A Case for Purity

My wife and I don’t watch television. That’s neither an apology nor a boast but only a statement of fact. We have no quarrel with people who do watch television. We just prefer doing other things.

There is, however, an exception to our no-television rule. My wife and I have a beach cottage that we rent, or try to rent, when we aren’t using it during the summer, and we’ve learned that cable television is indispensable to the contentment of renters who apparently couldn’t pass even a week at the beach cut off from TV.

So it was that I found myself recently engaged in the annual ritual of blocking the “adult” channels of our newly reactivated cable system. I tell people I do this because I don’t want that stuff to be available to children in my house, but the fact is I don’t want it available to anybody. So I block the channels.

This time I observed something I hadn’t noticed before. In its accompanying literature, the cable company, with no visible sense of irony, lists these channels as part of what it calls a package of family entertainment.

Family? Soft core pornography is family entertainment? Maybe so—if your family includes sex addicts with rather perverse interests.

I mention all this to make a point. Offenses against chastity and the means of committing them are present everywhere today and pretty much taken for granted. Even my cable television company apparently sees nothing odd about offering adult channels for family viewing.

It isn’t just cable TV either. You find the same phenomenon in supermarkets and on drugstore newsstands, in movies and magazines, even in supposedly serious books. And Internet pornography is said to have reached epic proportions.

There’s an obvious conclusion: it’s harder than ever to sell chastity—holy purity, if you’ll pardon the old-fashioned name for it—in a time and place like this. But of course we need to try.

From the point of view of classical ethics, the case for purity is grounded in the fact that it’s an aspect of the cardinal virtue of temperance. But who cares about that anymore? Say “temperance” to most people today and they’ll suppose you’re telling them not to get drunk. Ideas like self-mastery and self-respect, as well as respect for the dignity and rights of others, aren’t in the picture.

That underlines something Pope Francis said not long ago: “In a world in which we speak a lot about rights, how many times is human dignity in fact trampled?” Pretty often, it seems.

Still, in speaking of things like human dignity and self-respect, the case for purity does begin to come into focus. Holy purity—chastity, that is—is intimately linked to respect for the dignity of the person. Where purity is absent, so is authentic respect for human dignity and rights.

Once you say that, it sounds fairly obvious. But if it’s obvious, how did we get to the point where a self-evident truth is so widely ignored?

In a sense of course it began in the Garden of Eden. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve before the fall lived in a state of primal innocence in which purity was, as it were, taken for granted. Only after the fall did lust, shame, and guilt arrive on the scene. Here is part of the legacy of original sin we’ve all inherited. It explains why purity is a problem for us now.

But you can’t just leave it at that. In modern times, major figures in the breakdown, the collapse, which has led to the eclipse of chastity include people like Rousseau, Freud, and Alfred Kinsey.

Now the heart of current conventional wisdom about can be summed up in Oscar Wilde’s quip that the best way to overcome temptation is to give in to it. That may have been funny when Wilde said it, but it’s not so funny now when lots people seem to have made it their rule of life. Where sexuality is concerned, it’s a formula for exploitation—the exploitation of sex and the exploitation of human persons.

This in a nutshell suggests what might be called the human case for purity. There also is a case for purity from the perspective of asceticism and the interior life.

In assembling the points that make up his popular little book The Way, Saint Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, put the section on purity near the start. This wasn’t because it’s the most important virtue but because without having it, or at least struggling to have it, an individual can’t make any progress in the spiritual life.

He put it like this:

We know full well that theological charity is the highest virtue. But chastity is a means sine qua non…if we are to establish an intimate dialogue with God. When people do not keep to it, when they give up the fight, they end up becoming blind. (“For They Shall See God,” Friends of God, 175).

God’s grace obviously is essential to acquiring and retaining this virtue. But something also is required on our part. Two things, in fact—prayer and mortification, the habit and practice of self-denial.

In saying these thing, I’m probably preaching to the choir—addressing people who are already well-versed in the practice of purity. In which case, allow me to add one other thought: For such people, the special apostolic task of the present moment lies in motivating others, especially young people, to do the same.

Admittedly, that’s more easily said than done. It calls for striking a balance, between speaking up bravely and without apology when speaking up is called for, and not being overbearing or sounding like a prude. Here the relevant virtue is prudence—and the only real rule of prudence is the rule of good sense.

Let me close, though, with something else from Saint Josemaria:

False teachers are afraid of getting to the bottom of things….They get uneasy at the very idea, never mind the obligation, of having to use a painful antidote when circumstances require it….

These are the people who will afterwards panic, at the sight of disaster, and try to stop the evil when it is already too late. They forget that the virtue of prudence demands that we find out and pass on in good time that calm advice that comes from maturity, long experience, unhindered vision, and unhampered speech. (“Open to God and Men,” Friends of God, 158)

Especially, one might add, that we do that in times like these and on the subject of purity. We are fighting a powerful and entrenched enemy, but respect for human dignity, self-respect, and the love of God require that the fight be made.

And by the way—if you do choose to watch television, please use discretion.

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About Russell Shaw 267 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).