The Virtue of Chastity

by Jennifer Luetkemeyer

The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the cardinal virtue of chastity in this way:

    "Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy." (CCC para 2339)

    "Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence." (CCC para 2342)

The Clifford Family To give you a framework of my moral formation, let me start with my family and religious background. I was baptized Catholic as an infant, but our home was only nominally religious. My mom was Catholic, and my dad (who recently converted) was a Mormon. This conflict between their religious persuasions resulted in a weakness in their presentation of religion to us as their children. They were unable to decide upon and live by one truth themselves, and therefore did not convey one true, concise moral code to us. Their parenting decisions in regards to morals did not have a particular religion or God as a foundation, and thus their positions on ethics were on shaky ground. This shows the benefit of having both parents practice the same religion; it was a major obstacle for me to overcome in my moral formation.

The bottom line was that we were all very lukewarm about the faith. I think I really could have benefited as a child from having my parents impress upon me that I would have to answer to God, not just to them, for my actions - and for all eternity, not just for the time they were grounding me. Ignorance of God does not harbor a love of God. As a parent and a catechist, I try now to nurture the child's relationship with God as the Good Shepherd from a very early age on. The children need to know that they are responsible to God as their friend and their Creator, and that the rules that we impress upon them originated with Him.

Without that sense of responsibility to God's divine authority, it is easy to lose sight of Him. I heard Father O'Brien at St. Timothy's say in a homily once that, "sin is forgetting about, or deliberately excluding, God." The first major step for me in that wrong direction was when I began taking birth control pills at the age of fifteen. I had had a steady boyfriend, named James, since the eighth grade, but I was not yet sexually active. My mom and I jointly decided that I was ready for my first gynecological exam. When I arrived at the doctor's office for the visit, she asked me if I had a boyfriend and if I was planning to be involved with him sexually. I told her it was a possibility, and she promptly wrote me out a prescription for birth control pills. It was that easy. I also remember how appalled my mother was when I waved that prescription in her face, flaunting the fact that I had not required her parental consent. She felt powerless to the doctor's orders, and I, in turn, felt I had been given the green light by the doctor to engage in consequence-free sex.

Once I took that first step in the wrong direction, things began to deteriorate for me. At fifteen, I lost my virginity. When that line had been crossed, I also began drinking, doing drugs, stealing, cheating, and lying, breaking all the rules because I had broken that one very important one against the sanctity of marriage and human life. You see, bad decisions lead to other bad decisions, and the farther you get from God's grace, the worse your decisions become. You just get weaker and weaker, less able to avoid temptation, without God's grace to help you. It becomes a downward spiral. Sin callouses your eyes to God's truth.

Jennifer Clifford 1993 I dated this same guy, James, throughout high school. The fact that I had lost my virginity to him and continued to have a sexual relationship with him clouded everything for me and affected all of my decisions. I was completely emotionally dependent upon him and tolerated being treated poorly by him because of it. I was a slave to my vices, as the quote from the Catechism warns. I had always considered myself to be a strong person, but James seemed to be my one insurmountable weakness. My friends and my parents all disliked him because of the way he treated me, but I was blind to it. "We've been through so much together," was the patent excuse I gave for staying regardless of everything.

James moved to Texas when he graduated from high school, but being a year behind him in school, I was just starting my senior year. Honestly thinking that I could not live without him, I doubled up on all my classes so that I could graduate a semester early, which would speed up my moving out to Texas to be with him. In doing so, I gave up all my friends, my second semester of high school, and my participation in my graduation ceremony. I never got to walk across that stage to be handed that diploma nor did I ever get to toss one of those caps, all because I was so emotionally attached to this guy. This is something that, looking back, I regret very deeply, but will never have a second chance to change.

Once I had moved to Texas (at sixteen), James and I moved in together, and I worked full-time to support the both of us. For two years, he did not work; he basically just lived off me. I tolerated him taking advantage of me because my sense of self-worth, my very livelihood, was all wrapped up in him. I cut myself off from my family and friends, all of whom disapproved of him because of the way he treated me. I would not allow them to say anything bad about him, because I just didn't want to hear it. And the worst thing about it was, I was very unhappy. I knew I was in a bad situation, but I did not have the strength to get myself out of it, all because I was sleeping with him.

Despite being on birth control pills for over three years, I got pregnant. God was going to send this child to me whether the pill was supposed to be 99.9% effective or not; He knew she would be the slap across the face that I needed to get out. When we found out, I was scared, but excited, while James was just unhappy. Due to our very unhealthy lifestyle (smoking, poor diet, lack of sleep), I was very sick for the first trimester of my pregnancy. I remember telling James on a particularly bad day that I didn't think I was going to make it, and he suggested that I consider aborting the baby. He said his mother had even volunteered to pay for it. Killing my baby, however, was not an option to me, regardless of how difficult the situation seemed.

