Humanae Vitae and the Mystical Call of Chastity

How do we understand chastity? For many, the very word implies restraint, and restraint is not exactly the most exciting thought. The Ancient Greeks thought of chastity as a subspecies of temperance,[1] and if there is one virtue more alien to today’s so-called “late capitalism,” it is probably temperance—and not just in matters sexual. For others, talk of chastity brings to mind purity rings and virginity pledges, almost as if chastity is defined primarily by sexual abstinence before marriage. Hence we often speak of being chaste before marriage, but hardly ever about being chaste in marriage.

Yet it seems to me that the paradigm of Christian chastity is not, in fact, abstinence, but marital sexual union. This thought may well be what distinguishes an authentically Christian understanding of sex from mere social conservatism or prudishness. For chastity, as Elizabeth Anscombe wrote, “is simply the virtue whose topic is sex, just as courage is the virtue whose topic is danger and difficulty.”[2] But why, many would object, does sex need its own, dedicated virtue—does this not carry a whiff of the pornographic?

Happily, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae gives us a starting point with which to answer such an objection: “The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is . . . ‘noble and worthy.’”[3] It must be said here that Christian chastity is more than just chastity minus the “yuck” factor about sex. Chastity, like all virtues, is a character disposition that aims at the good—in this case, the good as constituted by the Church’s vision of sexuality. Sexuality is seen not as simply an appetite, but as a core part of our being that is ordered towards procreation and total, mutual self-giving in marriage.

Chastity, therefore, cannot be reduced to sexual temperance. If unitive conjugal love is an essential part of what sexuality is ordered towards, then one might say that someone who unjustly denies their spouse their conjugal right is also being unchaste—though I recognize this will sound odd to many.

Virtuous Prohibitions

This year being the 50th anniversary year of Humanae Vitae, two things should be immediately clear from these preliminary thoughts: Just how little even we as Christians understand chastity, and how seldom Catholic teaching on contraception is presented in connection with this virtue. As it is, among detractors of Humanae Vitae, their description of choice for the encyclical has tended to be “the Church’s ban on contraception”—the word “ban” implying a man-made, and therefore changeable, rule. But even among those who accept Humanae Vitae as upholding the objective moral law, written into our nature by God, the focus is often on the narrow prohibition and not the wider virtue.

It is sometimes thought that the notion of absolute prohibitions is deeply antithetical to virtue, though in reality the relationship between them is more subtle than that. The relationship between rules and virtues might be compared to a brushstroke and a painting, with the caveat that in the moral life we do not start with a blank canvas upon which we exercise unrestricted freedom. Our rational nature as humans, existing in a body-soul union, already presents us with certain unchangeable values even as we confront and adapt to varying realities in life with our freedom and creativity.

So virtue is like painting on a canvas where an initial outline is already provided. Suppose it is meant to be a painting of, say, a mountain, I might think of better and worse ways of completing the painting, and I might also see that there are certain brushstrokes that would contradict the outline outright. Likewise, many actions in the moral life could be more or less virtuous without being intrinsically immoral. But virtues also admit of absolute prohibitions, for there are actions that corrupt the very principle of the virtue,[4] such as killing the innocent vis-à-vis the virtue of justice.

Rules, like individual brushstrokes, only make sense in relation to the wider picture of human flourishing that determines the moral life. Only with the whole painting completed can one understand both the brushstrokes that give it shape, as well as the empty spaces on the canvas that help complete the picture. I think of contraception as being, in the Church’s view, much like a brushstroke utterly incompatible with the vision of marital chastity which our sexual nature—the unchangeable outline—is called to exemplify. Marriage is a unique form of friendship that arises out of our sexuality’s unitive and procreative power, and so each sexual act must retain its full integrity in order to be truly marital.[5] The need for abstinence from time to time within marriage, implied by the rejection of contraception, forms the silent yet meaningful empty spaces in the artwork of our lives.

