At the height of the counterculture of the late 1960s and the flower-power desire for peace, Pope Paul VI said “If you want peace, work for justice.” It remains a popular bumper sticker even today.
And the Church does a tremendous job working for justice: feeding the hungry, providing clothing, offering shelter and healing, ministering to prisoners, caring for AIDS patients, promoting peace, offering counsel, providing education, condemning consumerism, preserving the environment, and so forth. This work often draws praise from those who are otherwise critical, those who might ask: “Why can’t the Church stick to issues of social justice? Why does it have to cling to its outdated ideas about sex? Why does it maintain its rigid moralism in that area when it’s so progressive in others? Why can’t the Church be more like Jesus, with his constant gestures of openness and hospitality, even to prostitutes and social outcasts? Why does the Church still have a hang-up with birth control?”
The answers flow from Pope John Paul II’s development of Paul VI’s idea. Paul said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” John Paul said, “If you want justice, work for chastity.” This saying is not likely to enjoy the wide appeal of its predecessor for a couple of reasons. First, chastity is not as fashionable as peace. But secondly, even to those who value chastity, the connection between it and justice is not as clear as that between justice and peace. The connection becomes clearer as we look at the meaning of the term “justice” and see that the world’s understanding of it is shrunken. While there is no single, agreed-upon secular definition of justice, there are two major strains of thought. First, there are those who think of justice in terms of an ideal legal system or as a set of governmental policies. According to this view, justice is a matter of having the right kind of government and the proper laws. Second, there are those who view justice, first and foremost, as a set of economic arrangements: Justice means either that each person has an equal amount of wealth or that each person has access to the material goods he needs.
Neither of these are new ideas. Pontius Pilate saw Jesus primarily as a political leader and as a potential threat to the government of the Roman Empire, which is why he asked him if he was a king. Jesus admitted that he was a king, but he added, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36). Pilate mistakenly thought that Jesus had a primarily political message. In contrast, we can detect in Judas a tendency to interpret Jesus’ teaching in economic terms. Recall the story of Jesus’ visit to Bethany, when Martha’s sister, Mary, anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. Judas objected to the extravagance, asking, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” (John 12:5). These two worldly ways of understanding justice—emphasizing either the primacy of politics or of economics—are widespread. There is an element of truth in each, since the virtue of justice has implications for government and economics.
Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
Jesus and his Church, however, present a fuller understanding of justice. Jesus did not bring a message of economic revolution, and he was not engaged in a struggle for political liberation. Instead, he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). This image of “hunger and thirst” emphasizes that the individual’s personal disposition is important. Justice is a habit of character that inclines a person to render what is due to each and to all. It is not an impersonal set of legal or economic policies. When Pope Paul counseled, “If you want peace, work for justice,” he was not primarily advising that we work to change laws or reallocate material goods. He was seeking to build up justice as a virtue, as an acquired personal quality. If we want peace, we must become persons whose lives are characterized by the virtue of justice.
Build a Culture of Life
To gain a deeper understanding of what it means to build up justice as a virtue, both in ourselves and in our culture, it is helpful to reflect on Evangelium Vitae, John Paul’s encyclical on the gospel of life. In it, he emphasizes that to achieve justice, we need to build a culture of life, and he shows the close connection between justice and chastity. In the first chapter, after comparing the story of Cain and Abel to our contemporary situation (where killing the weak and vulnerable is sometimes promoted by Western nations as a basic right), he asks, “How did such a situation come about?” (EV 11). First, he points to skepticism about the foundations of knowledge and ethics which leads to a widespread attitude of moral uncertainty. Next, he points to the rise of a “culture of death.” It was the first time he used the term, which he explained as “an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency” (EV 12). In a society where efficiency becomes a primary value, the lives of those who require greater acceptance, love, and care are considered useless or held to be an intolerable burden, and are thus rejected. The result is a prejudice against life, especially vulnerable human life. One example he notes is the enormous sums of money spent on scientific research aimed at producing effective means to abort babies without having to visit a medical facility (EV 13). What could be more efficient than ending a pregnancy with a pill?
