by Renae Kranz
Try this experiment. If you have an iPhone, try typing “chastity” in a text message. As you type, watch the autocomplete feature. On my phone and others I tested, the iPhone didn’t know the word “chastity” at all. How is this possible?
It’s possible because in a fallen world, we can’t expect our phones to know a word we barely understand ourselves. We may think chastity doesn’t apply to us, so we remove it from our thoughts entirely.
But chastity is part of God’s plan for all of us.
We are living examples of our faith and its teachings on chastity. If we don’t understand and embrace them, how can we expect the world to see God in us or our Church?
What is chastity?
We usually confuse chastity for abstinence, but chastity has many facets. And it looks different for a priest or consecrated person for example, than for a married couple or single person. We must understand the dignity of the human person through the lens of chastity because we are all called to it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), in part, defines the vocation to chastity this way:
“Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” (CCC 2337)
Dr. Chris Burgwald, director of Adult Discipleship and Evangelization for the Diocese of Sioux Falls, clarifies this definition.
“All our desires are good things. We get into trouble when we miss-prioritize them,” Burgwald says. “So the person who overeats has taken the good, God-given desire to eat and over prioritized it. The person who lacks chastity has taken the good, God-given desire for sexual pleasure and over prioritized it. That’s what the CCC means by integration, that we’re giving it its due place.”
Burgwald says most people don’t see the benefit of pursuing chastity. They think it will limit their happiness, freedom and fulfillment in life. Because our culture sees freedom as a license to do whatever we want, chastity seems backward and constricting. But Burgwald points out the real definition of freedom is to do what we ought, meaning not separating freedom from responsibility. The virtuous life is about striving for freedom of excellence.
“On the basketball court, Lebron James is freer than I am because he’s internalized the rules of the game and he’s practiced,” says Burgwald. “If you practice it, you become freer, you become better at it, and it doesn’t become a burden.”
And so it is with chastity. Learning the rules and practicing, pursuing excellence in it, makes you freer to live an abundant life. Burgwald says even though it’s hard to do in the beginning, much like learning basketball, when you live virtuously by practicing chastity, you flourish.
“It’s not about repressing anything. It’s about focusing and channeling that energy on my state in life,” Burgwald says.
Virtues and vices, or habits, are the default settings of our soul Burgwald explains. He says by repeating good or bad actions, “it sort of makes grooves in our spirit and soul, so we’re inclined to act a particular way.”
If we tend toward vice, it takes a lot to overcome those habits because they become the default. To change the default, Burgwald says we need the grace of sacraments like confession and the Eucharist to reset our disposition toward the path to virtue.
Jesus said, “I came that you might have abundant life.” Chastity works in all states of life to provide abundance. We just need to know how to apply it.
Teens face big obstacles
According to Emily Leedom, director of Marriage, Family and Respect Life for the Diocese of Sioux Falls, teens in our culture face a sexual onslaught that’s pervasive in almost everything they do or see—movies, TV, music and social media. Sex is introduced as a normal part of even a small relationship, making chastity feel impossible to a teenager.
She tells about a time when a high school student asked an anonymous question in a group setting. “How do you invest in one relationship when on Snapchat it’s just so easy to connect with so many different guys?”
Leedom told the group something a priest told her: “If I could tell parents one thing, it’s to get Snapchat off your kid’s phones. This is from someone who hears their confessions.” The group of students sat silent. Their silence was loud and clear—they knew he was right.
“It’s not a shaming of youth to say these problems exist,” Leedom says. “We have so few examples of healthy, chaste relationships to look at.”
She suggests the way to pursue chastity as a teen is to discover who you are. Rather than look for love in the wrong places, search for answers about love and who you are in the light of the Father.
“You are not disposable,” Leedom says.
Sister Carol Jean VanDenHemel, a Benedictine at Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, would agree. She teaches theology at Mount Michael Benedictine in the Omaha Archdiocese. She tells her students to see chastity as more than a list of things they cannot do. They talk instead about “how they are called to incorporate who they are, who God has called them to be, and how they share this gift (of chastity) with others in a positive way.”
In his book “If You Really Loved Me,” Jason Evert puts it this way: “The world sees chastity as death because it does not have the patience to see the life and love that spring forth from the sacrifice. It is not repression or guilt that motivates the chaste man or woman, it is the desire for real love.”
That’s what we need to show teens today. We need to be examples of chastity in every state of life.
Abby Schallenkamp, a Brookings native and student at Benedictine College, says it took time to come to a similar realization. The decision to remain chaste before marriage is a continual commitment that has grown as she’s learned about the Church’s teaching on sexuality.
“I began to realize that I deserved to be loved, fully and truly. That if I wasn’t being chaste, I wasn’t loving the other person and they weren’t really loving me,” Abby says. “I think I decided to remain chaste because I desired to love and love well.”
