A Catholic critique of a current notion of courtship
by Kathleen van Schaijik
When I was a freshman I went to a talk on dating, given on campus as part of a “Christian Formation” series. One of the things the speaker said was “Feelings don’t really matter. Feelings come and go. What matters is compatibility.” I’ve heard the same idea expressed many other times this way: “Love is not a feeling; it’s a decision.”
The de-emphasis on “feelings” was a fundamental aspect of a general philosophy of dating promoted on campus (though certainly not shared by all) at the time. Dating was (and still is) regarded by many as “a process of marriage preparation.” Singles who truly wanted to “give their love life to God,” were taught that they ought not to be dating at all until they were ready to get married, and that then it should be kept to the minimum necessary for finding an appropriate potential spouse and rationally discerning compatibility for marriage. A great deal of stress was put on the need to avoid sexual sin and occasions of sin, as well as on the danger of “going by your emotions.” Young men and women were told they should not kiss until they were engaged, and were “challenged” to wait until they were married. (“If you’re not going to start the car, why put the key in the ignition?”) Older couples were encouraged to “get married as soon as possible” in order to avoid sin. The mystery of love was given very short shrift.
This way of thinking about courtship and dating seems to be on the rise in Christian circles. There are a number of Protestant ministers and teachers today promulgating what they call (very misleadingly, I think) “the biblical approach” to marriage, which they term “courtship” in explicit opposition to the dating scene of the world.1 Dating, they say, with its pattern of emotional attachments ending in breakups is “preparation for divorce.” In courtship, by contrast, “the decision to marry is entered into rationally,” without the interference of the emotions and with the express permission and guidance of the parents. The emotions come later, during the betrothal period. “The betrothal period [is] given to allow the emotions to catch up with the decision. The emotions are supposed to follow reason, not lead it.”2 (No distinction is made here between critically different types of emotions, such as between arbitrary sensations and deep spiritual responses.)
I have heard prominent Catholics expound similar ideas recently, including the notion of parental permission to begin courting, no kissing until the wedding day, and the idea that feelings should follow the rational decision to court, not vice versa.3
This method of courting has a strong appeal among young Christians, for two main reasons. The first is that it has a very large kernel of truth in it. The dating scene of the world is a disastrous mess. It is almost completely focussed on pleasure and self-gratification. Sexual promiscuity and emotional anguish abound. More and more couples are living together unmarried, more and more marriages are ending in divorce, more hearts are being broken, more lives are being ruined. Serious young Christians are looking desperately for something better and purer—a godly way to get married. And this method promises to provide it.
The second reason for its appeal, I think, is that it so greatly simplifies things for singles. It makes the pre-marriage period manageable. It gives a safe formula for getting through an extremely complex, confusing and peril-fraught time of life. By putting things on a clear, up-front, rational basis, much of the uncertainty and vulnerability that inevitably accompany “affairs of the heart” is eliminated.
The problem with it is that it is drastically lacking the fullness of truth about the mysteries of love and sexuality. And the lack here is not a mere incompleteness—so that if a few additions or adjustments were made, we’d have it in full. Rather, it is the kind of lack that entails a reduction and distortion of reality. And any distortion on the philosophical level is bound to work its way into the practical realm, doing damage in human lives in proportion with the seriousness of the error. (I could give many sorrowful examples here if put to it.)
Love and discernment
Perhaps the prime way it distorts reality is in the way it denigrates the role of love in courtship. In some cases, love is treated as irrelevant or worse, since “emotions” can cloud our judgement.4 More often, though, the “feelings” that go with courtship are seen to be good and valid, but still incidental to the “discernment process.” I can remember very distinctly thinking this way as a freshman and sophomore at FUS—being taught to think this way. If the choice of a spouse was sound, the feelings would click in eventually.
