Too often we regard chastity as a virtue that is mainly for the young. For it is in young people that sexual desires burn the hottest. As well, it is in unmarried girls and women that unchastity has the potential consequence of a pregnancy that leads many to either abortion or a life of poverty.
But this perspective stems primarily from a negative view of chastity. Karol Wojtyla, the eventual Blessed Pope John Paul II, once wrote, "Chastity, in this view, is one long 'no.' Whereas it is above all the 'yes' of which certain 'no's' are the consequence" (Love and Responsibility, 170).
Chastity, for Wojtyla, is a natural result of affirming the intrinsic value of the human person. Unchastity is the result of seeing a person as some-thing to be used rather than a being of inestimable value.
Things that we use can be objects of pleasure without compunction. As objects, their value is always relative to one's own purposes. Objects can be cast aside when their usefulness is over or when a newer, shinier object presents itself.
Seen in this light, it is not only the young who need to be chaste. Indeed, the tendency to use other people as objects may well grow stronger over the years in those who have left the imposed discipline of their parents and have failed to develop the self-discipline that is an essential part of that love.
Unchastity is a sexual acting-out, but it will also commonly reveal itself in using people for other purposes - to get a job, advance in a career, or gain money, possessions and power. The unchaste have an abundance of victims, not all of whom are their former sexual partners.
Still, the sexual urge is strong and it needs to be harnessed. Again, this can be understood negatively as repression or positively as freedom to love.
Repression may work for a time. But typically the repressed person seeks liberation. He or she wants to get out from under the yolk of repression.
The person who seeks to love, however, seeks to know and value the other person in his or her depths. Love can include attraction and desire - it is not bloodless - but fundamentally it affirms the other person as a person. The desire to enjoy the other person is subordinated to a readiness to show loving kindness.
As such, Wojtyla spoke of the need for a humility of the body. The human body must be humble in the face of the greatness - the value beyond all calculation - of the other person.
The solid foundation of chastity then is not repression but love. In the light of love, the body's imperialistic desires will be brought under control.
Today, more so than in the time of St. Francis de Sales 400 years ago, we need to know this. Some modern psychology sees sexual self-discipline and guilt about immoral sexual activity as unhealthy. Christians ought to be aware that, in fact, true chastity is not repressive, but love in action.
In that light, we can look at Francis de Sales' description of the three degrees of chastity. The first level is the simple avoidance of "any kind of condemned and forbidden pleasure, such as all those taken outside of marriage or even those within marriage when taken contrary to its laws."
The second degree involves refraining as much as possible from any "unnecessary pleasures" even if they are not morally forbidden.
The third degree is to avoid setting your mind and heart on even the pleasures and delights of marital intercourse. This would seem to mean that married people can have intercourse; they just shouldn't look forward to it.
This third degree is both austere and highly debatable, given that the Church understands the primary good of marriage as the bond of the couple.
God made sexual activity pleasurable not merely to induce men and women to propagate the species, but to enhance the bond between them. As one of my friends said, "Who wants to be in an intimate physical relationship with someone who gets no pleasure out of being with you?"
For Wojtyla, "True chastity does not lead to disdain for the body or to disparagement of matrimony and the sexual life" (171).
In Francis' defence one might note that he is correct in maintaining that once one begins to pursue pleasure for its own sake, that pursuit tends to become all-encompassing. But pleasure itself is not evil, even if making it an idol surely is.
Marriage itself should be pleasurable. God delights in us and we should delight in our spouses. The "unnecessary" pleasures are those that come when one is focused on him or herself and not on the good of one's spouse.
The opposite of chastity is not pleasure, but using another for one's own pleasure without regard for the other person's good.
The Church's moral teachings provide the ground rules that enable us to take chaste sexual delight in each other. As Wojtyla said, only the chaste person can truly love.