As Abby begins to discover new relationships in college, she is setting expectations and boundaries to protect herself and avoid temptations. She has used confiding in good friends, confession and growing in prayer to help overcome challenges.
“When I realized that the Lord loved me, the pressure to date and the temptation to emotional unchastity became less because I wasn’t seeking so much to be loved in those other places,” she says.
Abby suggests having a good group of friends was the key for her. Things would have been more difficult for her without those good friendships. It’s all a work in progress, though. And she has some words to help other teens pursuing chastity.
“You are good. You are chosen. You are loved. He’s got a plan, and He’s going to bring you to it. You just have to be patient. Don’t grasp after things.”
Marriage benefits from the gift
For those who are married, chastity takes a different spin, but it still applies in a foundational way—it offers a way for spouses to honor the dignity of the other and the vows of the sacrament of marriage.
“Chastity in marriage is not abstinence,” Leedom says. “Chastity in marriage is using the gift of sexuality well, and really approaching the gift of sexuality for what it is—unitive and procreative.”
Burgwald agrees. He says we’re all called to properly order our desires.
“We’re all called to self-mastery. So even the married couple who’s able to exercise the sexual desire has to live chastely,” he says. “Chastity helps us to give ourselves completely to each other.”
Since chastity is the proper ordering of sexual desire for unitive and procreative purposes, it’s crucial in marriage to not give it too much priority, or too little. Living marriage in a chaste way leads couples to both of these ends rather than a place of using one another solely for personal gratification.
When Leedom met her husband, they made it clear to each other that they wanted to pursue chastity until marriage.
“From the beginning we said: this is who we are and I want to love you well and if I’m going to love you, this is what it’s going to look like,” Leedom says. “That doesn’t mean it was easy or without fail, but there was an understanding very early on that we weren’t going to cross boundaries.”
Leedom says it’s important to know that chastity encompasses everything that leads up to intercourse. But it also means intimacy starts long before things move to the bedroom. And sometimes you have to find other ways to love each other due to circumstances like pregnancy, post-partum or illness.
“It was very clear in our first year of marriage that sex isn’t a fix. It’s a gift, but it’s a gift that starts outside the bedroom. Intimacy starts the moment you wake up, the moment your husband brings you coffee in the morning, the moment the wife honors and serves her husband by making breakfast,” Leedom says. “It’s in the conversation throughout the day.”
There are several tools to help spouses build chaste marriages. Natural Family Planning (NFP) is one of the best ways to honor the dignity of your spouse according to Leedom. She says it honors the person and fertility of the spouse and reinforces that they are not something to be taken or used. But it’s not always an easy road.
“The reality is it’s a sacrifice. And because it’s a sacrifice, there’s beauty and there’s fruit,” she says. “It’s actually in the sacrifice itself that we become more of who we are, that we enter more deeply into the marital covenant that we’ve been given.”
She also recommends pursuing emotional chastity by making sure your eyes are not wandering to another and to be careful about what you watch and consume that could compromise fidelity to the marriage covenant.
Howie and Kayla Schmidt of Harrisburg have experienced the blessings of chastity in their marriage as well. They pursue chastity with communication, discipline and prayer.
“I think it’s safe to say that it has grown our relationship in ways we never expected,” Howie says. “We share the gift of chastity in our marriage by being joyful and respectful to each other in conversation and practice.”
So how can married couples use chastity to evangelize? Leedom says the best way is to respect life, to bear life.
“Have a rock, solid marriage,” she says. “Unify. Continue to be emotionally invested. Do things together. Share everything. And invite others into your life and home. If you’re striving to be saints, invite people in to see the abundant joy that pours from it.”
Ordained see fruitfulness
Priests of the Church are one of the most visible signs of chastity in the form of celibacy. But Father Jordan Samson, pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Westport and director at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center in Aberdeen, reminds us celibacy is not just an absence of marriage and sex. He says it has to be a positive for those considering the ordained or consecrated life.
“It can’t be a white-knuckled absence or add-on stipulation,” Father Samson says. “Chaste celibacy must be seen as a gift and joyfully lived as Christ lived.”
He didn’t see it that way at first. He recalled a time in seminary when he realized celibacy didn’t have to equal unfruitfulness. The beauty of celibacy had finally shown itself to him.
“It was a real joy to have this change happen in myself as I realized on a deeper level that a celibate and chaste life was meant for fruitfulness,” Father Samson says. “On a spiritual level I was still meant to be a father and have children and be fruitful. And I get to see that my life does bear fruit in the parish and on campus. I get to see how Christ is born in the lives of so many people and that there is a real, visible fruitfulness to my life.”
Consecrated religious build faithful relationships
Along with priests, those who live the consecrated religious life can influence how the world views chastity. The beauty of their sacrifice for the Lord is on display wherever they go.
Sister Carol Jean sees chastity expressed in the primary relationships within their communities as well as in the way they build faithful friendships.
