Principles for Chaste Relationships – Part II

Eamonn Clark, STL

After an inappropriately long break, we are continuing our moral analysis of romance. First post here, on the principle “distinguish between the passions of love, desire, and delight.” I am preparing some lectures on a related topic for some of my students – so I have these things on the brain a bit. I may publish some of those notes another time.

The second great principle: don’t start what you can’t finish.

We were talking about an analogy with food…

It’s not obligatory to finish the cheeseburger. We are much more masters over our own bodies in terms of regulating our self-preservation than we are masters over how to regulate the preservation of the human race. We can, for example, choose to eat more or less in one “instance” of eating. It is not exactly the same with the sexual faculty. It is true one can choose to engage in sexual activity or not, but it is not so true that one can licitly decide ahead of time to “half eat the cheeseburger,” or even “eat the cheeseburger and then spit it out.” Nor may one deliberately enjoy the feelings that come with “pretending to eat the cheeseburger,” as we have said in our discussion of morose delectation.

While the Council of Vienne declared that kissing is not intrinsically immoral (yes – this was an issue brought up at an ecumenical council, in the 14th century, due to the odd teachings of various beguinages), let’s read St. Thomas on this point (II-II:154:4), as he makes a helpful (but challenging) distinction, namely, that while not sins in themselves, kisses and touches can be mortal sins from their cause. Let’s carefully consider the following text (it is not a simple one, despite its appearance): “Now it has been stated above (I-II:74:8), that it is a mortal sin not only to consent to the act, but also to the delectation of a mortal sin. Wherefore 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 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. Therefore in so far as they are lustful, they are mortal sins.”

We have already unpacked a lot of this in the foregoing section. What this Article means is the following, at least on my reading of it (together with supporting texts, including the Article referenced – Article 8 of Question 74, which is rather complex)… After the first passion (love), the second passion (desire) begins soon enough. The third passion (delight) can then be taken in the second passion’s act itself. If this is willed deliberately, there is mortal sin, as the appetite has been conformed to a mortal sin, even though one is not actually committing the sin for whatever reason (others are watching, inconvenience, etc.). The more closely one is simulating actual sexual union, including by engaging in its accompanying acts, the more likely it is that one is taking delight in the desire for mortal sin, as evidenced by one’s clear intent to arouse the passion of desire for the sake of the pleasure it brings.

Thus we can start to get a grip on how to understand what is going on morally in various kinds of pre-sexual recreation (including, unfortunately, many things which go on at an average high school dance). Some amount of “kisses and touches” are indeed appropriate, especially given the societal context (our psychology being wired by our environment to expect courtship to contain certain signs of affection), but there are some more or less objective lines that we can draw. To reiterate, the more an action looks like it belongs to the marriage bed, the more dangerous it is, and one must also consider carefully the possibility of slipping into further acts – or occasioning this in the other person. Some of these lines are a little less clear.

What is certain, however, is that recreational simulation of sexual activity planned ahead of time with the intent to derive pleasure from the desire to “go further” is totally without excuse – they are acts that simply are lustful “from their cause,” as St. Thomas explains. One uses the other person for the sake of a sexual fantasy that he is conforming his appetite to by willfully enjoying the pleasure which that fantasy brings. These are also actions which have a definite trajectory – real sexual union, right now, and it is precisely this trajectory which makes them so enjoyable. They cry out to be finished, and we know from experience that playing with fire in this way eventually leads to being burned.

With married couples the case of “mere” kisses and touches is different, as there is at least an habitual desire and licit ability to finish the trajectory – however, looks, touches, kisses, etc. should be done in relation to this habitual intention towards actual sexual union, rather than done only for the sake of the pleasure of the moment. In other words, such things should be ordered towards building desire for an actually possible future sexual act, rather than simply as an isolated event for its own pleasures, lest it become autoerotic – for sure, to start the actual process of direct stimulation with the intention not to complete the trajectory would come under this unfortunate category. Thankfully, sincere and pious couples typically fall into this chaste mode of action rather naturally.

TL;DR: To try deliberately to have the feeling of anticipating sexual union (“desire”) is to want to have the appetite conformed to a mortal sin, which is mortal sin itself (morose delectation), and outward acts that cause this feeling (kisses, touches, etc.) must be treated very carefully, especially if they are very closely associated with actual sexual union (i.e. heavy petting). To “make out” or otherwise touch or even look at someone specifically to derive this pleasure of “wanting to go further”, with sufficient deliberation, is to use the other’s body to engage in the mortal sin of morose delectation of fornication (or whatever species of lust, i.e. adultery, an unnatural act, etc.).

This leads us to the third great principle – the emotions are not the body. We’ll explore that soon…