I gave a talk on a Catholic college campus last weekend. It was an awesome, awesome experience.
Catholic colleges – the really Catholic ones – are among my greatest sources of encouragement for the future. All of those great kids who actually take their faith and their relationships with God seriously. It’s a beautiful thing.
So I spoke to them about a topic that I have addressed here at CatholicMatch about a half-billion times: the importance of centering our lives around Christ and not around our search for a spouse. Not that searching for a spouse is a bad thing. But when we make it our sole motivating principal for – well, pretty much everything we do – we risk missing out on what God has in store for us if we were following Him instead of the cute guys (or girls).
In the course of that discussion, we happened upon a subject that is apparently all the rage among Really Catholic College Students. That topic is called “emotional unchastity.” Here I’ve been speaking on chastity since before these students were born, and now these young upstarts have come up with a brand new take on chastity.
Well, sort of.
And no, “emotional unchastity” doesn’t refer to entertaining sexually lustful thoughts. That’s still covered under the normal sins against chastity. To be emotionally unchaste means to be prematurely intimate emotionally, or to give one’s heart without commitment.
Now that I know what it is, I think they’re onto something.
But I think “emotional unchastity” is a really, really bad name for what it is they’re onto. I’m lobbying hard for a different moniker. Maybe “emotional boundary-less-ness” or something.
First, what they’re onto. We women know the phenomenon well. We were particularly susceptible to it when we were young. We’d meet an interesting guy, and two hours later we were combining our last names and imagining our children. We’d talk to him and spill our guts and our life stories, all hoping our vulnerability would somehow prove charming and win him over. We’d lay our hearts on the line prematurely. And reality would generally slap us back into reality, but not before we had wasted a lot of time and probably shed a few tears.
So this emotional unchastity is analogous to physical unchastity, in a sense. Just as we give our bodies in premature sexual activity, we give our hearts in premature emotional intimacy.
But the use of the word “chastity” in the second sense is just an analogy. It’s not an accurate description. And I’m concerned that using it to describe these emotional indiscretions can create a lot of confusion in young men and women.
The word “chastity has a very specific meaning. It refers to the respect, or lack thereof, that we pay to the sexual function of the body. That function, and the language that God created it to speak, are uniquely important. And thus, offenses against that language are described using that very specific term. Sins of chastity are sins against the meaning and the beauty of human sexuality.
And that’s just it. Offenses against chastity are sins. When the Catechism lists sins against chastity, it names pornography, fornication, masturbation and sexual lust. It does not mention excessive non-sexual daydreaming or prematurely sharing feelings. Don’t get me wrong, those things are probably a bad idea. I don’t recommend them, and I think they can trip up your lives in a lot of ways. But they aren’t, in and of themselves, sinful.
What concerns me is that I know that there are a lot of very conscientious, perhaps even scrupulous young men and women out there who don’t get this distinction. They may be living extremely chaste lives, but thinking they aren’t because – like every other young adult under the sun – they’re having a hard time figuring out where their emotional boundaries should be. That’s important work, but it doesn’t belong in the moral realm in the same way that sexual morality does.
The analogy breaks down in one other important way. Physical chastity means saving all sexual intimacy for marriage, for the wedding night. The same cannot be said about emotional intimacy.
Can you imagine saving all of our deeper self-revelation for the wedding night? “Okay, here we are in the honeymoon suite. Now, I have an inferiority complex, I struggle with intense feelings of jealousy, I’m deathly afraid of parrots, and once in fourth grade…”
And you think we have a lot of annulments now?
There is an art to learning how and when to reveal ourselves emotionally. It takes time and maturity to learn it. We need to help young men and women (and perhaps even the older ones) to find that balance, and we need to warn them against getting caught up in their emotional or romantic fantasies.
But let’s call it something else.