Amongst the many forgotten virtues in today’s world is that of prudence. Prudence, exercised rightly, allows a person to discern in the moment what is good and right.
According to Thomas Aquinas, prudence is ‘right reason in action’. That is to say, it allows us to see clearly and act accordingly.
I raise the virtue of prudence in response to Anna Hitchings’ recent article on whether or not couples should be kissing prior to marriage.
She supported the notion that maybe the only form of touching and kissing involved should be that of brotherly or sisterly affection.
In the spirit of dialogue, I would like to come at this question from another angle.
In his book In Love, Ryan Messmore notes that there are two problematic approaches to this question: the ‘suppression’ approach (i.e. don’t do anything affectionate), and the ‘magic line’ approach (i.e. let’s work out where the line is and see what we can do up until that point).
Both of those approaches fall foul of the same problem: they leave undone the hard work of character.
The building of character involves the acquiring of the virtues necessary to sustain a healthy approach to physical intimacy. Prudence is one of them.
I have been fed both of these growing up. When I was younger, in my Protestant days, my youth pastor gave us kids a ‘hard talk’ on ‘how far is too far’. He looked at us boys sternly and said, ‘Guys, if you get aroused, that’s too far.’
Intuitively, I knew there was something wrong with this. It was only later, when I rediscovered my Catholic faith, that I was able to encounter an anthropology that savoured everything that was good and noble and beautiful about being human. One of these human experiences was what has commonly been referred to as Eros.
There are both secular and Christian perversions of Eros. It is not, as we might expect, defined simply as being romantic or sexual love.
I think I would agree with David Schindler that Eros is, properly conceived, the response of desire in the person to the truly good and the truly beautiful. It is a response to something intrinsically valuable.
This desire is to be in union with that object – or subject – of desire. In the context of a pre-marital relationship, then, where the couple is discerning whether or not they should get married, they are already and inevitably bound together by the experience of Eros, the desire for the good and the beautiful and the valuable in the other person.
If we understand this correctly, we might be better disposed to considering the question, since I don’t believe breaking the world up into ‘occasions of sin’ and ‘sin’ is an encompassing enough take on the issue.
Instead, we should consider that the human experience of Eros, as something good and noble and created by God – indeed, as an aspect of creation that in some way imitates God – is the precondition of the pre-marital relationships in question.
Naturally, in such relationships, it manifests erotically, as it should.
But what this means is that we cannot make such an easy distinction between ‘brotherly and sisterly’ affection and something more erotic either.
Affection in such a relationship is always and inevitably erotic because it is an expression of desire that leads us towards union. Again, as it should be.
If we cannot make such an easy distinction, though, the only course left is to consider the question in terms of degree, not suppression or license.
Whilst it has been claimed that ‘passionate kissing’ or ‘making out’ is mortally sinful, those terms do not actually help us clarify specific situations.
They are colloquialisms, not categories with meaningful content.
This is where the virtue of prudence comes in.
Because the human experience of Eros has different implications for each person, depending upon their own personal vices and inclinations, we cannot as a rule develop the kind of universal imperative that suppresses physical intimacy altogether.
Instead, couples should exercise the virtue of prudence in order to receive as a gift the experience of Eros they are already caught up in and seek to nurture it as best they can prior to marriage.
To suppress physical intimacy altogether before marriage is, I would argue, not to receive it as the gift that it is. But the degree to which it is exercised and experienced is a matter of prudence and nothing else.