Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Kiss Me, You Fool!

Heather King, who understands so well the joys and difficulties of lived Catholicism, meditates on a strict priest and the vibrant transformational power of the Eucharist:
What's sad, though, is that he had the "right" message but he delivered it in such a way that no-one in his or her right mind would want to follow it. By his or her right mind I mean vital, interested, questing, conflicted, on to one's own myriad defects and myriad gifts, preferably with a secret incendiary devotion to some doomed love/project/cause that promises to bear absolutely no fruit, compromises your physical/emotional health, and makes you look like a fool, loser and/or psychotic in the eyes of the world, and with a sense of humor. 
Anyway, I was reminded of a quote by contemplative monk Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis--now known as Brother Simeon--from Love’s Sacred Order: The Four Loves Revisited: 
“Léon Bloy…once said that if we receive the Eucharist and fail to practice charity, fail to allow the Eucharist to have in us the effects that by its very nature it must have, then ‘the sacred Host we have consumed, rather than nourishing us, will become within us like a bomb exploding our hypocrisy to high heaven.’” 
It will be like a bomb exploding our hypocrisy, and it will be like a bomb exploding our timidity and fear. 
Catholicism is not counter-cultural in that the world is liberal and Catholicism is conservative. It’s counter-cultural in that it is explosively, wildly, anarchically radical. Catholicism is our hearts, our bowels, our erotic energy, our lives! Catholicism is not some timid, rigid, dead set of rules. The whole purpose of the rules is to allow us to explode within them. To follow Christ, to be Catholic (or catholic-in-spirit) is to hover on the edge of metaphorical orgasm and to consent to continue to hover, indefinitely, in almost unbearable tension…which paradoxically allows us to break out in all kinds of other sublimely interesting, glorious directions and ways
However, I was nonplussed by the evil the priest chose to rail against from the pulpit.
What prompted the reflection is a Mass I attended on the Feast of the Holy Family (at a church that was new to me), at which, for a full half-hour, the priest took the congregation to task (most of whom had excellent posture, were shepherding several frighteningly well-behaved children, and were dressed like Puritans) about how the girls should hide their knees and do they really want to be an instrument of the devil and as soon as young people kiss he tells them they must never EVER see or talk to that person again because they have wrecked their chances for putting God first, and in general complaining, gossiping, carping, and looking down upon all the parents with spoiled, ill-behaved children who refuse to properly discipline [super creepy emphasis] them, the result being that, unlike a couple HE knows, they will not grow up to have their very first kiss at the altar. 

I hesitate to nitpick any of Heather's fine post, but the priest here does not have "the 'right' message but he delivered it in such a way that no-one in his or her right mind would want to follow it. " He is wrong. There are many actions that Catholicism forbids, but kissing before marriage is not one of them.  Boiled down to its essence, Theology of the Body (referenced not by Heather, but by her commenters) states that physical actions have a spiritual dimension. Sex is an action reserved for marriage not just because the reproductive aspects are most truly realized in a committed marital relationship, but because the physical action of intercourse also bonds a man and woman together spiritually. Since all actions have spiritual effects, a kiss also can form a bond, but it is not remotely the permanent bond formed by intercourse.

The definition of a kiss is "a touch with the lips to show affection" (this I remember from my younger  days of looking up salacious words in the dictionary). So in keeping with that middle-school tone, let me be clear: a kiss is not remotely the physical and spiritual equivalent of (avert your eyes!) a penis entering a vagina, no, not even a french kiss. Not even if it's an arousing kiss. A couple may choose, for mutual and prudential reasons, not to kiss before marriage, but that does not necessarily make them more virtuous or chaste than a couple who does. It makes them a couple who misses out on the joys of kissing.

... (Heather later says) The reason to save your first kiss till the altar, in other words, is not because you are so listless and etiolated and body-despising and intent on being a straight-A Catholic that you’ll suppress and deny your own God-given erotic urge, but because you are so vital, so juiced, so wild with longing, so crazy about your spouse-to-be that you want to make your wedding night a work of art. You want to offer your wedding night to the whole world.