In the next paragraph, John Paul considers an objection that is frequently lodged against Catholicism. Isn’t the Church, with its teaching on contraception, actually responsible for promoting abortions? After all, if contraception were more widely available, wouldn’t there be fewer unwanted pregnancies?
In his response to this objection, he draws a distinction between the different evils of contraception and abortion: Contraception is opposed to the virtue of chastity, while abortion is opposed to the virtue of justice (EV 13). In other words, he is pointing out a difference in the nature and gravity of two moral evils. The Church consistently has condemned artificial contraception (and the contraceptive mentality) because it contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love. Hence, contraception is a violation of the virtue of chastity in marriage. Abortion, on the other hand, violates the virtue of justice because it is a direct rebellion against the divine command “You shall not kill.”
Despite this difference, John Paul emphasizes “the close connection which exists, in mentality, between the practice of contraception and that of abortion” (EV 13). While acknowledging the real-life difficulties that prompt people to resort to artificial contraception, he explains that the contraceptive mentality takes an analytic approach to sexuality which violates the integrity of the conjugal act. It sees a child as an obstacle to securing some other.aspect of one’s sexual flourishing, so pregnancy is to be avoided at all costs. That leads to the acceptance of abortion as a sensible response to the inevitable failures of artificial birth-control methods.
What Are the Fruits?
The logic of the Pope’s thinking is straightforward. While it may seem at first that contraception would reduce unwanted pregnancies, contraception actually tends to have the opposite effect. The empirical evidence of the last 40 years bears this out. Where artificial birth control has been accepted, there have been two effects. The first has to do with the virtue of chastity. When a person takes what should be the integrated goods of sexual activity and separates them—choosing the unitive while rejecting the procreative—the effect is that he will feel with ever more force the claims of efficiency on his choices rather than the claims of conjugal love.
The other effect has to do with the virtue of justice. Because pregnancy is viewed as a problem rather than as a gift, there is widespread acceptance of the need to get rid of unwanted pregnancies. The culture of convenience then transforms into a culture of death, where abortifacients are taken with the same ease as contraceptives. Accepting the contraceptive mentality leads to the widespread acceptance of abortion as a basic human right (EV 13).
In short, John Paul shows that violating the virtue of chastity tends to promote injustice. If we want justice, we should practice the virtue of chastity.
It’s More than “Just Say No”
However, understanding the depth of this insight is made difficulty by the world’s distorted understanding of chastity. Popular culture typically identifies chastity as a negation: Chastity means “just say no” to sex. For example, a cover story in Newsweek several years ago reported that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, “chastity” is on the rise, with teen pregnancies down and U.S. teen sexual activity having reached record lows (Lorraine Ali and Julie Scelfo, “Choosing Virginity,” December 9, 2002).
To the world, chastity means “abstaining from sexual activity.” This reduces the virtue of chastity to just another technique for efficiently avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, or unwanted emotional entanglements. Or chastity might be promoted as a method for increasing pleasure later in life. Either way, chastity is then reduced to abstinence and taken to be a technique for efficiently satisfying given desires. “Chastity” as technique then crowds out authentic virtue.
John Paul challenges the world’s understanding of chastity in his Theology of the Body. He insisted that chastity is not a technique; it is a virtue (124:4). In other words, chastity is a personal excellence, a stable trait, a habit of character that disposes one to have the right kind of sexual urges. As a virtue, chastity makes a person good by shaping desires, affections, moral vision and relationships in light of the truth. Noting that his theology of the body is an education of the body, John Paul writes, “the goal of the pedagogy of the body lies in ensuring that ‘affective manifestations’—above all those that ‘belong specifically to conjugal life’—conform to the moral order” (59:7).
We Can Educate Our Desires
Part of the reason that it is difficult for us to think about chastity as a virtue arises from a confusion about desire. Amidst the contemporary world’s focus on efficiency, people tend to take their desires for granted; rather than submitting their desires to moral judgment, people tend to accept their given desires and then seek efficient means to get what they want. Consequently, the contemporary world fosters a concern with techniques, methods that efficiently bring about certain outcomes, rather than with virtues and vices, qualities of character that make us good or bad by shaping our desires, affections, moral vision, and relationships in ways that reflect the truth about our destiny and the world in which we pursue it.
