Courtship: The Chaste Preparation for Holy Matrimony

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(This was written in preparation for a series of conferences on vocations and states in life that I gave at Saint Benedict Center in the Spring of 2005. Please see the end of this piece for a small table of contents with links to the other conferences.)

Last week, we spoke about choosing a partner. Now, there are two aspects to choosing a partner. One is the choice of an ideal partner you would like. This is setting your standard: He must be a Catholic, firmly dedicated to the Faith and to raising a family well. He must have a certain education, certain interests, and so forth. You have to know that he — whoever he is — must be the kind of man you can have a true friendship with, according to the three qualifications we discussed last week. That’s the “remote” choosing of a partner.

The “proximate” choosing of a partner, has two parts: First is seeing if this fellow meets your ideals. But, in order to know that, there then has to be some sort of test. Since “test marriages” would be a violation of basic morals — even on the natural level — what we have instead is called courtship. Courtship allows you to see if the one you’ve almost chosen is the one you’ll choose for life at the altar.

What this talk is not. First, let me explain what this talk is not. I will not go into detail on many of those things one can read in a book such as Father Lovasik’s Chaste Love in Courtship, or Father Kelley’s book on chastity I mentioned last week. This is a mixed audience and these subjects would be better handled in another venue, preferably in the home, where these books can be read with parents as your guides.

What it is. What I would like to address is the notion of courtship and how it differs from the modern concept of dating. I would also like to cover who is eligible to court and what some appropriate parameters are.

Contrast of Dating and Courtship. In order to contrast courtship and dating, let me give examples of each. You can figure out which is which.

Tom, who has been legally eligible to drive for about a year now, goes to Sally’s parents’ house. After knocking on the door, he may or may not be allowed in the house to wait for Sally to finish dosing herself with the final spritz of inexpensive yet surprisingly powerful perfume. As soon as possible, the two get back into Tom’s car and head off to the movie theater where they will watch whatever popular thing is playing nowadays. After the movie, the two of them go someplace for dinner. Depending on Tom’s budget, it can be anything from a pizza joint to McDonald’s to one of those upscale places like Denny’s. After that, they see how much time is left to get Sally back home in time — whatever time that is — and they kill time walking in the park together.

Dating. In this first plan, Tom and Sally are alone a lot, may sit in the car for long periods at a time, and have no real purpose other than to have fun. There is also a huge number of proximate occasions of mortal sin. If they decide this is something they like, they may “go steady” for a while, but neither understands that as any more than a more intense — especially more emotionally and, God help us, physically intense — version of that first date they went on. They certainly aren’t talking or even considering marriage, since they are both too young for that. But gosh! — they sure like each other.

If they don’t go steady, Tom will repeat the process the next week with Mindy, with whom he may decide to “go steady,” or maybe not.

This first plan has all sorts of variations and can be done in groups of couples.

Courtship. In the second plan, Maurice goes to Erika’s parents’ house, knocks on the door and is allowed in by Mrs. Smith, Erika’s mother. As he walks into the house, he sees Erika and her brothers and sisters sitting in the den, playing a game. Mr. Smith shakes Maurice’s hand, and shows him a chair and has little Freddie get Maurice something to drink. At some point during the game, Mrs. Smith informs everyone that dinner is ready. Grace is said before the meal. After the food is passed around, there is lots of family conversation and Maurice is invited to participate in it. After dessert and grace after meals, the game resumes, this time with greater fervor. The little brothers and sisters go off to get ready for bed, while Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Erika, and Maurice continue talking about various subjects. For a little while, Maurice and Erika can talk alone, while the Smiths sit in the next room. As soon as Mr. Smith walks in the room, Maurice knows it’s time to leave. He says goodnight to Erika, thanks the Smiths, and goes back home. Maybe next Saturday night, a similar scene will take place at his house, or perhaps the two families will get together for something, or maybe the two will be allowed to go together to a social function, but they will spend most of their time with family. After all, Maurice and Erika want to see how the other behaves in the home setting, since they are strongly considering marrying each other and are both eligible to do so.

In this second plan, most, though not all, of the activity happens in the home. The parents are included in the process. There is little time alone together, especially at first, and the purpose is to see if they are indeed suited to each other for marriage. They also have fun and, in large measure, the enjoyment they have is a gage if whether or not they are suited for each other.

Definition. It will not surprise you to find out that the first thing I described is dating — or “casual dating” as we may call it. The second one is courtship. They are done differently and they have different purposes. This is what Our Quest for Happiness says about courtship: “The purpose of company-keeping or steady dating, or courtship as it is also called, is to allow a man and a woman to get acquainted with one another and to enable them to learn how they are adapted to one another mentally and temperamentally, so that they can decide whether they should marry one another or not.”

Time Tested. While dating is a twentieth-century invention, courtship is ancient. It is the way young men and women prepared for marriage. Even Vatican II refers to courtship very matter-of-factly as the proper preparation for marriage: “It is imperative to give suitable and timely instruction to young people, above all in the heart of their own families, about the dignity of married love… so that, having learned the value of chastity, they will be able at a suitable age to engage in honorable courtship and enter upon a marriage of their own.”

