Would a return to Christian virtue cause a recession?

Not long ago I was standing in a supermarket checkout line when my wandering eyes fell upon an article advertised on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine offering advice on how to satisfy the demands of lust. Perhaps I should have read the article, but instead I fell into my usual pattern of ruminating: A major voice of popular culture was proclaiming that Christianity, and almost every other world religion, is wrong. Lust, not chastity, is the goal of human sexual relationships. The traditional Christian virtue of chastity—abstinence from all genital activity other than sexual intercourse with one’s spouse—is to be replaced by its opposite—unbridled and polymorphous genital activity.

Reflecting further, it struck me as inevitable that lust and chastity would trade places. After all, chastity is the countercultural value in a consumer society. Chastity is the practice of restraint, not just any restraint, but the restraint of desire, and not just any desire, but an extremely powerful desire—the desire for sexual gratification.

Now, this notion—that powerful desires are suspect and must be restrained, and that one should act on them only after careful reflection—is bad for business. How, I ask you, are we going to convince people to buy with abandon when they won’t indulge their sex drive with abandon? Many businesses, through advertising, attempt to make us want things, but all the advertising in the world will be for nought unless people come to believe that if they want something they should go out and get it (or, as my philosopher friend puts it: “desires are sufficient reasons”). It is hard to maintain the attitude that my desires exist in order for me to gratify them (the consumer attitude) while holding onto the attitude that my desires are suspect and must be restrained (the chaste attitude). A house half-chaste and half-consumer is a house divided, and a house divided cannot stand for long.

The logic of chastity is fatally opposed to the logic of consumerism. To live chastely requires that one master and control one’s desires. As Thomas Aquinas points out, “Chastity takes its name from the fact that reason chastises concupiscence.” The logic of chastity implies an ascetic attitude toward life.

The logic of consumerism is quite opposite. Advertising, the propaganda of the consumer society, attempts to arouse desire and to convince us that a certain purchase will satisfy it. Most large-scale advertising campaigns appeal to desires for gratification. We are told, subtly or not, that a certain purchase will feel good or taste good, or make us look good and enhance our appeal to others.

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Perhaps once upon a time advertising emphasized thrift, durability, and economy. Now advertising often makes a direct pitch for our libido. Why else would one photograph a bottle of beer, supposedly a beverage to satisfy thirst, between the breasts of a bikini-clad model? The logic of selling and buying is often hedonistic. It presupposes the rightness of one’s desires for sensory gratification, and that the goal of life is satisfaction of, rather than control of, desires.

The conflict between chastity and hedonism is a microcosm of the broader conflict between asceticism and consumerism. But it is not simply one case of the larger conflict; rather, it is a particularly acute instance of it, even a battleground where the larger war is won or lost.

Chastity is especially threatening to a consumer society, because the one who has learned to control the desire for sexual gratification has learned that he is master of his desires, not slave to them. It is much harder to sell anything to such a person, for one must appeal not simply to her appetites, but to her reason. And when gratification is no longer an end in itself, reason unmasks the propaganda of the consumer society for what most of it is: deceptive promises built on false values.

Hence, the consumer society must discredit chastity and reverse the traditional value scheme. If advertising is to succeed and business thrive, people must be convinced that desires are sufficient reasons for action and that passions are to be indulged rather than controlled.

It is not surprising that the decline of chastity coincides historically with the rise of the consumer culture. It was not so long ago that chastity was universally accepted, even if not uniformly practiced. There was a consensus among those whose role was to uphold standards of good behavior that the sexual urge ought to be controlled and restrained.

With the sexual revolution of the 1960s, however, this consensus was abandoned; the traditional value scheme was turned upside-down. This revolution did not appear out of nowhere—it was the culmination of two decades of unprecedented economic prosperity in American life. People who had been accustomed to hardship, sacrifice, thrift, and hard work now experienced affluence. With wealth came unheard-of levels of consumption, indulgence, and waste.

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Such a marked change in the conventional wisdom should startle us, but few question it. Instead, most people simply repeat the usual glib arguments against chastity: “Sex is fun, and why should we deny ourselves fun? After all, if two people want to have a good time, and neither one is forced to do something against his or her will, why shouldn’t they? How one gets one’s jollies is a matter of personal taste.”

Some even try to give the argument against chastity a medical or psychological basis: Sexual activity is an important part of personal development, they claim. A vigorous, satisfying sex life is necessary for full personal expression. Sexual desire is normal and healthy, and to repress it can lead to neuroses and other personality disorders.

These arguments against chastity, however, are based on a fallacious assumption: namely, that desires exist to be fulfilled. In the language of moral philosophy, it is the assumption that a desire is a sufficient reason for an action.

But we all know that this assumption is false; a desire to kill my sister is no justification for killing her, because it is simply wrong to kill one’s sister. If I feel overwhelmed by such a desire, the proper thing to do is to seek counseling from someone who will help me change my desires. Our desires may or may not be reliable guides to proper action. A strong desire should not be followed until it has been carefully analyzed and one is sure that it springs from sound motives and leads to worthy ends. We all know this when it comes to killing, but we seem to forget it when it comes to sex. If you want it, go get it, we are told. Obviously, this view begs the question of whether we should want what we want.

The question is generally not asked because it is economically dangerous. If people bought only what they needed, even allowing for a generous definition of “need,” our economy would go haywire. Consumers must be continually stimulated to want more and more so that business can sell more and more. It is hard to sell the newest fashion craze to someone who tends to be suspicious of her desires.

Given that our society has been overwhelmingly converted to an ethic of indulgence, chastity is not merely a type of dissent, it is a form of economic subversion. In a consumer society, chastity is a profound form of Christian witness and social protest.

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The chaste person refuses to participate in the degradation of sex and the degradation of the human person that it implies. His life bears witness that a fully human existence consists not in a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, but in a higher calling to a life of discipline and self-sacrifice—in other words, to a life of loving and serving others.

Admittedly, there are those whose chastity is more prudery than protest, more naïveté than noncooperation. But chastity need not be rooted in immaturity. Chastity is a mature response to a great evil. It is a form of rebellion. It is a virtue that undermines the foundations of a culture based on selfishness and greed, and it begins to build a new one based on self-emptying love—the love that Christians know as the kenosis of God.

The gospel and the constant tradition of the church tell us that the unrestrained pursuit of gratification, sexual or material, is ultimately the road to misery. The self-centeredness of the pursuit will blind us to the needs of others and our own need of others. The reduction of persons to playthings, of love to lust, and of procreation to recreation will blind us to the wonder of others and the glory of the Supreme Other.

But the pursuit of the Supreme Other—of Christ, the God-man, the wholly other God incarnate in a wholly familiar humanity—is the road to a joy that even death cannot kill. And this Christ showed us how to walk this road—it is the way of self-restraint, self-denial, and self-giving. It is the habit of putting the needs of others before one’s own desires. It is the way of love.

Paul Brand is a world-renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist. Now in semiretirement, he serves as clinical professor emeritus, Department of Orthopedics, at the University of Washington and consults for the World Health Organization. His years of pioneering work among leprosy patients earned him many awards and honors.

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