Why Church Teachings on Chastity are Undeniably True

Many years ago, in one of the standard editions of The Tempest that I had ordered for my students, I read an angry little essay whose proximate target was the mage Prospero, and whose ultimate target was anyone alive, particularly men, who would uphold a view of sexual morality one or two steps higher than, “I get to do what I want.” The author inveighed against Prospero’s supposed “control” over the sexuality of his daughter Miranda.

You may remember Miranda. She is the original Wonder Woman, that is, the woman worthy of wonder: that is what her name means, and if you are named Miranda, you are named after Shakespeare’s admirable young woman; I don’t know of any previous appearance of the name. “Oh wonder!” exclaims Ferdinand when he sees her for the first time. It is more than love at first sight. It is devotion, and admiration of excellence.

Prospero for a time pretends that Ferdinand is a spy come to take his island from him, and compels the young prince to perform heavy physical labor—moving and piling up some “thousands” of logs—that is worthy of a menial servant. Ferdinand’s noble spirit rises against the injustice, but when he thinks of Miranda, it is as if there were no labor at all:

There be some sports are painful, and their labor
Delight in them sets off; some kinds of baseness
Are nobly undergone, and most poor matters
Point to rich ends. This my mean task
Would be as heavy to me as odious, but
The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead
And makes my labors pleasures.

Nor is Miranda merely an object of wonder. She has a great capacity for wonder in her own right. When she sees Ferdinand for the first time, she who has been raised on a desert island and has never seen any young man before, she judges rightly as to the character of the creature she first thinks is a spirit, and as to the kind of being Ferdinand is:

I might call him
A thing divine; for nothing natural
I ever saw so noble.

So also when she bursts out in exclamation, seeing for the first time in her life a smallish group of human beings, and judging them by what God made them to be, rather than what sin has done to some of them:

O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That hath such creatures in it!

Now the power the Miranda possesses, both as subject and object, is ineradicable from her innocence and purity, which in her assume a distinctly womanly form. I imagine that everyone has seen a man who appears unpleasantly handsome, because the vicious life he leads has begun to show in his countenance—the leering eye, the cold smile, debauchery in the lip and jowl; or a woman unpleasantly beautiful, because of a vicious life of her own—the look of a whore, perhaps, without the poverty and suffering. Miranda is what she is because of her virtue, the very thing that the feminist critic found appalling. It is as if the critic were railing against Prospero for having fed his daughter good food and given her plenty of fresh air and sunshine for the health of her body.

For virtue is like health. That is something Shakespeare understood quite well, and the feminist critic did not. The typical charge against Prospero is that he has used his magic art to cause Ferdinand to fall in love with Miranda, stealing her freedom from her—“freedom” understood as self-will, autonomy, the spoiled teenager’s “I want it!”—but Miranda needs no art to make her wondrous, and when the young people meet, Prospero suggests that the magic is in them: “They are both in either’s powers.”

Virtue is a power, a liberating power. Let us repeat it every day. Virtue is not the possession of the “right” political opinion, no more than it was, among the upper classes in Victorian England and in the growing American state, the possession of the right books and objets d’art, attendance at the right religious services, knowing the right people, speaking with the right accent, wearing the right clothes in public, and extending the right pinky while you were drinking the right tea from the right china arranged in the right way.

If we agree that virtue is a power, then the greater the natural force that a particular virtue masters, strengthens, restrains, and directs, the more powerful the virtue will be. So then, the virtue of tolerance is meant to master our natural antipathy against what is stupid, ugly, false, empty, or wicked. That antipathy is, in most of us, not very powerful, because our own sins accustom us to plenty that is stupid, ugly, and so forth. Our greater danger is indifference, not intolerance. So tolerance is a minor virtue; it does not actually get much done, but it does often prevent us from spoiling something tolerable. Think of it as having an exceptionally strong index finger. That is a good thing, but still—it is only an index finger.

Sexual desire in man is extraordinarily powerful; I do not know a more powerful force, in most human beings, especially the young. Therefore sexual virtue will also be extraordinarily powerful and liberating. It is, in the moral field, like having a strong, supple, and agile body, one that can do what you want it to do without strain. What the feminist critic wanted for Miranda was an abandonment of this liberating power.

Now, if we believe this, we see that the benefits of the virtue cannot be had without its demands, and in a sense the benefits and the demands are the same thing. To have a healthy body is to be a healthy body in action and at rest, and to have a healthy soul is likewise. Apply the rule to the realm of sex. Abstinence is like a diet artificially applied from without. Chastity is a power, and needs no diet, because the tastes are for what is good and healthy already, and the chaste person is therefore free, ready to go to work, whether that is aimed for marriage, or is the work and play of marriage itself, or is the pure being-male or being-female in the world, outside of marriage.

When the Church upholds the rules of chastity, she is not so much prescribing a diet, as she is identifying what is good for man’s sexual being, and what is not good. She is describing facts. You may say that these are not facts; you may not be a Roman Catholic. But we must be clear about what the Church is affirming. She says that to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage is bad for you, and by extension it is bad for the people around you, because no man is an island, and autonomy is a lie. There are things that chaste people can do and can enjoy that are spoiled or rendered impossible by the vice; and there are things that a society that expects chastity can enjoy that a society that expects vice cannot.

People who believe that the Church can change her teaching about these things do not see what is implied. They believe, it seems to me, that the teachings are arbitrary, “mere dogma” as they say. But we are arguing ultimately about facts. The Church is saying, “This here is laced with poison. It will riddle your bones. You will begin to cough and spit up blood. You might as well be bound and fettered. Here are the directives instead that will make you powerful. They work.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Miranda (The Tempest)” painted by J.W. Waterhouse in 1916.

Anthony Esolen

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Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

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