After a home pregnancy test came up positive, James and I decided to go to Planned Parenthood to confirm the results. I remember how nervous I was walking into the clinic, knowing how much my life could change in the next few minutes. We opted for the urine test, because it was cheaper (though less accurate) than the blood test. The nurse called me in ALONE for "counseling"; she asked me how I felt about the possibility of being pregnant. I let her know that I was excited at the idea but unsure of my future. She honed in on that uncertainty and probed further - what would I do with the child? Could I support it? What would my parents think? These were issues that I had not yet allowed to enter into my mind; I was taking this whole thing one step at a time. Consequently, I could not answer her questions as quickly as she blurted them out. I believe it was at this point that she silently assessed that I was a textbook abortion customer - young, afraid, and unsure - and that abortion would obviously be the path I would choose.

The next step was the urine test. Because of my anxiety, my bladder would not cooperate, and I came out of the restroom, blushing, with the empty cup in my hand. When I told the nurse that I just couldn't go, she said, "Well, then you're probably not pregnant or you wouldn't have any problems going!" We went with the blood test instead and waited for about half an hour for the results. To receive the results, she again told James to wait in the lobby (which I feel was a calculated move on her part to reinforce my feelings of being alone and unsupported). She showed me the test with the little pink plus sign and said, "I'm sorry." I was confused by her apology and began to smile. She quickly reminded me of my age and state in life in an attempt to save her sale. Knowing I could not support the child on my own, I asked her for a number I could call for government assistance. She claimed she didn't have one to give me. It struck me as odd that she couldn't provide me with that point of contact. Hadn't other women been in this same situation before me and needed this number, as well? Why did Planned Parenthood not keep such an important number handy?

I then asked the nurse if she had a list of doctors from which I could choose, as I felt the next reasonable step would be to see an obstetrician. The nurse breathed a heavy sigh of disapproval and said, "We don't deal with pregnant women". I was shocked! How could this company call itself "Planned Parenthood" when it was unable and unwilling to deal with expectant parents? There was simply an assumption on their part that all positive pregnancy tests would be received negatively. After several more minutes of bombarding me with this negativity, the nurse sensed that I was not going to take her "easy way out". Although she never actually said the word, she left no doubt in my mind that in her opinion abortion was my only option. When I disagreed, she thrust a package of pamphlets at me on abortion costs and procedures, adoption information, and a small excerpt on prenatal care. She presented this to me and told me to come back when I had made up my mind. I thought perhaps she had confused me with another patient. I knew I had been very clear that I wanted to keep the baby, and that this was not bad news to me. That concept seemed to escape her, for there was no money to be made on her end if I carried out the pregnancy. She had absolutely no concern for me as an individual with needs and desires; she was interested only in making money for her company.

The reason that I describe this incident with Planned Parenthood to you in such detail is that I'd like to get across that this is NOT the place to go yourselves or to send someone who might be facing a crisis pregnancy. There are plenty of other pro-life clinics, like AAA Women for Choice in Manassas, that give their patients a true choice by presenting the option of life for their unborn babies.

After leaving Planned Parenthood, the next step for me was to call my parents. I was scared, but I knew I needed their help. I decided it would be best to move to Virginia to live with my folks for the rest of the pregnancy, where I could be covered medically by my dad's military benefits.

Now, my parents had, in the meantime, undergone their own conversion processes, and they were now both active in the Catholic Church (something I had never seen before). I was very uneasy about coming into their circle of friends as an unwed mother, because I was afraid that they would judge me and look down on me. I found the exact opposite was true; the church-goers were the ones who were the most loving, forgiving, and accepting of me. I began to understand a little more about what practicing religion does to, and for, people, and began to wonder how it might help me.

James stayed behind in Texas for four months, and this was when my conversion really began to happen. The greatest aids to my return to the church were complete removal from the unhealthy, unchaste situation, unfailing support from family and friends, surrounding myself with Catholic friends (with higher moral standards), and a complete environment change - bowling alley to Catholic Shop. I went back to confession and returned to the sacraments, and gradually those callouses of sin began to be wiped clean. This led to an unclouded vision of the truth, an ability to understand and recognize the damaging situation, and the strength to get out of it, though it was difficult.

