Credo Column

A column published in The (London) Times on 13 January.

To say that the Catholic Church lacks public credibility in matters of sexual morality is an understatement. The unravelling of abuse committed by clerics, calling for tears and justice, has come to seem like an original sin undermining authority. Further, the Church’s response to changing trends in this area tends to be reported (reductively, it must be said) as being simply, ‘No’. No one can abide hearing nothing but ‘No’ for any length of time. It isn’t an adequate answer to complex reality. 

What then do I, a Catholic bishop, think I am doing, putting out a book on chastity? Am I yet another cleric hopelessly exiled to cloud cuckoo land?

I hope not. My essay is born of experience, mine and others’. It records a gradually widening perspective. Like so many, I used to find chastity a constricting word. As a young man thinking of being a monk, I aspired to live chastely, but regarded the endeavour as mortification. It did not occur to me to see chastity as possessing an intrinsic, never mind life-giving attraction. I thought of it in negative terms, as not being, not doing what lay at the heart of the contemporary image of masculinity. Hence a further complex arose. In a culture glorifying sexual expression, was chastity not somehow unmanly? 

Entering the monastery, I discovered that the Rule of Saint Benedict, charter of western monasticism since the eighth century, was elliptic. St Benedict distilled his teaching on chastity into two words: Castitatem amare. 

Love chastity? It seemed an unrealistic proposition. 

I was sufficiently a nerd to look up castitas in an etymological dictionary. I made an interesting discovery. In Antiquity to be castus was to be integer. Chastity was a marker of integrity, of a personality whose parts are assembled in harmonious completeness. The term did not principally refer to sexual morality. 

To Cicero, chastity was a way of being wholly human. In his First Tusculan Disputation he outlines two ways in which human beings may leave this life. Those blinded by vice – the debauched or profligate, the selfish politicians – will have erred from the goodness and beauty of the gods and be unfit to enjoy their fellowship. They have cause to dread death’s hour. Those, meanwhile, who have kept themselves chaste and integral (qui se integros castosque servavissent), not reducing existence to self-indulgence but keeping their minds in ascent, may look forward to beatitude hereafter. To be chaste in this life is to attune oneself to celestial life, and so have reason, says Cicero, to die ‘like a swan, with singing and desire’. 

Chastity viewed thus is a path to freedom: freedom from imperious appetites rebelling against reasoned desire; freedom from the need to instrumentalise others as means to my end through possession. 

I began to see St Benedict’s point. I am convinced that an intelligent understanding of chastity is a help, not a hindrance, in engaging with the wounds and complications evoked above. 

Sexual abuse, and the abuse of power, is unchaste not just in the sense that it springs from unbridled desire; it terribly enacts a disintegrated view of self and of the world in which other people are subsumed into an optic defined by the illusion of the subject’s unrestricted licence, resulting from a breakdown of proportion. Abuse signals passion gone blind. Chastity sees. ‘If your eye is sound’, says Jesus, ‘your whole body will be full of light’ (Matthew 6.22). To become chaste is to acquire sound vision, an eye that lets reality break through cultivated falsehood. 

As for current perplexities regarding the just complementarity of male and female, order and disorder, has public discourse not largely become partial and atomised? Are we not prone to offer, in well-intentioned response to individual experiences of fragmentation, solutions too schematic and therefore paradoxically inhuman, apt to induce a deeper, more tragic sense of division? We often forfeit, it seems to me, a view of human beings broad enough to appreciate what complexity may be contained, given time, within a person’s equilibrated destiny, unfolding through inevitable struggles, supported by friendship, to creative maturity. 

It is time to rediscover a pedagogy of integrity. 

In the light of it, sexual maturing plays into a process that embraces every aspect of our being, physical, intellectual, and spiritual. Human sexuality calls out for a structure of personhood upon which to grow, blossom and fruit, much the way a climbing rose needs trellises to rise and spread. Left to crawl on the ground, such a rose turns into a leafy heap. Its beauty will still be visible. Its fragrance remains. But long stretches of stem will fail to bud for want of light. Its flowers will be few. Lacking strength to maintain upward momentum, it will collapse into itself. Any gardener’s hand attempting to direct it once it has grown a while, once summer has come, will reach into a tangle of thorns. 

Rediscovering chastity as a hopefully unifying ‘Yes’ to complex yearnings, as loveable and beautifying, we may find support for our personal growth. And so become fit to support other.