“Our lived example of healthy relationships with friends, family, and those we meet in our service to God’s people encourages those who struggle. Hopefully, these public examples of our joyful, life-giving relationships can show chaste living in a positive light,” she says.
Even for Sister Carol Jean, the depth of chastity was unclear when she first entered religious life. Her thoughts were initially centered on repressing sexuality and the sacrifice of never having a husband. As a result, she tended to step away from deep relationships at first. Her postulate and novitiate classes quickly helped refocus her thinking.
“Those classes helped me understand a greater fullness of chastity as living an integration of my spirituality, talents, personality, and God’s call, and sharing this whole gift of life with all God’s people,” Sister Carol Jean says.
“Our commitment to chaste living frees religious sisters and brothers to a full expression of the love of God and love of neighbor that Jesus proclaims as the Great Commandment,” she says. “We live it openly as an invitation for you to join us in doing the same in your homes and workplaces, to share this chaste love of neighbor in bringing God’s love to a world in need.”
Singles offer gifts to others
For those living the single life, whether never married, divorced or widowed, chastity should be directed toward love of neighbor, toward giving oneself to others. Most of us will be in this category at some point in our lives.
Andrew Welbig of Sioux Falls chose to pursue chastity before marriage because the Church calls us to it. He says the fear of hell is a big motivator, but it can only take you so far. For him, the chaste life was only really possible when he started doing it for the love of Christ.
“Even then it was incredibly difficult,” Welbig says. “What really helped me to succeed was knowing what kind of gift I could give a future wife if I did hold strong to chastity. It’s a hard and often long road, but give it all to Christ and do what you can. He’ll do the rest and the beauty of it is so very worth it.”
Welbig knows our culture has a big influence on how we act, especially when it comes to chaste living. Lustful music, movies and books for example can lead us to near occasions of sin. He refers to them as a way Satan “bread crumbs” us away from chastity. Those things should be avoided.
“When you do stumble upon something lustful or pornographic, then pray for that person,” he says. “It’s amazing how much that humanizes the person and draws your heart out of lust and into love.”
What does Welbig do to help on his journey? He looks to family and friends for support, visits with a spiritual director regularly, seeks out the sacraments (especially confession), and reads the Psalms.
“Read the Psalms until your heart rests on one and rejoice in the peace. Make it your battle hymn,” Welbig says. “And regular confession helped me to weed out the minor sins in my life that were the true basis of my struggle for purity.”
Jeannie Friske from Castlewood has pursued chastity in all phases of her life. Her unique experiences of life after a divorce and now as a widow give her a singular view of the difficulty and joy of chastity.
“I know God wants it for us because we’re happier that way,” Friske says. “I’ve learned that as I’ve gotten older.”
She remembers the difficult single years after her divorce and says chastity in that situation can be a challenge because you’re looking for verification that you’re lovable. You’re looking for affirmation and for someone to care about you.
“You’re looking for hope in a way, for a future that doesn’t hurt,” she says. “It changes who you are.”
That type of rejection can lead even a faithful person down a road far away from chastity. Friske says she often counsels friends who find themselves divorced to not get married right away. You can’t learn who you are if you’re always depending on someone else.
“That time alone is valuable time. You have to learn to love yourself, rely on God’s love for you,” Friske says. “And just keep barreling along. Keep praying.”
When she was widowed after her happy second marriage, the experience was different. Even though chastity is a struggle all through life, it’s been easier this time around.
“I don’t have the desire to marry again because I don’t feel like I could find a better match for me,” she says. “And I don’t need to be married to be happy.”
Although she misses being married, she now focuses her energy on her home parish, developing a better relationship with God, and spending time with friends and family. Her most challenging new focus is teaching CCD classes to junior high students. The topic? Theology of the Body.
“It’s one of the hardest and most fulfilling things I’ve done since I retired,” she says. “I need to have something I feel really good about. It helps me live in a more chaste way because we need to set an example for those kids.”
“I’ve learned that we think the only way we can change the world is in big ways,” Friske concluded. “Well it’s not. It’s in ten million small ways.”
Show the world what chastity really is
Living chastely is difficult, so pray for the grace of chastity. Father Samson reminds us not to see chastity as only a “no,” but to see it as “a yes to true human flourishing and right relationship with God and others.”
He says we should never back down from the goodness of perfect chastity, but wants us to know that it’s a process.
“It’s important to have patience,” Father Samson says. “God’s mercy is so great.”
Leedom says a lack of chastity creates wounds needing healing. Go back to the Lord and tell him you need his help and guidance.
“Chastity is not a passive standing on the sidelines. It’s an active fight. It’s a battle. It’s a worthy thing,” she says. “Really live out your sexuality the way God intended it to be, in all of its glory. Not hidden, not shamed.”
That is the foundation of fruitful evangelization.