Jenny and Baby Emily By the time James got out here, everything between us had changed. I was seven months pregnant (no more 23" waist!), had returned to the sacraments, and was even going to daily mass once in a while (a drastic change from when he had last seen me). The most marked difference was, of course, that we were no longer sleeping together. It was the first time since I had lost my virginity to him that I was able to see him clearly as the person he really was. I finally realized just how badly he was treating me and I gave him an ultimatum. He had a few months to get a job and keep it, putting some of his money away for the baby. He wasn't mature enough to do any of these things, and he left for California when Emily was less than six weeks old, but after she had had a life threatening illness (which, by the way, she inherited from him) resulting in emergency surgery on her five-week birthday. Even having his new baby so close to death was not enough to wake him up to accept responsibility for her.

It took Emily for me to finally put an end to his behavior; I was not going to let him treat a brand new, innocent child as poorly as he had treated me. I could defend myself; she could not. I learned very quickly a valuable lesson as a parent: my decision at fifteen to sleep with my boyfriend had completely mapped out my entire life for me. My college education, my future family, and my career choices would more or less revolve around my daughter's needs from that point forward.

The Luetkemeyer Family My story, thankfully, has a happy ending. God sent a wonderful Catholic man, named Paul, into my life at this critical moment. I remember that he brought me a bouquet of flowers when I was overdue with my daughter and said, "I just wanted you to know that there are still good guys out there." We have since married and now have a baby on the way. Paul adopted Emily; James signed over all parental rights voluntarily and without hesitation. (His mother, interestingly, is eager to maintain a relationship with Emily, although she had volunteered to pay to end her life a few short years ago.) Emily calls Paul "daddy", as he is the only one she has ever known, and we are an intact family unit. God is amazing.

My situation, because of God's grace and the support of my family, turned out wonderfully, but I would not necessarily recommend that every woman in my situation should keep her baby. Single parenthood is far from ideal; in fact, it is very difficult on the children. While I would absolutely never advocate abortion for any reason, I think the first option to consider is adoption, and not single parenthood. Biology is simply not as important as a functional family.

Now that I have shared this story with you, I would like to add some practical advice on how to live out the virtue of chastity before I open this up to questions. I don't want to send you on your way knowing that you shouldn't do what I did, but not knowing how to apply it to your lives or to help someone else to apply it to theirs.

Let me first outline how I think my parents hurt and helped my moral formation. My parents allowed me to take birth control pills, allowed me to date and to take the car on dates, allowed me to move to Texas at sixteen, and even sent an allowance for my living expenses, although they suspected that James and I were living together. Basically, they allowed me to make decisions that I was not morally or emotionally ready to make. This caused a downward spiral for them, too: one poor parental decision forced them into other bad ones in order to stay in contact with me. They were afraid that if they put their foot down, they would lose me to James. They reversed this downward spiral, however, by the way they handled that first phone call from me in Texas, telling them that I was pregnant. They responded, not with disappointment or anger, but with complete love, understanding, forgiveness, and support. This good parental decision on their part in turn led them to other good ones (i.e. allowing me to move back home and to stay at home to parent my daughter) and eventually got us all out of the hole we had dug together.

Now, I won't put this all on my parents, because ultimately these choices were my own and I will have to answer for them. There were DEFINITE things I could have and should not have done to save myself: I should not have taken birth control pills, dated so young, become sexually active before marriage, or moved to Texas.

For the unmarried people out there, I would like to list some other concrete ideas for how to stay chaste. Make a definite, conscious decision to stay chaste. Pray to God to help you to always stay in the light of His grace, especially in tempting situations. It also helps to surround yourself with people who think the way you do. It is much easier to stand your ground when you have the support of your friends. Becoming involved in groups that defend the sanctity of human life might also help you to keep your focus on the need for chastity and the consequences of not remaining chaste. Choose your boyfriends carefully, remembering that the partner that you choose, when you choose one, is a mirror image of yourself. Your partner should be someone that you would like to be more like, possessing certain qualities that you would like to cultivate in yourself. In this way, your partner is a challenge for you to grow ... emotionally and spiritually (relate to Paul and me - he prays the liturgy, goes to daily mass, inspires me). If you are striving to be chaste and virtuous, you need to choose a partner who is working toward those same goals. Also, avoid the "near occasions of sin" by not putting yourself in any situations where you might be tempted. Saint Thomas Aquinas was once asked by a student, "How do I fight with the temptation of sins against purity?" He answered, "Don't fight with it - RUN!"

A good relationship balances itself out so that if one person is weak or struggling, the other partner can protect or guide him back toward the will of God. True love means constantly working to bring your loved one closer to God, which is why premarital sex is impossible and unthinkable within the context of a truly loving relationship.

Closeness to God, or holiness, is our ultimate goal in life. Saint Augustine said that, "Indeed, it is through chastity that we are all gathered together and led back to the unity from which we were fragmented into multiplicity." My prayer tonight, then, is that my story has helped each of you in some small way to be led closer into the unity of the Mystical Body through a better understanding of how to apply the virtue of chastity in your lives.

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