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Christian Courtship in An Oversexed World

By Rev. Thomas G. Morrow, S.T.D.

A Radical Proposal for Courtship

Excerpted from Christian Courtship in an Over Sexed World Revised Edition (2013)

Love and Affection

Excerpted from Chapter 2, "Understanding Love"

In order to understand Christian courtship, it's important to discover the meaning of love. In fact, there are several meanings of love in the English language, for which the Greeks had four different words. The first, agape ("ah-gįh-pay"), is often translated as "divine love" because it is typified by the self-sacrificial love of God for mankind. The second, philia, is friendship, sometimes called brotherly love. The third, storge ("stór-gay"), is affection, often called familial love. The fourth, eros, is emotional love. C. S. Lewis wrote a classic explanation of these four dynamics of love, entitled (oddly enough) The Four Loves. I will use some of his ideas as a starting point herein.

[Because space is limited, we will consider only the issue of affection here.]

Affection (Storge)

Affection is sometimes called familial love because it commonly occurs among family members, but it is most important in courtship as well. It is a tenderness, a gentle caring for someone.

We all seem to have a need for affection: to receive a tender look, a touch, a certain intimacy: a mother from her child, and vice versa; a wife from her husband; a girl from her best friend. At the right place and time, an affectionate touch is a beautiful way to communicate love, perhaps the only way.

Affection is expressed in many ways: a hug; a tender kiss on the lips, the cheek, or forehead; a tender smile; a gentle touch on the arm, the hand, the hair. It seems that good, selfless, chaste affection has been a casualty in our over-sexed world. Many have lost the art of affection.

Years ago Ann Landers took a survey of her married women readers, asking whether they would prefer to be "cuddled" or to have "the act." Over 70% preferred to be cuddled. I don't think this is because they didn't like the act, but because they hadn't been cuddled in a long time.

Often women come in to speak to me and say "Father, my husband is an animal. All he wants to do is have sex."

I ask them, "Did you have sex together before marriage?"

"Yes," they answer.

"Perhaps the problem is," I tell them, "you never developed the habit of sharing affection together, as an end in itself. When a man has sex with his woman before marriage, he often sees kissing and touching as merely an introduction to sexual intercourse. You need to help him realize the great importance of affection in a good marriage. It's something very beautiful in itself. You must sit down with him and tell him you need to be able to touch him, to hug him, to be kissed by him often, without any sexual activity. And, you may have to tell him this, patiently, without nagging, several times. I think he'll come around." Affection is an important language of love, one most women find extremely important. It should be learned well during courtship.

So often, when chastity is discussed in a religious context, the sharing of affection is barely covered. But, because affection is such a valuable thing, more should be said. One 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?" Good question. So often we speak endlessly about what you shouldn't do, without making a positive proposal about what you should do.

I told him, "Well, you might put your hand to her face and move forward ever-so-slowly, and gently kiss her once... twice... three times. 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."

"Not bad, Father, not bad," he responded.

"It's been a while, but I have a good memory."

(It does seem strange to have to talk about these things, but today there seems to be a need for it. The sexual revolution has messed things up so royally that we need to do a lot of rebuilding in areas that used to be taken for granted.)

Is there more to romantic affection than just a goodnight kiss? Absolutely. If a couple has been going out for a while, he might give her a brief, but tender kiss on the cheek, and a hug when he comes to pick her up. He might kiss her hand from time to time. He might touch her face on occasion. He holds her hand when they walk. He puts his arm around her shoulder at times, or he touches her hair. He holds her hands for a minute or two at dinner. Slow, gentle hugs are always a joy.

She should be able to show affection to him as well, especially if he has given her reason to be confident in his love for her. In the car she might put her head on his shoulder while waiting for a red light. Or, she might touch him gently on the hand, or pull close, touch him on the nose and say, "You're cute." Or if he says or does something nice she could kiss him gently, as only a woman can, on the cheek. Another possibility would be to take his hand and put it around her waist, or just put her arm in his, and lean lightly against him, as they walk along.

There is another delightful way to share affection. She sits on the couch and he lies next to her with his head in her lap. Then they can talk the night away as he holds or plays with her hand. It's a great way to talk and talk and talk. It is in such situations that a man and woman will have the opportunity to develop real spiritual intimacy, which is so essential to a good marriage. And, it's delightful, because it has the added spice of closeness.

