Tag Archives: continence

Catholicism is Impossible

“Baby Jesus” by Jennifer Hickey

Earlier this week a friend of mine shared an article on Facebook, written by Melinda Selmys of Catholic Authenticity on Patheos. In the blog she describes some of the challenges surrounding the use of NFP, particularly the issues that arise when the risk of an unintended pregnancy are so high as to be unacceptable, but abstaining from sexual intercourse is not conducive to mental and emotional health. A priest told her in essence to try her best, and if she failed to know that she really was trying and to leave it in God’s hands. She describes the mind games encouraged by this situation, saying:

“What it meant was that I was in a position where I couldn’t have a realistic discussion about what I actually wanted in my sex life… but provided I was responding to seduction, swept away by my passions, or just doing it because I felt pressure it wasn’t really my fault.”

I recognize this mind game in my own life. To pick one example, let’s say I have composed a particularly biting and sarcastic email, deliberately not giving myself time to think, stifling that nagging feeling that maybe I should reconsider or at least wait a few hours, and pushed the send button before I could come to my senses. Later on in the throes of regret I told myself it was “in the heat of anger.” It wasn’t. I wanted to be cruel, and I encouraged and hid behind a feeling of anger to make that cruelty possible, and now I allow myself enough regret to make me feel I am not so uncharitable after all.

She goes on to say:

“–the attitude that I generally find in Catholic chastity culture… external circumstances are always the Cross that God is calling you to bear. Internal weakness, on the other hand, is natural. Everybody stumbles. It’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody actually practices the teaching. It’s understood that you are going to succumb to passion, that “frequent recourse to the confessional” will be necessary. That if you’re actually rigid enough to follow the teaching as you profess it, well,  probably that would be harmful. But nobody actually does that.”
I do not know if the author actually believes this statement of the “dirty little secret” of NFP, i.e. that no one actually practices it strictly. The comment boxes, both on the particular Facebook thread I read, and on the article itself, contained both rebuttals and affirmations of it. In any event, I don’t want to turn this into an NFP blog. For what its worth, my wife and I practice NFP, it doesn’t seem to cause us too much stress (Deo Gratias), and I don’t think I have ever come across this “Catholic chastity culture” she references, so my two cents on the topic would likely be neither here nor there.

Rather, I want to address the unspoken assumption at the heart of some of the comments, and of much of the debate around (insert hot button topic of sexual ethics in the Church today). NFP is one such arena, but I have personally heard this argument used more frequently in regards to debates around homosexual behaviors and lifestyles, and reception of sacraments by divorced and cohabitating couples. Very few are even talking about what I consider to be the real epidemic, that of pornography within the Church. The argument goes something like this:

“Sure the Church teaches X, Y and Z. But that is not what people actually do. Lots of great Catholics do exactly the opposite and they are still good people, and it’s just a shame that they can’t be more open about it until the oppressive, backwards Church changes her teaching to reflect how people actually practice.”
The problem is that this thinking is 100% wrong-headed. It is exactly backwards.

Whenever I hear this argument used, i.e. that the Church should adjust her teaching to practice, because her ethic is just too hard for people to live up to, I can’t help but think they have understated their case. God’s commandments are not too hard.

They are impossible.

Of course NFP is hard (for a lot of people, not for everyone). Chastity in general is hard. And, as Dorothy Sayers would remind us, lust is not the only deadly sin. There are, in fact, six more, though we often tend to ignore them. Temperance is hard, industry and frugality are hard, generosity is hard, honesty and patience are hard, mercy and justice are hard, and of course, don’t even get me started about humility and charity.

Let me repeat the title of this blog: “Catholicism is impossible.” We get hung up on pelvic issues, (NFP, contraception, divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, but always on the one that other people are committing) possibly because these are so noticeable, possibly because we are just obsessed with sex as a race. We talk about everyone else’s sleeping arrangements and never notice our own sins of gossip and slander. We neglect to mention the extortion, usury, greed and envy that are the backbone of our nation’s economy. We don’t bat an eye over the gluttony and sloth wreaking havoc on our health and happiness.

