In Part One of this essay, I noted that marriage rates have declined in recent decades, including among Catholics, and that there are countless reasons for this trend. While many Catholics have been impacted by the sexual revolution, others live according to Church teaching, yet still encounter enormous obstacles to marriage.
I then drew attention to four problems that affect devout Catholics in particular, based on both research and informal observations: dysfunctional discernment, divisions in the Church or “Catholic camps,” poor examples and mixed messages from parents and mentors, and lack of universal courtship (or dating) customs.
Providing full solutions to these problems would take much more research and explanation than I am capable of here—not least because I am still unmarried myself (i.e. a blind person attempting to lead the blind). But how can I claim something is wrong unless I can at least vaguely sketch what “right” might look like? Here, I will offer a few suggestions to parents and mentors, as well as single Catholics themselves, to start mitigating the problems I described in my previous essay.
One note before I begin: whenever I say “courtship,” I mean the entire process of getting to know a potential spouse and considering marriage. I use “dating” to mean going on dates: that is, going on a fun outing with a person of the opposite sex in order to get to know him or her better. The terms are nearly interchangeable.
If vocational discernment is dysfunctional right now, what would functional look like?
First, let’s acknowledge that vocational discernment has looked very different at various points in Church history, starting with the fact that it didn’t really exist until about the sixteenth century. (Read Christopher Lane’s excellent book Callings and Consequences to understand how that came about.) If vocational discernment changes over time, it is okay for it to change again. We have very little official Church teaching on the matter, so most things we have been taught about the right way to discern one’s vocation are simply opinions: possibly helpful, possibly unhelpful.
The helpful opinions are those that aid young adults in making a prudent choice of a state in life—marriage to a particular person, consecration in a religious order or in the world, priesthood in a diocese or an order—and live in that state with joy and peace. The right way to discern is the way that works, rather than leaving bright and pious young Catholics trapped in indecision.
So, discernment talks should probably emphasize freedom and choice between several good options a bit more. Too often, young people mistakenly get the idea that God has written the only correct vocation for them on a secret answer key in the clouds and judges them as impersonally as a Scantron if they get it “wrong.”
This very, very inaccurate view of God will also melt away if young people spend time with Him in personal, mental prayer, every day: not just asking Him, “What is my vocation?” or “Please send my spouse,” but getting to know God as a Person and a Father.
So, besides improving their vocational advice, parents and mentors should focus on providing uncommitted young Catholics with strong formation as well-rounded Catholics. This should include exposure to good examples of all the states in life and an emphasis on daily personal, mental prayer (alongside the sacraments and various devotions). A clear picture of what holy, happy marriage, religious life, and priesthood look like, plus the habit of discussing everything with a personal Lord who loves us, is the best foundation for making a good and confident choice of vocation.
Healing Wounds in the Body of Christ
The second problem I described in the last article was that of the “Catholic camps,” or divisions within the Church that divide pious Catholics from each other and limit their perceived dating pools.
This problem is, obviously, enormous and probably will not be solved in our lifetimes. But a large wound only heals because individual cells do their part to knit the edges back together. Perhaps, in the manner of ancient warring kingdoms, we single Catholics could construct our own peace deals through marriage?
I do not suggest marrying someone you strongly disagree with solely for the sake of this mission. But I do suggest being open to meeting, socializing with, and going on dates with anyone from any “camp” who seems to have the same basic moral compass and a deep desire for the truth.
We need to remember two things: first, that relationships happen between people who seek to know each other as people, not between Jan’s checklist and Stan who may or may not check all the boxes; and second, that people always change over time, especially when they encounter other people.
A checklist mentality is highly limiting. I have heard “trads” (the camp in which I best fit, so the one I know best) insisting on dating fellow Latin Mass attendees, but unable to find anyone. (I have pointed out before that Latin Masses seem to be more male-dominated; most women there are already taken.)
The same “trads” also forget that, usually, they only started attending the Latin Mass a little while ago—often, because they were introduced to it by a friend. If a trad guy takes a not-so-trad girl out to dinner and they hit it off, what’s to prevent her from also becoming attracted to the Latin Mass?
The same goes for any of the “fifty flavors” of Catholicism: if a thing in the Church is good, true, and beautiful, then God-fearing people will be drawn to it, often through each other. In fact, one of the best signs of a good relationship is that both people are drawn closer to God through each other.
Again, people will always change in relationships; the key is to make sure we are being changed for the better. Let us build a firm foundation in prayer, the sacraments, and Church teaching, then meet people from any Catholic camp without fear. Meeting someone at a young adult group is not automatically a date, and a first date is not a marriage proposal. At each step, there is room to observe whether our souls are made better by spending time with the person in front of us.
Most likely, both Stan and Jan will change some of their opinions over time, possibly even changing which “camps” they belong to. But if they both have a fundamental orientation toward sainthood, their opinions are more likely to converge than to grow apart.
Parent and Mentor Influence, Beneficial Ways
I have already mentioned some ways that parents and mentors (including pastors, teachers, professors, etc.) can help, but now I will address more specifically the problems I brought up in this section of the previous article.
First, example. Based on my survey of 300 Catholic young adults, I believe one of the most important ways parents can help their children marry is by being good examples of happy, holy matrimony. I emphasize happy because too many young people mistakenly believe that holiness requires misery. They need to see that holiness—in marriage as in all other things—requires sacrifice, but that the sacrifice is absolutely worth it.