To emphasize how traditional courtship is versus dating, I will cite the authorities of our own dear Brother Francis, and an Indian priest who lived with our community for some months, Father Pancras Christanand. Brother Francis, born in Lebanon in 1913, assured me that “dating” did not exist in his Christian village of Mashra, nor in the surrounding areas. It was literally unknown to Lebanon until quite recently, thanks, in large part, to the exportation of bad American culture to the Middle East. Father Christanand, from Tamil Nadu, India, was almost Brother Francis’ age. His response to my questions about this was quite humorous. When I described to him what “dating” is, he exclaimed: “In India, not even the Hindus do that!” I more recently found out (March, 2009), from another Indian priest, that India has the lowest divorce rate in the world. (A strange web site confirms this.)

Courtship, as opposed to dating, was the norm internationally, until technologically-enhanced modernity gave us another foolish bit of “progress.”

Teenage” Culture. The revolutionary innovation is more radical as it entails something more fundamental than dating. The idea that teenagers have a culture of their own, separated from their families, is a terrible modern invention. What made it possible, ladies and gentlemen, is the automobile. You can hop in the car and in a matter of minutes be miles away from mom and dad, living in your own universe, doing what you want. This helps to widen the so-called generation gap and it makes for a very sick society.

Eligibility. Let’s get back to describing courtship. Our Quest of Happiness says — as virtually everyone acknowledges — that those who are not eligible to marry may not court. This is because courtship is a natural prelude to marriage. If it does not terminate in marriage, the two will become personally interested in each other for the wrong reasons. If the couple is not eligible to marry within a reasonable time — a year or so — then they should not court. In fact, they must not court.

Pre-Courtship Social Activity. Now, some may ask the question: is there any acceptable social activity between a boy and a girl without reference to marriage? In other words, is casual dating alright only for the purposes of fun? The answer is no. The reason I take this hard line, which is very rarely spoken today, has to do with the very nature of boy-girl relationships.

General Attraction” and “Personal Attraction.” Catholic moralists who speak of the attraction that exists between men and woman speak of general attraction and personal attraction. Once he reaches a certain age, a boy is generally attracted to girls and a girl is generally attracted to boys. This is nature’s way — or God’s way — of preparing us very remotely for matrimony. For a long time before anyone is really able to marry, this general attraction exists. It provides us with opportunities for disciplining ourselves and learning proper social restraints that will govern proper relationships.

Personal Attraction. With personal attraction, there is an exclusive interest in one partner. This interest is far more intense, and will manifest itself in stronger ways, than general attraction. Personal attraction is not evil. It must be there for genuine courtship to begin. It must be there in the selection of a partner. It is not only not evil in itself, it is necessary as part of God’s plan for bringing men and women together in holy matrimony. However, to encourage the motion of personal attraction outside of the context of courtship is a mistake. Given that “dating” as we have described it, encourages premature personal attraction, it is a mistake. It is more than a mistake; it is a species of madness.

Divorce Practice. Dating encourages young people to begin relationships with one another that will soon end. After all, if they are too young to marry, and they don’t see their relationship as a preparation for marriage, they have no reason to stay together as soon as the fun subsides at all. At that point, each moves on to someone else. If someone begins dating at the age of sixteen or seventeen — as is common today — by the time he is really able to marry, he’s been through many of these kinds of relationships. Some of them are likely to have been regarded as “break ups” when they ended, even if there was no intention for them to marry. What has this young man learned? Divorce.

It is certainly a strong hypothesis, if not a proven fact that, just as courtship is a preparation for marriage, casual dating is a preparation — indeed a rehearsal — for divorce.

Father Kelley, whom I’ve been quoting, has this to say about relationships of personal attraction:

“Evidently persons who are ineligible for marriage should not foster an affection of this kind. Nor should those for whom marriage must necessarily be a thing of the rather distant future. We are referring here particularly to young men and women in the early years of college and, of course, to all others who are in somewhat similar circumstances: for instance, those who will be separated by war conditions or other exigencies. We base this judgment on the following solid reasons:

“1. The affection may rush you ahead faster than you thought of going, and you will contract a hasty and regrettable marriage. This has happened often.

“2. You will be tied down to one person, and you will thus lose the general social advantages and contacts that should mean a great enriching of your life in the future.

“3. By cultivating this affection, you expose yourself in a special way to the dangers to chastity already mentioned, because this love affair may be a very prolonged one, and the danger of violating chastity increases as the affection is prolonged without its logical culmination in marriage. [Let me interject: Father Kelley heard confessions. What he says here is not the naïve guess of an amateur; it is the sage advice of a practical guide of souls.]

“4. For a college student in particular: you will find it almost impossible to do full justice to your studies, and you may lose or seriously damage the very thing that you came to college to get– an education, a profession.

“There may be exceptions to these rules, but one cannot count on exceptions.”