One little thing to remember in sharing affection: Moving slowly is usually indicative of giving, of honoring and serving the beloved; moving more rapidly or touching more intensely is usually indicative of seeking, of pleasing and serving the self.

This should pretty much be the extent of physical expressions of love in courtship. Imagine how spiritually and psychologically healthy courtship would be if this were the accepted norm for sharing affection with your sweetheart. Imagine what a great preparation for marriage this would be.

Now, for some, this may be a big step back. But, it's a healthy one. Many people who have taken it, have been glad they did. The problem is that in our Western world we have this hedonistic attitude toward pleasure, that says, if it's pleasant I must gorge myself on it. When I was in college a group of us would occasionally go out for ice cream. We wouldn't just order an ice cream cone, we'd order a whole pint of ice cream each. We could just barely finish it.

Nowadays, when we detect something is pleasurable, we tend to want to have our fill of it, to be completely sated with it. So, if we like to ski, we become "avid skiers," or if we like tennis, we become "tennis addicts." If a man enjoys kissing his sweetheart, it's a given that he will sleep with her.

That, of course, is not the Christian way. When a true Christian enjoys something, he just enjoys it, and tries not to become "attached." In other words, he tries not to desire any thing or any person outside God, to the point that he feels he can't be happy without it. This is why St. Francis of Assisi would only see St. Clare once a year-because he enjoyed her friendship so much he didn't want to depend on it for his happiness. It was only when Teresa of Avila gave up her attachment to the world that she started to do great things for the Church.

The Christian approach to pleasure is to delight in it for the moment, and then forget about it. What a blessing it is to be able to enjoy the little tastes of joy in life, seeing in them a small whisper of the joy of heaven, without having to be a slave to them, even in a small way. In other words, the real Christian can be satisfied with little pleasures, whether in food, or drink, or a goodnight kiss, or even the joy of friendship, without insisting on having more, more, more.

The place of complete satiation, [2] of deep fulfillment is not this world, but the next. Here, if we can savor the little delights and pleasures we encounter along the way, and be content with these, we can be at peace as we journey towards complete and final fulfillment in the divine marriage of God's Kingdom.

I mentioned the above scenario of romantic affection to a group of young women recently, and when I was finished I heard this big sigh of ecstasy. One of them raised her hand and said, "Father, that's what we want. Are there any men who do this?"

"No, not many, not yet," I answered. "You have to help them get there."

Women, tell the men what you like and don't like. If they're smart, they'll respond. One of my pre-seminary days sweethearts said, "I love it when you touch my face." I'm not a rocket scientist, but I knew enough to keep touching her face in those special moments of sharing affection. Ladies, it's not manipulation to ask for what you like, it's teaching a man how to treat you right. It's only manipulation if you try to make him do things he doesn't like to do. What if he won't treat you the way you like with regard to affection, or anything else, for that matter? Do I need to answer that? Tell him goodbye! Affection is very important, especially for a woman.

It's no wonder so many couples never develop intimacy during their courtship. They're too busy kissing and hugging (among other things), when they should be talking about the deep things of their heart.

What about people like Joshua Harris, [3] who decided not to kiss until they married, or Elisabeth Elliot, [4] whose first kiss came with engagement? Is one of those perhaps the best way? Well, no. I can understand why they might take that course, since so many things, good things, such as affection, have become sexualized and thus exploitive. But, I think their approaches are overreactions to our oversexed culture. There is a great need to rehabilitate affection in our world, to restore it to its proper place, to purify it of the sexual connotations people have given it. Affection when it is pure and noble is a beautiful thing, and helps people to relate well. When a couple puts off kissing, even the innocent sort of kissing I have described above, until marriage or engagement, they may be implicitly conceding that affection is just a milder form of sexual exploitation. It isn't. It's a wonderful expression of love and it fulfills a human need.

What about affection in public? P-l-l-lease, very little, and only in the right places. Holding hands while taking a walk, kissing goodbye or hello briefly or a hug at the airport, or holding hands at dinner: these things are fine. But all the other things such as caressing arms, or repeated kisses don't belong in public. These are personal things, which should be done in private.

