I have encountered this question a number of times in the last three years. It is often a sincere and earnest question, with which I empathize greatly. Sometimes it is posed more cynically. I’ve been met with my share of incredulity when speaking of my life as a single Catholic.
The usual point of contention is the Church’s teaching on chastity and on sexual expression being reserved exclusively for husbands and wives–and even within marriage, there are laws of chastity and properly-ordered sexual expression. For all unmarried people, chastity requires complete sexual abstinence. Again, this is for all unmarried people: regardless of why they are unmarried, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their state in life, regardless of how imminent their marriage may be.
This is a hard teaching. But is it impossible? It can’t be if I and many other people live up to it. So, do I have some kind of super-power? Is my sex drive abnormally low? If those were true, then I wouldn’t consider it such a “hard teaching.” The fact is, I struggle with it as much as anyone, and occasionally I fall–and I’m not sure I would believe anybody who said otherwise. So, then, how do we live according to this hard teaching? There are three fundamental and inter-related requirements.
1) We must stand apart from the secular world. This is important for Catholics to do in every aspect of life, but especially when it comes to chastity. In the opinion of the secular world, chastity is impossible, or at least miserable. In the secular world, even children are scarcely expected or encouraged to live chaste lives! For one thing, chastity doesn’t sell. For another, it doesn’t “feel good.” The secular world is very much about money and self-gratification, and nothing is more easily exploited for those purposes than human sexuality. This is pretty much the way it has always been.
For those who are (rightly) ashamed of being openly in thrall to money and gratification, there are all kinds of supposedly rational and scientific arguments that, as long as it is consensual, all sexual expression is normal and healthy and only natural, and that any kind of repression is harmful and turns people into basket cases–and the Catholic teaching of chastity sounds an awful lot like repression, doesn’t it? My favorite is the “argument from nature,” in which nature is used to rationalize any and every kind of sexual behavior based on the fact that such behaviors have been observed among animals. This argument is very faulty and capricious. I’ve heard quite a lot of people use it to rationalize their preference for promiscuity and conveniently overlook the little fact that some animals are naturally monogamous. Those who like to use it as rationalization for bad behavior drop it quickly as soon as some unnatural things like fast cars, computers, jet planes, and breast implants are concerned.
As for “repression” turning people into “basket cases,” experience simply doesn’t bear that out. If anybody can make a good case for me, or any other chaste single Catholic being a basket case as a result of being a chaste single Catholic, I’d really like to hear it.
All of this said, I am not saying that chastity comes naturally. Not in this fallen world. But remember: human nature is different from animal nature. It is partly supernatural. In order to live an authentically human life–which includes chastity–we rely on supernatural assistance. Better yet, it is there for the taking.
2) We must trust God completely. There are a great many things I could say about being in relationship with God. Let it go without saying that all Catholics must have an ever-growing, ever-deepening personal relationship with God. But I consider trust to be one of the most essential and crucial elements of that relationship. Lack of trust can make a soul especially vulnerable to ravage by loneliness, despair, envy, and depression.
When we say something is impossible, we imply that it is without hope, that it cannot be helped by anything or anybody. As we have seen, that is generally the opinion of the secular world when it comes to chastity. But Scripture and Tradition–our Catholic faith–tell us that we have a God who gives us hope, a God who cares for us and helps us, a God who knows us and knows our needs better than anybody else, even better than we know ourselves, and who provides for those needs. He made us–we hold no secrets, no mysteries for Him. There is nothing impossible for Him, and He does not ask anything impossible of us. All we have to do is cry out to Him for help. And when we are beseiged with temptations against chastity, we must be willing to cry out to Him immediately. “Lord, I am in trouble! Lord, please safeguard my chastity! Lord, please take the edge off of these desires!” If you pray like that at the first sign of temptation, and if you pray for chastity in general, God will help you!