Have you read the Sermon on the Mount recently?
Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

Or to pick another example:

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:22-27
Since when has ease or convenience ever been one of the Gospel’s selling points? This is the standard we are called to live up to.

Everyone has a secret failing. For some, NFP is hard. Probably for most. Those for whom it is easy do others a disservice when they act or speak as if it should therefore be easy for everyone, or as if it was easy because of their own merits or strength. Continence, which means perfect control over the appetites, is a gift of God, given to all eventually if they struggle long enough (everyone is continent in Heaven) but very few seem to receive it right away.

Likewise, those for whom patience comes naturally should no go around telling everyone else that patience is easy. The same for every other virtue/vice.
But those who think that the Church should change her teaching to reflect practice have mistaken what the Church’s teaching is. It is not an arbitrary decision that some actions are okay and others are not. When the CDC tells us not to smoke tobacco it is not because a bunch of old white men in D.C. decided that they hate tobacco and are choosing to punish those who like it with cancer. The Church makes statements about what she believes to be fact: e.g. homosexual activity is not in keeping with the best nature of man; usury is not in keeping with love of neighbor; contraception is harmful to marriages and societies; gossip is harmful to communities and souls, and so on and so forth. We may agree or disagree, but let us not have any muddled thinking that these teachings ought to be based upon what people actually do. If people actually were chaste, just, temperate, merciful, humble and charitable, we would not need teachings. We need these teaching because we are, in fact, unchaste, unjust, intemperate, vengeful, proud and selfish. We need to teachings to tell us when we have fallen short, and to warn us to try harder.
I will share with you my own discovery from that process of trying harder, that if you try to battle a besetting sin long enough you will find that two things are true:
  1. You are not really trying as hard as you think you are. You have not resisted to the point of shedding blood, you have not quit your job, moved towns, smashed your computer, engaged an accountability partner, changed your route to and from work, sold your car, cut off your hand or gouged out your eye. Until you have done those things, you aren’t really trying.
  2. Even when you do really try with every fiber of your being (that in itself is a gift) you will find it is impossible. Sure, you may rope yourself off from the sinful act itself but the desire is still there. Part of you still wants it. It is not a sin in itself, but it is not perfect continence either.
We must strive for perfection, not in the hopes that our striving will accomplish it, but so that our striving and failing may reveal our weakness and frailty to ourselves. Then we will pray as we ought, “Lord, I can do nothing on my own. Have Mercy on me, a Sinner, and save me by your power.”
When the humility, weakness and vulnerability of the Infant Jesus enters our souls and shapes them into His helpless image, (swaddled in a feeding trough, or nailed spread-eagled to a wooden beam, both show the same vulnerability) then His power will be made perfect in our weakness.
Merry Christmas! God Bless us All!

Veiled Words: Modesty in Speech and Thought

“The Victorians pretended sex did not exist; the moderns pretend nothing else exists.” Archbishop Fulton J Sheen

This is my first post writing for Ignitum Today, and in honour of that I thought I would try to ignite a little debate on a nice controversial topic, sex. Seven years into marriage I’m somewhere right between remembering my own struggles for chastity and worrying about my children’s. In keeping with my personal motto “It’s never too early to fret” I have read with interest the many recent blog posts about what form sex education should take in a Catholic family. These articles all advocated premarital abstinence, but disagreed on the tone and scope this teaching should take. I think this ground has been sufficiently covered by others and I could add little to that conversation. There is another issue though, that I feel needs greater attention. That is, the importance of modesty in the pursuit of chastity. By modesty here I do not mean the rules of dress. I am speaking of modesty in speech and thought and I believe many well-intentioned young Catholics are not exercising this virtue when it comes to the discussion of sex.