Practicing good manners has primarily to do with making others feel comfortable. When a man and woman can hardly keep their hands off each other in public, it is really discomforting for everyone else. Puhl-l-lease!

Affection, as Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) wrote, is not aimed at enjoyment, "but the feeling of nearness." [5] Sharing affection, "has the power to deliver love from the various dangers implicit in the egoism of the senses..." [6] Affection is an important "factor of love," but requires an "inner self-control." [7]

Occasionally a person discovers his or her sweetheart has little use for affection; he/she has difficulty embracing or touching. This can be most exasperating in a relationship. Sometimes this reticence is due to a certain fear of sexual advances in our sex-soaked culture. Or, it could be that he/she comes from a family where outward expressions of affection were rare. In either case, I would recommend discussing this with him or her delicately and diplomatically, and explaining the importance of trying to gradually ease into a habit of sharing affection chastely. This is something that can be learned, but it must be done gradually, without any outside pressure.

A third possible reason for being affection-shy is having a psychological block due to a bad experience in the past. In this case, for his (or her, understood) own good, and that of his future spouse and children, he should consider getting some counseling to get at the root problem. Often such a problem can cause major difficulties with loving fully or trusting. Getting counseling for this (from a good, skilled Christian counselor) can work wonders.

To be sure, cultural background has a huge impact on the ability to share affection. Generally the Latins, Filipinos, and some Eastern Europeans are quite comfortable about hugging and kissing among family members and friends, and are, I believe, better for it. This does not mean that those who are from other backgrounds should be satisfied with minimal affection. Many studies show that sharing affection physically is quite therapeutic for the individual, and his spouse, regardless of nationality.

Affection: a great aid for mental well-being. And, a great thing in courtship.

The Mega-Hugs Courtship

Excerpted from Chapter V, Living a Christian Courtship

I have worked with a good number of couples who have struggled with chastity, and after years of little success in helping them reform, I stumbled on an approach that has worked. I asked a couple to try an experiment for a month: to hug for five or ten seconds at a time, and to step back, look at each other, and then to hug again, and then again. They could hug several times in succession, as often as they liked instead of French kissing. They should only kiss goodnight, tenderly, gently, standing up for less than a minute. In this way they would experience a real closeness without getting highly stimulated.

In a few months they were living chastely! And they liked "this hugging thing."

Hugs are primarily about intimacy; heavy kissing and beyond, primarily about pleasure. What so often happens in sharing affection during courtship, couples start out by seeking intimacy, but end up settling for pleasure. They're not the same. Pleasure is a poor substitute for intimacy.

Can the same thing happen in marriage? Yes, of course. That's why it's important to develop the habit of hugging during courtship. This will carry over into marriage, young and old.

Hugging is a wonderful sign of solidarity, but it seems with all the emphasis on sex and other stimulating activities, it’s been forgotten. But hugging is for many a more profound sign of intimacy than kissing. Alas, in many marriages there is little hugging because couples were so involved in kissing and other activities during courtship, that they got away from hugging.

However, recent studies have shown that lengthy hugging (20 seconds or more) in marriage has a measurable beneficial effect on the partners, including the production of oxytocin (a bonding chemical), reduced blood pressure and a reduction in cortisol (a stress hormone) in the woman.

They found that the effect is stronger in the woman, but something happens in the man as well. One young husband told me, "I can just feel the tension of the work-day melting away at about sixteen seconds into the hug."

Would we recommend 20 second plus hugs in courtship? No way. During courtship you don't want to be chemically bound to each other. So, hugs of 10-15 seconds should be more than adequate! You should be bound by the relationship, not chemicals. This, as we mentioned earlier, is one of the reasons why couples should not have sex before marriage. It produces lots of oxytocin, which binds them chemically.

Once you're married, you want all the oxytocin you can get. It will help you fulfill your marriage vows.

I encouraged one of our young husbands who was having marital problems to go on a marriage boot camp some years back. He thought it was great. One of the things he learned was to hug his wife five or six times a day. Very good.