Just last night, reading George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, I was struck by this line: “Love, for Karol Wojtyla, was the truth at the very core of the human condition…” (p.101) Similarly, he saw it as the core of authentic courtship. In the experience of falling in love, Wojtyla shows, the meaning of the universe is mysteriously revealed, and with it the lover’s personal vocation: to give myself in love to this other, and to receive the gift of his love for me.5
This theme is also stressed repeatedly in the writings of the great Catholic philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand.6 True love between a man and a woman, so far from being a matter of bodily urges or appetites, or of sub-rational, superficial “feelings” needing to be dominated by reason, is a profoundly, a pre-eminently spiritual reality—one that shakes us to the very depths of our being. It is, further, decisively an affective reality, centered in the heart, not the intellect or the will (though it is of course intimately related to both.) Jacob did not labor fourteen years for Rachel’s hand because he had “discerned a compatibility” with her, but “because he loved her.” (Gen. 29:19-20)
To insist on the centrality of love in courtship, however, is not at all to suggest that discernment has no place. It is vitally necessary; for instance, in helping us to distinguish between authentic love and counterfeits like infatuation or mere sexual attraction, or to decide whether or not this particular love ought to end in marriage, or whether it might be right to marry even in the absence of an intense “inloveness.”7 But, crucial at it is, rational discernment is not the essence of the matter, and if we talk as if it is, we will end by cheating young men and women out of the height of human happiness, and with it the moral power they will need to live out their married lives well.8
The objective and subjective dimensions
A second distortion in the above-described courtship method, related to the first, is in its too impersonal or lop-sidedly “objective” treatment of the vocation to marriage. This can be seen in the very idea of making lists of potential spouses, and in the notion of needing parental permission to begin courting.
In Catholic understanding, marriage is a vocation—not just to a general state, but to a particular person. And like a vocation to the religious life, it is based on an intimate, interior call of God. In other words, it is something profoundly subjective9—beyond the reach of purely objective judgements and categories.10 Therefore, it is not fitting for a man who wants to marry to make lists of the qualities he’s looking for in a wife, or lists of the various women who attract his interest. This exposes and reinforces an impersonal and de-personalizing view of marriage—as if it didn’t really matter whom one marries, as long as she has the right qualities for the role she is to play. It encourages a man to be on the lookout for a “type” rather than for a person—an approach that has devastating consequences, particularly for women.11
Neither is it fitting for a couple to put the decision to court or to marry a particular person in the hands of their parents, or any other superior. No matter how much he may have the best interests of his daughter in mind, a parent cannot see into her heart, and is therefore simply unqualified to make that most intimate and ultimate of decisions for her. But, again, to say that the parents should not hold veto power over their adult child’s choice to court or marry is not at all to suggest that they do not have an essential role to play in helping their off-spring to court and marry well. A parent’s perspective is priceless and irreplaceable.
My own parents never did anything to try to “control” my dating in college. The unspoken understanding was that they had done for me what they could by raising me well, and now it was up to me to live as I thought right.
When I was a sophomore I had a boyfriend—someone I thought of as a great Christian leader and a potential spouse. I was not in love with him, but I expected that would come in due course. One day I asked my Dad, “Would you be happy if I married him?” He hesitated before answering, and in that single instant of fatherly hesitation (which surprised me) all the subtle doubts I had been harboring in my own heart crystallized into certainty: this relationship would never work; he was a great person, but he was all wrong for me. My father’s knowledge of me and his broader experience of life allowed him to see it before I did. And my implicit trust in his judgement and his loving concern for my happiness made me see it much sooner than I would have on my own—which spared me (and the boyfriend) a lot of needless heartache.
My parents never had the least hesitation about Jules. But neither would they have picked him for me out of a crowd of potential husbands. Until they saw how we loved one another, they could not have imagined how right he is for me. It was a revelation for them too.
Parents wield an enormous influence over their children. They have a right and a duty to advise their grown sons and daughters, and to bless or withhold their blessing from their “courtship choices,” as their loving parental wisdom dictates.12 But they cannot make those choices for them, and they can do damage if they try.
