Marc Barns of Bad Catholic recently wrote a post that included his dislike of the phrase “emotional chastity.” I read the article. I read the comments. I thought about commenting. Then I decided to just write an entire post. As someone who gives talks on what one would consider the topic of emotional chastity, I couldn’t help but respond to clarify a few things on the concept.
First off let me state that I, myself, am not a fan of the phrase “emotional chastity.” I remember the first time I heard it and thought “That’s stupid.” I try not to use it when I speak and only use it when I write for SEO purposes because if someone is interested in the topic, the phrase they are going search is “emotional chastity.” When put together the words emotional and chastity don’t really make sense, so yes Marc, I’m with you. In fact it wasn’t what Marc said that initiated this post, rather it was reading through the comments. I was struck by the fact that some people seem to think that the concept which the Catholic buzz phrase “emotional chastity” is trying to convey is a made up idea that holds little to no value in the life of a Catholic.
**Enter the point of this post with a brief explanation of why this topic is important and real.**
In his book Love and Responsibility, Pope Saint John Paul II explains that there are two types of attraction, sensual attraction and sentimental attraction. He details that sensual attraction is related to the material value of a person, or what we find physically attractive about them, while sentimental attraction relates to the non-material value of a person, or what we find emotionally attractive about them. Both of these types of attraction can spark in us the instant we meet someone or grow with time, and they both are necessary for attraction to turn into authentic love.
Neither type of attraction is bad. It can be good, healthy, and normal for a person to find another person physically or emotionally attractive. The problem arises when these types of attraction are not directed by the virtues and run the risk of turning into use. As Christians we often address how we can use each other for physical pleasure, but what we don’t address is how we can use each other for emotional pleasure. At some point “emotional chastity” became the chosen buzz phrase for this issue, a lack of virtue in the realm of sentimental attraction.
I can agree that some have made the term too broad, which has led to confusion about a topic that is already confusing due to the various interpretations of the term. The virtue of physical chastity is needed to order sensual attractions, whoever came up with this phrase “emotional chastity” was trying to find a counterpart for sentimental attractions.
So why did the trendy phrase “emotional chastity” take when “using the virtue of prudence when considering the sentimental side of your interactions with the opposite sex” didn’t? Because the average Catholic teen or young adult might tell you that prudence is the name of their great-great-grandmother, and if you are lucky they might remember that she used to say that “patience is a virtue.” “Emotional chastity” was simply a phrase that most people could relate to, perhaps a weak one, but one that didn’t require a course in Christian Morality to begin to grasp.
In the end, here is where it all comes together for me, and why these two types of attractions are related and important to consider. Where our hearts go, our bodies want to follow. If our emotions are saying, “I love this person, I want to give everything to them and be as close to them as I can,” then our bodies will want to manifest these emotions in a physical way. In its proper place (marriage) this is a good thing, but outside of marriage, broken hearts follow. If we want to be physically chaste, we need to begin by being emotionally… prudent.
So fine, let’s stop trending the phrase “emotional chastity,” but let’s not stop talking about how to properly order our sentimental attractions toward the good so our relationships can grow into true, authentic love.
Lisa Cotter is a nationally sought after speaker on the topics of dating, marriage, motherhood, and femininity. While balancing sound theology with humor and practical insights, Lisa inspires audiences of all ages. Her work has been featured by Lighthouse Catholic Media, YDisciple, and The Chastity Project. She is a graduate of Benedictine College, where she earned degrees in Theology and Youth Ministry. Since 2007, she and her husband, Kevin, have served FOCUS as a family. When Lisa is not speaking, she is busy playing with her three young children and trying to avoid laundry. To schedule Lisa for an event, visit focus.org/lisa.