What is the virtue of chastity? Is it unhealthy, impossible or repressive? In today’s episode, Matt and I look at what C.S. Lewis had to say about this, the most unpopular of the virtues…
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Episode 17: “Sexual Morality” (Download)
— Show Notes —
• My outline for today’s chapter is available here. Unfortunately, there isn’t a C.S. Lewis Doodle for this chapter.
• Has Matt seen ANY movie?! He hasn’t even seen the classic Disney movie, Dumbo!
• The Drink-of-the-week was, once again, a scotch. Matt and I were enjoying Johnnie Walker Green Label.
• This was our C.S. Lewis Quote-of-the-week:
“Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy”
– C.S. Lewis, Surprised by joy
• Chastity is a virtue, just like those Cardinal Virtues we addressed in Episode 14, such as Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance. Chastity is the virtue by which we order our sexual desires which enables us to love rightly.
• Last week we spoke about our “raw materials” and how they impact our decision-making abilities. In today’s chapter, we look at a very specific application of this teaching with regards to the sexual instinct.
• Jack begins by making a distinction between chastity and modesty/propriety. I personally prefer the term “propriety”, since this speaks to me more clearly of societal norms (whereas I associate “modesty” more with “chastity”). Lewis says that propriety refers to how much of the body one may show, as well as what subjects one is allowed to talk about and what words we can use in such discussions. Lewis affirms that the rules of modesty/propriety can change, whereas the rule of chastity is constant.
• The world thinks chastity is just crazy. Over the course of this episode Matt and I are aiming to demonstrate that it is not crazy but is, in fact, beautiful. Lewis makes the bold statement that either Christianity is wrong or our current sexual instinct has gone wrong.
• To demonstrate the disfunction of the sexual instinct, Jack points out that the sexual instinct must by necessity be moderated. It would be possible for a man to populate an entire village in no time if it was left unmoderated!
• Jack compares sex to food. He says that the purpose of the eating instinct is to nourish us and that the purpose of the sex instinct is for biological purposes. This is the passage Matt referred to when we discussed Lewis’ views on contraception in the Preface.
To drive this point home, Lewis describes a country in which a striptease was performed with a piece of bacon. What would we conclude about such a country? Wouldn’t we think that their impulse with regards to food had gone awry? I dubbed this example “The steaktease”…
Someone might respond that such a country must be starved of food. Hence the titivation related to food. In a parallel way, this would explain the presence of strip clubs – they are a result of sexual starvation. However, could one really say that we’re living in an age of sexual starvation?! No, quite the opposite!
• How did we get into this poor state? According to Lewis, it’s because we have been taught a steady stream of lies about sex for the last twenty years. Remember, he was writing in the 40’s! How much more today?!
The lie we have been told is that “Sex is nothing to be ashamed of”? There is a kernel of truth here. The sexual act itself is nothing to be ashamed of, but that doesn’t mean that every sexual desire should be acted upon.
• The popular opinion is that Christianity looks down on sex, but Lewis challenges this opinion and argues that Christian is the religion which elevates the body and marriage the most! It is because Christianity thinks so highly of sex that it cares about its context so much:
“Each of these impulses is capable of being perverted. Fire in the hearth is good, but fire in the clothes closet is not. The sex instinct can be distorted into license and perversion. In that case, the other person is really not loved, but is used. One drinks the water; one forgets the glass…”
– The Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen
• I mentioned The Theology of the Body, which was the corpus(!) of work produced by Pope St. John-Paull II, during 129 of his Wednesday Audiences.
• Gnosticism, the heresy of the Early Church was also mentioned, since Gnostic systems typically thought poorly of the body and of matter in general. They said it was evil.
• In contrast to sex itself, the current state of our sexual instinct IS something to be ashamed of! Can we be cured? Well, Lewis says that before we can be cured, but we must WANT to be cured. To illustrate this, he quotes St. Augustine:
“But I wretched, most wretched, in the very commencement of my early youth, had begged chastity of Thee, and said, “Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.” For I feared lest Thou shouldest hear me soon, and soon cure me of the disease of concupiscence, which I wished to have satisfied, rather than extinguished. And I had wandered through crooked ways in a sacrilegious superstition, not indeed assured thereof, but as preferring it to the others which I did not seek religiously, but opposed maliciously”
– St. Augustine, The Confessions, Book VIII
• There are three reasons why desiring chastity is difficult:
1. It’s unnatural/unhealthy
Our warped human natures, the contemporary propaganda against chastity, as well as the Enemy are at work here. They combine to tell us that chastity is something unnatural because sex is perfectly naturally. This twists the truth. Sex is natural! However, not all expressions of sex are and neither are all contexts the same!
Eating is a good thing, but not all kinds of eating. I mentioned a condition where a pregnant woman might gnaw on strange things, such as coal. The condition is called Pica and I first heard this mentioned in a talk by Matt Fradd.
2. It’s impossible
If you ever want to overcome something, the first thing to do is to believe that it’s even possible!
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
– G.K. Chesterton
Matt gives the excellent example of the four-minute mile. For the longest time, it was thought that it was not physiologically possible for a human to run that fast. However, as soon as it was broken, suddenly many more people broke it because they had been shown that it was actually possible! The Art of Manliness podcast recently had an episode on this subject if you would like to learn more about the breaking of this world record.
I told the story of making it past an overhang on a climbing wall purely because the person belaying me wouldn’t let me down until I had done it!
Matt reminded us that chastity isn’t just a sheer act of the will, it requires God’s grace.
It is important to know what to do when you falter or fail. This reminded me of Mike Tyson:
“Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth”
– Mike Tyson
This, in turn, reminded Matt of the following words at Pope Francis first Angelus:
The problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness. He never tires of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness.
Let us never tire, let us never tire! He is the loving Father who always pardons, who has that heart of mercy for us all. And let us too learn to be merciful to everyone. Let us invoke the intercession of Our Lady who held in her arms the Mercy of God made man.
Pope Francis, Angelus, March 17, 2013
When we fail in any virtue, God can use that moment to help us grow in the ability to pick ourselves back up and try again. This is something which is articulated very clearly in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
3. It’s repressive
However, people who say that chastity is repressive, don’t really know what true repression is! Repression is when you push something into the subconscious, it is not simply when you say “No” to an impulse or emotion. Repressed sexuality will rarely manifest itself sexually.
Those who attempt chastity are MORE conscious and MORE aware of their sexuality and their impulses.
Matt brought up the example of Chesterton’s fence once again. Paradoxically, boundaries allow us to be more free.
• Sex is not at the centre of Christian morality, although you may get that impression from Christians. The real centre lies elsewhere and will be looked at in a future episode.
• Within us we have our true self, our animal self and our diabolical self. The sins of the animal flesh are bad, but the diabolical spiritual sins are worse.