Hugging is said to be very therapeutic. Virginia Satir, sometimes known as the mother of family therapy, claimed that “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” According to Wendy Strgar,

[Satir's] presumption is backed by research, which consistently demonstrates that our emotional well-being is deeply impacted by the physical love we experience and that touch and hugging are primary vehicles in the brain’s development of basic positive emotions. According to Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist at Bath University, “Touch affects the cerebellar brain system, an area of the brain where basic positive emotions such as trust and affection probably come from.”

There is an art to hugging, which should be learned during a chaste courtship. Some are suspicious of hugs and insist on "side hugs." Kind of cold, don't you think? Look, if you are hugging someone other than Uncle Fred whose sexual propriety is questionable, go for a bear hug, and a warm one.

Is it possible that if man hugs his sweetheart three or four times in a row he might get aroused? Absolutely. So, should he still hug her? Absolutely. He should just ignore the arousal and finish the hug (but clearly, not go for more hugs right away). If it's something he was not seeking and it happens as a side effect of an innocent hug, not to worry. Just stay focused on the person, not the unsought reaction. It will pass soon enough. After all, hugs are not essentially sexual activity, even though there is a sexual element to them.

Friendship First

Excerpted from Chapter 8, "Christian Courtship Strategies"

Have you ever thought about where American dating patterns were hatched? Hollywood, and television. Considering the marital success rates of the people in these industries, I don't think we should take our cue from them.

From what I have seen and what young adults are telling me, it seems that there is far too much pressure on young men and women when they go out. It's too "clingy." They are in effect, expected to commit to dating each other exclusively from the second or third date. It's crazy. Far better to get together as friends for various activities for a time, without the pressure that dating usually brings.

This means you see each other and do things together, but you are free to go with others [1] if you wish at first, and there's no kissing goodnight, or holding hands. Nice, warm, chaste hugs are fine, since good friends often hug, but everything is low key, low pressure. There's no "I love you," or "I want to marry you," just words like, "You're an awesome friend." You might just get together once a week and talk on the phone twice a week at most.

If the friendship gets deeper you can move into a more exclusive arrangement. Agree to not date others, and get together twice a week and speak on the phone a bit more. But until you both agree to move into courtship, it's still a friendship, even if an exclusive one.

What if one or the other starts to have strong feelings? That's fine, but, until you agree on a courtship, you don't express those strong feelings in words, just in kindness and consideration. You continue as close friends.

One woman agreed to a friendship scenario and while they were speaking one evening, the question of exclusiveness came up. Her friend told her he was seeing another woman as well. She became quite upset and told him she couldn't accept that, because she had strong feelings for him. So they stopped going out together. She asked me what I thought.

I told her he would have been better not mentioning that he was seeing someone else. But, she would have been better telling him she needed to think about it, without ending the relationship on the spot.

You can't have it both ways. The idea of friendship dating once a week having to be exclusive is, in my opinion, a holdover from the clingy trial-marriage style of dating that has produced a 50% divorce rate. If you insist on exclusiveness for early friendship dating, you are going to slide back into the old pattern. What about your feelings in this situation? Enjoy them, but don't surrender to them. In other words, don't let them make you expect too much too soon.

If the man is to take the lead, as we suggested earlier, then let him lead. He should be the one to propose an exclusive friendship dating scenario, or a courtship (which should always be exclusive) after two or three months. Don't let premature feelings get in the way of a nice, calm friendship dating pattern.

A number of people are opting for this sort of relationship for several months, perhaps two or three, to see if they are compatible as friends, and then, if all goes well, beginning a courtship. Others begin such a relationship with no clue that it might lead to a courtship, and much to their surprise it does!

One of the benefits of a "friendship first" approach is that it provides something quite positive for couples to aim at, before the courtship begins. When I was young, we used to think in terms of getting through the first three dates, so we could have a goodnight kiss. As time went on, it got reduced to two dates, and then there was no waiting. A goodnight kiss was expected on the first date. This was all rather utilitarian, rather calculated. And, it was really not very personal.

Friendship dating is not biding time until the first kiss and the implied commitment to exclusiveness on the third or fourth date. It's a wonderful, gentle way to lay a good foundation for a chaste courtship.