This all sounds so delightful, and it's quite true in a sense: if a couple was to choose to save their first kiss for the altar, this would be a good reason to do so, though I think that a couple could feel this way about sex even after kissing. But perhaps a better way to describe the wedding night (even for a couple who was juiced and vital and crazy) would be the beginning of a work of art -- not the completed masterpiece. Long-time readers will be weary of my insistence that only practice makes perfect, but it's true. Just as the wedding isn't the marriage (nor even the high point of the marriage), the wedding night is only the first broad sketch for the whole married sex life, which is in turn only a portion of the magnum opus of marriage itself. Sketches can be works of art, but they don't have the full force of the whole finished work -- and that's fine, as long as one can be honest about it.

For those with less tender sensibilities than the stern padre, here's some pre-marital kissing to curl your hair.

ADDENDUM: In a comment on her post, Heather rightly points out that I'm not focusing on the main issue of the exquisite creativity that comes from living within the confines of the Church's teachings. She makes this point so elegantly that I don't think I have anything to add to it. But that leads to the issue of what, exactly, the rules are so that we may follow them. The reason that the priest's exhortation to save kissing for marriage is so antithetical to me is this: as Catholics, we are called -- no, commanded -- to wait until the blessing and seal of the sacrament of marriage to have sex. There is a serious moral component to the prohibition against sex before marriage, which gives that stricture its force and allows those living under it to live in joyful and painful expectation of consummation -- Heather reminds us that the original consummation was that of Calvary.

But kissing is not Sex Lite. What makes Catholicism come off as "some timid, rigid, dead set of rules" is when huge moral force is attached to actions that can't bear that weight. Our end is to be joined to Christ forever and to live in his love for eternity. Here on earth, to achieve the end of joining our lives to his, we have certain commandments and prohibitions. One of those, to preserve the integrity of sexual relationships between men and women and to preserve the rights of children, is that sex take place only within marriage. What strictures are applied to guide Catholics in this goal? Turning to the teachings of the Church, we find certain things condemned: masturbation, pornography. That leaves a lot of prudential leeway for couples trying to navigate their way to the wedding day.

Another issue is that there are levels of interaction that are appropriate for different ages and states in life. Humans rely on physical expression to bond relationships. In Love and Responsibility Pope John Paul II makes some excellent and pastoral observations about the necessity of a proper understanding of chastity in relationships.
We noted earlier that virtue means something more than merely curbing the promptings of bodily desire or sensual reactions by pushing their content down into the subconscious. Chastity does not consist in systematic depreciation of the value of "the body and sex" any more than it can be identified  with the morbid fear which they may inspire, sometimes as a reflex. Such reactions or symptoms not of inner strength but rather of weakness. Virtue can only come from spiritual strength. This strength derives in the last instance form the reason, which 'sees' the real truth about the values and puts the value of the person, and love, above the value of the person, and love, above the values of sex and above the enjoyment associated with them. But for this very reason chastity cannot consist in blind self-restraint. Continence, efficiency in curbing the lust of the body by the exercise of the will, the capacity for successful moderation of the sensations connected with sensual and even with emotional reactions, is the indispensable method of self-mastery, but it does not in itself amount to a full achievement of virtue.  (p. 197)
Later he speaks of the necessity of tenderness between a man and a woman even before the full sacramental bond of marriage, and here, I've found a reference to kissing:
Tenderness, then, springs from awareness of the inner state of another person (and indirectly of that person's external situation, which conditions his inner state)and whoever feels it actively seeks to communicate his feeling of close involvement with the other person and his situation. This closeness is the result of an emotional commitment... Hence also the need actively to communicate the feeling of closeness, so that tenderness shows itself in certain outward actions which of their very nature reflect this inner approximation to another "I". These actions all have the same inner significance, though outwardly they may look very different: pressing another person to one's breast, embracing him, putting one's arms around him (if this is only a form of physically assisting someone its meaning is quite different), certain forms of kissing. These are active displays of tenderness. (p. 202)
Though of course I skirt the danger of laying down my own unimportant moral precepts, I'm inclined to think that it is unjust for a couple, especially approaching marriage, to withhold this form of of physical affection from one another in an attempt to save as much sensual interaction as possible for the wedding night.

