If Thy Lips Cause Thee to Sin

If Thy Lips Cause Thee to Sin June 20, 2016

Premarital kissing

Rock Hudson & Julie Andrews, publicity photo for “Darling Lili” (1968, public domain)

On Facebook, Joanne McPortland quips that premarital kissing “is only a mortal sin if you like it.” Guess it’s off to Confession for me, then.

But what stands at the back of this sudden frenzy of scrupulosity about kissing before marriage is the idea that what constitutes a particular occasion of sin for you somehow binds all Catholics.

And yet, if someone is addicted to pornography, the mere possession of a computer might be an occasion of sin. But for another, who is not addicted to pornography, there is no occasion for sin. It is the moral law against pornography that is binding, not incidentals that might be an occasion of sin for one but not another.

So it is with kissing before marriage. Kissing is not a sin; not even French kissing is. Fornication is. If you, personally, find that the former is too great a temptation for the latter—that once you start kissing, you won’t stop, and there will be copulation—then perhaps it is wise for you (you) to refrain. If your lips cause you to sin, cut them off.

But what’s wisdom for you does not bind the whole Church. My occasions of sin are not yours. Those matters are as individual as people are.

John Jansen, on my Facebook post on this topic, wrote the following.

Before my wife and I got married, I asked my then-spiritual director—one of the holiest, down-to-earth, intelligent, and good-humored priests I’ve ever known—about what is “allowed” before marriage, and he said this.

“You’re only allowed to do what you would feel comfortable doing if your mother were in the room watching you.”

Boom. His advice was clear and correct and told me exactly what I needed to hear.

And that might have been a very sound rule of thumb indeed—for John Jansen. Patti Sheffield made that very point.

There is plenty of room in Church teaching for pastoral directives to differ from one another. A spiritual director knows a person well enough to offer the soundest advice for that particular person. That does not make the advice binding on others or the entire Church, of course.

My occasions are not yours. I can’t find Mr. Jansen’s prescriptive anywhere in Church teaching. He pointed me to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2337, which simply defines chastity in the most broad and abstract way.

Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.

Fortunately, the Catechism helps us by listing (2351-2356) specific “offenses against chastity.”

  • lust
  • masturbation
  • fornication
  • pornography
  • prostitution
  • rape

There is nothing there about kissing; and if one were to argue that it falls under the category of “lust,” then that would only return us to the very point I have been making here. The things that cause me to lust are not necessarily those that will cause you to lust. Of course we are all obligated to turn away from occasions of lust, but these are not the same set of things for all people.

My occasions are not your occasions.

This is why the Church, in its wisdom, tells us what is sinful but does not give us a list of all the things to avoid in order not to fall into sin. The Church does not say, “Do not buy computers, lest you be ensnared by online pornography and sin against chastity.”

Nor does the Church say, “Do not kiss the person who is not yet your spouse, lest you be ensnared by passion and fornicate.” It does not tell us what types of kisses to avoid.

This certainly does not mean that anything goes; as long as I avoid intercourse I may do whatever I please with whomever I am dating. The right question is not “How far may I go?”

But the opposite error of “How far may I go?” is scrupulosity. You kiss someone; it feels good; you note that you are attracted; suddenly you are struck with a guilty conscience. “The scrupulous person,” says Mark Lowery at Catholic Answers, “is anxious that he has committed a sin when in fact he has not.”

Two people may decide, for any number of reasons, not to kiss before they marry. This is a personal decision, and is perfectly fine. But what is not fine is to take your own personal decision and mandate it for others, when the Church has not done so. To do so is to be a cause of scrupulosity in your brother.


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