The temptation to have sex before marriage is as old as marriage itself. More than 1,600 years ago, St. Augustine, grappling with his desires, cried out to God, "Give me chastity . . . but not yet!"
What is chastity? The word is often used to mean simply abstaining from sex, as if it were equivalent to celibacy. So it may be strange to learn that, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "All Christ's faithful are called to lead a chaste life." If that meant total abstinence, how would there be any new Catholics? (After all, cloning is out of the question.)
The Church's stance makes sense only if one knows what chastity really is. A clue is in the rest of that sentence from the Catechism: "All Christ's faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life." By "states of life," the Church means that there is unmarried chastity, and there is married chastity.
Part of chastity entails the proper ordering of sexual pleasure -- which means engaging in it only within marriage. But more than that, it is really a way to look at all of one's relationships so that they no longer become mere exchanges of commodities. It means experiencing others' presence -- not just what they do, but their existence itself -- as a gift. A spouse is a particularly special reminder of that most perfect gift of self made by Jesus Christ.
While sex can bring pleasure, the jury is still out on whether it can bring joy. Despite all the efforts of popular culture to promote sexual "liberation" as a route to personal fulfillment, many people remain deeply unsatisfied by relationships that offer sex without lifelong love and commitment.
The Catholic Church believes that true joy comes from God. In that light, the only way a sexual relationship can bring such joy is if it is undertaken by a man and woman who have brought God into it through the sacrament of marriage.
In sacramental marriage, spouses' commitment of unending love for one another emulates God's unending love for them. As a result, their temporal feelings of sexual gratification are transformed -- gaining a deep and fulfilling sense of spiritual permanence.