some form of sexual pleasure that leaves a deeper emptiness in its wake. This is a consequence of being human: Happiness consistently deserts us unless and until we learn to find it in God.

This does not mean that everyone is sufficiently clear-headed and resolute to reorder their loves in the best possible way. But it does mean that a gnawing sense that this ought to be done remains operative in our lives, and it must be either ignored, rejected or accepted—however indistinct our apprehensions and our responses may be.

I repeat, then, that the audience for a presentation of chastity really is everyone. Precisely because of God’s unceasing action, there is no stage of human spiritual progress at which some movement in the right direction cannot be made. It is true that we will all experience an inability to move toward the Good as easily as we would like. But the chastity which lies at the heart of the Christian life has a universally attractive power, as do all genuine virtues. Not all will respond, but there will always be some—just as when Our Lord Himself preached.

We should not be afraid to speak of chastity or to exemplify it. And why? It is because the desire that spurs Christians to greater holiness is simply a more mature manifestation of the fundamental human thirst for integrity—for wholeness, for completion, for happiness. We must always keep this very clearly in mind: When saints are drawn to ecstatic union, they are drawn by the same Presence which leads spiritual infants to seek the God they do not know.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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