No wonder that in Humanae Vitae, Paul VI wrote the following in relation to periodic continence within marriage: “Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character” (§21). When sexual union is deliberately avoided for good reason, then, even this is part of marital chastity because it is a symbol of fidelity—of “forsaking all others,” as the nuptial liturgy puts it—and a sign of the care and dignity that the sexual act deserves. This is of special importance to those who practice Natural Family Planning (NFP), which is, after all, based on abstinence when used to space pregnancies. Such abstinence, undertaken with the knowledge of the woman’s fertility, can be truly integrated into the full dynamic of marital chastity, for it reaffirms the fundamentally procreative character of marital intercourse.

Chastity: Beyond Usefulness

Needless to say, with these reflections on Christian chastity, we are very far from the contemporary vision of sex, where the primary moral safeguard is not even temperance, but consent. Yet this, too, has been under threat, given how much sexual harassment has been a part of public discourse in recent times. The rise of contraceptive sex, perhaps increasingly perceived as “no more than a sort of extreme kiss, which it might be rather rude to refuse,”[6] has no doubt played a part.

But this sounds very much like a pragmatic concern—how might it be connected to the idea of contraception as absolutely incompatible with chastity? Here, it is apt to make a distinction between the useful or utilitarian part of a virtue like chastity, and its mystical part—a distinction introduced by Anscombe in her writings on contraception. Regarding the former, Anscombe writes that chastity is a “solid, practical, useful sort of virtue”[7]; after all, restricting intercourse to monogamous marriage provides a more stable context for parental responsibility towards any offspring. There is something useful about rejecting contraception as well. Humanae Vitae famously pointed to the risk that contraception might lead men to “forget the reverence due to a woman, and . . . reduce her to a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires” (§17). And much has been written about the benefits of NFP in marriage—better communication, greater development of non-sexual ways of showing affection, and so on—which must surely feature in an account of the usefulness of chastity.

For the pragmatic sort of person, who sees how contraception brings with it the potential not just to disregard the value of temperance but to disrupt true consent, this might well be enough to convince. But our spiritual nature is such that we seek not just utilitarian reasons in the moral life, but mystical reasons as well.

Although this mystical dimension is harder to define, we see it, for instance, in a special sort of desire to know who one’s biological children or parents are, which transcends the mere usefulness of such knowledge—knowledge no doubt ensured by chaste sexual behavior.[8] So too, because we know that sex is the process by which life is transmitted, as Anscombe writes, “the perception of the dishonour done to the body in treating [sexual acts] as the casual satisfaction of desire is certainly a mystical perception.”[9] It is this kind of mystical consideration that might make us even more wary of excesses that contraceptive use might engender.

We see here that, though the mystical might sound like it is something in opposition to the body—perhaps this is some post-Cartesian hangover—in actual fact it is the body that often reveals the mystical side of chastity.

Let us explore this further in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of why contraceptive sex is unchaste.

Mystical Union

We are aware, as we have said, that sex is an act that has life-giving potential. But reflecting on the body we also see that there are “immanent natural cycles in the reproductive system” (HV, §16) such that not all times are fertile. Dietrich von Hildebrand hence suggests, “The fact that conception is restricted to a short time implies a word of God. It . . . confirms that the bodily union of the spouses has a meaning and value in itself, apart from procreation”.[10]

That meaning is, of course, the total and mutual self-giving love that sexual union embodies—something quite different from mere sensuality or lust, which the Christian tradition has rightly been suspicious of as a motive for sex. Thanks to Humanae Vitae, we have become accustomed to speaking of that self-giving love in terms of the “unitive significance” of sex, a notion which has gone some way in combating the belief that sex must only be sought for procreation (or worse, that procreation and marriage excuses sex). Unitive conjugal love is inherently valuable and is a worthy motive for sexual intercourse.

But the fact remains that the unitive significance of sex is brought about by none other than the unity of a reproductive type, and this is crucial to understanding chastity. In sexual intercourse the male and female body quite literally act as one flesh in “mutual biological striving” towards reproduction,[11] regardless of whether or not conception will actually follow. It is not that there is unitive-type sex and procreative-type sex—they are one and the same act. Even infertility does not change the kind of act the body is performing, and therefore the procreative significance of sex still remains.

