Thursday, July 5, 2012

Courtship or Dating--Tradition? Practical Opinion

also see this article on the same subject here
[editor: I found this while surfing and forgot where its from. I found it very practical but I would like to add my two cents.  While "Virtue, Industriousness, Beauty, Piety" are good they are a little too flowery for an otherwise very practical straight speaking article. I would simplify it, although, not rejecting the above criteria, by saying, 3 things help in making a choice:
1.) How he/she handles money--are they responsible and does the man have a job to support a family?, If not, and you are a woman of childbearing age--- skip him!
2.)World View--- same religion, political opinions, similar interests outside of religion and politics
3.) Psychological---is he/she sane? Are they suffering from depression...alcohol...drugs etc... I'd say no  don't even think of dating them  in 98% of the cases.]

This is a post that is a response to an inquiry by a long time reader of this blog. The basic question was this: what is my opinion on courtship, on dating, on how a young Catholic man should go about wooing a woman and about acceptable courting practices. This is going to be a very in depth answer, and it is going to be hard to disentangle it from my own subjective experiences in this matter, but as a man married for almost eight years who has not “dated” for almost ten, I think I can reflect on it with some type of objectivity. But I must stress two things before I launch into this topic:

(1) All of the following is my opinion only. I do not profess it to be the Church’s ideas or even anybody’s ideas but my own. They are just my opinions, formed by a historical study.

(2) I have to warn everybody, my opinions on this issue may diverge from several commonly accepted notions, even notions accepted within the Traditionalist and Homeschooling communities. My opinions on courting/dating and marriage are simply part of a larger worldview, which I am not at this time able to clearly articulate for various reasons. However, because I am going to in this post threaten some sacred cows, I anticipate getting some disagreement. So be it.

So first, let’s come to terminology. Wooing a female. Well, it does not matter one bit to me what you call this process. Some homeschool parents get all bent out of shape about the terminology. My child will not “date”; they will “court.” Okay, well what really matters is the substance of what is going on at these liaisons, not what you call them. You can call it courting, dating, keeping company, going steady, (or, my mother’s annoying phrase from the 1960’s, “going with”), or whatever you want. Don’t get all upset about the name. I know of some families who don’t let their kids “date,” but allow their daughters to be in situations with other boys that would be tantamount to dating, but they for some reason allow it because it’s not called dating and because “we know their family,” as if that makes concupiscence and passion any less intense!

But let’s look at the definitions: courting or courtship, in a romantic sense, first appears in 1596. It grew out of the idea of medieval courtly love, and the idea of courting a woman came from the phrase “paying her court,” which originally meant a knight visiting the court of a noble lady whom he wished to woo. This phrase originally had nothing to do with how the visit was carried out; i.e., whether you visited the woman alone, or with her family present. Generally, this would have been a public display of affection for a lady followed by a solitary (and often amorous) encounter. I have news for people who think the term courting is somehow intrinsically better than dating: medieval courts could be some of the most immoral places on earth, especially from the time the term originates (late Renaissance, early modern period). Even in France, the home of courtly love, the courts of the French kings were known to be rottenly immoral sexually. Sexual promiscuity and adultery were so commonplace in the French courts that syphilis (first introduced into Europe around this time from the New World) was known as the “French Disease.”

Here’s my point (1) Courting, traditionally, had nothing to do with how a liaison was arranged (with family or without) but concerned itself rather with paying a visit to a lady at her court (2) These courts were rampant places of immorality. Therefore, we ought to not be all excited about saying we prefer “courting” to dating.

However, courting later did come to take on a more respectable tone: paying a lady a visit in her home (i.e., her court), presumably in the presence of her family, with a stated or unstated romantic intention. Talking with my grandmother, however, (who is now 90 years old), I am told that even in the old days among traditional families (mine was Sicilian Catholic), it was still common place for the boy and girl to go off alone. The boy might pay the girl a visit at her home, spend a little bit of time chatting with the family, then take the girl off for a picnic, bicycle ride, walk in the woods or boat ride [C.D.editor:in public places and not after dark, day dating posses less temptations]. This modern idea that a boy and a girl who are interested in each other never spend any time alone is (a) not historical or traditional at all (b) stifling to any real intent of getting to know the other. Parents along time ago knew that for a boy to get to know a girl, they needed the opportunity to get to know each other one on one.

