Eamonn Clark, STL
“How far is too far?” This is simultaneously the most popular and most wrongheaded question that star-crossed lovers can ask. And they are often given well-meaning but misguided advice based on intuitive but terrible or at least incomplete ideas. These latter are often dependent on a rightly developed sense of shame – guidelines like “Would you do this in front of x person” fall into this category.
I don’t think depending on such principles is all that bad for group talks with high schoolers, but it leaves much to be desired. It does not explain the “why” behind chastity’s concrete applications in courtship, and it is insufficient for a real examination of conscience; it is thus especially unhelpful for confessors and preachers trying to sort through these complex issues when souls are really on the line. We can do better by going to the heart of the matter, though it takes some work. Let’s take on the question in appropriate detail then, shall we?
In this series of posts, we will investigate 5 great principles for chaste courtship. They are:
- Distinguish between love, desire, and delight (the three positive concupiscible passions)
- Don’t start what you can’t finish
- The emotions are not the body
- Risks can be justified by proportionate rewards
- If you can raise your mind, do that
First of all, the entire idea of “courtship” or “dating” is quickly being replaced by a bizarre imitator… Nowadays, one is either “hooking up” or going around in a group or just carrying on a “relationship” by text and social media. Men don’t care for the challenge and risk of a serious “pre-commitment commitment” by asking a girl out on a proper date – and unfortunately, many women don’t care to wait around for a man willing to do this. That’s a shame. But we’ll leave this aside and assume that we have two fine young people who are seeing each other regularly, alone, with romantic intentions clearly expressed, but without “benefits” being openly offered by either.
Those who dabble in the writings of the great moralists, especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori, might come away from their writings on chastity aghast – “Did he really just say what I think he did? He is SO out of touch!” Well, maybe he didn’t say what you think he said, and maybe his being “out of touch” with what is actually going on in your own life is why it’s difficult for you to grasp the point, as you are not his main audience (which was the confessors of their own times and places, though many points still stand). On the other hand, they do both lay down some hard (but freeing) truths, and sometimes being “out of touch” is just what one needs in order to get perspective on an issue – so maybe there is some wisdom to take from anyone who is “disconnected,” let alone from great saints who are geniuses of moral theology. Let’s dive in then, with these two saintly friends as guides… (I won’t quote much, but I will synthesize instead with just a few references.) NB: These are principles especially useful for courtship, but plenty would also apply for married life, albeit in a slightly different way.
The first great principle: distinguish between love, desire, and delight (the three positive concupiscible passions).
The paradigm of “love-desire-delight” is the road map for our appetites’ relationship with pleasant things that are easily achieved; love corresponds with the perception of a good, desire with the motion towards a good, and delight (also called “pleasure” or “joy” in some cases) with the possession of a good. (With unpleasant things, we have “hatred-aversion-sorrow.” And with difficult goods and evils, we have the passions of fear, despair, hope, daring, and anger, the passions of the “irascible” appetite.)
“Desire” is also sometimes called “concupiscence.” Both are words with diverse meanings. Here, by “desire” and “concupiscence” we mean the felt inclination towards a definite sensible good to be obtained by a particular kind of act.
Let’s go through these emotions – or “passions” – one by one.
I see the cheeseburger, and I know that it is a good thing to eat, full of juicy grade-A beef, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, and maybe even some bacon. “That looks so good to eat! I bet it’s delicious!” Maybe my love is so strong that my salivary glands start to work as well, and my stomach starts to make itself felt. This is love, in the sense we mean it.
When I start actively wanting to eat the cheeseburger, feeling myself impelled towards picking it up and sinking my teeth into it, I have desire, or concupiscence, towards the cheeseburger. In desire, (which passion is accompanied by pleasure St. Alphonsus calls “inchoate” to the act one is being inclined toward,) I actually begin to anticipate having its succulent and savory goodness. This desire is separate from the sensation of merely perceiving that the cheeseburger is a good thing to eat, and also even from some kind of remote preparation for eating in the future, should I be so lucky.
Finally, the glorious moment has come: I devour the cheeseburger, and I have the passion proper to possession of the good – delight. This is a unique sensation of feeling fully satisfied in relation to the cheeseburger. It is also distinct from the actual taste and feeling of the physical consumption of the cheeseburger. I enjoy the pleasures that come from eating the cheeseburger. This completes the passions’ arc.
It would also be possible to create an imaginary act of eating the cheeseburger, whether it was really in front of me or not. If I am attempting to derive the pleasures of eating the cheeseburger without actually eating it, even just by running it through my mind, I have moved into a kind of delight in its possession without actually possessing it. And I could physically mimic the act of eating the cheeseburger, even with the cheeseburger itself! My stomach will remain empty, but I have a kind of mental satisfaction nevertheless in enjoying the desire itself for the cheeseburger for its own sake, which feeling is spurred on by the imagined act of eating the cheeseburger – and this act might actually impel me even more strongly towards really eating the cheeseburger moments later, when I snap out of my food fantasy back into reality.
It’s also the case that I could simply have the pleasant experience of imagining eating the cheeseburger without feeling a real desire to eat it. This is a subtly different act, but it is important, as we will see.
