by Rose Fuller

It's a sunny day, and Brigid is looking forward to a weekend without meetings. Brigid is the Director of Religious Education at St. Stephen's Catholic Church. The phone rings, and it is her good friend Fr. Jim. "Hi. I haven't heard from you in ages," says Brigid as she's thinking, "I owe him one, and he's called to collect."

"The Pastoral Ministry Program is focusing on family life this month," he says. "I was going to teach the upcoming class, but I can't make it. I need someone good."

Brigid gulps, smiles, and says, "I'd love to do it for you."

As she's about to hang up, Fr. Jim adds, "My topics are teen chastity and natural family planning. I know you'll do a great job." Click.

Brigid's mind is whirling and she chastises herself, "I should have said no." Then she remembers her study group's discussion of the encyclical entitled Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life). Brigid reads through the document again and pulls out a few key concepts to build her presentation. She plans to begin her talk by exploring the meaning of love. To do that, one has to go back to the very beginning of human life . . . to God who is our origin and our destiny.

God— who is personal and loving— is the author of life. [Evangelium Vitae (EV) no. 46] As we trace back our family tree, we delight to find the Creator, instead of an amoeba. This knowledge lifts us from the ooze of the contemporary identity crisis which afflicts society and places us in the arms of a loving Father, a Father whom we resemble in many ways.

How are we like God? We are created in his image and likeness and blessed with many of his attributes—the ability to reason, to plan, to know good from evil, to exercise free will, to emulate His virtue, to hunger for truth, beauty, and love, and to know and love our Creator. What's more, he programmed our hearts to know the truth about him, about our human nature, and the bond between the human and the divine.

As Christians, we believe that a human person is a body and soul. Our bodies communicate our deepest beliefs and feelings. In fact, our bodies can be an outward sign of who we are. For example, if we want to express a caring attitude toward another we must do more than merely think warm thoughts. Affection is shown through a smile, a wink, a handshake, a hug, a touch of the hand, or a nod of the head. Grandmother gets a different kiss than a husband. We worship God bodily through our posture, our voices, our gestures, and our behavior. We can express ourselves, our love, and give glory to God through our bodies. (EV, no. 81)

What is love? It is no less than our origin and our calling. John Paul II writes, "God created man in his own image and likeness: calling him to existence through love, he called him at the same time for love."[1] We believe God is love. We learn about love from Jesus who told us to love one another as he has loved us, and also admonished, "If you love me you will keep my commandments" (Jn 14:15). Love is, first, a choice based on knowledge. Second, "Love, as a sincere gift of self, is what gives the life and freedom of the person their truest meaning" (EV, no. 96). Third, permanence is essential to love. Fourth, love is life-giving. "It is the presentation of human life as a life of relationship, a gift of God, the fruit and sign of his love" (EV, no.81). To summarize, love is a gift of self, chosen based on knowledge; it is permanent and life-giving. In marriage, love can be expressed in and through the human body through sexual intercourse.

All of these aspects of love show that sexuality is a body language properly expressed only in marriage. Outside of marriage, sex is a lie—it is missing one or more essential ingredients. Chastity is often misunderstood to be abstinence, pure and simple. But, chastity means "the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being."[2] It is sexual self-control. The cultivation of chastity is essential in order to protect the gift of life (EV, no. 97). Education for chastity is education for authentic love (EV, no. 97).

How strange all this sounds in today's secular world. We have all but lost the meaning of love. Kay Humowltz laments, "If love in America is not dead, it is ailing."[3] We have relationships, special friends, an almost sanitized command of sexual behavior, but we seem to fear love. When love is reduced to lust, it becomes empty and contradicts its very self.

Recognizing that the Church's teaching on sexuality is often dismissed as impractical, Brigid continues her presentation by illustrating these concepts with concrete examples. Chastity is both freedom from harm and freedom to live the truth in love. Freedom from harm can be demonstrated with the roll of dice to make real the consequences of sex outside of marriage: teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease (STD), HIV/AIDS, and heartbreaks.[4]

The message of "safer sex" is usually twisted to sound reasonable, truthful. We need to expose the lie of "safer sex" to uncover the truth. The preponderance of social science data indicates that the attempts to promote or educate in the use of condoms or contraceptives as a preventive measure have failed. In fact, such advocacy seems to change the social climate in favor of more and more meaningless sexual encounters or relationships and in favor of "alternate lifestyles" such as cohabitation and homosexuality. Ultimately, the family—both as an entity and as individual persons—suffer from such practices.

