In Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord says that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). Should this be taken literally? There are rumours that the third-century theologian Origen did. And Peter Abelard most certainly suffered that fate, at the hands of some ruffians hired by the uncle of his paramour Eloise, when his relationship with her went sour.
Christ, of course, did not intend for us to take this too literally—or, more accurately, too physiologically, for there is always a literal sense of Scripture (cf CCC 115-116). To get to what He did mean, we might go back to what may be called the ‘three c’s’ of sexuality.
First, there is celibacy–the state of not being married, and, secondly, continence—not having sexual relations. Neither of these is necessarily virtuous. There are lots of libidinous bachelors and bachelorettes and one need not dwell long on the legions of ‘in-cels’—involuntary celibates—many of whom, we may sadly presume, are not continent, giving release to their sexual urges through the so-called ‘solitary sin’ or, euphemistically, self-abuse, which does violate continence.
The third, and the only one that is truly a virtue–to which Christ is calling each one of us in this exhortation—is chastity, which the Catechism defines as the “successful integration of sexuality within the person” (par 2337). That is, one’s sexual powers—emotions, affections, actions—are all ordered to their proper end.
Chastity may be lived in celibacy, which implies continence, in which case one’s sexuality is ‘sublimated’, not expressed in a romantic way, still less a genital way. The energy that would have gone into such is used instead for other purposes, especially apostolic work, but also prayer, exercise, and so on. There is an entire literature on this channeling of sexual energy, unfortunately much neglected in our ecclesia moderna, where there is much talk of mercy, and not much of moderation and bringing to heel one’s desires.
Chastity may also be lived in a conjugal way in marriage, wherein one’s sexual affection is directed to one particular person—that is, one’s spouse—and kept within proper limits of virtue, affection, and care for the other, and not as a sexualized object. These conjugal acts are virtuous, meritorious, and chaste. The marital bed is not always a garden of sexual delights. There are, and must be, periods of continence, during pregnancy, illness, to avoid pregnancy for serious and proportionate reasons. These may be long term, if one’s spouse becomes disabled, and in the debility of old age. Many saintly couples have taken a pledge of continence, after their conjugal life has run its term, and they want to give more of themselves directly to God.
The pernicious and damnable error of the modern Freudian era is that it is impossible to be continent, that one must ‘release’ one’s sexual urges in some way, eventually. But this spiritual and psychological falsehood goes farther back than Freud. Martin Luther, tortured by his constant impure thoughts, came to the conclusion the concupiscence was unconquerable, which is why he urged everyone to marry, even monks and nuns, choosing for himself Katherine von Bora, a Cistercian Sister, after ‘freeing’ her and her companions from the strictures of the convent.
So it continues, into our educational system, where students are not only presumed, but encouraged, to be sexually active, to ‘explore’ each other’s bodies—all in a ‘healthy’ way, of course, contraception freely provided.
What cannot be accomplished by education, they complete with entertainment, by cajoling, mockery, or derision, even if it be of the apparently anodyne and comedic sort. Examples abound, but two examples come to my own vague memory.
The first is Billy Joel’s 1977 hit song Only the Good Die Young, whose opening verse runs as follows:
Come out, Virginia, don’t let me wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
Aw, but sooner or later it comes down to fate
I might as well be the one
Well, they showed you a statue, told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done
‘Things you might have done…” Hmm. Thomas à Kempis says that we rarely regret things we did not say, but often regret those we did. And perhaps more to the point may we regret to a greater degree things we did do, like losing one’s virginity, than those we did not. It is not inevitable, and certainly not desirable, that one has sex before marriage. Sexual sorrow is sorrow indeed.
Then there was a 1992 Seinfeld episode—those of a certain vintage who recall the self-confessed ‘show about nothing’—called ‘The Contest’, where Jerry and the rest of the cast make a bet as to who can hold off the longest from masturbating. The term is never used, of course (it was not allowed back then, which says something), but euphemisms abound. Ironically, the code-word is who can remain ‘master of my domain’ and ‘king of the castle’, before the inevitable succumbing to some imagined succubus.
That said, they were onto more than one unwitting truth here. For are we not all meant to be ‘kings—or queens—of our castle’, controlling our sexual desires, rather than they controlling, and inevitably disintegrating, us? In other words, we must all be prepared to be ‘eunuchs’ for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, at least for a time, if not for life. The devil may tempt us that we are bound to ‘give in’ at one point—as Joel sang, it comes down to fate—but that is quite simply a damnable lie. If we can be continent for one day, why not three? Or thirty? Or three thousand?
Also, there is a caveat, namely, the deep wound of original sin, the primordial fragmentation of our powers, inclining us to sin. Hence, without the grace of God, we would inevitably fall, and are preserved from the most lascivious vices by His divine assistance. There but for the grace of God go I…
But with that grace, what can we not do? Quia non erit inpossibile apud Deum omne verbum (Lk 1:37). In the next life—where, as Leo XIII says, we will truly begin to live—we will neither marry, nor be given in marriage, and sex will be no more. In that beatific vision, the joy—the true ecstasy—of soul and body in the glory of God far exceeds anything we can imagine or experience—even the true and holy joys of the marital bed—here and now.
Woe to those who forego that birthright for a bowl of lukewarm pottage.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!