As young Christian men and women, we are no strangers to the rigorous, challenging and often downright inconvenient demands of maintaining a life of chastity.
Don’t stay overnight at his place alone. Do discuss boundaries early on. Try to keep prayer an active part of the relationship.
But we do it all because we believe that sex has a deeper reality than the reductionist, worldly view that it’s merely a recreational activity. We know sex is a divinely-ordained joining of man and woman that is uniquely unitive and procreative, designed to be practised within marriage alone.
We also know that sex creates a deep emotional bond between the pair which can last for years, if not a lifetime. We know further that sex outside of marriage is often directly, though not exclusively, responsible for many evils we see in society: abortion, fatherless homes, widespread infection, deep heartbreak and lasting emotional wounds.
While the Church’s dictates surrounding sexual intimacy outside of marriage are clear, the rules on other forms of intimacy are less so, especially when it comes to kissing.
I’ve spoken to many Catholic couples and it’s quite clear that hardly anyone is really certain of what’s appropriate and what isn’t. While I think we’d all agree that less intimate kisses, such as on the cheek or forehead, are quite innocuous, where do we draw the line when it comes to locking lips?
Well, rather than trying to find that line, what if you chose not to kiss your boyfriend or girlfriend on the lips at all?
‘Ridiculous!’ you’d probably think. ‘Absurd!’ That was my reaction when I first encountered this idea, but what really got me thinking about it seriously was hearing of a couple doing this very thing.
John and Katie were much like any other Catholic couple, but about 18 months into their relationship they both made the decision to stop all lip-to-lip kissing. They kept this promise right up till their wedding day, over two years later.
When I asked whether they were happy they’d ceased snogging, they said it was the best decision they’d made in their entire relationship.
“It was tough for about the first two months, but afterwards we were free from unruly passions to develop genuine affection for one another and to serve and sacrifice for each other,” John said. “Because I’m a Catholic who is aware not only of what is required to stay out of mortal sin but also to strive for the highest perfection, I know that it’s my duty to do the same for the woman I’m intending to marry.”
Katie said: “Taking a step back in physical intimacy took us leaps forward in emotional intimacy. It brought a new focus to the relationship because we weren’t just there to make each other feel good.”
Okay, that might be fine for John and Katie but not everyone’s the same. What if you reduced your kisses to light pecking?
You could. I know plenty of Catholics who kissed before tying the knot without compromising the chastity of their relationship. The problem with this is you will always be tempted to take it further.
You see, saving sex for marriage is actually not that hard. Staying out of occasions of sin is.
What are ‘occasions of sin’ you ask? Well, the Catechism defines them as “all persons, places or things that may easily lead us into sin”.
Basically, if you willingly put yourself into a situation in which you know you’re going to be tempted to commit a grave sin, this is itself a sin. For example, a recovering alcoholic attending a boozy party, where he knows he may be tempted beyond his own strength, or a porn addict allowing himself unrestricted time alone on the internet.
It’s really just common sense. If you’re going to be tempted to sin grievously enough to endanger your soul and you can avoid it – do!
Yet like most cradle Catholics, I’d always assumed there was nothing wrong with kissing your boyfriend or girlfriend, as long as it didn’t go any further. I discovered a few years ago that this isn’t necessarily the case. Turns out that passionate kissing or ‘making out’ between unmarried persons is nothing less than a mortal sin.
Perhaps this sounds over-the-top. It did to me at first until I realised why: passionate kissing is itself an occasion of sin, and a serious one at that. We all know this kind of intimacy stirs up the passions – it’s supposed to. It’s the preliminary action to sex and it’s designed to get you in the mood.
And if you don’t believe me take it from that celebrated Doctor of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas: “a kiss, caress, or touch does not, of its very nature, imply a mortal sin, for it is possible to do such things without lustful pleasure … [but] when these kisses and caresses are done for this delectation, it follows that they are mortal sins, and only in this way are they said to be lustful”.
‘But, but…’ I hear you splutter, ‘but everyone does it! It’s in black and white films and Disney cartoons – it’s in When Calls the Heart, for crying out loud!’
Trust me, I get it. I believe this kind of discussion often stirs up resistance from Catholics due to a sense that kissing is all we have left! We don’t engage in pre-marital acts, masturbation is a big no-no and porn is out of the question.
When I first heard a priest say that unmarried couples should share only sisterly or brotherly affection like kisses on the cheek, I scoffed and thought, ‘that’s completely ridiculous! What planet is this priest living on??’
And yet over time my mind has begun to change.* I’ve always felt a bit uneasy about my private determination to maintain my right to a (chaste) kiss. Practically speaking, you might find this approach just doesn’t work, like John and Katie did.
“It was actually easier to not kiss at all,” John said. “It might not seem like much, but kissing may be the gateway to other small acts of impurity, like holding each other for too long or touching in too intimate a way. It also gets you into a habitual disposition of seeking to compromise with God on His laws and doing whatever you can get away with.”
I am well aware that this article is not going to make me popular with a lot of people. I know those who don’t want to give up kissing will call me a prude and probably plenty of other colourful labels. And that’s fine, I’m no stranger to criticism. But let me be absolutely clear: I am not saying that you shouldn’t kiss your beloved on the lips before marriage – I am saying it is something the two of you should seriously think about.
Let me make another point crystal clear: communication is paramount. John, who initially made the decision to stop smooching before discussing it with Katie, told me it was important for young men to understand that their girlfriend or fiancée is “not their enemy”.
“I had this idea that I had to protect both of us from what was in us, and what I found when we talked about it was that she wanted the good for me just as I wanted it for me, and vice-versa; I just needed to be up front with her,” he said.
Now I’m not going to lie and say that making this choice will be easy, especially if kissing is already a habitual part of your relationship. It’s going to be tough, but all signs point to it greatly enriching your relationship. It will also make your wedding day that much more special for having made such a sacrifice.
John said kissing his bride outside the church following their nuptials was one of the most joyous moments of his life.
“Knowing we’d fought and sacrificed for more than two years, and that sacrifice was bearing fruit in what was a completely pure, completely chaste exchange that glorified God, filled us with joy and peace,” he said.
In a world so gripped by vice, it can be tempting to do the absolute minimum, as long as we’re not sinning. We’re still doing better than the average guy, right? But I would argue this makes the need for virtuousness greater still. With great sin comes the need for great virtue, especially when we are called to an exceptional standard of morality.
We need to be shining beacons of Christ’s light and joy to the world – and we don’t do that by being simply better than the average. We do that by being exceptional.
*I’ve previously stated, on this blog and elsewhere, that women don’t want to be asked permission to be kissed, and while this is quite true, the implication is that kissing does – and possibly even should – occur between unmarried couples who are courting/dating. While I maintain that the choice to kiss must be decided upon by the couple (as stated above), I have begun to move away from the more worldly viewpoint implicit in my previous statements, as I’ve made clear in this article. This note is to address any confusion or apparent hypocrisy surrounding statements I’ve made here and in the past.
In short: I’ve changed my mind!