I recently read an article vilifying the virtue of pre-marital virginity. The writer claimed that girls—and the families of those girls—who make a promise not to have sex before marriage are afraid of female sexuality, devalue girls and women who aren’t virgins, and perpetuate patriarchy.
I disagree on all counts. And so does the Church.
Catholic teachings on pre-marital sex are both misunderstood as patriarchal and misconstrued as outdated. To begin with, the Church’s teachings on sexuality apply to both men and women. In the eyes of the Faith, men are not held to any different standards, nor is their worth greater than that of their female counterparts. Any suggestion to the contrary comes from a skewed cultural perspective—not from the catechism. No one can dispute that pop culture glorifies men for sexual experience and mocks women for it, but that doesn’t make it right, and it certainly doesn’t make it the position of the Catholic faith.
In truth, the Catholic Church holds the feminine genius in incredibly high esteem. During his papacy, Saint John Paul II was outspoken and passionate about the unique character and contributions of women in the Church, and in society at large. I’d encourage you to read his writings in his Letter to Women and Mulieris Dignitatem, which discuss the feminine genius—and the many and splendid roles of women in the Church—at length.
Moreover, the Church is, herself, personified as the bride of Christ. She is an essential partner in the salvation of humanity, and is both devoted to Christ and loved by him. If you truly reflect on that imagery—which was established centuries ago, at the foundation of the Church’s beginning—and it still doesn’t convince you of Catholicism’s love for femininity, I don’t know what will.
While it may seem easy to quote historically significant theologians who touted anti-feminist teachings, it’s essential to remember one thing: no person since Christ and Mary themselves has been without sin, and no one but God is always right. Because many of even our greatest theological minds may been tainted by perspectives built by the societal hierarchies of their times, it’s critical to remember that the words and teachings of no Catholic—whether saint, sinner, pastor, or nun—are taken without question. We all must recognize that, humanly speaking, wisdom is selective, conditional, and not without influence.
One of the many beautiful things about Catholicism is that the Church, as the bride of Christ, is perfect—even if her members are not. Such is the structure that has kept her faithful for 2,000 years.
In addition to her teachings against patriarchy, the Church’s teachings say nothing to reject the worthiness of women—or men—who’ve lost their virginity before marriage. Is any one of us made less valuable by sin? Less loved by God? Less capable of being forgiven? Of course not. After all, our Church knows of only two individuals who spent their entire lives without bending to the temptation of sin: Christ himself, and Mary, his mother. No person, obviously, could ever match the perfection of God. But we haven’t even managed to emulate the devotion of Mary—a fellow human, through and through.
Without exception, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are” (Centesimus annus, #11).
Finally, the Church isn’t fearful of female sexuality—or sexuality in general, for that matter. A thorough, end-to-end education on Catholic teachings regarding sex can be found in the Church’s theology of the body, as well as the catechism. Neither resource refers to human sexuality alone as wrong, evil, frightening, or disgusting—or, in fact, any negative quality at all. In truth, the Church regards sexuality as one of God’s most precious gifts to mankind: it is a surreal, unique opportunity to express and strengthen the bond between a married couple. More importantly, it blesses us with the opportunity to take part in God’s greatest act: creation. There’s nothing dirty or unbecoming about an honest, truly committed, selfless, and open-to-life expression of sexuality by a man or a woman.
So what, then, does the Church say is wrong about pre-marital sex?
To understand that, it is essential to understand Catholic teachings on marriage. Please check out this post for a holistic discussion on that, but here’s an abridged version:
- Catholic marriage is a sacrament—which counts it among the seven holiest experiences anyone in the Church could ever experience.
- Among other reasons, marriage is treated as a sacrament because:
- It was ordained by God Himself, who joined Adam and Eve together at the very beginning of everything humanity has ever known.
- It is the relationship in which we take on an extremely blessed and sacred role in God’s creation: that of participants in the creation of new life, which is the formation of everything out of nothing.
- The marital bond is permanent and unyielding. As a relationship of choice—the only permanent relationship we choose to experience with a specific person, as opposed to being born into a family of blood relatives—it requires the most profound commitment there is, and therefore cannot be revoked or undone. Thus, husband and wife “become one flesh,” and cannot be separated.
- Because that permanent, unique union joined by God cannot be fully comprehended by our limited human understanding, the Church teaches that sex is a tangible, experiential way for us to begin to grasp its profundity, in that it is inherently bonding and there is no other experience like it.
- The relationship between husband and wife is central to the family, and thus plays an essential and unmatched role in the Church.
So chastity outside of marriage is taught by the Church neither as the selfish command of an overprotective parent, nor the devaluation of sexually active single people, nor the rejection of female empowerment. It is a holistic approach to valuing oneself for all that we are worth, because a true spirit of chastity is about more than just withholding from sex. It is taught to be a simple, selfless decision to choose love over pleasure, permanence over brevity, giving over receiving, and life over egoism.