Phenomenology of the Vows: Chastity

January 15, 2013

St. Thomas being girded with the belt of chastity

*see also:

In this series so far we have looked at the vows from the perspective provided by Edmund Husserl’s account of phenomenology. Specifically we have used his concepts of intentionalityand givenness to highlight aspects of the vows in general and poverty in particular. Intentionality means that thought is always of something, it is not just thought. Givenness means the thing thought is thought as it is given, in a particular way. The thing determines the way we think it. So we might sum up Husserl’s account as “Thought is about something assomething.” Almost a tautology, but when interpreted along the above lines a profound reflection on our grasp of reality. In discussing the vow of chastity, I would like to add another important aspect of Husserl’s phenomenology to our tool kit: phenomenological bracketing.
Phenomenological bracketing, or bracketing for short, is an essential element to Husserl’s project, and it means something similar to its grammatical root. To bracket something is to “put it aside” in a way, to keep it out of consideration for the moment. For Husserl, Phenomenology is able to work with the concepts of intentionalityand givenness because it brackets certain things out of consideration, thus phenomenological bracketing (or epoche, to use Husserl’s fancy Greek term). What does he bracket?

“The phenomenologist…must practice an epoche. He must inhibit every ordinary objective ‘position,’ and partake in no judgement concerning the objective world. The experience itself will remain what it was, an experience of this house, of this body, of this world in general, in its particular mode. (Phenomenology).”

James Watson and Francis Crick at the lab 

Husserl wants us to bracket out of consideration…the objective world! This seems to be the most radical version of skepticism and relativism imaginable — in order to understand the world we need to ignore or forget its existence! But Husserl’s whole project is about getting “back to the things themselves;” how can he possibly mean this?

Bracketing is the attempt to get behind the “natural attitude” of the world that we all have in everydayness. The “natural attitude” is the basic attitude of the scientist in the lab: the world is one of objects to be categorized and used in experiments; it is a world of utility. Husserl sees this as a fine attitude for science but he thinks it is not about reality in its entirety but if we want to know reality as reality, as it is, than we need to bracket the “objective” facts of the objects we see and attend closely to how we receive them in our experience of consciousness, in particular under the aspects of intentionality and givenness.
All this is fine and good in a course on Husserlian phenomenology, but what does it have to do with the vows, in particular the vow of chastity? I think it is of immense value for understanding this vow especially in the current modern climate. Let me explain.
Of the three vows I think it is obvious that chastity (shorthand for celibate chastity for the religious) is the most difficult to understand in the modern world: It just doesn’t seem to make sense to most people on the street. It seems unnatural to refuse to marry. The great Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, OP makes this difficulty clear:

“The natural inclination to marriage is universal. Every human person has it, and it is the basis of an inalienable right. It is also the basis of natural law… Yet some may be called to renounce marriage and the exercise of sexuality (Sources of Christian Ethics, 448).”

I submit that the vow of chastity, at first glance, looks a lot like the process of phenomenological bracketing: both seem to be radical denials of the world and surely on the wrong track to understanding and living in the world. If we want to understand the world in itself, bracketing it from consideration surely does not seem to be the right thing to do. Just so, if we want to live a life of love in the world to the fullest, surely renouncing the most basic of human interpersonal inclinations is not the way to do it!
Fr. Servais Pinckaers OP

But just as when we better understood what Husserl meant by bracketing we saw the importance of it for his phenomenology, so too when we better understand what the Church and the Order mean by the vow of chastity we can see the importance and rightness of it. We can begin by realizing that just as the “natural attitude” is actually not natural at all according to Husserl, so too the “natural understanding” of human nature in modernity is not natural in traditional terms. This is because the “natural attitude” of the world in terms of human nature is physical, not natural; it does not admit in any significant way the spiritual aspects of being human, naturally human. And indeed if we were not spiritual as well as physical beings, then generation would be the greatest fruitfulness and chastity would be insane or at least undesirable. But we are spiritual beings, animals informed by a rational soul and the intellectual capacity to transcend the material to contemplate the forms of things below and things above. In fact, according to the Catholic tradition (among others) this is precisely what makes us humans in the first place: our ability to transcend the world in contemplation. And so, if this is what makes humans unique, then directing life towards this human activity is also perfectly natural. Servais Pinckaers, OP explains:

“The ideal of virginity received its legitimate status from nature itself, not indeed from the inclination toward generation but from the yearning for knowledge of divine truth, seen as humanity’s highest good. The choice of virginity or perfect chastity was therefore not opposed to the task of marriage, since it was motivated by the fulfillment of another task, which we might say was even more natural: the progress in the knowledge of truth and goodness for the benefit of all society (SCE, 448).”

The Dominican Constitution says something similar in terms of loving God “with an undivided heart:”

“The brothers who promise chastity ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ follow in the footsteps of Saint Dominic who for the love of God preserved unblemished virginity throughout his life…We ought to value our profession of chastity as a special gift of grace, by which we unite ourselves more readily to God with an undivided heart, and are more intimately consecrated to him (LCO 25-26).”

Now, to be sure, the vow of chastity also allows a friar to better love all those around him:

“Dominic was so much on fire with zeal for souls that ‘he receive all in a broad embrace of charity and since he loved them all he was loved by all in return, spending himself fully in the service of his neighbor and with compassion for the afflicted’… Impelled by our apostolic vocation we are wholly dedicated to the Church, and thus to love humanity more fully (LCO 25-26).”

St. Dominic and his Friars Fed by Angels – G. Sogliani

Of course, contemplation of God and love of others are by no means from exclusive; far from it! The final object of our contemplation is God, the God who is Love. Our contemplation should lead to acts of love and charity to our brothers and sisters, and the vow of chastity allows us to respond to this loving contemplation in the most universal way. And this response of love, which is practiced first amongst our Dominican brothers, rebounds to the whole Church as we live out this radical gift of charity. As Fr. Pinckaers concludes:

“The power of the Gospel ideal of virginity enlivened by the charity of Christ is manifested notably by its ability to call forth new types of communities, consecrated to the evangelical life through renunciation, contemplation, and devotion. It is the proof, founded on facts and a long history, of the supernatural fruitfulness of Christian virginity (SCE, 452).”

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