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The Meaning of Christian Chastity

Our Lady of Fatima said that more souls go to hell for sins “of the flesh” that is, sins against chastity, than for any other sin. Thus it is important that we know what God MEANS when He commands us TO BE CHASTE. This brief article by Father Pelagia, a Catholic theologian, will help us understand our very serious obligations to God in this matter.

by Father Bruno R. Pelagia, 
Doctor of Sacred Theology

It is these who have not defiled themselves … for they are chaste … These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God. (Apoc. 14:4)

From the time of creation God has given to the sacred powers and appetites of fatherhood and motherhood a high and holy place in His Providence. But the body of a man and its power of fatherhood became doubly sacred when God the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became Man — perfect Man and perfect God. The body of a woman with its power of motherhood became doubly sacred when the Blessed Virgin Mary carried the Son of God within Her and delivered Him into the world in a stable at Bethlehem. God is accustomed to want restrictions of the use of anything very sacred. One who would use a sacred object, like a Mass chalice, to shovel up dirt or filth, would be guilty of a mortal sin, for he would be gravely misusing something sacred.

When anyone has a conscience enlightened according to true Christian teaching, he knows that he commits a great sin if he deliberately uses and enjoys the powers and appetites of fatherhood or motherhood without God’s authority. Because unmarried persons never have this authority, anything they undertake to satisfy (even partially) these appetites will be mortally sinful, whether by actions or by daydreaming or by reading or by certain entertainments. Even in married life, God gives His authority to satisfy these appetites only within His sacred plan. This plan requires a self-sacrificing love, which must be a worthy sign of the love of the divine Bridegroom for His Church, for which He sacrificed His life on the Cross and to which He has given His Body in the Holy Eucharist. These teachings make up the law of chastity. To violate chastity, to be unchaste, is to go against the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, especially 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:5; Deut. 23:17; Matt. 5:28, as well as the sixth and ninth commandments of God given in Exodus 20:14,17. All the Popes and all the Saints (who have written on the subject) have taught this doctrine. It is among the most fundamental in the Christian faith.

As God’s minister, I have presented a teaching which the Catholic Church always insists upon and which her ministers may never water down. We will not succeed for long, however, in living by this teaching of chastity without God’s help: “I knew that I could not otherwise be continent (chaste) except God gave it” (Wis. 8:21). Divine help is available in abundance if we use the means to gain it, which are: that we avoid situations where we should fear we would sin: that we humbly pray every day for help, especially when tempted, and practice devotion to the Blessed Virgin; that we make frequent and worthy use of the Sacraments; that, along with a program of Christian self-denial, we renew each day the sincere resolve to keep ourselves in the grace and friendship of God always, no matter what the cost, knowing that it is well worth it.

In order to protect ourselves and others from some often dangerous temptations against chastity, we have the duty of modest dress and behavior. Pope Pius XI had good reasons when he condemned the nudist colony movement as undermining and destroying modesty and shame, nature’s two protectors of chastity. The Holy Father called the use and cult of nudism “a horrible blasphemy.”1

How can we judge whether we are dressing immodestly? We have to duly consider and care about the possible effects of what we do. If we have a prudent suspicion that a dish of food is poisoned, we do not serve it to anyone for fear of the harm that could come to him. Even more so we should wisely avoid risks in the way we dress when we have a prudent fear that sin would otherwise result, knowing that sin is the greatest of evils.

In this connection when furnishing their homes people sometimes put up certain pictures and little statues which a good conscience cannot approve of.2 We speak of objects which are apt to lure some of the persons who see them to voluntary unchaste pleasure. It is sad how many people are thoughtless about such things. Likewise when we prudently fear that certain reading material, certain theater or television programs or other diversions would lead us to voluntary unchaste pleasure, we are obliged to avoid them. Pope Pius XII once gave this advice to a group of newlyweds concerning dangerous reading:

There have … been talented authors who have written good, wholesome romances … But alongside these pure flowers to be found in the huge garden of imaginative writings, what a large number of poisonous plants there are! Now these poisonous ones, being more available and readily seen, are plucked far too often, and because their perfume is penetrating and intoxicating, it is more willingly inhaled.

