Ok, I’ll admit that title is a little click-baity, but let me explain. I posted the above meme on my Instagram a little while ago. It followed from some discussions I had with my 12th graders (I teach ethics at a coed Catholic high school) when we covered units on Justice and Chastity back to back. I was struck by two recurring themes: First, how much the two topics have in common, and second, how almost universally, the students who were on board with church teaching during the first unit were adamantly opposed to it in the second and vice versa.
Sadly, this divide between what some might call the “social justice Catholics” and “chastity” or “purity culture Catholics” persists in the larger Catholic world as well. For the record, I hate prefixing Catholics: “Liberal Catholics” “Conservative Catholics,” “Progressive Catholics,” “Traditional Catholics,” “Charismatic Catholics,” etc. Such labels harm our unity and disintegrate (dis-integrate) our understanding of human good. Why can’t we be Catholic first and liberal/conservative/etc. second?
Perhaps, by delving into some core teachings, we can see a larger framework that can unite us. Here are a few key areas where chastity and social justice are two sides of the same coin.
Fundamental to the Christian understanding of the human person (aka the Christian anthropology) is the recognition that humans are a union of body and soul. We are not just a soul or a body, but a bodysoul composite. In Genesis, God gave us life by breathing his spirit into our bodies and we believe that through Christ we will one day rise in glorious resurrected bodies like he did. Our bodies are fundamental to our being and our dignity. This is why the Church exhorts us to both corporal (physical) and spiritual works of mercy. As James said, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” Jesus, likewise, says those who ignore others’ physical needs will not see the Kingdom of Heaven. Our bodies are an essential part of us. This is why Pope St. John Paul II wrote his Theology of the Body where he taught that the body reveals the person, and must never be treated as an object of use but rather as a sacrament of the soul. If caring for the physical (and not just the spiritual) well-being of others is fundamental to having a just society, so too should we consider the great harm we can do to ourselves and others through the physical actions of sex. If sexual actions under taken with our bodies can impact us at such a primal level and in enduring ways, so too should we care about the primal, long lasting effects of bodily threats like starvation, poverty, preventable diseases, and war. Both chastity and social justice rely on the fundamental understanding that respecting and caring for our bodies are essential to respecting the dignity of the person.
Virtues & Vices
Greek philosopher extraordinaire, Aristotle, and later Christian theology all-star, Thomas Aquinas, taught that all virtues (good habits of the soul or character) were built on four hinges (latin: cardo): the cardinal virtues of Temperance (balance), Fortitude (courage), Prudence, (wise judgement), and Justice (fairness). These four virtues form the building blocks of every good character trait, and the spiritual recipes for chastity and social justice share much in common. Social Justice is primarily based on justice (treating others with the dignity and concern they deserve) but also includes the temperance, prudence, and fortitude to be able to structure our societies in a way that promotes the well-being of all. Chastity (according to Thomas) is based fundamentally on temperance, but also requires prudence, fortitude, and justice to make difficult and wise choices which respect ourselves and others. Developing chastity will strengthen our temperance, which will in turn ensure our efforts towards justice are neither wasteful nor stingy. Developing social justice will heighten our sense of justice and concern for others in our sexual relationships so as to help us to treat others as they deserve.
Just as classical philosophy teaches about cardinal virtues, it also warns against deadly vices (bad habits or character traits). As with the virtues, the vices related to social justice and chastity overlap considerably. Social injustices most often stem from greed and apathy (sloth). Unchastity most often stems from lust. Indulging oneself in the sins against justice would also set one up to fail in chastity and vice versa. What is greed other than a lust for power and money? What is lust other than greed for physical and emotional pleasure and an apathy towards the person you are using to gain that pleasure? Both economic and sexual consumerism leave hurting, used people in their wake.
Catholic Social Teaching
Throughout the bible, God takes the side of the vulnerable. Think Moses vs. Pharoah, David vs. Goliath, Israel vs. the various empires, Jesus vs. the authorities: in each case, God stands with the most vulnerable. Moreover, the prophets’ repeatedly exhort the people to care for the orphan, the alien, and the widow. The church calls this the “Preferential option for the poor:” that we should love and care or all people, but especially those who are most vulnerable. This has obvious implications for social justice and how we treat the last, the lost, and the least in society, but it also has implications for sexuality. When are we more vulnerable than with our lover? The emotional, physical, spiritual, psychological vulnerability that we open ourselves to when we dare to love deserves special concern and care. How damaging it is when we are unjust in our romantic relationships:
When she takes her frustrations out on me?