Digestion deals with self-preservation. Sex deals with the preservation of humanity. So while eating is important for the individual, sex is more important for the whole community as such. As it turns out, we can map this paradigm onto sexual attraction quite easily. He sees and even feels the woman’s beauty… He feels various inclinations in anticipating the possibilities right in front of him that he is moving towards fulfilling… He obtains what he was looking for. It is certainly no problem to have love for sexual goods – in fact, it would be unnatural not to have a disposition towards the opposite sex as such, just as it would be unnatural not to want good food – but unlike food, sex is not appropriate for everyone to “possess,” or even to have the desire for (in the strict sense of the word which we are using).
Loving the cheeseburger is a good and natural act. However, when the circumstances do not call for eating the cheeseburger there could be a problem if this passion is allowed to remain very long – rather, one should move the mind away to other things, like work or study or healthy recreation. (To deny this passion’s movement entirely is typically not healthy suppression but unhealthy repression, which can cause neurosis and possibly even despair, ending not infrequently in giving in to all manner of illicit pleasures. To acknowledge that one finds the lettuce or tomatoes of the cheeseburger to look delicious could be fine once in a while simply to relieve mental pressure which keeps pulling one away from other considerations and tasks; this acknowledgement might cause an accidental and momentary swelling of love and even could begin a movement of desire. Even though an accidental movement of desire would still be venial sin if delight is taken in it without deliberation, it would not seem to be a sin to indulge in this psychological release in cases of acute pressure unless done frequently or, of course, if done for the sake of arousing desire. This is my own view on the basic dynamic of suppression vis-à-vis repression… Take it for what it’s worth. There are better ways to avoid such temptations, which should be used more frequently… of course, I am not talking about cheeseburgers.) When one starts actively “desiring” (not simply “loving”) an object of an act which is not allowed (and in this case, feeling that desire by an inclination towards an individual instance of that act), that passion needs to be suppressed or fought against somehow immediately, often by distraction, such as moving around, a short prayer, etc. When desire begins, one is already in venial sin. (See my other post on practical chastity here.) To be sure, the line between love and desire is a bit blurry, though love is mostly felt in higher parts of the body like the head and chest, while desire has a lower “center of gravity,” more around the stomach. Whatever the case, the motion of desire, which already contains a kind of “pre-delight,” can itself become the object of “delight,” namely, when one enjoys the feeling of anticipation of the exterior act, often by imagining the act or simulating it in some way.
St. Thomas calls this pleasant and deliberate attention to anticipation “morose delectation.” (See Articles 6, 7, and 8 – they are complex.) It’s one thing to take delight in the thought of a sin (a kind of “curiosity”), it’s another to delight in the sin which one is thinking of. Deliberately enjoying the “desire” for a sin is itself convertible with the commission of the sin which is being virtually enjoyed. Such a thought, to be clear, has to have been chosen with sufficient deliberation, more than a split second or two, somewhat depending on the person – and if we are honest, one can generally determine the moment when one really has the freedom to choose… it’s the moment where one has gotten over the initial intrigue or shock of the pleasant thing and realizes that he could stop if he wanted to but freely decides to simulate the immoral act as a kind of virtual-reality playground, actually wanting to do this act despite really refraining from it for whatever reason. (This arguably even extends to the reason, “Because it is immoral,” as one then shows a kind of contempt for the Wisdom of God which has ordered things thus – we are bound to want to follow the moral law because it is actually good for us. But it is a bit dubious – and this is a more complex discussion.) And given enough time, one will have forfeited the excuse for not driving away desire in the first place even without positive deliberate consent, which reduces to morose delectation. This feeling is also distinct from the actual physical preparation of the body, which means morose delectation is not the same as autoeroticism – though clearly, the one can lead to the other. It seems important also that the anticipation must be of a concrete or determinate exterior act, even if virtual (“not really going to happen”), and it needs to be considered without circumstances which would excuse the action (viz., being married to this individual). While St. Thomas balks on a strong position on morose delectation of mortal sin as being mortal sin itself (stating merely that it is the more common opinion and is more likely than not), with the distinction of determinacy and proximity to circumstance, we begin to see how to solve the puzzle. The more concrete the action is which one desires (i.e. “to go home with this person right now, and … etc.”), and the less one is concerned with remotely achievable circumstances (viz., marriage, which consideration will both quickly melt away and would not excuse from venial sin anyway), the more likely it is to be mortal sin, because the latter is more tied to the passion of desire inclined toward a real act which is (or would be) mortal sin. So, the average “impure thought” is venial sin, even if dwelt upon (barring the advertence to the danger of slipping further – which does need to be considered in a moral evaluation), as long as there is not desire which develops and then is deliberately taken pleasure in. That is my take, at least.
If you wanted a simple explanation, there really isn’t one. The passions are not simple things. But, as close to a shortcut as you can get might be to say that mere desire to sin, without deliberation, is “to want to sin,” while deliberately enjoying that desire to sin is “to want to want to sin,” and just enjoying thinking of something which would be a sin on account of its illicit pleasures is “to want to think about sin.” The first is venial, the second is mortal if it has a concrete goal and venial if it does not, the third is venial.
TL;DR: wanting sex in general is natural and good unless dwelt on too much, feeling the pleasure of anticipation of a real and illicit sexual act is venial sin, and deliberately enjoying that feeling of anticipation, especially including by simulating sexual activity, is mortal sin.
In the next post, we will explore the second great principle: don’t start what you can’t finish.
Be sure to subscribe to get updated whenever a new post is published!