Involving students in a dice game to illustrate the risks of not practicing chastity, Brigid gets her points across. It is well known that the typical rate of pregnancy prevention for condoms for all U.S. women is 84 percent. [5] Each time a dice is rolled, Brigid's students have a one-in-six chance of rolling the number that represents an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The risk of contracting an STD despite condom use is clearly far higher than even the "risk" of pregnancy. Disease-carrying parasites, viruses, and bacteria are all considerably smaller than sperm cells. In fact, although condoms are promoted as a way to prevent the transmission of STDs, it is known that condoms have virtually no preventive effect against some of the most common STDs because they are transmitted from contact of skin outside the area protected by a condom.[6] One such STD, human papilloma virus, is identified as the probable cause of almost all cervical cancer. Another, chlamydia trachomatis, is the most common cause of pelvic inflammatory disease which is the most rapidly increasing cause of infertility in the country today. STD infection is now epidemic among young people under age 25. It is estimated that annually more than one in eight teenagers are infected with a reportable STD. In some groups of sexually active teens, 40 percent are infected with chlamydia. Each time the dice is rolled one or two of Brigid's students receives a "sex bug" describing the repercussions of an STD.

Given the gravity of some STD, HIV/AIDS for example, it makes no sense to trust your life to latex, as one wit describes it. Even supposing that condoms work under "ideal" conditions, the question remains whether people will use them consistently and properly. Several studies reveal otherwise. Even when one partner knew the other was HIV-infected, condoms were not used consistently. One study found that 44 percent of the couples "never used" or "not always" used a condom.[7] Another study found that 85 percent of the couples "never," "rarely," or "sometimes" used a condom.[8] Only 15 percent of couples "always" used a condom, even when they knew one partner had AIDS.

There is also legitimate concern about the quality control of condoms. One study found that 14.6 percent of condoms either broke or slipped off during intercourse or when the penis was withdrawn. This finding led the authors to conclude, "these rates indicate a sobering level of exposure to the risks of pregnancy and of infection with HIV or with other STDs, even among those who consistently use condoms." [9] It is easier—and certainly more responsible—to teach people to be chaste than to teach them to use condoms well. The studies cited in the footnotes show that the efficacy for condom prevention of HIV/AIDS transmission is in serious dispute.

Unplanned pregnancy and STDs are not the only unforeseen consequences of sexual relationships. One chastity brochure notes, "There is no condom for the heart." One study found that sexually active girls were 6.3 times more likely to attempt suicide than their virgin peers.[10]The silent victims of lost chastity include young women who are trapped in destructive relationships and experiencing self-loathing and the young men who lose respect for women (and, finally, themselves).[11] Regret, loneliness, and loss of respect are all by-products of these hollow relationships. The law that is written in the hearts of these young people is desperately telling them: "Become who you are." [12]

Who is it that they, that we, are to become? Christ has fully revealed who we are to be: "Jesus . . . enables us to see in every human face the face of Christ" (EV, no. 81). With chastity, we can experience true friendship, respect for life and for the opposite sex. We gain the freedom to pursue our goals as we recognize that the body language of sexual intercourse speaks about love, fruitfulness, and fidelity of married love. Teaching young people chastity empowers them to love themselves and to love others well, in addition to sparing them the harmful consequences of extramarital sexual relations.[13]

A question is posed to Brigid, "I agree people should save sex for marriage, but why shouldn't faithful, married couples be able to express their love sexually whenever?" For Brigid the answer comes from her experience as a wife of twelve years, a mother of three children, and her confident belief in Catholic Church teachings.

The Church calls us to "responsible parenthood lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act" (EV, no. 12). Natural Family Planning (NFP), properly used, reflects all the elements of love. Most couples would not attempt to conceive all the children they are physically capable of bearing and NFP allows an effective, couple-centered way to respectfully manage child spacing. The transmission of human life is a great gift which human persons are entrusted to protect. (EV, no. 52). NFP allows us to read the fertility signs, and to use the spiritual powers of thinking and choosing to prayerfully plan a family.

From a feminine point of view, NFP brings enhanced esteem: Women are not asked to artificially alter their God-given fertility. Brigid can testify that husbands and wives learn sexual self-mastery and profound respect for their procreative ability. With God's grace, the tension between the bodily and spiritual dimensions of sexuality become tempered, enabling the practice of marital chastity (EV, no. 97.) This self-sacrifice truly transforms the couple. Love "becomes selflessness, receptiveness, and gift. Within the family each member is accepted, respected and honored precisely because he or she is a person" (EV, no. 92).