One of the key elements of a Christian life is living by reason. That's what prudence is. It is not reasonable to court if you can't see marrying in the near future. More and more young men and women are examining their own dating behavior and realizing that some major changes are needed. "Would not my spiritual life be better and my life as a med student be simpler if I just developed some good friendships for a while, and didn't rush into an intense relationship, when I'm a few years away from being able to marry?" It is a delight, although admittedly a limited one, to have a good, strong friendship with a person of the opposite sex. It is a joy to have someone you can discuss your life with and feel confident you won't be exploited by that person. It is so sweet to be able to chastely hug a person you really like and trust. More and more young people are seeing the value of slowing down, and "smelling the roses" in the garden of friendship.

How do you move from friendship dating to courtship. The man says to the woman, "Well, we've seen each other for two months as friends. Would you be open to a courtship now?" If she asks what that means by that, he says, "Would you allow me to pursue this relationship with a view to possible marriage if things work out?" She can either say, "That would be nice," or, if she's not ready for that, she can say, "Could we continue on for another month and then decide."

If she doesn't know after three months and he asks, she's got to tell him she doesn't want to get into a courtship with him. If he is willing to continue to date as friends to see if anything develops, and she is willing, fine. Or, they could cool things down a bit and continue to get together from time to time and talk on the phone. Sometimes women take a long time to decide they love a man, even years. A man has to take into consideration things like his age, her age, his own readiness for marriage, and so forth when a woman says she needs more than three months. This is something he should take into prayer, seeking the Lord's guidance.

What if she is ready to move into a courtship and he doesn't make a move. As I mentioned earlier, he should be the one to move. However, if after three months she thinks he is taking too much time, and she wants to move on if he is not going to commit to a courtship, she can speak up. She might just ask him, "Do you see our relationship as leading to something more than a friendship?" The problem with that is, he may say no (although most women have a good idea of what he is intending). Despite the danger of that, I think that's the best approach. If she feels hesitant about that, she might try a more subtle approach, such as the following story illustrates.

A young woman once told me she was going out with a man for three months, but she wasn't sure what his intentions were. She asked if I thought she should tell him how much she cared for him so as to get things going. I told her "No way. He should start that kind of talk."

"Well then, Father, what should I do? We've been going out for three months and he's never even kissed me"

"Next time you go out, when he takes you home, back up against the door jam and say, ‘You may kiss me if you like.'"

About a year later I heard they were getting married. I guess it worked.

What if a man is not interested in a courtship after three months? Forget him. Men usually know long before three months.

The nice thing about friendship dating is the fact that there's no kissing. When the kiss occurs, that should be a signal that a courtship is beginning.

Regardless of your situation, I strongly recommend trying to simply develop a nice, low-key friendship with someone, without any kissing or romance for two or three months (at least) before getting into a more romantic sort of courtship. Some of the best marriages have begun with a beautiful friendship.

What Is The Church's Moral Teaching on Chastity?

Excerpted from Chapter 3, "A Major Challenge: A Chaste Courtship"

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Christians today is trying to live a chaste, Christian courtship. There are other challenges, which we'll discuss a bit later, but this is a big one today, and so we'll look at it first.

What does Jesus Christ expect of us in courtship in the twenty-first century? The most evident norms are found in Sacred Scripture. The more sophisticated norms require reasoning and the guidance of the Church.


First the Scriptural teaching. Did Jesus say anything about pre-marital sex? He did!: is from within, from men's hearts, that evil inten­tions emerge: forn­ication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean. [8]

Now admittedly, fornication is not a word most of us use every day. It's definition is voluntary sexual intercourse between an unmar­ried person and another unmarried person of the opposite sex. In other words, pre-marital sex. So, it's pretty clear Jesus was not in favor of pre-marital sex.

In fact, neither was St. Paul:

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. [9]

Fornication then, will keep you out of the kingdom. No small potatoes. The word fornication appears three times in the Old Testament, 14 times in the New. In every case it is proclaimed immoral. Nowhere is it called, as our contemporary world would have it, a virtue, or a way of life. And, fornication is clearly the matter of mortal sin. Exclusion from the Kingdom (Gal 5:19-21 & 1 Cor 6:9 above) is not the penalty for venial sin.

