The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 48, No 3, May - June 1995

Theology for the Laity
By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

The following is taken from a chapter entitled "The Freedom of Purity" in Volume III of A COMPANION TO THE SUMMA by Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P. published over 50 years ago. It is even more applicable today. Emphasis and paragraph headings are ours. Printed with permission.

To the dismay of many, studies reported the progress of unchastity and the diseases connected with it. Odd defenses of chastity appeared written in a tone that indicated chastity was definitely in need of defense. Inquiries had been made on the subject scientifically, very scientifically: college girls and boys had been interviewed, figures were tabulated, the opinion of women of all classes had been obtained on birth control and marriage; statistics had been gathered on the sale of sex-stimulating drugs to children and the manufacture and sale of contraceptives. One great magazine proved that this latest industry is now one of the great American industries and one of the greatest of rackets; it named names and went unchallenged.

After the first terrible shock of facing the facts, the naively innocent person cast about for some encouragement; and promptly found it. In this progressive twentieth century, it was a good thing to shelve Paulís warning that these should not so much as be mentioned among Christians. After all, an aroused public opinion has tremendous force. With the aid of that public opinion, the Church will now get somewhere in its fight for purity. Everything is going to be all right; now it is not so much a question of arousing the public to the need of purity as it is of furnishing that aroused public with leadership to the goals of purity.


A little more profound consideration of all this talk about chastity and unchastity would have uncovered two worrisome facts. First of all no one seems to have anything very cheering to say about the present state of affairs. The reports which have been made can certainly cause no joy in heaven; and there can be little reason for their causing joy on earth. Of course there is no one who believes that these reports and statistics tell the whole story; rather they are a delicate insinuation of the corruption which has taken place in American morals. The story of unchastity is never easily come at, particularly for national publication.

The second disillusioning fact is that, in all this uproar about chastity, the concern has been almost exclusively with the threat to the body and material happiness, not with the threat to the soul and eternal happiness. For the most part the considerations have been purely animal, the worry has whirled about a purely physical sun. In other words, there has been no real concern about chastity but simply the same, old, jittery concern about health that always haunts the mind of a man to whom death is oblivion.

Because the desire behind all this is not to be pure but rather to be healthy, we find no distinctly human - that is no distinctly moral - reason alleged in favor of chastity. The force behind the whole campaign is stark fear. It was not mere coincidence that a national campaign against venereal diseases synchronized with the excited discussion of unchastity. The coward is faced with an unpleasant choice: he must take chastity or physical misfortune. Neither is attractive; he might have to down the first as a preventive dose, but he reaches for it with the resigned lassitude of an invalid taking bitter medicine. Under these circumstances he will, of course, try every escape offered by mechanical and medical ingenuity before he takes the desperate step of embracing chastity. Chastity will be practised reluctantly and violated cautiously; and this is, I suppose, something of that lukewarmness that nauseated Christ Himself.


The implication is inescapable. We have missed the significance of purity for human life. Perhaps there is no more damning indictment of our age than that tragic oversight. As if in confirmation of the truth of the indictment, many of our intellectual leaders look upon chastity, particularly premarital chastity, as a thing against which nature protests vigorously in the form of natural punishments, abnormalities that border upon insanity, and seriously threaten the sanity of man. Purity is an attempt to thwart the natural, to trick it, confine it in an artificial frame. Catholics make a medieval hullabaloo about what is, at its worst, a human peccadillo.

We have missed the intimate interrelation between purity and humanity. In some mysterious way we have overlooked the obvious fact that since human life is a reasonable life and human activity is a rational activity, of course human passion is passion under reason. The name of this supreme passion under reason is purity. The attack on purity is an attack on the domain of reason; its defense in the name of purely physical considerations is itself an attack on the humanity and freedom of man.

The world of reason is a world where freedom holds sway and where physical force is helpless; it is a moral world. Because a man has a spiritual soul and thus an intellect and will stretching out to the infinite reaches of the universal good, there is no particular good that can overwhelm his appetite. He can take a particular good, or he can leave it alone; because he can see its goodness or, on second glance, he can see what of goodness it lacks. On the long shopping tour that makes up his life, he does not have to take what he can get for the pittance sense appetite gives him to spend; his wallet is choking and he has unlimited resources to call on. He is completely master of his shopping for only one thing exhausts his resources, that is, God Himself.


The key to the whole situation is spirituality. The proximate sources of manís freedom are his soul, his intellect and his will; behind them stands the sole possible Author of spiritual substance, the infinitely powerful God. Because a man is spiritual he has liberty; because he is spiritual that liberty has eternal significance. That is, the use or the abuse of liberty is for eternity, for the spiritual, as incorruptible, exists for eternal ends.

A manís will or intellect cannot be handcuffed. As long as he remains a spiritual being with reason in control, he can never be enslaved. He possesses an internal liberty much more important than any external, civic freedom; an emperor, after all, can be a slave to himself, while a slave can be completely master of himself, can be most free. External liberty is as perilous a thing as a heart worn on oneís sleeve; it can be lost, whereas internal liberty can only be surrendered. No force, intrigue, trickery can take it away from us. And this is precisely the liberty over which purity maintains such a jealous guard.

It is unfortunate that men and women today are inclined to look upon the fight for purity as a little abstract and academic. Like so many moral questions, it apparently has no immediate pertinence to individual life. A man instantly and vigorously resists an attack on his property, his children, his wife; but an attack on virtue is different. Here he considers himself off to one side, a spectator not greatly interested in the winner of the argument. The thing is important, for these questions have a profound personal significance for every individual. The drastic consequences of modern attacks on the spiritual soul, the intellect and the will of man, the bitter attacks on God, are much more serious than any physical attack on a man himself, his family or his property. This attack on the realm of the spiritual is not so much a matter of beating a man to the ground as of disemboweling him.

