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Sex Stimuli and Christian Chastity

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our subject for this evening's conference is Sex Stimuli and Christian Chastity. A subtitle for this conference could be: Sex Stimuli and Christian Sanctity. Everything in our lives is intended by God to draw us closer to Him in this world and bring us to the possession of Him in a heavenly eternity. Sex stimuli are a part of Divine Providence. Provided they are used according to the will of God, they are not only the occasion for the practice of moral chastity. They can be the means of reaching the highest sanctity.

I would like to begin this conference with a story. It was June 20th, 1950, when I had the privilege of working with the Vatican radio in Rome on the day when Pope Pius XII canonized St. Maria Goretti. Some 800,000 people came to Rome for the canonization. They not only filled St. Peter's Square but the crowd stretched out beyond the square up to the Tiber as far as the eye could reach. After the formal canonization was finished, the Holy Father gave a homily that I shall never forget. He told the assembled multitude and millions of others who were listening on the radio how Maria Goretti was not only a martyr of chastity but a model of sanctity.

He told us that the next half of the twentieth century would be the greatest test in the history of Christianity. He said the enemies of the Church will promote sex stimulation in order to undermine the Christian faith of whole nations. He also said that the only followers of Christ who would survive the sex revolution would be living martyrs who were witnesses to Christ's teaching on chastity.

These words of Pope Pius XII were prophetic. Never in the history of the Church have the enemies of Christianity been more successful in using sex stimulation to undermine the Christian faith. The modern media of communication have become the modern media of sex stimulation beyond anything known in human history. We who have the true faith are called upon to witness to this faith, as the pope predicted, even to dying a martyr's death, but certainly to living a martyr's life.

There will be three main parts to this evening's conference. First we shall see something of the Church's teaching on the morality of sex stimuli. Then we shall answer the hard question of how we are to cope with these stimuli in order to preserve our virtue of chastity. Finally, we will consider what must seem like a contradiction, namely sex stimulation and Christian sanctification.

The Morality of Sex Stimuli

I think the best way of coping with this immense subject is by asking a series of questions and providing a brief but pointed answer. So we begin with our first question, "Is sexual self-control easy?" No, as the experience of human history shows, mastery of the sex passions is not easy. Even to call them passions is already to recognize how demanding they can be. "Why are these passions so strong?" They are so strong because the need for reproducing and teaching children is so extremely important, and because we have a fallen human nature. On the first level, God provides a strong inclination in men and women to live up to His commandment, "Increase and multiply and fill the earth." On the second level, God withdrew the built-in mastery of our desires that our first parents lost for themselves and their posterity.

"What, then, is sexual concupiscence?" The language may seem strange, but the ideas behind the language are crucial. Sexual concupiscence is one of the seven naturally uncontrolled desires that all human beings have because of their fallen nature. It is called lust and is regularly placed next after the sinful drive to pride. In the mind of the Church, these two, pride and lust, are the primary impulses that cannot be controlled by the human will alone. They require divine grace to master. But once mastered, they are also the foundation stones of sanctity. Humility and chastity are the bedrock of Christian holiness.

"What are these sex stimuli?" There is no limit to the number and variety of these stimuli. They differ with different people and with the same people at different times. Certain kind of stimuli are inevitable for any normal man or woman.

"Can a person's physical or psychological disposition be conducive to sexual arousal?" Yes, fatigue and emotional stress, disappointment or humiliation, time of the day or night are all contributing factors. There is also a correlation between arousal and the activity of the bodily glands, and especially stronger venereal desires when the body is physiologically prepared for fertile intercourse around the time of ovulation for women and accumulation of semen for men.

"How greatly do sex stimuli differ?" They differ quite as much as different kinds of food appeal to various people. Boys and men are usually more affected physically than girls and women. But here too there are notable exceptions. Yet this single fact can be of great importance for women in dealing with men. Most women have no personal experience that even resembles the powerful sexual desire of the male and must have faith that such is really the case. Some people are hypersensitive along sex lines. They can be strongly excited by something that leaves other people cold. In this matter, a prudent insight into one's own drives and tendencies is crucial. It is worth more than any amount of theoretical knowledge that may be found in books or secured from lectures.