This is not to say that everyone who has fornicated is lost. The Lord forgives those who repent of this sin and reform. This is clear from the way he treated the woman caught in adultery-cer­tain­ly a worse sin than fornication-in John 8:3‑11, and the way he treated Mary Magdalene, a reformed prostitute. Nonetheless, anyone who loves the Lord, and seeks his/her own good, will make every attempt to avoid such sins, and all sins.

Sexual sins are not ordinarily the worst of serious sins, but they are the most popular. Best to avoid all sin but better to commit the sin of sexual immorality out of weakness than to commit the sin of unbelief, i.e., denying the teaching of Scripture that fornication is a sin. In other words, those who rationalize their fornication and pretend to be good Christians are far worse than those who embrace the truth, but fail to live it at times. Since the Scrip­tures are so clear on this, as is the Church, invincible, or blameless, ignorance on this issue is almost impossible.

The Church

The Church confirms the teaching of Sacred Scripture: "The use of the sexual function has its true meaning and moral right­ness only in true marriage." [10] And, it confirms the seriousness of sexual sins: "The moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objec­tively serious." [11] Thus all sexual activity outside of true marriage, including pre-marital sex, adultery, masturbation, [12] and homosexual acts, [13] is seriously sinful.

Why is sex outside of marriage wrong? Briefly-and we'll cover this in greater detail later- it's immoral because 1) sex is a symbol of committed marital love and 2) sex may produce children who should be conceived and raised in the stable love community of marriage.


Okay, so premarital sex is wrong. What about other things? What about foreplay? Are these things sinful? Yes, any directly intended sexual arousal outside marriage is wrong. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:

...since fornication is a mortal sin, and much more so the other kinds of lust, it follows that in such like sins not only consent to the act but also consent to the pleasure is a mortal sin. Conse­quently when... kisses and caresses are done for this delight, it follows that they are mortal sins... Therefore in so far as they are lustful, they are mortal sins. [14]

Thomas defines lust as "seeking sexual pleasure not in accord with right reason." [15] Lust, of course, would include intending or imagining sexual sins, as Jesus pointed out in Mt.5:28: "...I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

Thus, passionate kissing, feeling the "erogenous zones," or any other act which by nature or intent stimulates the desire for sex or causes sexual arousal would be categorized as sexual activity. Such an act is ordinarily done to provide a certain incomplete pleasure, a pleasure which can be completed only by sexual intercourse or orgasm. As St. Thomas said, all of these things are seriously sinful.

But, why is sexual arousal wrong outside of mar­riage? Because sexual arousal is for the purpose of preparing for sexual intercourse. It is unreasonable to prepare for sexual intercourse if you are not planning to have sexual inter­course. Sin is in its essence, acting contrary to right reason, the reason of God. When a couple get themselves all worked up sexually, and then either with a will of steel, back off, or worse, come to a climax with some sort genital activity (either intercourse or oral-genital contact, or whatever), they trivialize sex, they are using it for play.

The world seems to want to trivialize sex, and with it the love it symbolizes. The Church wants to uphold the sacredness of sex, of love, and the dignity of human persons.

How Far?

So how far does a true Christian go on a date? The principle, simply put, is: sharing affection is generally fine and good-even desirable, but acts which by their nature or intent cause sexual arousal in either person are immoral.

Some have argued that the question of how far you may go on a date is not a good one. They say that asking that is like asking how close you may come to the edge of a cliff without falling off. Not so. Drawing near to the edge of a cliff has no intrinsic value. Sharing affection on a date does. This is a healthy thing, one which helps bonding. As such, it should be pursued reasonably.

Pope John Paul II, in his pre-papal, and widely-acclaimed Love and Responsibility, notes that affec­tion (or in his words, "tenderness") is an important factor in love, but that "there can be no genuine tender­ness without a per­fected habit of continence," or self-control, "which has its origin in a will always ready to show loving kind­ness, and so overcome the temptation merely to enjoy..." [16] In other words, there is a line between the good and noble exchange of affection and the seeking of sexual pleasure. To stay on the moral side of that line requires self-control.


The immorality of using pornography should be a no-brainer for a Catholic, but today you can't make any assumptions. You have to spell everything out. So, what about pornography? Is viewing it for recreation seriously sinful? In a word, yes, because it corrupts the mind. The Catholic Catechism teaches:

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. [17]

It's not just the occasion of sin, which it is also, but it is a serious sin in itself because it degrades sex and all involved.