I feel ridiculous going on at such length about an issue which must only be an issue to a very few strangely principled people, and yet it touches a nerve to see something which is so emphatically not a stricture of the Faith held up as such.


BettyDuffy said...


I commend people who save their first kiss for the altar, but it's a heroic act of chastity similar to wearing knee-length skirts every day. We are all not called to do so.

And splendid point about the wedding night being the beginning of a magnum opus. If it were the end, by golly, we'd all be high and dry.

Barbara C. said...

I certainly don't think that kissing before marriage is a sin, but I have talked to my girls about the dangers of it. For one thing, kissing (especially someone you are attracted to) trips hormones (can't remember which ones) that cause you to automatically put a certain amount of trust into the person you are kissing before you know if they are truly worthy of that trust or not. I can't help wondering if part of the high divorce rate is that more people started kissing first and talking later, especially in this hook-up culture. It's hard to make a clearer assessment of a potential mate when your judgment has been clouded by the highs of physical affection.

I remained a virgin until marriage. In fact, one reason I ended up staying a virgin was because the guy who gave me my first kiss told me the next day it was a mistake and he didn't like me that way. Even though I really didn't like him as more than a friend either part of me was devastated. I knew that if someone dumped me after a sexual relationship it would kill me.

But I also kissed A LOT of guys in college. I ended up wasting so much time in relationships with some of them that I would not have if things hadn't started out with so much kissing. I think it amped up the emotional attachment too soon. And led to baggage that I later brought into my marriage.

Of course, the other issue is that today "dating" is foisted on younger and younger kids. Eight and nine-year olds talk of having boyfriends and girlfriends (and parents think it's cute), and then we are shocked when we learn that thirteen and fourteen-year olds are having sex. It starts with innocent kissing by age ten or eleven and then by high school "just kissing" is for babies.

Jenny said...

Nice post. It is amazing how fast some folks go from chastity to Puritan. And it does set up false expectations to make your wedding night the be-all and end-all of your life. It really is just beginning.

I know you were excited to use nonplussed correctly in a sentence. I would be. :)

MrsDarwin said...

Betty, I don't even think not kissing until marriage is a "heroic act of chastity". Nor is wearing knee-length skirts. It's simply a different choice. Unlike sex, these actions aren't freighted with tons of objective meaning.

Barbara, I agree that one ought to give due consideration to whom one kisses, and when. And I too remained a virgin until marriage despite not only kissing before marriage, but kissing other men (boys, really) before Darwin.

I think that "not kissing before marriage" (which I hardly see as a serious conversation, to be honest) is a very different and unconnected issue from the matter of ten- and eleven-year-olds kissing.

Banshee said...

Also, there's a world of difference between "innocent kissing" and "people sitting around for hours practically doing it with their clothes on, but calling it kissing." (Especially the ones who inflict this on their friends. Or the ones who claim they're making out in public for the chaperonage factor.)

Banshee said...

But yeah, in the long history of the Catholic Church, there's not a lot of criticism of kissing. Most priests would like their flock to marry and reproduce, not sit around at home.

And you know, the Song of Songs involves a HECK of a lot of premarital kissing. If it's in the Bible, it must be okay!

J.C. said...