In addition, trust also means entrusting ourselves to God, putting our entire selves in His hands, making a gift of ourselves to Him. It is saying, “God, I want to know and to fulfill Your will for me. I want to be the person You want me to be, and I want to do the things You want me to do. I want to follow Your commandments. I want to walk by Your side.” Trust in God involves both giving and receiving. He gives freely, but He does not force anything on us. We have to assume a posture of receiving. We have to be disposed to receiving what He gives us.
3) We must go to Confession regularly. God gives Himself and His eternal, supernatural life to us through the Sacraments of the Church. The Sacraments we can, and should, receive constantly are Holy Communion and Confession. Most people have no problem with Communion, but Confession is another matter. “Oh, I don’t need Confession. My sins aren’t that bad. Besides, why do I need to tell my sins to a priest?” Unfortunately, I think that this attitude has often been fostered by our clergy and religious educators, if not actively, then certainly by omission. Fortunately, I think that the damage is slowly being reversed. I am here to do my part by saying: You need Confession, and you need it regularly. I would recommend it at least once a month, but it is essential whenever you have commited a mortal sin. There are two basic reasons why.
First and foremost, Confession cleanses and releases our souls from sin and restores them to a state of grace. That state of grace is necessary in order for our souls to receive the graces offered by all the other Sacraments–it disposes us to receive grace. Furthermore, to receive Holy Communion when in a state of mortal sin not only deprives us of the graces of Communion, but also incurs additional mortal sin, namely sacrilege. Think about it: if you knew the Lord Jesus was coming to visit you in your home, you would probably want your home spotless and beautiful and full of good things to offer Him. When you receive Communion, you are bringing Him into your soul, which is to be a temple, a dwelling place for Him, so shouldn’t you want your soul to be spotless, beautiful, and full of delights for Him as well? You wouldn’t invite him into a sewer tank or a rotting mausoleum, but if your soul is in a state of mortal sin, that’s analogous to what you are doing. It is an offense to His goodness and His grace, an abuse to His Body and Blood, and hence an additional mortal sin. So my advice is that if you are aware of having committed a mortal sin, don’t even think about receiving Communion until you’ve gone to Confession!
Secondly, Confession is a Sacrament of healing and strengthening, which is effective even if you are not in a state of mortal sin. I have experienced this so many times in my life. Times when I have struggled constantly with temptations and come to the very brink of surrendering to them. Times when I’ve been distressed and exhausted physically, mentally, and/or spiritually. Times when everything has been in complete disarray and I haven’t been able to “get my act together.” Times when I’ve been plagued with confusion, doubt, despair, loneliness, envy, or other negativities. I often say that Confession “sets my world aright.” It has the ability to fortify me, to give me energy, to help me see clearly, to remind me that I am not in the world alone and I am not helpless.
I know Confession is not the easiest thing in the world. But I can say that it’s always much worse in my imagination than it ever is in reality! That’s probably because the devil doesn’t want us to go. The devil doesn’t want us freed from his slavery. So, one simple thing you might do if you have trouble going to Confession is pray to St. Michael the Archangel and to your guardian angel–ask them to protect you from the devil’s torments and trickery and to clear your way to the confessional. There are also Saints who are special patrons of Confession, such as St. John Nepomucene and St. Gerard Majella.
So, assuming it is not impossible to be a good single Catholic… can it make you happy? The answer to this is very simple: Happiness is not an object; happiness is not an emotion; Happiness is a Person. A divine Person. Actually, three divine Persons. As long as we have those three divine Persons in our lives, we can be happy no matter what life is like and no matter what the devil or other people may try to do to us. Ultimately, the three recommendations above bring us closer to Him. And thus, they bring us to happiness. Now, I don’t particularly enjoy being single, because I feel called to marriage, and I desire that will all my heart. But my life is still happy because I keep bringing it back to God and making Him my focus! This is something I’ve learned entirely by experience. Therefore, I encourage everyone to experience it for themselves. It is not always easy, but it is very worth it. The happiness that comes from living out the Catholic faith is a happiness the world can never afford.