We live in a hyper-sexualized culture. Young people are bombarded every day from their televisions, their computers, their acquaintances, and even the signs in the mall and the flyers in the mail box with suggestive images and ideas. As a result it is no wonder that we focus a great deal on continence in teaching morality.

As young Catholics cling fiercely to chastity against the immense pressures of the world, there is almost a mirror-like fixation with sex amongst those rejecting society’s obsession. Many young people commit much study to sexual ethics, and also to contemplation of the nature of marital relations. It seems more are familiar with The Theology of the Body than any other spiritual reading, and specifically with the portions that deal directly with sexuality.

High school and college students discuss amongst themselves what married couples can do when, and often fall into an attitude of “I can’t wait to get married because then I can finally have sex.” The promise of sex in marriage is being used almost as a bribe to keep single people chaste until then. Just you wait, it’ll be worth it wink wink. This attitude puts the act of sex over marriage in terms of priority, desiring it for itself although within the proper relationship. It can also lead to unreasonable expectations about sex within marriage. Furthermore, it can drown out the quiet call of a religious vocation, or convince someone that they are being robbed of something they were promised if they remain single. The impression is that the celibate are missing out on an essential part of the human experience.

Sex is only one part of one direction a life can take. Additionally, fixating on sex, even when acknowledging its true nature, is a near occasion of sin because it leads one to dwell on the very thing that is such a powerful temptation.

So let’s pull out the Catechism of the Catholic Church and take a look at the two virtues at issue. Regarding modesty, the Catechism says:

Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity. Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. . . . It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.

Concerning chastity:

People should cultivate [chastity] in the way that is suited to their state of life. Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner. Others live in the way prescribed for all by the moral law, whether they are married or single.” Married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence.

(all emphasis my own)

To combine the two, it is important that we refuse to unveil what is not suited to our station in life. I am not espousing ignorance. In this day and age I believe it could be incredibly dangerous. As parents we have a responsibility to arm our children with the information they need to succeed in the fight for chastity and continence and to prepare them for marriage should that be their vocation. However, whatever form this sex education takes, it should be learned and then set aside.

Sex is sacred. It is sacred in the context of the individual couples who exchange love in this way, but the concept of it should also be treated as something sacred and not meant for idle contemplation. This is entirely different from treating sex as dirty, shameful, or embarrassing.  We avert our eyes and dare not approach it too closely because its full beauty is only for those initiated into its mystery.

As so often happens when I am meditating upon a topic, the sermon this evening at Mass seemed to speak directly to me. It was the final installment of a series on the seven deadly sins, on lust. Father suggested that if we gave as much time to studying the lives of the saints and their examples of chastity as we did consuming tempting media we would be a long way towards possessing the virtue. Studying the Catholic idea of sexuality is certainly not comparable to soaking up trashy T.V. One is laudable; one is not.

If you are unmarried it is appropriate to learn enough about sex to treat it with proper reverence, part of which would be the mental habit of refocusing the mind on topics that can help you grow in holiness where you are now and disregarding things outside your province. It is also proper to reflect on the gift of sexuality and its role in all our lives as a fundamental part of human nature. Still, one does not study sex to avoid temptation, one studies chastity.

I suspect that many of us have not balanced our reading of experts on sexuality with reading from the experts, the saints, on continence. We have not shown sufficient “reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity.” We have not been discreet. We have not been modest. As parents we could nurture these virtues in several ways: by respecting as far as possible the natural modesty children feel in discussing sex with their parents, and in speaking modestly ourselves to emphasize that we treasure the intimacy of our sexual relationship.

We should provide information honestly, clearly, but simply, and age appropriately, reminding them that today their vocation is to be a student, or a child. We should maintain a balance in our discussions of sin and virtue, remembering that lust and it’s opposing virtue are only one pair of seven. And, in encouraging our children to hold out for and look forward to marriage we should not incite them to anticipate it in thought. After all, they may never be called to that state, and heaven knows there is always plenty of work to be done on the state we are in.

(This article also appeared on www.catholicexchange.com as Modesty In Speech and Thought)