The Victorians pretended sex did not exist; the moderns pretend nothing else exists.
-Archbishop Fulton J Sheen
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. Yet 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.
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 TV. 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 its 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.