I cannot say it better than the Church says it in the Exhortation before Marriage read at the traditional Latin wedding rite: “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy.” The whole story of God’s plan for marriage, like the whole story of His creation and redemption, ends with joy.
Parents and mentors, tell young people the entire story, including the joy. More importantly, show it to them by living that joy yourself.
Next, I believe verbal encouragement to marry, or at least lack of discouragement, is important. According to survey respondents, many parents actually discourage marriage either explicitly or by silence. No parent or mentor should ever pressure a young person to marry by a certain age or at all, but also, no one should imply that 24 is too young or that education and career are always more important than marriage.
(They’re emphatically not; while important in a practical sense, education and career are not sacraments like matrimony. They can be sanctifying when done well, but no one lies on their deathbed wishing they had spent less time on relationships and more on work. People who plan to marry, especially men, should be able to make a basic living, but any further education or career improvement can usually happen within marriage—possibly with greater ease and success, with a spouse’s support.)
Lastly, parents and mentors can promote young people’s success by making sure they are capable of a successful courtship. Spiritual formation, including in the virtue of chastity, is extremely important, but so is attractiveness, of personality and presentation.
In my survey, I asked respondents what qualities they find attractive and unattractive in the opposite sex, and the results were perennial, almost stereotypical. Women like men who are gainfully employed and socially capable, not men who play video games or endlessly discuss the finer points of liturgical history. (A married friend of mine likes to chide his bachelor friends of the “trad” variety: “Don’t mention the Fourth Lateran Council on a first date!”)
Men like women who are pretty and kind and family-focused and feminine (an oft-used word in the survey responses)—not shallow, not excessively prudish. Both sexes like people who have varied interests, hobbies, passions… something new to talk about, something that captures attention.
Parents and mentors can help young people become more marriageable by instilling morals and manners, interests, good grooming habits, and good taste in their charges. Form children and students not just to be pious or to be successful in the world, though they should be both those things; form them also to be pleasant, attractive companions—someone that somebody else would want to go out with.
A Common Courtship Language
In Part One, I described the missed expectations and confusion that surrounds dating in our culture today because everyone has a different idea of how courtship should go. Most cultures throughout history had unspoken or semi-spoken rules that governed how to signal interest in someone, how a man should pursue a woman, how a woman should either encourage or discourage his suit (the idea that it might go the other way around was, of course, nonexistent), when physical affection was appropriate, and so forth.
Now, we live in Babel.
We desperately need a common courtship language in our own culture today. There is no way to simply create one overnight, and I am certainly not qualified to create one here. But I will suggest a few thoughts.
Firstly, like vocational discernment, there is no one right way to do courtship or dating. The Church provides teaching on marriage and its validity and the importance of chastity according to each state in life, but leaves it to culture to decide exactly how to pair people off and safeguard their chastity. As with vocational discernment, the way we should do it today is the way that works.
In my own floundering over the past few years, I have come across several wise people who have seen what works.
One is Cristina Pineda, a highly successful matchmaker and devout Catholic who gave an in-person talk to a group of single Catholics in my area. Her company, Matchmakers in the City, also provides further resources (not all from an explicitly Catholic perspective, but not opposed to Catholic teaching either, and always very practical).
Another is Fr. Chad Ripperger’s talk “The Four Stages of Courtship.” This is a high-level overview of a very traditional approach to courtship that can still be applied to a modern dating context.
The third is the Heart of Dating podcast. It is hosted by a non-Catholic Christian couple in a casual, modern style. I can only recommend the episodes I’ve heard so far, but what I have heard is basically aligned with Catholic teaching and, again, very practical.
I name these three very different resources because, despite their diverse audiences and backgrounds, they give surprisingly similar advice. For example, all three suggest starting off a courtship with a non-exclusive stage lasting at least two to three months, before progressing to a more serious, exclusive stage of considering marriage with one person. All three express some level of caution toward physical affection, especially in that early, non-exclusive stage. And all three agree that the man should be pursuing the woman.
Again, the most important point is that our whole society, or at least a critical mass of Catholics in our society, come to agree on approximately the same way of dating. That way will not be to everyone’s liking nor a perfect escape from all pain and temptation, but it must be a way that both comports with Church teaching, and that enough different Catholics can agree upon.
The fact that the three very different resources I mentioned above have come to similar conclusions on a few major points gives me hope that most faithful Catholics can also come to agreement. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to guide us from the Babel we live in to a new, joyful, fruitful dating culture.
This is Only the Beginning
A whole book could be written on the hurdles between single Catholics and marriage, especially if thorough solutions to each problem were included. These articles have hardly scratched the surface. But I hope that at least some single Catholics who saw themselves in the problems I outlined in Part One have found some hope in the suggestions in Part Two.
And, I hope that parents and mentors of young Catholics will learn from these two articles at least a little about their charges’ struggles and how to help them overcome them.
By the way, some might ask me why delayed marriages are a problem in the first place. Can’t God bring good fruit out of a single life? Absolutely; God not only can, but will, if the single person allows it. For those who desire the sacrament of matrimony for good reasons, it is better to reduce any human obstacles to that God-given, grace-giving sacrament. If God needs a longer “season of singleness” to to fulfill His purposes in an individual’s life, let Him cause the delay, not our human failures.
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