A right understanding of human sexuality
The third serious defect of this method of courtship (also related to the first two) is in the way it treats human sexuality. It is not exactly a puritanical treatment, since it grants that sex is good and innocent in the right context, i.e., marriage. But still, it is reductive. When we compare a kiss to “putting a key in the ignition” and “challenge” young people to wait until they are married, we obscure the deepest meaning of human sexuality as the expression of our nature as persons created to give ourselves in love. We reinforce the disastrous misconception that sex is basically the satisfaction of an appetite (designed by God to induce us to marry and reproduce)—a pleasure process that begins with kissing, ends with intercourse and results in children. Since that appetite is so powerful—so the thinking goes—it needs to be strictly controlled until marriage, when according to God’s law it may be satisfied without guilt. Therefore, the less we indulge ourselves before marriage, the safer we are. No mention is made of tenderness, romance, reverence, self-donation. Physical intimacy is reduced to sexual foreplay, and sexual morality is to its negative aspect of sin avoidance.
The truth is that a man may refrain from kissing his fiancee until their wedding day and still have an impure attitude toward her, because he views sex as a form of self-indulgence, rather than as a gift-of-self. And another man, who kisses his girlfriend with tenderness, may actually grow in purity as he does so, because he gives her that kiss as a sign and seal of his intention to love her and lay down his life for her. This is what a kiss between a man and a woman is meant to be.
In June of 1987, a year before Jules and I got engaged, Alice von Hildebrand asked me to drive her from New York to Virginia, where I was to take a summer course of hers. Knowing that my own courtship was about to begin, and wanting desperately to do it well, I asked her if she would share her thoughts with me. One of the many wonderful things she said to me that day was: “Reserve intimacy for only the most exceptional moments.” It was only a few words, but they managed to encapsulate and communicate a profoundly true and beautiful image of human sexuality (one without any reductive tendencies) that served as a help and inspiration for Jules and me throughout our courtship. Her words were pervaded with profound reverence for the sexual sphere, as well as with a humble awareness of its depth, seriousness and power, and therefore its potential to do great harm if misused. It is the kind of teaching I wish every young couple could receive before they approach courtship. (How much less unhappiness there would be if they did!)
People will say that I am too romantic and idealistic; that the sex-saturated culture of today demands that we get practical with young people if we are going to protect them from sin and devastation. But, I think we give much more genuine help when we teach single men and women reverence, when we hold up for them images that reveal the heart-melting beauty of a pure human love (in place of the obscenity, violence and vulgarity pop-culture bombards them with.) Once they see it, they cannot help but long for it, and, under Grace, aspire to it. Their aching desire for authentic love gives them courage and insight; they begin to recognize intuitively and shrink from the impurity that threatens their chance of attaining it…
I know this was true in my own life, and I know I am not alone.
Feelings and femininity
If I had the space, I would like to develop here one final thought—a background problem attendant on the de-emphasis on feelings. I would like to show how this way of thinking tends in practice to devalue women, because they are generally speaking more “emotional” while men are more “rational.” If we see feelings as needing to be dominated by reason, which is superior to them, we will be under psychological pressure to imagine that men are superior to women. We will blind ourselves to the many important ways that, spiritually speaking, the emotions (rightly understood) “lead” reason—because they are deeper and more sensitive. (Recall Pascal’s words: “The heart has reasons that the reason does not know.”) But that will have to wait for another place. I have already gone way beyond the normal length limits of a Concourse article.
To conclude my critique of this method of courtship, let me say two things. First, that for all its errors it embodies a moral and religious seriousness that are greatly to be admired and infinitely to be preferred over the thoughtless self-centeredness and promiscuity prevailing in the dating scene of the world today. Though it is not the fullness of truth, it can be for many young people what it was for me—namely, a giant step in the right direction. And second, if I fault FUS for sometimes promoting bad ideas about dating, it is also true that it was in philosophy classes there that I first encountered the writings of Von Hildebrand, Wojtyla and Kierkegaard, among others great thinkers about Love (for which I give special thanks to Dean Healy.) Even more, I met Jules at FUS, and FUS provided the backdrop of our courtship. So, when I criticize, I do so only with a very grateful sense of how much I owe my alma mater for what she gave me in the way of love—which is much more than I can ever repay. n
Kathleen van Schaijik graduated in 1988. She now lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where her husband, Jules (class of ‘89) teaches philosophy at Ave Maria College. She is currently writing a book on Catholic courtship.