Dangers. Now, as squeaky clean a picture as I’ve just painted of courtship, you would be surprised how many good Catholic books warn of the dangers of it. Obviously, the fall has affected us so that we are tempted to sin. If we go by the standards of the world, we will most certainly sin in this area — and sin horribly! Here is what the Young Man’s Guide says contrasting the good and bad elements of courting:

“That two persons who intend to get married should previously become better acquainted with each other is reasonable and right; in fact, ordinary prudence and the future happiness of the two demand as much. If they meet at times, provided they do not remain alone too much and especially at night, and then enter the married state in a proper and legitimate manner, such acquaintances can not be found fault with. But in many cases there is no prospect, or only a very remote one, that marriage will follow; at times there is not the slightest intention of marriage between the two that keep company. Or, when there is an engagement of marriage, they are constantly together; they are averse to the presence of other persons; they prefer to sit for hours in the dark; they wander about in secluded and out-of-the-way places; they are at every dance that is held for miles around. The Christian code of morals can never sanction such company-keeping. Such a method of courtship is fraught with the greatest dangers and generally constitutes a proximate occasion of sin.”

A few pages later, Father Lascance lists three definitive don’ts in courtship:

1. Courting with no intention of marriage.
2. Courting that is prolonged for years.
3. Being together for hours alone.
4. To this I add a fourth: Separating courtship from the family context.

Acceptable Social Activity. Since causal dating is not acceptable, what is, for those not yet ready to court? The answer is something which is in line with the general attraction which should be nurtured and disciplined during the teen years: group activities. Socializing here at the Sunday brunch, family cookouts, picnics, youth-group functions, concerts, sporting events, dances (of the acceptable sort — such as the occasional ones we have in our community). All of these are appropriate, as long as things are chaperoned.

Objections. Some may object that this keeps young men and young women ignorant of one another. I answer that this is good. They should be so ignorant until the time for that knowledge is right. Some may say that they will not know who it is they like unless they get to have an exclusive relationship. And without knowing who you like, you cannot know who to court. My answer to that is: Be real! It’s not brain surgery. You will know who you like in plenty of time for courtship. Anyone in the least acquainted with romance will know this. As proof, I offer the testimony of the old Broadway musical “South Pacific.” Now, it’s a bit squishy, but there is the famous song sung by the character Emile, “Some Enchanted Evening.” Here are the words:

Some enchanted evening
You may see a stranger,
you may see a stranger
Across a crowded room
And somehow you know,
You know even then
That somewhere you’ll see her
Again and again.

Some enchanted evening
Someone may be laughin’,
You may hear her laughin’
Across a crowded room
And night after night,
As strange as it seems
The sound of her laughter
Will sing in your dreams.

Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons,
Wise men never try.

Some enchanted evening
When you find your true love,
When you feel her call you
Across a crowded room,
Then fly to her side,
And make her your own
For all through your life you
May dream all alone.

Once you have found her,
Never let her go.
Once you have found her,
Never let her go!

So, if you are worried that you won’t be able to know whom to court when the time comes, take it from Emile: “somehow you know”!

Warnings. There are some young people who will do all in their power — using every sneaky trick in the book to make the group settings I’ve spoken of into a cloak for an exclusive relationship. The crowd is here and they drift off over there together. Well, if they are not eligible to court, that should not happen. There should be real restraint. The activities should be limited until such time as they are able to have the proper kind of exclusive relationship.

The final attraction. The reason we are so insistent on this delaying of exclusive relationships is that, once the process of premature exclusivity is begun, it is hard to reverse. There is one “attraction” mentioned by theologians that I did not list earlier. It is called “physical attraction.” This one has place only in matrimony. To go prematurely from general to personal attraction is to invite physical expressions of attraction. And these — actual expressions of physical attraction — are generally sinful outside of marriage. I don’t think it will overstate the case if I cite a truth of Catholic moral theology here: Outside of marriage, deliberately to arouse venereal pleasure is in itself always mortally sinful. For those who need that explained in simpler terms, I relate what a good priest said to a group of boys, who asked him about the limits of premarital romantic pleasure seeking with girls: “Father, how far can we go?”

“Don’t get started!” he said. Sage advice.

All about Family. I want to get back to that picture I began with, contrasting dating with courtship. I know that there are cynics who will hear this and say, “Yeah… that’s my idea of fun, watching her kid brother play his ukulele and listening to her dad talk about the war in Iraq.” Let me point something out to any cynics in the crowd. If you think that way, then you are preparing to hate married life.

And to the young lady whose suitor can’t stand your little brothers: Be assured that he won’t be able to stand your children, either.

In-Laws. One reason for courtship being so much in the family is because you are not just marrying a boy or a girl, you are marrying into a family. Get to know them before you do so. If you find your potential future in-laws unbearable, then you will most likely find your marriage unbearable.

* * *

Here is a small table of contents with links to the other conferences in this series. If a given conference is not linked, that means it is not posted yet on this web site. (Back to top.)

1. The Big Decision: Your Options, God’s Plan.
2. The Better Part: The Religious or Priestly Vocation.
3. Flying Solo: The Chaste Single State.
4. The Great Sacrament: Holy Matrimony.
5. Who will it be? Choosing a Partner.
6. The Chaste Preparation: Courtship.
7. Till Death Do Us Part.

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