Abstinence may be a mere means to an end, but it’s often given a bit of a bad rap. Indeed, in the recent spate of posts on the subject here and throughout the Catholic blogosphere, abstinence is treated at best as the pesky little brother of chastity, and at worst it becomes the root of all that’s wrong with sexual morality (with “purity” coming in a close second and “premarital virginity” rounding out making the list a maligned trifecta).
I’ve noticed moreover, that whereas the Catholic writers have largely attempted to draw a distinction between chastity and abstinence, more secular commentators blur these distinctions. To be fair, blurring the distinctions is nothing new, and unfortunately the result is that chastity is reduced to abstinence, and purity is reduced to premarital virginity .
So, what is chastity, exactly?
Chastity is a virtue which aims for the state of being pure—both for men and for women—and it is, moreover, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The Catholic Encyclopedia defines it thus:
“Chastity is the virtue which excludes or moderates the indulgence of the sexual appetite. It is a form of the virtue of temperance, which controls according to right reason the desire for and use of those things which afford the greatest sensual pleasures. The sources of such delectation are food and drink, by means of which the life of the individual is conserved, and the union of the sexes, by means of which the permanence of the species is secured. Chastity, therefore, is allied to abstinence and sobriety; for, as by these latter the pleasures of the nutritive functions are rightly regulated, so by chastity the procreative appetite is duly restricted.”
So chastity is the virtue by which we moderate sexual desires, which means that for those in an unmarried state, chastity involves abstaining from sexual activity , and for those in the married state it may at times also involve such abstinence. In another column on this site, Stephanie Calis writes (emphasis in original):
Chastity sees rules, then, not as a burden, but as a path to true freedom, with the goal being a body, soul, and mind so integrated that the rules aren’t necessary anymore. St. Paul knows it; he writes, “For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:17-18).
It says yes. Chastity says yes to authentic love, yes to your future or current spouse, yes to purity in your thoughts, words, and actions. It’s not about what you can’t do, but what you can.”
Indeed, abstinence always says “no,” or at least “not yet,” while chastity can say yes. But abstinence is a part of chastity, sometimes a necessary part, so it would be more proper to say that chastity allows us to say “yes” or “no” as appropriate.
Indeed, a commenter on that same column notes that many people approach the whole chastity/abstinence until married thing with an attitude which basically says “Just wait until you’re married, and then you can release all that pent-up sexual energy!” Is it any wonder that so many scoff at abstinence (let alone chastity) when it is reduced to this sorry state? Said commentator writes
The problem with “Just keep it together until you’re wearing a ring, and then it’ll be a non-stop release of pent-up desire” is that it also suggests that the non-stop release of pent-up desire is okay, “because you’re married.” Making pleasure the highest good of sex is okay, “because you’re married” (I’m wondering if this is why many think that using contraception in marriage is okay, too). That somehow, what marriage is primarily designed to do is to “contain” all that, and make it “respectable,” without any real thought about sanctification, or even what it truly means to love and respect (which is another reason why our culture’s idea that love is primarily an emotion is dangerous). Lust in marriage, as Bl. John Paul II wrote, is still sinful. And he’s right.
It’s not exactly respectful to say that you’re “gonna save yourself for marriage” and then take your cues from pornography on the presumption that what you do in your bedroom is “private,” and somehow sanctioned by that wedding ring….Without any broad and deep sense of chastity enabling us to truly love (which applies both when you’re married or not), “saving yourself for marriage” sounds cute, quaint, and nice in an old-fashioned sense of bygone respectability, but– at the risk of sounding harsh here– ultimately deceitful, dishonest, and superficial (if only because the Church’s ancient wisdom is not about “going back to the ‘good old days,’” but is ever ancient, ever new).
Chastity is aimed at freeing the self to be able to say “yes” or “no” to sexual intercourse, and then choosing correctly when to say each. But it is also allied closely with the virtue of modesty, which is to show respect for the other person’s own struggle for chastity. When the two are combined, we stop treating the other as an object for our own gratification, and start treating them as a person to be loved, and the act of sexual intercourse as an expression of that love.
Chastity is itself an act as well as a virtue, as St Thomas notes. He also notes that it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and then explains that the list of fruits given by St Paul is not so much a definitive list concerning actions which are fruits of the Holy Spirit as a list of actions which could be of the Holy Spirit. The distinction is that fruits of the Holy Spirit are those virtuous actions which are undertaken out of charity, in joy, with an interior peace. Chastity, therefore, is rooted in these three things, that is, it is demanded of us by charity and yet when undertaken brings both joy and peace.
I’ve so far tried to draw a distinction between abstinence and chastity. The former is the act of saying either “no” or “not yet” to sexual intercourse, whereas the latter is both the virtue which allows us to say yes and no (potential) and the practice of that virtue (act). Where does this leave purity? Purity is a state of being, and it is to some extent unfortunately maligned by secular writers and even some faithful Catholics alike .
Purity is the state at which chastity aims. It is one of the beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that
“‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith:
- The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed ‘so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe.’
The ‘pure in heart’ are promised that they will see God face to face and be like him. Purity of heart is the precondition of the vision of God. Even now it enables us to see according to God, to accept others as “neighbors”; it lets us perceive the human body – ours and our neighbor’s – as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty….Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. 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.” (CCC 2518-2519, 2521).
Chastity, then, orders us towards this purity by which we see God. Specifically, chastity is ordered to the governance of our sexuality, towards “sexual rectitude.” And, in looking at the three parts of purity, we see that the three parts correspond loosely to the three theological virtues: love of truth and orthodoxy of faith to faith, chastity to hope, and charity to love. Purity of heart, then, is itself a blend of faith, hope, and love, with chastity playing the part of hope. It should be clear, therefore, that chastity itself is a beautiful act, for hope is often paired with beauty among the transcendentals.
It should also be more clear why abstinence itself is not a merely negative thing, even if it is only a means to the end of chastity, itself a part of purity. Abstinence is the denial of self, not simply for the sake of self-denial, but for the sake of being able to lift high one of our crosses to follow Christ, not just in suffering but into beatitude, and from there to glory.
 Indeed, virginity itself is reduced to mean only that a person hasn’t yet had sex. But a virgin is more than just a person who hasn’t had sex, or as the excellent Marc Barnes put it, virginity is sexual, and there’s more to purity than merely a “lack” of sex.
 Oddly enough, abstinence per se would rather seem to apply to governing our appetites for food, at least as define in the Catholic Encyclopedia! In this column, I am using abstinence in its more modern/colloquial sense to refer to abstinence from sexual activity, however.
 Though in the case of the Catholics, it’s often “purity culture” which is maligned. I should add here that it seems to me that when a secular person writes against purity, said writer means to rail against purity as well as “purity culture” as hindrances to his hedonism, but the Catholic writer who does so is often going after only the poor cultural interpretation of purity while being somewhat careless with terminology.