“I am no longer a little girl,” says a young woman, “and I know life. Therefore I have the desire and right to know it even better.” But the poor thing does not realize that her language is the language of Eve looking at the forbidden fruit. And does she by any chance think that to know, love and participate in life profitably she needs to examine all its abuses and evils?

Likewise some young man says: “I am no longer a little boy, and at my age sensual discourses and immodest scenes do not affect me.” Is he so sure? (If this were true, it would be a sign of a subconscious badness resulting from some evil reading he had already done …).

But do not believe … that you may sometimes let yourselves read, perhaps in secret, books you suspect are dangerous. Do not believe that their poison will not affect you. Fear rather that this effect, because it is not immediate, is all the more dangerous … The soul, like an animal suffering from sleeping sickness, will slowly slide into mortal sin and become God’s enemy.3

The Archbishop St. Anthony Mary Claret, who wrote a moral theology and many other religious works during the last century, left us some tips about courtships. He praised the parents of a couple preparing for marriage and the couple themselves, where the couple managed without dating to become sufficiently acquainted to enable themselves to wisely choose one another in marriage. He declared that in their preparation the “best and only means to assure oneself in this matter are a holy life, prayer, and counsel. Nevertheless,” he adds, “if they choose to marry one another, one can tolerate their going together for a time, but it must not be for more than a half of a year… If the courtship has already lasted a year or more, then, even though the couple want to marry, they ought not to be allowed to have dates together any more; for they will have sinned by that time in thought, word, or action, or it will not be long before one of them does, and it is already a sin to put oneself in a proximate occasion (or a likely danger) of sinning.”

The Saint makes it clear that during this period of going together, or courtship, which he tolerates, the couple’s meetings must be regulated and chaperoned (or suspended if sin would otherwise likely result) in such wise that they could be sure of not neglecting their part to stay always in God’s grace.4

It is doubtless true that sometimes there is a blameless ignorance that excuses some people of certain faults against chastity. But those who love God are glad to know His law, desiring to keep it. Trusting in God’s help, let us never grow careless about keeping ourselves upright and pure.

St. Remigius and other Saints thought that a majority of people, excluding infants, are lost on account of sins against chastity.5 It is wise to play safe about all-important matters and foolish to do otherwise. “Enter at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction: and many go in thereat. How narrow is the gate and straight is the way that leads to life: and few there are that find it!” (Matt. 7:13-14). How many so weaken their conscience by this sin that they no longer care seriously whether they live in God’s friendship! Let us never forget that the religion taught by our Savior is not a spineless religion calling for no proofs of love and conviction. Instead it calls upon young and old alike to practice courage and zeal and make sacrifices, to stand up against opposition and be ready to suffer unpopularity, persecution and sometimes death, if they would be counted faithful followers of Jesus Christ.6


1. Reported in L’Osservatore Romano, March 6, 1935, and in the public press of that time, St. Alphonsus Liguori, admitting that a limited measure of immodest exposure can cease to be a grave snare to people who have grown used to it, adds that those who first introduced it when it was grave snare, sinned gravely, and he makes it clear that there are limits beyond which customariness does not remove the grave snare.

2. St. Alphonsus Liguori, Theologia Moralis, L. II, n. 56; L. III, n. 424.

3. Discourse of August 7, 1940, in Insegnamenti Pontifici, vol. 15, nn. 155-157 (Rome: Ed. Paoline, 1968.)

4. St. Antonio M. Claret, Prontuario de Teologia Moral (Barcelona, 1860), pp. 663-665.

5. Reported by St. Cyprian in De bono pudic., I. 1, according to St. Alphonsus Liguori, where the latter favors this view in his Istruzione al popolo, cap. 6, n. 9. We said, “a majority … excluding infants.”

6. A Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics issued Dec. 29, 1975, by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by order of Pope Paul VI, treats in detail the matter we have covered. It has been published in English and other languages by the Vatican Polyglot Press, Vatican City. The Latin text is in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, an. 1976, pp. 77-96.