May a man and a woman who are dating, but unmarried, engage in passionate kissing? Is passionate kissing outside of marriage moral, or a venial sin, or a mortal sin?
Many moralists claim that ‘passionate’ kissing is always an objective mortal sin for any unmarried man and woman, regardless of intention or circumstances, even if the couple is engaged. But they allow that non-passionate kissing is moral. There are several doctrinal problems with this claim.
First, only intrinsically evil acts are always immoral regardless of intention or circumstances. There are three fonts of morality, if an act is immoral regardless of two fonts, it must be immoral under the remaining font. Intrinsically evil acts have an evil moral object; the moral nature of the act is inherently disordered. But the addition of the adjective ‘passionate’ does not signify a different moral nature, nor a different moral object. So if the type of act and the moral object have not changed, then the act cannot be intrinsically evil. For the moral object always is the sole determinant of the moral nature (or species) of an act.
We are not here discussing lust, which is intrinsically evil, because lust is a type of act, not an adjective describing an act. Although, in secular terms, any act might be described as lustful, such a phrasing does not necessarily signify the objective mortal sin of lust. If kissing, or any other act, even the mere act of looking at a person, is accompanied by an interior act of lust, it is that interior act which is always gravely immoral, not the kissing or the looking.
Second, passion refers to emotion. But emotions, even strong emotions, do not necessarily imply sin. For example, Jesus became angry in the Temple, when He drove out the buyers and the sellers: “Zeal for your house consumes me.” (John 2:17). And He experienced the emotions of sorrow and fear in the garden at the beginning of His Passion: “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death.” (Mt 26:38), and, “And he began to be afraid….” (Mk 14:33).
Now the emotion of sexual passion is a result of the fallen state, and so neither Jesus nor Mary experienced sexual passion or sexual arousal. But this emotion which results from being in the fallen state is not itself a sin, and when it is accompanied by sin, the sin is not necessarily mortal. Emotions are not knowingly chosen acts. Only knowingly chosen immoral acts are sins. A knowingly chosen immoral act might result in one emotion or another, or a person might knowingly make a sinful choice in response to an emotion, but emotions are not themselves sins. So the idea that kissing becomes a mortal sin merely because an emotion occurs during kissing is absurd.
Third, kissing does not have an evil moral object. “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Romans 16:16). A kiss might be accompanied by a sin of one type or another. “And he who betrayed him gave them a sign, saying: ‘Whomever I will kiss, it is he. Take hold of him.’ ” (Mt 26:48). But the act itself of kissing is not intrinsically evil.
Neither does any emotion, even emotions resulting from the fallen state, have an evil moral object. Although certain interior sins, such as lust, or hatred, or envy, etc., are often confused with the associated emotions (feelings), morally there is a very sharp distinction between experiencing an emotion, and knowingly choosing an immoral act. The emotion of anger is not the sin of hatred. The feeling of jealousy is not the sin of envy. The emotion (or feelings of) passion are not the sin of lust. No emotion has an evil moral object, because feelings are not knowingly chosen acts.
An excess of anger might occur if a person is harmed by another person, and he sins by choosing to dwell on that harm, and he sins by choosing not to forgive the injury, and he sins by choosing various acts that result in excessive anger. And in experiencing this excess of anger caused by his sins, he might next choose the sin of revenge. But the initial anger is not a sin. And the subsequent excessive anger is a bad consequence of his knowingly chosen acts, but it is not itself a sin. (Excessive anger is ‘physical evil’, not moral evil.)
An excess of passion may be the result of sinful acts, such as unmarried persons choosing acts of excessive physical affection or excessive sensuality. And the resultant feelings may make it difficult for the unmarried couple to remain chaste. In this case, if the acts of physical affection or sensuality do not include any intrinsically evil acts, then the morality would depend on intention and circumstances. But the fact that the emotion of passion occurs during kissing (or similar acts) does not cause the act to become an objective mortal sin.
Fourth, when an unmarried man and woman kiss, the fonts of intention or circumstances might be gravely immoral: such as an intention to induce the other person to commit an intrinsically evil sexual act, or a circumstance in which the kissing can reasonably be anticipated to have gravely harmful bad consequences (such as a near occasion of mortal sin). Or a related but distinct act might be gravely immoral, such as an interior act of lust. But the use the term ‘passionate’ to describe the kissing does not imply that any of the three fonts is gravely immoral, nor does it imply an accompanying gravely immoral act.
Fifth, kissing and similar acts of limited sensuality (but always non-genital acts) assist a couple who are considering marriage, or who are engaged, in preparing for later acts of natural marital relations open to life. This good consequence can certainly outweigh some bad consequences of limited moral weight. And the intention to express affection, or to prepare for moral sexual acts at a later time, within marriage, are moral intentions.
Sixth, the usual approach to this question lacks any consideration of degrees of sin. Kissing is said to be moral, but when it becomes, at some point, passionate, it is said to be suddenly gravely immoral. There is no acknowledgement of degrees of sin. But without any gravely immoral intention, or a gravely immoral object, or bad consequences that outweigh good consequences to a grave extent, there is no basis for this claim of mortal sin.
Seventh, under the three fonts approach to morality, none of the fonts is gravely immoral merely because the kissing has become passionate. Some degree of selfishness might be present in the intention of one or both persons, but this would be a venial sin. There may be some limited bad consequences to excessive sensuality in that the persons are aroused and chastity becomes somewhat more difficult, but not necessarily gravely so. And there is no gravely immoral object in such acts, since all genital sexual acts are absent from mere kissing and similar limited expressions of affection and sensuality.
Therefore, passionate kissing and similar acts of affection between an unmarried man and woman are not necessarily objective mortal sin. The mere emotion of sexual passion is not a knowingly chosen immoral act. And the acts that lead to this emotion may be moral, or may be venial sins. Kissing with passion may have some degree of disorder in intention or circumstances, but not so that this knowingly chosen act would be always entirely incompatible with the love of God and neighbor, and with the state of grace in the soul.