Is a Warm Chaste Courtship Possible?
Many of our college age and single adult Catholics attend solidly Catholic conferences in various parts of the country, and the results are usually very good. There is often a talk on the importance of chastity. However, it seems that in almost every case there is one ingredient missing: an explanation of what activities short of sexual intercourse are immoral and should be avoided. One young coed chose a breakout session entitled chastity and holiness, and was disappointed to discover that the speaker said nothing about just what chaste behavior was. She had been involved in some heavy foreplay but it took her a while to find someone in the Church to tell her that was seriously sinful.
The purpose of this leaflet, then, is to lay out clearly what sort of behavior is sinful, and what alternative behaviors are warm, healthy and foundational for a good marriage. And, some of the single Catholics I have gotten to try these things in lieu of other, more sexually stimulating fare, have found them quite rewarding, and enriching.
What Is Chaste Behavior?
I presume that any Christian reading this does not need to be told that the Bible is down on formication, that is, pre-marital sex. The word fornication (porneia in Greek) appears twice in the Old Testament and 12 times in the New. In every case it is described as evil. For example, Jesus said in Mk. 7:21, "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery..."
However, for the issue of pre-marital foreplay, we must look to the Church. The key Church teaching on chastity is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), "Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes." (CCC 2351) The unitive purpose implies the celebration of the existing marital love covenant. In other words, sexual pleasure may be sought only in marriage. Simple enough.
However, there has to be a bit more to it than that. After all, some may argue (and some do) they are not seeking sexual pleasure in their sexual encounters, but just to show affection. What, then would be another reasonable criterion by which to judge? 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.
Now, there are some promoters of chastity who propose never kissing until the wedding day. If French kissing were the only kissing possible, I would agree with them.
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 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..."
But, 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?
No, not 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 this arousal he doesn't sin. Granted, the man who would do that might need counseling, but 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 try to increase the arousal or to prolong the hug hoping for continued arousal, that would be sinful. (Some people could ruin a free lunch.)
The point is that affectionate acts such as hugging or holding hands do not ordinarily cause arousal, because they are not essentially 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 often quite therapeutic to the young.
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 life.
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 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. Prolonged kissing 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.
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, “Father, what should I do to tell my sweetheart goodnight?” I told him, “Well, 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 warm feelings for her. Then, perhaps say something nice, such as, “You are so precious.” 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.)
The Mega-hugs Courtship
I have worked with a number of couples who have struggling with chastity, and after years of little success in helping them reform, I stumbled on an approach that has worked. I asked them to try an experiment for a month: to hug for five or ten seconds at a time, to step back, look at each other, and then hug again, and then again. They were to only kiss goodnight, tenderly, gently, standing up. In this way they experience that “closeness” John Paul II spoke of without getting highly stimulated.
Hugging is a great sign of solidarity, but it seems with all the emphasis on heavy kissing and sex, it’s been forgotten. But hugging can be a more profound sign of intimacy than kissing. Alas, in many marriages there is little hugging because couples were so involved in more sensual activities during courtship, that they totally forgot about hugging.
However, recent studies have shown that lengthy hugging in marriage has a beneficial effect on the partners, including the production of oxytocin (a bonding chemical), reduced blood pressure and reduced cortisol (a stress hormone) in the woman.
A number of the single couples who have tried this mega-hugs program have found that they liked it, and those who were not living chastely were able to reform and live chastely. And, of course, their relationship became far more personal and less selfish.
Other Forms of Affection
To be sure, there are other forms of affection besides hugging: a man kissing her hand, or gently touching her face. One young man would lie on the couch with his head in his date's lap and play with her hand, kiss it, and talk the night away. No problem, as long as they don't change positions.
One eighth-grader told me once, "Father, I can French kiss without getting aroused." My response was, "I think you must be doing it wrong." There is no way a French kiss won't send the average young male half-way to the moon.
The point is, French kissing is a different genre than affectionate kissing. It's very sensual. It could hardly be called affection. Can you imagine the married saints tongue-kissing during their courtship? Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Sweden, or the Martins (parents of St. Thérèse)? We rarely apply the norm of perfection to courtship, but Jesus taught that perfection was for everyone: "...you must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48).
So what are the norms for sharing affection in courtship? Lots of chaste hugs, holding hands, kissing her hand, touching the face gently, head in the lap of the other. brief, gentle good night kisses. How long is "brief"? Perhaps under a minute or so.
What should be avoided? French kissing, prolonged kissing, touching sensitive parts of the body, and of course, 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 God–and happiness. And this is a great preparation for a warm, loving Christian marriage.
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Adapted from the author's book, Christian Courtship in An Oversexed World (OSV 2003) and his article "Dating and Chastity" in Priest Magazine, June 2011. The author dated until he was 33 and entered the seminary at age 34.