"How does the sex appetite operate?" It works in the same way as other emotions. Take anger. Someone says a harsh word, we immediately feel a boiling state inside, and get the urge to strike back with a harsh word in return. Before we heard the word, we were not angry. The fact that someone spoke was a stimulus to our feelings. The feelings themselves were a response to that stimulus. Suddenly from perfect calm our whole body and mental outlook change. A state of unpleasant tension occurs and we have a natural impulse to relieve the conflict. In sequence, therefore, we follow a logical pattern: from stimulus to response to impulse to do something about it. That is the elementary S-R-I process of every stimulation.

"Does sex follow the same order?' Yes, and behind this fact lies the basic wisdom of knowing how to use our wills in cooperating with divine grace to practice Christian chastity. Before we go on to examine how we are to cope with these sex stimuli, let us be sure we know two things: Christian chastity is impossible without God's grace, and we have a free will precisely that we might cooperate with the grace of God. Remove either of these two elements, grace and free will, and chastity becomes what the whole science of secular psychology calls it, a pathological repression of perfectly natural human desires.

Mastery of Sex Stimulation

There are different verbs we could use in the present context. We could speak of controlling sex stimuli. Or we could say we must cope with sex stimulation. But I believe the best term is "mastering" our sexual drives. Behind the word "master" is its Latin origin, magister, which means teacher.

Certainly we must use our will power to control the strong sexual drives that are part of our nature. But the will, as I never tire telling people, is a blind faculty. All the will can do is desire, and then choose and, if it continues choosing, to love. However, the will must first and constantly be taught by the mind what should be desired and chosen and loved. The control, therefore, of our sex impulses depends on our mind enlightening the will on why and how these impulses are to be coped with.

Immediately we must make a capital distinction between the divinely ordained purpose of sex stimuli and the human response to this stimulation. So far in our conferences we have stressed the fact that sexual pleasure is part of God's mysterious providence. It is intended by Him as one of the great blessings of married life. Consequently we dare not speak of sex stimuli as evil. On the contrary, within the sacred precincts of matrimony they are a cherished blessing of husband and wife.

I do not hesitate saying that failure to recognize the inherent goodness of sexual pleasure is at the heart of so much psychological and even physical misery. Sex stimulation is part of God's bounty to married people. But only to married people. The pleasure they experience is God's way of rewarding husband and wife for their mutual exchange of selfless love, and of rewarding fathers and mothers for cooperating with the Creator in His reproduction of the human race.

Having said this, our concentration will be on mastering sexual stimulation outside of the sacred relations between husband and wife.

It is a principle of sound philosophy and a truth of the Christian faith that our wills have mastery of all our faculties, including the will which has voluntary powers over the will. We will what we want to will; we think what we want to think; we feel what we want to feel. The secret in mastering sexual stimulation is to know that we must use our free will as soon as an emotional stimulation arises. A person may be quietly reading a book when a passage occurs which is suggestive. The stimulus response serves the impulse to keep reflecting on the passage or performing some action that will heighten the emotional state. A basic law of human psychology is that any pleasurable feeling carries its own inclination to continue unless checked by some agency outside of itself.

Can we explain further how these impulses are to be checked? Yes, the secret is to immediately recognize that I am being aroused by whatever train of thought or imagination is on my mind. The moment I recognize what is happening, I do something to divert my mind from the stimulating impulse. This can be anything which is morally good or neutral. It is normally something pleasant, like an agreeable memory, or turning to some hobby or picking up an interesting magazine, or just walking around, or starting a conversation with someone.

The key is to use my will to overcome pleasure with pleasure. The issue here is overcoming the pleasure of a sinful temptation by having a pleasant but morally licit experience. Promptness of this kind of action is recommended by all the masters of the spiritual life. The word is "promptness." Two seconds may be too long. Use your will to shift the mind's attention from what the mind recognizes is contrary to the will of God. I do not hesitate saying that this promptitude of our free will responding to the divine will is the foundation of Christian morality.

An important question needs to be asked: Do men and women differ in their reaction to sexual stimulation? They differ immensely. Observing the opposite sex, for example, tends to be several times more arousing for men than for women. This is brought out dramatically in Christ's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In context the Savior is comparing the decalogue of the Old Law with the morality of the New Law. He is telling us that the Mosaic decalogue forbade adultery. Then He continues, "But I say to you that anyone who even looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery in his heart" (Mt 5:28).

The Savior did not imply that women cannot commit adultery internally by looking at a man lustfully. In fact Pope John Paul has explicitly declared that Christ's teaching on watching our eyes so as not to sin against chastity applies both to men and women. This is especially true in our day. Those who do not accept the norms of Christian morality have become specialists in exploiting women for the seduction of men.