Practical Application

So what does this mean in actual practice? First, since men usually become aroused more quickly than women, the woman must be con­cerned about how he is reacting, not just how she herself is reacting. If the man becomes less gentle and more urgent in his embrace or kisses or touches, it's quite certain that he has gone beyond the threshold of affection. This is the time for either or both to pull back, while saying something complimentary. Why the compliment? To deflect the sin without destroying the mood. He (or she) could say something like, "You're very precious to me," or "You're the greatest."

A classic question along this line among singles is that of "French" or tongue kissing: Is it immoral? Brief­ly, yes, virtually always, since it's hard to imagine a normal single male who would not be sent half-way to the moon with a good French kiss. Some women have told me they can do this without getting aroused, and I believe them. Not men. Since I presume a woman would do this with a man, she is partly responsible for his arousal.

One eighth-grader told me "Father, I can French kiss without getting aroused." I answered, "I think you must be doing it wrong." It might be possible for a single male to de-sensi­tize himself by constant practice, but the de-sensitizing process itself would be harmful to his soul, and per­haps to his social life as well.

What if someone gets aroused by affection alone? It would seem that by the principle of double effect, a certain amount of this is okay. The key is not to will the arousal directly in itself. However, any long-term sharing of affection with this effect should be avoided, since the longer the arousal continues, the more likely it is that the will is going to embrace it.

Recreational Kissing?

There is another point here that often gets overlooked: when a man and woman sit on the couch and kiss-just af­fec­tionately- for half an hour, even aside from the temptation to fall into sin there is a problem. The whole purpose of courtship is to get to know the other person, to see if you should get married. Kissing for a long period of time is not going to help with that process. It's usually done because it's enjoyable, not for interpersonal discovery. So even if there were no arousal in long-term kissing (which itself might be a medical phenomenon), it's counter-productive for true courtship. It becomes recreational kissing after just a few minutes. Its emphasis is more on self-seeking than self-giving, and negative results are likely. This would not be a sexual sin if there were no arousal intended, but a sin against prudence.

I know, I know, all of this is a very tall order for the twenty-first century, [18] but not nearly as tall an order as the gospel, of which this is an essential part.


1. Some are horrified at the prospect of going out with several different people when you are first getting to know someone. They consider it "two-timing." But, this is part of the sad Western pattern of rushing into an intense courtship from the very start. Fifty years ago people didn't do that. They went out with lots of different people for a time until they decided to enter into a courtship with one of them. That is a far more reasonable approach.

2. In heaven, as God the Father explained to St. Catherine in her Dialogue, "[The soul] always desires Me [God] and loves me, and her desire is not in vain-being hungry she is satisfied, and being satisfied she has hunger, but the tediousness of satiety and the pain of hunger are far from her." (The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, Rockford IL: TAN Books, 1974, p. 110.)

3. Joshua Harris, Boy Meets Girl, Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2000, p. 142. This is a refreshingly Christian book of some poetic beauty about Joshua's late 90's romance.

4. Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity, Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1984, p. 172. For her rationale , see pp. 130. Elliot's book is a delightfully poetic, unflinchingly Christian story of her own romantic courtship. Alas, on this point, she seems to go a bit too far.

5. Love and Responsibility, p. 203. The translator uses the word "tenderness" but in fact, the clear meaning from the text is "affection."

6. Love and Responsibility, p. 207.

7. Love and Responsibility, p. 206.

8. Mk 7:21‑23; see also Mt 15:19, 20

9. 1 Cor 6:9; See also Gal 5:19-21

10. Declaration on Sexual Ethics, hence­forth, DSE, Congregation for the Doc­trine of the Faith, 1975, para 5.

11. DSE, para. 10.

12. DSE, para. 9.

13. DSE, para. 8.

14. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q154 a4.

15. Summa Theologica, II-II, q154 a1

16. Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Love and Responsibility, (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1981), p. 208.

17. Catechism of The Catholic Church, 1994, para. 2354.

18. Some media types might be horrified at all of this. But, it's not written for media types, at least not the godless ones, or for anyone else who has little use for God and His Church. It's part of a bigger plan, the plan for eternal life.

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