Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The virtue of purity?

Last Sunday, being Assumption, one of the prayers was for married couples asking that they "grow in the virtue of purity".

Not for the first time I found myself wondering, is purity a virtue?

I have no trouble seeing that purity can be a good thing for some purposes and that we should come to God in purity. But it seems different from a virtue.

Consider courage or patience, which are indisputably virtues. They both admit to degrees. You can be more or less patient. Can you be more or less pure? Ivory Soap famously claims to be 99.44 percent pure but take that one apart and it really means there are only .56 percent of elements that are not soap.

Ten thousand minutes is roughly one week. Would any moralist accept that someone who spent 56 minutes a week in lustful sex was 99.44 percent pure?

To return to virtues, they also admit of excess. Someone who is too courageous is foolhardy. Someone who is too patient will tolerate injustice they ought not to.

Often the virtue of purity sounds like temperance. For example when John Paul II spoke of purity:
Abstention "from unchastity", which implies controlling one's body "in holiness and honour", makes it possible to deduce that, according to the Apostle's doctrine, purity is a “capacity” centered on the dignity of the body, that is, on the dignity of the person in relation to his own body, to the femininity or masculinity which is manifested in this body. 
We might note that even here the former Pope was obliged to argue that this capacity was implied; Saint Paul did not actually speak of a virtue but only of not doing certain things. But that sounds like temperance and why do we need a separate word to describe a virtue that we already have a very good word for?

If we go back a little further in the same text, we find John Paul describing purity in terms of temperance and one other virtue.
If in the aforementioned text of the First Letter to the Thessalonians we can see that purity consists in temperance, in this text, however, as also in the First Letter to the Corinthians, the element of respect is also highlighted.
This is only succeeding in making purity sound more and more like a state and less like a virtue. If you have these virtues of temperance and respect you will be in a state of purity. I like that. If that is true then anyone can maintain a state of purity. Joyce could spend four years at college sleeping around and discover the value of respect and temperance and then train herself in these virtues and be pure. (Assuming here that all impurity from her previous life could be wiped away by reconciliation and that is Catholic teaching although you wouldn't know it to hear some Catholics speak of purity)

This is still less than ideal because the analogy doesn't work very well. In the past of written about how we use words like stress and perspective in a moral sense by analogy to the way we use them in science. The sense of purity I've speculated about in the previous paragraph is in no way analogous to the way we use the expression purity to refer to food and drink, for example.

And we are still left with the tricky question of the examples of purity typically given by Catholics. Virgins are all people who simply did not do certain things.

Another way of looking at this is to re-examine the tricky question of degrees of purity. Even temperance implies balance. A temperate drinker is not necessarily someone who doesn't drink at all. We might say that I must abstain completely to be temperate if I know I am an alcoholic but if I am not an alcoholic temperance means drinking in a controlled and restrained way.

That is not what Catholics mean when they praise Mary for her purity. To suggest that Mary abstained from sex for the same reasons that a temperate alcoholic abstains from drink would be blasphemous.

And if we return to my example of Joyce above, the way many Catholics speak of purity no matter how much she showed the virtues of respect and temperance in her sex life she could never be as pure as someone who had never had sex at all. Which is just another way of saying she would always be impure even after she'd developed these virtues.

No matter how we twist and turn on this one, purity isn't a virtue, it's a state. When Saint Paul talks about purity in first Thessalonians and first Corinthians he is talking about a state of being. Purity is not a virtue.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you, purity isn't a virtue its a state. And I think it has less to do with the behavior one engages in than what is in the heart.