What we get wrong about chastity

Two years ago, Paul Blaschko wrote about issues during his time as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. For example, when Blaschko approached a priest on staff about beginning a group to discuss issues related to sexual formation, the priest “seemed confused by the request” and asked what these issues would include. Blaschko identified such topics as sexual identity, masturbation, and pornography. The priest simply responded, “I don’t think anyone who masturbates should be in seminary.” He further said that the disclosure of masturbation or habitual “impure thoughts” would represent a “serious formation issue.” After that conversation neither Blaschko nor his classmates brought up the idea again, wondering whether openness about these issues could lead to dismissal from seminary. 

While Blaschko considered conversations related to concupiscience specifically and sexuality generally as relevant to priestly formation, he and his classmates received the impression that such conversations were inappropriate for seminarians. Even if this was not the intended impression, it’s important that many seminarians received it and carried it with them during formation.

And Blaschko’ conversation with the staff priest was consistent with other perceived policies at the seminary: seminarians should avoid interacting with women, intimate same-sex relationships should be discouraged, and anyone struggling with concupiscience should be dismissed from that fraternal life. In general, Blaschko writes that issues related to sexuality were treated as demonic influences to be destroyed or avoided. Another seminarian once told me about a classmate advised to wear a rubber band and to snap it on his wrist whenever he experienced sexual thoughts or desires.

Unfortunately, the experiences of Blaschko and my friend’s classmate illustrate a common approach to sexuality among Christians: an avoidant approach, which can be tied in many ways to the Freudian-psychological view of sexuality, as opposed to the integrative approach to sexuality presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The avoidant approach to sexuality

American Catholics commonly adopt the “avoidant approach” to sexuality. This approach regards sexuality primarily with suspicion rather than as gift, associates it with and subjects it to concupiscence, and considers it disordered in any of its engagements. Many Catholics consider an “orthodox” approach to sexuality to be an approach in which non-married persons are essentialaly de-sexualized, in which they seek to alienate themselves from their sexualities as far as possible, and in which they utilize repression as the primary response to sexuality. This approach regards sexuality with suspicion, and thus its adherents tend to treat sexuality with fear and experience it with anxiety and shame.

For those advocating the “avoidant” approach, “chastity” is achieved either in a non-sexualized life of celibacy or in a sexual life between husband and wife. According to them, sexuality is either lived in marriage or minimized outside of it. Outside of marriage, sexuality is seen primarily as a “cross” from which one prays to be lifted. This is inconsistent with the Catechism’s approach to sexuality. Under the “avoidant approach,” chastity (as defined by the catechism) is actually impossible.

The integrative approach to sexuality

While the “avoidant approach” to sexuality seeks to repress sexuality outside of marriage, the catechism’s “integrative approach” to sexuality moves in a contrary direction. The catechism defines chastity as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person.” If chastity integrates sexuality, then the catechism’s pursuit of chastity is inconsistent with an approach which would punish any manifestation of sexuality with the snap of a rubber band. Nor is chastity consistent with the avoidance of conversations and experiences related to the ongoing formation and engagement of one’s sexuality.

To be sure, I believe that the seminary staff presented an “avoidant approach” as a means of minimizing concupiscence and occasions for sexual sin. Masturbation and habitual “impure thoughts” do indeed present “formation issues” and hinder personal development. But the mere avoidance of such issues will be insufficient for the cultivation of chastity. A preoccupation with such avoidance will prevent this cultivation and may actually increase tendencies towards concupiscence. Regardless, this preoccupation presents sexual formation as a primarily negative pursuit, in contrast to the catechism’s presentation of chastity as a primarily positive pursuit.

In my next post, I will write about how this view relates to common views about sin.

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