What is continence according to St. Thomas Aquinas?
It would be very helpful in this discussion about continence to clarify what St. Thomas Aquinas teaches about it. Some of the differences of opinion might stem from a bit of confusion around the meaning of the term.
Aquinas distinguishes two meanings of continence. He mentions this in a few different places. One is the part that Eden refers to in her thesis based on a reference from West in TOB Explained, where Thomas explains that a continent person still has unruly passions. Since the passions are not well-ordered by reason, continence is something less than a full virtue. (I-II-, q. 58, a. 3, ad 2).
But Thomas explains it more in the part of the Summa where he treats the virtues, and he asks the question, “Is continence a virtue?” (II-II, q. 155, a. 1).
First meaning of continence
He explains it has two meanings. The first meaning is that of “abstinence from all sex pleasures,” and in this sense it is a virtue. He says “virginity is the principal, and chaste widowhood the secondary form of perfect continence. Accordingly the same reasoning holds for continence as for virginity, which we have already shown to be a virtue.” When John Paul speaks of continence in marriage in discussing Humanae Vitae, he speaks of continence in the sense of a temporary abstention from sexual relations and this is also a form of the virtue of continence.
Second meaning of continence
Continence is also “resistance to the crooked lusts that shake us” (this is the Blackfriars translation; I really like it here). Thomas refers to Aristotle’s Ethics and then says, “In this sense continence has some of the quality of virtue, in that the reason remains steadfast against the passions which would lead us astray. Nevertheless it does not achieve the full stature of a moral virtue, which so composes even the sensory appetite according to reason that powerful rebellious passions do not rear up. Thus Aristotle speaks of continence as being, not unalloyed virtue, but a sort of mixture which has some of the ingredients of virtue while yet in part falling short of virtue.”
So in this second sense, continence is not a virtue but something less than a virtue. These two meanings account for some of the possible confusion in discussing continence. To potentially confuse us even more, Thomas adds at the end of the article, “Nevertheless, broadly speaking and taking virtue to mean any ability to perform commendable deeds, we can allow that continence is a virtue.”
The background of the distinction
Thomas distinguishes the two senses based on what Aristotle wrote in the Ethics. He wrote about the progression from vice to incontinence, then to continence, and then to virtue. Continence and incontinence are intermediate states between vice and virtue. The continent person is still shaken by “crooked lusts,” as Thomas puts it. But in the full state of virtue, temperance in this context, the sense appetite itself is well-ordered through the virtue. (All of this is very important to the discussion about mature purity, when that topic will come up.)
So in the discussion of TOB, it will be important to take care to determine in what sense John Paul uses the word “continence.”