What, then, are the implications of this discussion for chastity? In sum, there is a mystical significance to Pope Paul VI’s message that there is an “inseparable connection established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance” (HV, §12) of the sexual act. And I think it is this: That sex is all the more unitive because it is procreative, and that it is truly worthy of procreation because it unites. We are a body-soul union, and so the uniting of mind and heart through sex is inseparable from the reproductive uniting of the body which defines the sexual act; and it is that unitive love that prepares the home for the great blessing of children. Therefore, it is not just procreation that contraception disrupts, but also marital unity, and this is why contraception is incompatible with the virtue of chastity.

Chastity is truly a mystical mountain, one which we are all called to climb. Thus, an account of contraception and chastity that relies solely on pragmatic reasons would be sorely inadequate. For even the thought that contraception might lead one to make use of another person is suffused with the mystical—here, the mystical perception of the intrinsic dignity of the human person. A fuller appreciation of chastity and its implications would also free us from a puritanical distrust of the body, of a kind which sees chastity as defined principally by abstinence.

But I must end with a clarification: In claiming at the outset that chastity is best exemplified by marital sexual union, I do not mean to deny the insight of Augustine’s that abstinence is better than intercourse[12] and virginity a higher calling than marriage.[13] Abstinence and virginity are at the peak of the great mountain of chastity, for sexual union is only of this world while abstinence and virginity look towards our future life in the Kingdom of Heaven. But their mystical meaning is not found in self-denial alone, for self-denial is completed by spiritual union with Christ—and such a spiritual union, while far excelling earthly marital union, is spoken of precisely in terms of marriage, between Christ and his Church.[14]

Because chastity is fundamentally about sex, it is earthly marriage that gives it its paradigm. But it is the marriage supper of the Lamb that gives chastity a distinctive nobility.

Featured Image: Domenichino, Allegory of Chastity, c. 1602; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.

[1] G.E.M. Anscombe, “Contraception, Chastity and the Vocation of Marriage” in Mary Geach and Luke Gormally, eds, Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics by G.E.M. Anscombe (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2008), 280.

[2] Anscombe, Contraception and Chastity (London: Catholic Truth Society, 2003), 11.

[3] Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (1968), §11, emphasis mine.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, The “Summa Theologica” of St Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1920), II-II, Q. 154, Art. 12, co. “In every genus, worst of all is the corruption of the principle on which the rest depend.” Also available online:

[5] I have explored this thought in greater detail in my essay “Natural Family Planning and the Myth of Catholic Contraception”, Church Life Journal, 12 March 2018. Accessed 24 July 2018.

[6] Anscombe, Contraception and Chastity, 37.

[7] Anscombe, “Contraception, Chastity and the Vocation of Marriage”, 282.

[8] Mary Geach, “Anscombe on Sexual Ethics” in Luke Gormally, David Albert Jones and Roger Teichmann, eds, The Moral Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2016), 231.

[9] Anscombe, Contraception and Chastity, 39.

[10] Dietrich von Hildebrand, “The Encyclical Humanae Vitae: A Sign of Contradiction” in Janet E. Smith, ed., Why Humanae Vitae was Right: A Reader (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 81.

[11] Alexander R. Pruss, “From Love to Union as One Body” in Helen Watt, ed., Fertility and Gender: Issues in Reproductive and Sexual Ethics (Oxford: The Anscombe Bioethics Centre, 2011), 24.

[12] Augustine, “The Good of Marriage” in De Bono Coniugali, De Sancta Virginitate, trans. P. G. Walsh (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), §6.

[13] Augustine, “On Holy Virginity” in De Bono Coniugali, De Sancta Virginitate, trans. P. G. Walsh, §1.

[14] “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31–32).


Michael Wee

Michael Wee is the Education Officer of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, a Catholic academic institute based in Oxford. He co-teaches bioethics at St Mary's College, Oscott, which is the seminary of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, and has written on contemporary ethical issues in the Catholic Herald and Public Discourse.

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