Surely what threatens the spiritual and rational in a man threatens his freedom, for it is precisely upon that spiritual foundation that he builds his claim to freedom. When the body, the sense appetite, and the world of the present take precedence over the soul, the will and the world of eternity, man is no longer free. He is a slave; that is, he is no longer a man.


In this material of temperance there are three serious threats to the sovereignty of manís reason. The threats are extremely serious because the material is so extremely necessary that nature attaches to it the greatest sense rewards, lest its primary ends be overlooked or neglected. To take care of the possible sorties against his reason from this material, man is equipped with a garrison of virtues specially equipped for this kind of enemy and this type of warfare. There are only three in that garrison - abstinence, sobriety and chastity - but their fighting qualities more than make up for their numbers.

Still these three are not enemies of manís nature, not even of his sensitive nature. They can be rightly understood only when they are seen as guardians and protectors of man and his nature. Their presence in a man has exactly the effect of a well-disciplined garrison in a stronghold of restless subjects. They prevent mob-rule within a man and turn the violently restless energies of his passions to the common good of the man himself. Understand, this is not a question of using these subjects as a tyrannous master might use slaves merely for his own end. Reason is not working against the passions; it allows, indeed, insists upon their attainment of their own proper ends. Those proper ends of the passions, with their rich contributions to the welfare of the whole man, are defeated and trampled underfoot by the rioting of the mob of undisciplined passions.


If it were a virtue merely to abstain from food, then by implication, the taking of food would be sinful. It is this sort of absurdity that is somehow wrapped up in the defense and attack of the modern negative ďprotectorsĒ of liberty. A man can and does refuse food; perhaps because he has no appetite or is starving himself to death. Neither case involves a question of abstinence; the whole point of the virtue is the note of reason it insists upon in the use of food. The man who gives up coffee as a penance, even though it makes life miserable for his family, is not an abstinent man; neither is the ascetical beginner who stays up night after night praying only to fall asleep over his work during the day. These things are unreasonable so they cannot be virtuous. The virtue of abstinence is in operation only when the bounds of reason are carefully observed; its precise work is to restrain manís use of food to reasonable limits.

Abstinence holds a man back from abusing food. Fasting, an act of abstinence, goes a step further and holds a man back from what might very well be eaten without any abuse whatever. Again we must insist that this is not a condemnation of food. Eating enough certainly cannot be anything but a cause of joy, except perhaps to a grateful beggar to whom the experience is astonishing in its novelty. To refuse to eat what is no more than enough, if it is to be virtuous must be reasonable; and it can be reasonable only because it is aimed at ends higher than its immediate purposes.

If I have a healthy appetite for a bit of steak, in entirely reasonable amount in entirely reasonable circumstances, yet I refuse to eat it, then I have some explaining, to do. If the refusal was for no reason whatever it would be an act of insanity; if it proceeded from a conviction that food itself is evil and to be avoided, then it would be vicious; but if it is for some higher end, like training the soul or satisfying for sins, it might well be virtuous.

We get a realistically concrete view of the higher ends of fasting by looking back to the first week of any Lent. After a few days of highly successful mortification, we have a definite sense of satisfaction, of pride in ourselves, of highly human accomplishment. You see, we have been fully in control. That is the really solid basis of that sense of satisfaction and superiority over our old selves. We are being supereminently human and we know it. We are experiencing something of the joy of being human.


By fasting we let our appetites know beyond any doubt that reason is the head of this household; and by that very fact, we give our appetites invaluable practice in subjection. This practice is important, for it is always important for a man to be rational, to have his reason in control. Going up a step higher, fasting is clearly a kind of restitution. Every sin is a stolen pleasure, for every sin is at least an overindulgence of will; fasting surrenders a legitimate pleasure, thus both satisfying for the debt of sin and impressing us with the true nature of sin. We cannot fast very long and not realize that no one ever gets anything out of sin, not even a pickpocket or a bank robber; everything that apparently comes out of it must be given back, even though that restitution take all of an eternity.


Looking at fasting on a still higher plane, it is not hard to see in it a disposition to contemplation. In the old public school schedule, a singing class was held immediately after lunch. The schedule was good, however bad the singing might be; for surely it would not be as bad as the thinking turned out on a full stomach. Whatever the physical background may be, psychologically, it is sure that full satisfaction of the appetite for food makes the mind dull; it is apt to act like a puppy, crawl off to some warm corner and go to sleep. Thus monastic fasts are not idle gestures of melancholy or of distaste for the pleasures of sense. The primary business of monastic life is always contemplation, and fasting is an excellent disposition for it. It is not coincidence that the most fruitful periods of study are the morning (after a positively feather-weight breakfast) and the evening (presupposing the usual monastic custom of the main meal at noon) or, as far as that goes, the rest of the night. There may be elements of discomfort; but, after all, a monastery does not exist for comfort but for contemplation. The very discomfort becomes eminently reasonable as a means to the higher ends of truth.

From all this it might be erroneously gathered that fasting was the product of Christian asceticism. Nothing is further from the truth. The value of fasting as a means of satisfying for sin, controlling and elevating the mind has always been common knowledge among men; so much so that fasting was a common practice even among primitive peoples, so common as to justify Thomasí statement - long before anthropology elbowed its way into the halls of science - that fasting is a command of the natural law precisely for the above reasons.

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