A desire is not, as the contemporary world suggests, simply a brute urge. Rather, desires are always for something, something the person thinks of as good in one way or another. For example, someone may desire sexual activity for pleasure, as a demonstration of dominance, as a requirement for an exchange of some kind, or for another apparent good. Because desire is always for something that appears to be good, we question whether the apparent good that is desired is actually good. Is it good to desire sexual activity merely for pleasure or to demonstrate dominance? As persons endowed with reason and self-determination, we are capable of answering these questions. Further, we can learn to shape our desires to reflect the truth about sexual activity. As John Paul shows in the Theology of the Body, sexual activity is good for a husband and wife because it realizes, in the procreative order to which it belongs, their God-given destiny to find themselves through a sincere self-gift (cf. Gaudium et Spes 24).
Because desire is always for something as a good of some kind, we can be educated in our desires. Chastity shapes one’s desires so that they embody “the full truth of the sexual act” (EV 13), directing them to sexual activity as a sign of the mutual and complete self-donation of persons. Conversely, the virtue of chastity guards one against every desire for any kind of act incompatible with such self-giving.
As John Paul shows us, when chastity is understood authentically as a virtue, it is an excellence, a “saying yes” to those desires, feelings, and thoughts that allow one to see human bodies as personally significant. (See “What Does ‘The Personal Significance of the Body’ Mean?,” page 8.) He points out that one cannot acquire the virtue of chastity without also developing a “reverence for the work of God” in the human person and, especially, the human body (Theology of the Body 131-132).
Bodies Are Personally Significant
Each person’s body is an embodiment of meaning. The human body is both the sign and the reality of the human being as created in God’s likeness. The ability to see human bodies as personally significant prepares one not just for chastity but also for justice. Justice as a virtue disposes its possessor to render to each person what’s due. Because the body is the sign of the person, the debt of respect owed to persons is also owed to their bodies. Consequently, acts that intentionally violate the bodily integrity of human persons are unjust. But this identification of unjust acts will be difficult or impossible for someone who fails to see the personal significance of human bodies. So developing the virtue of chastity is a preparation for justice. Furthermore, to deny the personal significance of the body for chastity will make the acquisition of justice a precarious exercise. Chastity and justice both rely on and reinforce one’s perception of the personal significance of the human body; consequently, the distortion of one makes the distortion of the other more likely and psychologically tenable. These features of chastity and justice explain Evangelium Vitae’s association of contraception and abortion as “fruits of the same tree.”
In the final chapter of Evangelium Vitae, John Paul returns twice more to a discussion of chastity. In both instances, he proposes chastity as a path that will lead us away from the culture of death. To counter the culture of death, the pope points to the importance of living the gospel of life in our everyday activities. He expresses himself in poetic terms, urging us to transform our lives into “a genuine and responsible acceptance of the gift of life and a heartfelt song of praise and gratitude to God who has given us this gift” (EV 86). As examples of those who carry out this task, the pope points to mothers who, despite the influence of the media and the many cultural models that discourage motherhood, nonetheless affirm in their lives the importance of “fidelity, chastity, and sacrifice” (EV 86).
Emphasize Being over Having
In addition to models of mothers who practice the virtue of chastity, John Paul indirectly intimates a subtle connection between practicing the virtue of chastity and developing the virtue of justice in a materialistic, consumer culture. The flow of ideas develops as follows. In calling for a cultural transformation, from a culture of death toward a culture of life, John Paul states that the first and fundamental step consists in the formation of conscience, especially with regard to the inviolable worth of every human life. Next, he points to the work of education, and especially to education in sexuality and training in chastity “as a virtue which fosters personal maturity and makes one capable of respecting the spousal meaning of the body” (EV 97).