Of course, as with any application of Catholic moral theology, a lot is going to depend on subjective factors. But I don't think anyone could credibly argue that intended (not incidental, obviously) sexual arousal has any place outside of the marital sphere. I would say that french kissing (especially for chaste singles) falls into this category, and, furthermore, at the very least, constitutes a near-occasion of sin, which the Church has always exhorted its faithful to avoid. Obviously, there is no dogmatic Church teaching regarding kissing before marriage, but I think there are many more Church teachings to support this brave priest's teaching, than there are to undermine it. Catholic sexual moral precepts are never to be prudish, but must always be prudent. The idea of confining physical intimacy to marriage has been historically commonplace in Christian society. It is only relatively recent changes in sexual mores that make it appear so highly counter-cultural to our modern minds. I would also second the points brought up by Barbara C., which nobody seems to have addressed.

MrsDarwin said...

J.C and Barbara, I'm sure we both agree with John Paul II's "practical conclusion" when he says in Love and Responsibility that "people should always 'verify' their love before exchanging declarations, and especially before acknowledging it as their vocation and beginning to build their lives upon it." He's stating that love, specifically love moving toward a conjugal setting, must be authentically based on a communion of persons and not on egotism or mere sympathy. I think this is a fine instruction to impart to the youth, especially where the pressure is high to start experimenting with physical expression too early.

The Catechism states that "those who are engaged to marry are called to live chastity in continence. They should see in this time of testing a discovery of mutual respect, an apprenticeship in fidelity, and the hope of receiving one another from God. They should reserve for marriage the expressions of affection that belong to married love. They will help each other grow in chastity" (2350). Sex, obviously, is one of these "expressions of affection that belong(s) to married love", but again, there is leeway here for a couple to decide for or against other expressions. The very next sections describe "Offenses against Chastity":

2351 Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.

The next offenses are masturbation ("the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure" 2352), fornication, pornography, and prostitution.

A couple has to decide for themselves how much affection is too much to express, short of these guidelines the Catechism give. Some of our discussion here hinges on the definition of "intended", as J.C uses it above. If by that we mean "any action that is might result in sexual arousal", then we might as well rule out, at various times, holding hands, standing next to the other in a crowded room, a touch on the neck, or gazing into the other's eyes. Some congregations follow this rule: Pentimento linked to the article about Orthodox Jews who marry after 3-12 dates because they are prohibited even from touching. These extreme measures may indeed result in preserving perfect physical purity before marriage, but I would argue that it is at the expense of a mature growth in handling and balancing the intricate relationship of mutual expression of love and the sexual desire that such expressions may provoke.

I also don't think that it's such a bad thing for a couple heading for marriage to engage in expressions of affection that strengthen the bonds of attraction between them. People need the support and affirmation of physical touch. Sexual arousal is a good and appropriate response to the presence and touch of the person one wants to marry. How one acts on that arousal is a matter for prudential judgement between the couple - different people have different thresholds of continence, and that's fine.

But blanket condemnations of kissing before strike me not as brave, but as akin to those who claim that because sex has a procreative element, married couples should only have sex if they intend to get pregnant, and abstain the rest of the time. I don't think that's a Catholic mindset, and neither do I think that a Catholic mindset needs to shy away from the good of physical expressions of love before marriage, as long as they fit into the guidelines the Church gives.

DarwinCatholic: the site that can always be relied on for a discussion of Topic A...

JMB said...

Good thoughts! I was impressed with Heather's observation that maybe a grossly overweight priest should refrain from self indulgent tirades against kissing. (Methinks he doth protest too much!)

Jordana said...

Whenever I hear about this sort of interpretation of kissing versus sex, I think of Pretty Woman, where you have the prostitute who won't kiss on the lips because it is too intimate. I remember giving that a big eye roll back before I'd experienced either, and my opinion hasn't really changed. Kissing is lovely, but it isn't in the same category.

Laura said...

Great post. I completely agree with you. If you decide to not kiss before marriage, best of luck to you, but don't try to make it seem like it is a sin not to wait, because it isn't. People seem to forget that we are catholics and not puritans.

Johannes Faber said...

