In the Divine Praises, Saint Joseph is called the “most chaste spouse.” Personally speaking, and given the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity, in the past I’ve implicitly reduced Joseph’s chastity to the simple fact that his wife was a virgin. With that being the case, his example of living chastely had little bearing on my own life as a husband and father.
When I read the pope’s Apostolic Letter Patris Corde, therefore, I was struck by how he discussed Joseph’s title of “most chaste.” In the letter, Pope Francis explained:
“That title is not simply a sign of affection, but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness. Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery. God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom. He never made himself the center of things. He did not think of himself, but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus” (PC 7).
Chastity means being able to love others without the desire to possess them or use them. It means loving without fearing that I might not get what I need or want from the other person. It means loving with “extraordinary freedom.” That’s what chastity is ultimately about: freedom. The Catechism says that Jesus is “the model for all chastity” (CCC 2348). Jesus’ entire life is our model of loving others without condition or possession. The Cross is the perfect image of chaste love, love freely given for without the expectation of anything in return.
This promise of love free from possessiveness is compelling because it is the kind of love we were created by and created for. Pope Francis teaches, “God himself loved humanity with a chaste love.” This reflects the teaching in the Catechism that “God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image. …God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion” (CCC 2331). The deepest desire of our hearts is to experience love that does not desire to possess or use and to love others unconditionally in return. Built into the very maleness and femaleness of our bodies is the revelation that I am incomplete by myself, that my life is only fulfilled in loving communion with another.
Christ’s model of love free from possessiveness is also compelling because we very rarely actually experience this type of love. Our relationships are often tainted by selfishness, envy, abandonment, neglect, betrayal, and abuse. Every single one of us carries hurt and shame from the times we have used and possessed others and when others have used and possessed us. These experiences generate a litany of lies that we can carry around for years or even decades:
Nobody could ever love me without wanting something in return.
I’m not worth that kind of love.
I could never truly love somebody else like that.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:27-28). We often hear this as Jesus simply commanding us not to lust after others. But for Christians, the moral law is not simply an example to follow or a bar we must work to reach; it is the promise of transformation. The Catechism teaches, “The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to the faithful through faith in Christ. It works through charity; it uses the Sermon on the Mount to teach us what must be done and makes use of the sacraments to give us the grace to do it” (CCC 1966).
The Sermon on the Mount is a promise. Jesus is saying that with his help we will be free of lust. With his help we will be free to love the real people in our lives without the desire to possess or use them. That is the promise of chastity. The Catechism makes clear that chastity is “a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort. The Holy Spirit enables one whom the water of Baptism has regenerated to imitate the purity of Christ” (CCC 2345).
But the grace of the Holy Spirit not only gives us the strength to imitate Christ and to live out the moral law; it actually transforms our desires so that we want to. The Holy Spirit makes our minds like Christ’s mind and our hearts like Christ’s heart. The Law of the Gospel “proceeds to reform the heart” (CCC 1968). As Pope Francis has taught:
“This is the precious gift that the Holy Spirit brings to our hearts: the very life of God, the life of true children, a relationship of confidence, freedom and trust in the love and mercy of God. It also gives us a new perception of others, close and far, seen always as brothers and sisters in Jesus to be respected and loved.
The Holy Spirit teaches us to see with the eyes of Christ, to live life as Christ lived, to understand life as Christ understood it. That is why the living water, who is the Holy Spirit, quenches our life, why he tells us that we are loved by God as children, that we can love God as his children and that by his grace we can live as children of God, like Jesus” (General Audience, May 8, 2013).
Jesus not only showed us what chaste love looks like and gives us the strength to live that way, but through the Holy Spirit our hearts are transformed so that we desire to live like Christ. This is true chastity: the freedom to love like Christ loved with ease and joy, because it is our own heart’s desire.
When we think about chastity in this way, it is obvious that chastity isn’t only for those who are married to perpetual virgins. Chaste love is for everyone. Further, chastity is not abstract. It must be lived in real situations with the real people in our lives. Chastity is freely choosing to respect your spouse when they’ve had a rough day and need to go to bed early. Chastity is getting up at 3:00am to give your toddler a bath and clean set of sheets when she’s wet the bed. Chastity is packing a peanut butter sandwich for lunch so your son can have the last piece of leftover pizza. Chastity is respecting your teenager’s freedom to make mistakes. Chasity is doing all that without keeping score and with a heart full of joy.
Saint Joseph, the most chaste spouse, I desperately need your prayers.
Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past almost eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.