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"Big Four" Highlights
When is a kiss just a kiss – or more? A detailed guide to a lost manly art
By Father Thomas G. Morrow
The key Church teaching on chastity is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes” (No. 2351).
The unitive purpose implies the celebration of the existing marital love covenant. In other words, sexual pleasure may be sought only in marriage. And, the procreative purpose means the act itself is open to having children, regardless of the intention of the (married) couple. In other words it must be a complete marital act. It is not licit to seek sexual pleasure apart from a complete non-contracepted marital act.
The point is that, for single people dating, it is immoral to seek sexual pleasure in any action. Simple enough. However, there has to be a bit more to it than that. After all, some may argue (and some do) that they are not seeking sexual pleasure in their sexual encounters, but just to show affection. What, then, would be another reasonable criterion to judge by? The nature of the activity. If an activity is by its nature highly stimulating, then it belongs only in marriage. This would include French kissing and touching sensitive areas of the body.
In this article I hope to give evidence that French kissing in courtship at any age is sinful, and so is long-term kissing on a couch. And, I will present a beautiful way of affection that a number of young people have used to replace this behavior; a way that has moved them from unchastity to chastity.
But, one might ask, what if a man gets stirred up sexually when he chastely hugs a woman or holds her hand or kisses her gently. Is that immoral?
The answer is no, if he is not seeking pleasure in these acts which have the nature of affection. If a man begins to be aroused by holding his sweetheart's hand (possible, though unlikely), as long as he doesn’t latch on to that pleasure and start rubbing her hand, trying to cultivate arousal, he doesn’t sin. Granted, the man who would do that might need counseling, but no doubt, stranger things have happened. Holding hands is a praiseworthy sign of affection and as long as any sexual pleasure is accepted as an unintended side effect, there would be no sin.
Should he immediately take his hand away from the woman if such a reaction occurred? No, but he might simply take her hand and kiss it before releasing it, especially if he feels he might be tempted to cultivate the unintended arousal.
What if the same thing were to happen when he gives her a hug? Again, it seems that the same principle would apply. He should simply ignore the unintended arousal and finish the hug. Again, if he were to move in a way to increase the arousal or to prolong the hug, hoping for continued arousal, that would be sinful. The point is that affectionate acts such as hugging or holding hands do not ordinarily cause arousal, because they are not essentially sexual or sensual. For that reason, some moderate brief unsought arousal can be quite licit, as long as it is not sought.
One seminarian asked me if he should stop hugging the young women who wanted to hug him, because at times he had looked forward to the physical buzz he might experience. I told him no. He should rather purify his motives. Hug them to manifest a true selfless love for them, knowing that such hugs are quite helpful to the young especially (and the elderly as well). In fact, one sign of sexual maturity in a man is to be able to make a habit of ignoring unwanted reactions to women. This is a virtue which is likely to serve him well throughout a celibate life.
Now, kissing is a popular subject of discussion nowadays. There are some promoters of chastity who propose never kissing until the wedding day. Alas, our culture, especially high schoolers, seems to see kissing as French kissing – period. They seem oblivious to the tender, gentle, affectionate kissing I knew as a young man. If French kissing were the only kissing possible, I would agree with the kissing naysayers.
But, there is another kind of kissing. Pope John Paul II implied recognition of such kissing when he wrote, “...pressing another person to one’s breast, embracing him, putting one’s arms around him...certain forms of kissing. These are active displays of tenderness [or affection].”
Pope John Paul distinguished very clearly between this affection and satisfying one’s sensuality. He went on to say, “Of course a need to satisfy the demands of sentiment [emotional love] makes itself felt, but it is fundamentally different from the need to appease sensuality. [Emotional love] concentrates more on the human being, not on the body and sex, and its immediate aim is not enjoyment, but the feeling of nearness.”
The pope spoke of a need for “educating [in affection].” Affection calls for “vigilance” so that it does not become just a form of “sensual and sexual gratification.” He stated clearly, “There can be no genuine [affection] without a perfected habit of continence, which has its origin in a will always ready to show loving kindness, and so overcome the temptation merely to enjoy.”
So, affectionate kissing can be a way of manifesting a feeling of nearness, especially if it is brief. Prolonged kissing, even if done in a tender, affectionate way, is a way of enjoying each other, more than communicating nearness or solidarity. Furthermore, it is likely that the man (at least) will get aroused and seek to extend the arousal. This seeking, of course, would be sinful by the Catechism’s definition above.
But even if he (or she) were not to pursue the continued arousal, prolonged kissing shifts the emphasis from giving to taking (even if not sexual), which is not a good preparation for successful marriage. Taking, as opposed to receiving, is fundamentally selfish. It is what might be called recreational kissing. It doesn't contribute to a deeper knowledge of the other, which should be the point in courtship. Even if it didn't result in seeking sexual pleasure (which is unlikely), it’s not in line with the purpose of courtship.
Following the above logic, what if someone (usually the man) gets aroused kissing his girlfriend goodnight – tenderly and briefly? Must he refrain from kissing her goodnight? No, as long as he never makes that arousal a goal, but seeks simply to manifest his warm feelings toward his sweetheart.
Now, if a priest suggests a couple kiss only “briefly,” he will most likely be asked for a definition of “briefly.” The answer would be perhaps one to three kisses spanning no more than a minute or so.
In fact, one evening, a young man about 30 years old called me after one of our “Christian Dating In an Oversexed World” seminars, and asked, “Well, Father, what should I do to tell my sweetheart goodnight?” I told him, “You might put your hand to her face and move forward ever-so-slowly, and gently kiss her once, twice. Then give her a big, slow hug, pressing your cheek against hers and feeling the warmth as a way of proclaiming your real warm feelings for her. Then, perhaps say something nice, such as “You are so precious to me.” Then say goodnight and kiss her once more, slowly, tenderly, as if you fear she might break if you aren’t careful.”
He replied, “Not bad, Father, not bad.”
“It’s been a while, but I have a long memory,” I responded. (I dated until I was 33, and entered the seminary at 34.)
Women are often delighted with the prospect of such a good-night ritual, and ask, “Are there any men who do this, Father?” “Not many,” I respond. “You may have to provide some training!”
Some will say, “Well, Father, given the state of the world today, aren’t you asking too much? Aren’t you being too radical?”
No, living the Gospel is radical, and it doesn’t work halfway. If we compromise the truth, we will have much to answer for when we meet the Lord. If this way is truly God’s way, it is an integral part of love, the love for which we were created. If it is true, it is the way to happiness, and we need not apologize for it.
So what are the norms for sharing affection in courtship?
Lots of chaste hugs, holding hands, kissing her hand, touching her face gently, head in the lap of the other.
What should be avoided? French kissing, any act which is very likely to cause arousal, and intending arousal.
By following this behavior pattern in courtship, couples may lose some pleasure but will gain a whole lot of personal intimacy – with each other and with God – and happiness. And this is a great preparation for a warm, loving Christian marriage.
Father Morrow, S.T.D., a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is a graduate of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, and the author of Christian Courtship in An Oversexed World (OSV, 2003) and Be Holy (Servant, 2009). This article is excerpted from the June 2011 edition of The Priest magazine and is reprinted with permission of the author.