Men and women also differ in the degree of sexual stimulation. Among men this stimulation more often brings on erotic fancies, out of all proportion to similar situations among women. Knowledgeable women writers speak of the incredible powers of imagination that women can arouse in men by the slightest suggestive word or body movement on their part.

The media of communication, radio and television, pictures and the printed word are sources of sexual stimulation for both genders. But there is a difference. With obvious exceptions, by and large the opening wedge to erotic response among men is something physically and directly connected with sex, whatever is seen, heard, read, touched, or thought about. Among women, however, the more usual beginnings of sex stimulation and therefore of temptation, are psychological and emotional, romantic and personal. For women, the initial stimulus may have nothing to do with intercourse except, perhaps, the vague feeling of being loved, or a sudden mood of depression, or the soft caress of a friendly hand.

Sex Stimulation and Sanctification

The last thing that most people would associate is sex stimuli and sanctity. Yet the history of Christianity proves that mastery of the sex passions is somewhere near the root of becoming holy.

What is holiness? Holiness is Christ-likeness. We are only as holy as we are like Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was incarnate chastity. His teaching, therefore, on chastity is the magna carta for our growth in this indispensable virtue of sanctity.

All the saints honored by the Church were outstanding in their practice of chastity. All the saints also realized that apart from Christ there can be no Christian chastity. To understand this is to see two things: that the mastery of our sexual impulses is impossible without the grace that only Christ can provide; that with the grace that comes from Christ, the sexual drives in our nature can become the means of reaching the heights of sanctity.

Need of Grace. Without the grace of God there is no way that we can cope with our fallen human nature and control the sexual stimulation to which we are all naturally prone. This is the fundamental law of Christian morality. The Savior told us, "Without me you can do nothing." This means that without the grace that only He can provide, there is no way that we can control our sexual impulses.

Where does this indispensable grace come from? It comes from Christ. True. But we must constantly beg for this grace. The stronger our sexual drives and the more we are exposed to the sexually saturated atmosphere of our day, the more we must pray. The formula is very simple: No prayer, no grace; no grace, no chastity. St. Philip Neri gave us a simple imperative: If you wish to be chaste, be diligent in prayer.

We seldom make the connection, but it is true. Sexual arousal, occasioned by sex stimuli, is part of the providence of God. He knows how desperately we need the light and strength that only His grace can give us. By supernatural instinct, we might say, we are driven to prayer in order to master our venereal drives according to the Divine Will.

Need of Humility. If the first condition for sanctity is the practice of prayer, the first law of sanctity if the practice of humility.

We should have no illusions about the weakness of our nature to live in conformity with Christ's teaching on chastity. Notice what we are saying. We should have no illusions. And we will have no illusions once we realize how helpless we are when left to our own fallen humanity.

Once again this is part of God's marvelous providence. He protects us from pride by keeping us constantly aware of our native incapacity to master our sex stimuli.

Growth in Chastity. There is one more aspect of sex stimulation that deserves to be seen. We have been speaking about the mastery of our sex impulses, through the control of the sex stimuli that are so notoriously a part of modern life. But there is more to Christian chastity than just self- control. Christian chastity is a virtue in which we should grow. There is such a thing as becoming more chaste, and thus becoming more holy.

What are we saying? We are saying that chastity does indeed require mastery of our bodily urges. We are also saying that chastity requires mastery of our thoughts and desires. In fact, that is precisely what Christian chastity is all about. It is the interior command of our reproductive faculties according to the will of God. Another name for this is the virtue of continence.

Height of Chastity. All that we know from reason and revelation tells us that unchastity is essentially a failure in charity. Take any sin against chastity and what do you find? You find the practice of selfishness at the expense of selfless love.

How, then, do we grow in chastity? We grow in chastity by growing in charity. This applies to marital chastity where husband and wife experience sexual pleasure as mutual exchange of their selfless love. It applies to marital chastity where father and mother, again with selfless love, welcome the children that God wants to give them.

The unmarried grow in chastity as they grow in charity by their surrender of sexual pleasure as a sacrifice to the God whom they love.

We may therefore conclude with a maxim of the spiritual life. Without charity, there is no chastity; as we grow in charity, we grow in chastity; we attain sanctity by the practice of chaste and selfless charity.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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