Brigid opened the floor for questions. One young woman asked about those young people who were already sexually involved. Brigid explained the concept of "secondary virginity." Although one can never replace physical virginity, one can take on a virginity of heart regardless of how physical virginity is lost. Of course, victims of abuse or rape have not freely chosen to have sexual activity, and young children who are sexually active are often found to have been victims of sexual abuse. Secondary virginity begins with a repentant heart and the sacrament of reconciliation. Healing requires changing one's thoughts, activities, and sometimes the people one associates with who do not value chastity. New friends who share one's values are an essential asset, as is a strong prayer life.

One man wanted to know if NFP really works. Brigid assured him that NFP is highly effective for achieving and avoiding a pregnancy. She strongly recommended an instructional program approved by the local Catholic diocese. Even couples with serious reasons to avoid a pregnancy can confidently use NFP, as can couples after childbirth or with non-typical situations, and those in premenopause.

To summarize the main point, Brigid reiterated that Evangelium Vitae upholds the dignity of human life at all stages. We can show our reverence for this gift of life by honoring the truth about human sexuality. Chastity—both for married and single persons—speaks a language of authentic love and gives glory to God. She then concluded with a few steps parishes might take to strengthen family life in these areas:

Make NFP an integral and required part of marriage preparation so that couples have the opportunity to really understand this beautiful gift to marriage.

Make sure all teachers of religious education are properly formed in the area of chastity.

Have periodic days of prayer and fasting for the practice of chastity and for a return to respect for human life. For example, some mothers form prayer groups focusing on their children and their spiritual needs including chastity.

Offer a one-day retreat for junior high students to reflect on the sanctity of life and chastity.

Provide a family workshop on the topic of chastity.

Rose Fuller is executive director of Northwest Family Services, Portland, Oregon and is co-author of a new Catholic virtue and chastity series entitled Project Genesis. She is currently studying toward a masters' degree in theology at the University of Dallas. Mrs. Fuller has been married 26 years and is the mother of four children.

  1. John Paul II, Familiaria Consortio, no. 11. November 22, 1981. Boston: St. Paul Books and Media.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2337.
  3. Humowltz, K., "Where Has Our Love Gone?" The Wall Street Journal, April 6, 1995.
  4. Fuller, R., McLaughlin, J., Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality, a junior and senior high abstinende cuuriculum which includes concrete activities and examples for classroom education, Northwest Family Services.
  5. Mosher, W., et al., "Understanding U.S. Fertility: Continuity and Change in the National Survey of Family Growth, 1988-1995," Family Planning Perspectives, Jan/Feb. 1996.
  6. See the Medical Institute for Sexual Heatlh Sexual Health Update, periodic annotated newsletters reviewing the relevant medical data discussing the ineffectiveness of condoms to prevent the transmission of the human papilloma virus and chlamydia trachomatis as well as the questionable efficacy of condoms in preventing HIV/AIDS, in particular, Fall 1995, Vol.3, no.3, and April 1994, Vol. 2, No. 2.
  7. Saracco, A., et al., "Man-to-Woman Sexual Transmission of HIV: Longitudinal Study of 343 Steady Partners of Infected Men," Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, 1993.
  8. Guimares, M., et al., "HIV Infection among Female Partners of Seropositive Men in Brazil," American Journal of Epidemiology, 1995. Furthermore, this study found that those who used a condom consistently, 23% of the women converted to HIV positive within the year. Those who rarely/never used a condom and used oral contraceptives experienced a 55% seroconversion rate whereas those who never used a condom and did not use oral contraceptives experienced a 37% seroconversion rate. Data suggests that women using oral contraceptives have an increased risk factor for contracting HIV/AIDS (the actual reason is not fully understood because of the complexity of sexual behavior).
  9. Trussel, J., et al., "Condom Slippage and Breakage Rates," Family Planning Perspectives, Jan/Feb. 1992.
  10. Cf. Orr, D., M.D. et al., "Premature Sexual Activity as an Indicator of Psychosocial Risk," Pediatrics, Vol. 87, No. 2, February 1991.
  11. Lickona, Thomas, "The Neglected Heart, The Emotional Dangers of Premature Sexual Involvement," American Educator, Summer 1994. The article is an excellent summary of the emotional consequences and is also appropriate for secular groups.
  12. Familiaris Consortion, no. 17.