When he takes me for granted?
When we use one another selfishly?
For some of us, the worst injustices of our lives will come at the hands of those who treated us unchastely. In a sense, chastity is sexual justice. It is how we learn to see the other person as a person, not just an object we can benefit from in some way. Many social justice issues stem from the same idea. We cannot use people (workers, farmers, sweatshop workers, etc.) to benefit us economically.
Chastity also teaches us that sexuality is not just about two lovers (the unitive) but also about forming and founding a stable family which accepts and raises children lovingly (the procreative). Who are more vulnerable than children? Chastity is about far more than merely abstaining from sex outside of marriage. It is a sexuality based on Jesus’ command to love sacrificially and heroically (not just sentimentally). Chasity is not a puritanical view of sex, but a recognition that we fundamentally belong to each other. The beauty I can easily see in my lover or my children, allows me to more easily see the beauty of others around the world. Ronald Rolheiser calls this holistic understanding of chastity “sexuality in full bloom.”
The family (when properly founded and sustained in Christ’s love as a domestic church) reveals to us to the dignity of the other person. By recognizing the dignity of our husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters, we can better recognize the dignity of our poor and vulnerable brothers and sisters across the world. When raising awareness of injustices around the world, how often do we hear a refrain of “this is someone’s daughter? Someone’s brother?” Only through strong families can we learn to love as one human family. Isn’t that the goal of social justice?
We should care about the exploitation of workers in sweat shops by the unjust and the exploitation of men and of women by the lustful. We should treat people as people, not as objects to be used for our gain either sexually or economically.
Practical solutions to fundamental problems
It really is a shame that there is such a divide between those devoted to promoting chastity and those promoting social justice because they work towards the same goal: the common good.
Social justice advocates often work to alleviate suffering from poverty, war, disease, bigotry, and other social hardships. If there is a silver bullet to these problems, it is strong families. People who grow up in strong holy families are not only less likely to fall into poverty themselves, but they are less prone to violence and a host of physical and mental health issues. Chastity helps form just relationships, which in turn forms just marriages, just families, just children, just societies, whereas injustice thrives in societies steeped in sexual exploitation and broken families.
Chastity advocates often work against pornography, human trafficking, hook-up culture and abortion. All of these issues become more addressable when we have a just and peaceful society where people can find economic security through meaningful work. How often are relationships, marriages, and families stressed even to the point of breaking because of economic hardship? Moreover, sexual exploitation and objectification thrive where there is violence, injustice, and large inequalities of wealth and power. True chastity is just. True justice is chaste. Addressing the injustices of the world promotes strong families and strong holy families raise up children who work for justice.
Social Justice is Chastity
The terms “social justice” and “chastity” are not interchangeable, yet at their core, they share more than we often realize. The building blocks are the same and a full understanding of one leads us to deeper into the other because at the root of both is the fundamental Christian call to love sacrificially like Christ:
To love our significant others
To love our spouses
To love our children
To love the stranger
To love the other
Here are some related dope pope quotes which could apply to both chastity and social justice:
“The body reveals the person. This phrase tells us all there is to know about the body. Science can examine our flesh in minute detail, down to our cells and even our DNA. But no amount of scientific exploration can replace the truth that our bodies reveal us, giving form to our innermost being and unique personality. Our bodies are sacramental—they make the invisible visible.”
– Pope St. John Paul II, The Theology of the Body
“When man is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then . . . freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him.”
– Pope St. John Paul II, Centissimus Annus, 39
Love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the Church universal in its entirety. As a community, the Church must practice love. Love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community.
– Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est 20
“In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfilment of humanity's right to development. Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone . . . Will it ever be possible to obtain [universal] brotherhood by human effort alone? As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal love is”
– Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate 11, 19
“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ . . . The Gospel offers us the chance to live life on a higher plane, but with no less intensity: “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.”
– Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 2, 10
“The family is the locus of the covenant between the Church and God’s creation . . . The family is the salt of the earth and the light of the world, it is the leaven of society . . . The family is essential to sustaining human and social development”
– Pope Francis, various speeches