After emphasizing the importance of forming adolescents and young people in an authentic education regarding sexuality and love as self-giving as well as training married couples in responsible procreation, including learning to read the signs of fertility, John Paul points out that this kind of cultural change will involve adopting new lifestyles that emphasize “being” over “having.”
This movement from an emphasis on chastity to a critique of consumerism follows an implicit logic. Once we distinguish an authentic virtue of chastity from mere technique, we can see that the recognition of the personal significance of human bodies makes one more attentive to various.aspects of the virtue of justice. The exercise of chastity as a virtue opens families to the gift of children. With larger families, there is a greater emphasis on communal life and a corresponding subordination of the pursuit and accumulation of material goods. So chastity also fosters the growth of families opposed to an unjust, materialistic ordering of things and persons.
Even the secular media has begun to recognize that stable families (which come about when the virtue of chastity is practiced) have a more positive impact on the environment than divorced households. A recent ABCNews headline proclaimed, “Want to Go Green? Stay Married.” The report was about a study from Michigan State University recently published by the National Academy of Sciences. According to the report, divorced households in the United States spent “46 percent more per capita on electricity and 56 percent more on water than married households did.” The lead researcher concludes that stable marriages are good for the environment!
In several ways, the virtue of chastity promotes justice, especially when chastity is authentically understood as a habit of excellence that forms sexual desires in a manner that orients them toward mutual and complete self-donation in light of the personal significance of the body. First, the practice of chastity reduces the temptation to destroy vulnerable human life. Second, the practice of chastity promotes habits that undermine the culture of consumerism and its tendency toward an unjust, materialist ordering of things and persons.
Pope Paul was right: If you want peace, work for justice. But how shall we work for justice? Inspired by Evangelium Vitae, we propose a new maxim: If you want justice, work for chastity.
What Does “The Personal Significance of the Body” Mean?
John Paul’s writings on human life and sexuality often make mention of the “personal significance of the body.” But what does it mean to speak of the personal significance of the body?
Our English word “significance” comes from a Latin root meaning “to show by signs.” So we can begin to understand this concept by thinking about how the body could be a sign of the person.
As a first step in that direction, compare bodies and persons to words and their meanings. From a common sense point of view, words in conversation are the signs and expressions of meanings; in and through them, our meanings become available to ourselves and to others for response. So when we respond to words, our own or others’, we respond not just to them but to their meanings.
But what of the person whose meanings are expressed in words? How can persons come to expression for themselves and others? The notion of the body’s personal significance points the way: Our persons become available to ourselves and to others for response in and through our bodies. As with words and meanings, when we respond to the human body—our own or others’—we respond to the person. The body in its own integral order is the sign of the person because it makes the person present in such a way that the recipient of the person’s self-gift may respond.
Because the body is the sign of the person and because persons are oriented toward self-gift, the body’s actions are apt signs for expressing the mutual self-donation of persons. A few examples demonstrate this point: If I want to give you my greeting, I wave. If I want to give you my word, I shake your hand. If I want to give you my affection, we embrace. And if I want to give my spouse a promise of my total self-gift, we engage in the marital act.
In the culture of death, on the other hand, many think of the body as a mere tool of the person. But in responding to a tool, we respond to something other than the person. So if real mutual self-gift is possible, the body must be more the sign of a person than the tool of a person.
Others imagine the body as a kind of word, but as a word without any context or inherent meaning. According to this way of thinking, bodily actions derive their significance from an external social context. So when the social context changes, the meaning of the bodily action changes.
Certainly this is true for some actions; the American gesture indicating “stop” may mean “go” in another culture. But in the Theology of the Body, John Paul teaches that the marital act is not a gesture of that kind. Rather, following Christ’s words that take us back to the beginning and forward to the Resurrection, he shows us that the significance of the marital act as a sign of total self-gift belongs to the fundamental created order and to the bodily complementarity of the sexes.
As virtues, chastity and justice both depend on the ability to discern the personal significance of the body. Without it, we will not know how to treat a body that has become an inefficient tool or when and with whom to engage in the marital act. Chastity and justice rise and fall together on the basis of their perception of the body’s personal significance.