Two Views on Chastity and Sin

In my previous post, I wrote about two approaches to human sexuality: the “avoidant approach” presented by many Catholics, and the “integrative approach” presented by the catechism.

Sin no more

These approaches are analogous to a discussion of sin in John 18:11. There, Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” A common reading of this passage teaches that Jesus commands her to no longer commit adultery, or any other active sin. But this reading misses more nuanced and compelling translations of the Greek text.

“Sin no more” is a translation of “ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε.” Most people translate this last word, hamartane, as “sin,” in the sense of commuting an overt act of evil. But it can also be translated as “miss the mark” or “err” or “be mistaken.” Sin, hamarteia, is not only an overt act of evil, but also missing the mark, failing to achieve one’s aim.

This understanding might shed light on Dostoevsky’s literary claim that Christians should see themselves as “guilty for all and before all.” It makes sense of the claim that we are all sinners. It explains the beginning of the Confetior where Catholics pray, “I have sinned… in what I have done, and what I have failed to do.” It explains the saints who identify themselves as the worst of sinners. One sins not only through overt acts of malice, but through error, through mistake, by missing the mark with respect to living our fullest Christian lives. In hamarteia, there is no distinction between overt malice and simply falling short of our callings as Christians. 

This might lead us to despair of the fact that we are constantly sinners. We err, make mistakes, and constantly fail to live up to our vocations. But if sin is not only to commit an overt act of evil, but is hamarteia, missing the mark, then Jesus’ call to go and sin no more gives more than a command to avoid cheating or lying or stealing or fornicating or adulterating. It empowers Christians to go and hit the mark, to achieve, to aspire and succeed. Jesus does not give a negative command, but a proclamation of good news. He tells us to miss the mark no longer, to go and hit the mark. And in giving us this command, He implicitly tells us that He believes we can.

Avoidance or chastity

This aspirational approach to life generally and sexuality in particular is inconsistent with a preoccupation with avoidance. We do need to exercise prudence towards occasions of sin, but we should be conscious of when “prudence” simply becomes an excuse for avoiding vulnerable situations that challenge us to love others. We shouldn’t seek to justify hard-heartedness by calling it prudence. And we should scrutinize whether our “prudent” choices actually help us to achieve our aims, or whether they simply act as an avoidance strategy inhibiting growth. Chastity can only be achieved through risk.

The Christian life is inimical to either fear or avoidance. Thus, the catechism characterizes chastity not by fear or avoidance or inhibition, but by peace (2339), free choice (2339), self-knowledge (2340), ascetic practice (2340), obedience to God’s commands (2340), moral virtue (2340), fidelity to prayer (2340), unity with others (2340), unity within the self (2339), effort at all stages of life (2342), and integrity of the powers of life and love placed in man (2338). Chastity should not lead us to become de-sexualized beings, but should enable us to fully realize our sexuality and sexual energies. Chastity is not a mark to miss, but a mark to hit. And if we treat chastity primarily as a list of “don’ts,” then we miss the point altogether.

Of course, this will involve us considering what it means to be “sexual” outside of genital acts. What would it mean for the celibate person to have a flourishing sexual life? In other words, how does the celibate person live out chastity?

In my next post, I discuss a group commonly subjected to the “avoidant approach” to sexuality: gay Christians.


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