- A recent article in the NY Times Magazine (2/27/00) about a fundamentalist Christian family (the father of which is studying to become a pastor) sums up this view succinctly: “It goes without saying that they do not approve of premarital sex, but what is a little more surprising is that they do not approve of premarital emotional intimacy either. If a couple are courting, they are supposed to be seriously considering each other as husband and wife, and they are supposed to do so with some overt participation by parents or other elders. Ideally, they should not be alone together, or if they are it ought to be in a public place—a Friendley’s, say—where liquor is not served and where they are unlikely to give into temptation.” ↑
- I have lost the reference here, though I saved the quotations. It was from a pamphlet advertising a series of tapes on this subject by a Protestant minister named Jonathon Livingston, I think. ↑
- Some of these principles can be found in Kimberly Hahn’s tape series, “Dating and Courtship: A Catholic Perspective” (recorded in Steubenville in 1997, and available through St. Joseph Communications.) But it would be unjust to lump her views on this subject with thoroughly rationalistic approaches. Her tapes give a lot of good practical advice, and they reveal a genuine openness to the fullness of Catholic truth. There is much to be admired in them. For instance, she makes a very clear distinction between the basic self-centeredness of fornication and the self-donation of the marital act. Also she acknowledges the phenomenon of “falling in love,” and agrees that marriage is a vocation to love a particular person. Still, I think some aspects of her teaching can be fairly criticized for betraying a rationalistic tendency not completely unsimilar to the method I’m here crititiquing. ↑
- I have heard of cases wherein the fact that the man felt no love for the woman he was thinking of marrying was conscientiously disregarded in his “discernment process.” (My heart aches for those women.) ↑
- This insight, which is the basis of the Pope’s profound “theology of the body,” is elaborated in his ethical work Love and Responsibility, and very movingly illustrated in his play, The Jeweler’s Shop. ↑
- See his The Heart, or Man and Woman, or Marriage: the Mystery of Faithful Love. ↑
- I am thinking for instance of the case of a widow with small children, who finds a good man who wants to marry her and provide for her and her children. She may sense that it is good and right to marry him, even if she is not madly in love. ↑
- Max Scheler has shown that happiness is a source of moral strength in human persons. This is something we experience all the time: when we are happy we are able to do good that is beyond us when we are depressed. The happiness that comes into a person through the experience of loving and being loved is a very vital help in meeting the challenges and demands of married life which might otherwise be crushing. ↑
- The term subjective is unfortunately ambiguous, and easily misunderstood. I am by no means advocating subjectivism, which is as different from subjective in my sense as feminism is from feminine. I mean, rather, to follow the Holy Father’s use of the term to denote the unique and inscrutable interior plenitude of each individual human soul. ↑
- The mysterious subjectivity of this call is stirringly expressed in The Jeweler’s Shop. When Andrew, who has just proposed to his future wife says about her: “There must have been something in Teresa that suited my personality. I thought much at the time about the “alter ego”. Teresa was a whole world, just as distant as any other man, as any other woman—and yet there was something that allowed one to think of throwing a bridge.” ↑
- This is material for a whole article in itself. It has many dimensions. One is in the psychological dynamics that come into play. A single woman who wants to be married will feel pressured to conform to an artificial ideal of wifeliness. She might be depressed at how little she measures up to it, at how many younger, prettier women there are who are better representatives of it than she. In a desperate effort to appear attractive as a potential wife, she will try hard to appear to be what she is not, even though it makes her feel phony and fills her with despair… A married woman, after the initial thrill of being a wife wears off and hardships begin to crop up, might experience a demoralizing doubt that her husband loves her. “Did he marry me for me, or did he marry me for my home-making skills?” She starts to feel “objectified,” used. A pitiable longing to be loved as a person may drive her to do terrible things, such as unconsciously suppress her “positive attributes” in order to test her husband—to see whether his love for her really goes to the heart of who she is. (The worst thing a husband can do in this circumstance is rebuke his wife or “call her on” for not fulfilling her wifely duties.) But this is not the right place for developing this point. ↑
- That wisdom may in some circumstances suggest prudential action. For instance, if parents fear that their freshman daughter has gotten involved in a very destructive relationship, they may decide not to continue paying her tuition to the college her boyfriend attends. In a very serious case, such a measure might well be justified, even called for. ↑