Thou shalt not commit adultery. – Exodus 20:14
You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart. – Matthew 5:27-28
Like the other commandments, the sixth applies to an entire area of human life. It names, as the specific prohibition, the sin of adultery, which is betrayal of the marital bond, but it also extends to other acts in this area of life. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord makes it clear that we are called to a higher standard in this area of life. We ought not to aim for the minimum, but to strive for virtue even in how we think of other people.
Reflecting on the marriage vows can help us to better understand the Church’s teachings in this area. In their vows a husband and wife promise fidelity to one another for the rest of their lives, not merely in this moment or until I don’t feel like it any more. They promise to be faithful to one another “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health” and “to love and honor” one another “all the days of my life,” or “to love and cherish until death do us part.” They each promise a generous, self-giving, fruitful love to one another for the rest of their lives and in each moment in between, and they are called to live out that promise.
The physical expression of that promise is the marital act, in which the marriage is consummated. The marital act is an expression of the total gift of self. That is simply what the act means, and taking it out of the context of marriage is inherently dishonest. It amounts to making a promise of total love and commitment that we don’t really mean or intend to keep.
The call to chastity is a call to respecting the dignity of every person by not using anyone as an object for our own gratification, even just in our thoughts. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Charity is the form of all the virtues. Under its influence, chastity appears as a school of the gift of the person. Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self. Chastity leads him who practices it to become a witness to his neighbor of God’s fidelity and loving kindness. The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality. Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all” (CCC 2346-47). That is, chastity allows us to enter into true friendship and witness to the selfless love of Christ, because it frees us to work for the good of others and not to worry about what they can do for us.
“Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (CCC 2339). How do we develop the virtue of chastity and grow in the discipline of self-mastery? First, stay close to the Blessed Mother. Mary, the Mother of God, is our greatest advocate in learning to imitate Christ. Praying the rosary daily and other Marian devotions is one of the best things we can do to grow in chastity. Second, practice custody of the eyes, which is the discipline of avoiding those things that can lead to temptation, both in the world and in media. Finally, practice seeing Christ in every person and treating everyone as a brother or sister. Each one of us is created in the image and likeness of Christ, and everyone is either our brother or sister in Christ or potentially so, and Jesus Christ calls on us to “love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34).
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.