Hi! There was a link here from Seraphic's blog. I agree with JC - the Church's issue is not about kissing or its proximity to sex, it's about arousal. So, I disagree with this post. I posted the thing below from hers, (and as such is addressed to her, just reproduced here):

The Church has taught that 'snogging' is a mortal sin:
According to a decree of Pope Alexander VII in 1666, a kiss is not "merely a venial sin when performed for the sake of the carnal and sensible delight which arises from the kiss, even if the danger of further consent and pollution is excluded.”{1}

- Alexander VII, “Condemned Decrees” proclaimed on the 18th day of March in 1666 (Denzinger 2060, 1140 40).
It's from one of the old style decrees Basically they list a whole bunch of propositions, and then at the end condemn all of them. Hence the funny way it's written. He's condemning a position - changing it into an assertion, it would read: "Kissing for the sake of carnal and sensible delight is a mortal sin, even when the danger of consent and further pollution is condemned".

It will take a lot of sophistry to get out of that one. I know I would have been capable of that sophistry when I was with my ex-girlfriend.

I think Seraphic's practical guidelines are good, and chastity certainly is a virtue and state of mind. But it's useful to have this solid undergirding of, pet shop boys style, 'It's a sin!'

I heard it originally from a FSSP priest, but my internet source for it is:

Darwin said...


Given that Christ told us that it is a sin to simply look at a woman with the end of satisfying lust, it is no surprise that kissing with the same end would also be a sin. However, where you clearly err is in assuming that because kissing specifically for the end of "carnal and sensible delight" (i.e. satisfying lust) is identical to a specific form of kissing.

In normal human interaction between those mature enough to be having romantic relationships in the first place, I think we can be pretty clear in understanding that the purpose of kissing is not to satisfy lust, but that to express affection and love. The type of kissing that would appropriately express these (rather than merely being a selfish indulgence in satisfying one's own lust) would depend on the people involved and on the type and depth of relationship which the kiss is meant to express.

The sort of kiss that would be appropriate to people who have just started dating would clearly be different from the sort of kiss that would be appropriate between an engaged couple, because the degrees of commitment and intimacy are different.

Anonymous said...

Pope Alexander VII:

“While speaking about the unmarried, Pope Alexander VII condemned the idea that it is only a venial sin for the unmarried to kiss for the sensual pleasure arising from the kiss, even if there is no danger of further consent and of going even further. It’s condemned to say that it is only a venial sin for the unmarried to deliberately kiss for the pleasure of kissing.”

I disagree entirely with this article, this is a quote from a doctrine of the Church, which we all must follow. Kissing before marriage is a sin, and a mortal one at that. Listen to this homily it explains everything very clearly, and it is something we all must follow.

this is the article from which i pulled Pope Alexander VII quote from

MrsDarwin said...


Yes, of course it's a sin to kiss merely for the sensual pleasure of kissing, without taking into account that you're kissing another person worthy of love and respect. That's pretty callous, to use another person by kissing merely for the thrill of it, and anyone who is inclined to use people this way would be well advised to leave off kissing entirely.

However, using the virtue of prudence to determine when it's right to show affection for another person by kissing them, whether married or preparing to get married or preparing to prepare to get married, is encouraged by the Church inasmuch as she encourages the practice of prudence in all things.

Anyway, what a ludicrous thing to say that kissing before marriage is a mortal sin. That kind of blanket statement would mean that no mother could kiss her child, no daughter could kiss her father, no friend could kiss a friend. So obviously there are already degrees of prudence being exercised in the practice of kissing.

As it happens, I kiss my little son's head partly because it feels so pleasant to rub against his fluffy hair. So is that sensual pleasure condemned? No, of course not, because I'm kissing him mainly because I love him so much, and because the pleasure is entirely non-sexual.

However, if the non-married are forbidden on pain of mortal sin to engage in any practice that might cause any sexual sensation, then men and women would have to cease talking to each other, looking at each other, or being in the same general vicinity. The sin is not in experiencing any sexual feeling, it's in deliberately cultivating in to the exclusion of the personhood of the other. And the virtue that helps us determine these boundaries is prudence.