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Abstinence as Virtue

Abstinence as Virtue

by Karol Wojtyla (Saint John Paul II), translated by Grzegorz Ignatik in Love and Responsibility

Sexual intercourse of a man and a woman in marriage remains on the level of a personal union in love only on the condition that they do not positively exclude the possibility of procreation and parenthood. When this “I can be a father,” “I can be a mother” is positively excluded in the consciousness and will of a man and a woman, then what is left (objectively speaking) in the conjugal act is sexual use alone. In that case, a person (e.g., X) becomes an object of use for another person (Y), which contradicts the personalistic norm. Man possesses reason not first and foremost so that he can calculate the maximum of pleasure in his life, but above all so that he can know the objective truth, ground the principles possessing the absolute meaning (norms) in that truth, and in turn live by them. Then he lives in a way worthy of who he is—he lives in an “honorable” way. Human morality cannot be based on utility alone, but must extend to honorableness (godziwość). And honorableness demands the supra-utilitarian value of the person to be acknowledged : right here “honorableness” is most clearly against “utility” itself. Especially in the sexual sphere, it is not enough to state that a given way of conduct is “useful,” but it is necessary to state whether it is “honorable.” However, if we are to remain consistently on the ground of honorableness and of the personalistic norm connected with it, then the only “method” of regulating conceptions in conjugal intercourse can be abstinence (wstrzemięźliwość), for it conditions love, i.e., the reciprocal relation between a man and a woman (especially of a man toward a woman) demanded by genuine affirmation of the value of the person.

Whoever does not want the effect, avoids the cause. Since the cause of conception in the biological sense is sexual intercourse of the spouses, if they exclude conception, they should also exclude intercourse itself; they should refrain from it. The principle of conjugal abstinence under the ethical aspect is clear.

As opposed to artificial methods, the natural method in striving to regulate conceptions takes advantage of the circumstances in which biological conception cannot naturally occur. Hence, the very “naturalness” of conjugal intercourse is not violated, whereas artificial methods violate the very “naturalness” of intercourse. In the former case, infertility is derived from the very principles of fertility; in the latter case it is imposed against nature. Let us add that this issue is closely linked to the problem of justice with respect to the Creator (this problem will be further analyzed in order to explicate its personalistic sense). This personalistic asset of periodic abstinence as a method of regulating conceptions is manifested not so much in preserving the “naturalness” of intercourse, but in the fact that its basis in the will of the involved persons must be an appropriately mature virtue. Precisely here the significance of interpretation is made visible : the utilitarian interpretation distorts the essence of what we call the “natural method.” For the essence of this method is its reliance on abstinence as a virtue, which is very closely connected with love of the person.

The essence of abstinence as a virtue is linked to the conviction that the love of a man and a woman loses nothing by temporarily relinquishing amorous lived-experiences; on the contrary, it gains : the union of persons becomes more profound, grounded fundamentally on affirmation of the value of the person, and not merely on sexual attachment. Abstinence as a virtue cannot be comprehended as a “contraceptive.” The spouses who practice it are ready to refrain from sexual intercourse also from other motives (e.g., religious ones), and not only for the purpose of avoiding offspring. Self-interested, “calculated” abstinence raises doubts. Just like any other virtue, it should be disinterested, concentrated on “honorableness” itself and not only on “utility.” Without this it will find no place in the true love of persons. As long as it is not a virtue, abstinence represents an “alien being” to love. The love of a man and a woman must reach maturity with respect to abstinence, and abstinence must acquire for them a constructive meaning as a love-forming factor. Only then does the “natural method” find justification in persons, for its secret lies in practicing virtue; “technique” alone solves nothing here.

Therefore, if we can treat periodic abstinence as a “method” in this case, we can do so only and exclusively as a method of regulating conceptions, and not as a method of avoiding a family. Without understanding the essence of the family there is no way of grasping the ethical rectitude of this problem. The institution of the family is closely connected with the parenthood of a man and a woman who have conjugal relations. The family is a natural community, which in its being and acting remains directly dependent on parents. Parents create the family as a complement and expansion (dopełnienie i rozszerzenie) of their love. To create a family means to create a community, as by nature the family is a community—indeed a society, for if it is not a society, it is not itself. 

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