Therefore, the emphasis wasn’t on whether time was spent alone or not, but whether the two were put into any compromising positions. [E.D.editor: I agree. Stick to the essence and reason for rules. Any advice needs to be weighed by prudence, there is no algorithm to the "perfect way"--lets use a little common sense people :-)] Therefore, though the two would be left alone, it would be outdoors, in public, etc., places where they could talk freely but would not be able to act on any temptation. I know two people definitely intent on fornicating cannot really be stopped – there is always a way to sneak off into the woods or go into a Port-a-Potty, like they used to do when I was in Basic Training, but the basic idea is sound: two persons together in a boat or on a walk in the park are much less likely to think about any shenanigans than two persons alone in a bedroom. That would have never been permitted nor do I think it should be.[editor: again on occasion there may be a need to visit each other in one or another's apartment, if you are over 21 living on your own. But it is best, if there is an activity like cooking dinner together or some thing practical. Again there is no algorithm] 

Interestingly enough, the term dating first comes from the Victorian era (around 1898), a period of much stricter morals than the late Renaissance. Dating had an innocuous meaning originally: simply having a date or appointment set with someone. Therefore, if we are going to look at the eras that the terms dating and courtship came out of, I think dating had a much more wholesome and moral bent to it, since Victorian manners (on a whole) were much more moral and reserved than late Renaissance French morality. But this again just has to do with terminology, which is not the entirety of the argument at all. Dating, of course, has a bad name because it is at the end of the Victorian era that the automobile enters the picture and the date is transformed, with all the silliness about “Make Out Point” and that kind of thing. Like it or not, the automobile is now a factor in romantic liaisons, though it need not have the sinister connotation that it sometimes does.

Therefore, how should a Catholic boy go about in his relations with his female prospect? I’m going to try to be as systematic as I can in this, but because this is such a weighty topic, I’m going to take it for granted that the boy is of age to drive. If he’s not, he probably shouldn’t be worrying about it yet (although, traditionally boys were considered of marital age around 16 or 17. Therefore, let’s not push back dating/courtship until age 20 and pretend like we are being traditional. We might be being prudent, but let’s not deceive ourselves and say that is traditional. If we were really following tradition, we’d be giving our daughters in marriage at age 15).

I reject (my opinion) this modern fascination with “discerning who God wants you to marry.” Obviously we want to discern God’s will in all things to the best of our ability, but what exactly are we discerning and how precise can we be with our discernment? In my extensive reading of history, here is how it has always been done:

The discernment process has always been whether or not to get married, not to whom one gets married.

That is, in the Middle Ages and beyond there is a great focus in spiritual writings on discerning whether you are called to celibacy or the married state. But once one discerns they are called to the married life, there is almost nothing like we see nowadays about “figuring out who God wants you to marry.” There is a lot written, however, about how to best “pick” your spouse. That is to say, the choice of a spouse was not seen as a matter of God’s will but as a matter of human prudence, much like picking a good house or picking a good piece of fruit from the market. Love was never seen to be the basis for a marriage, though it was sought after and often arose after the fact by mutual affection and sharing of a common life. The woman (or man) who married simply out of love was considered a fool, and there are no records that I know of any person being taught to ask who God wanted them to marry. It was seen as something that a person was supposed to use their human judgment (common sense) on and not try to be all vocationally oriented with. A man chose a wife based on several factors, and once the marriage was consummated, love was seen to be a worthy thing that could grow on the basis of that union, but it was not deemed essential. My RCIA classes always marvel when we get to the class on the Sacrament of Matrimony and they see that “love” is not required for either the form or matter of the sacrament.

But I want to stress this: the “discernment” came when you decided whether or not to be married at all. That is because, of course, there used to be a great emphasis on the superiority of the celibate state (which it is and defined dogmatically at Trent). However, nowadays, pop-Catholic culture would have everybody spend as much time discerning their spouse as they would the question of whether or not to remain celibate. This is because in the past 40 years, marriage has been stressed more and more as a “vocation,” or a calling. This has always been admitted, but the emphasis was different before. In the past, there was those called to virginity, and then there was everybody else. Nobody spoke of being “called” to marriage – marriage was referred to, with virginity, as a “state in life”; i.e., a state that you may find yourself in, not necessarily some heavenly calling. Obviously God has a will for everybody, and you are fulfilling that will to the extent that you conform to God’s design for your life. Therefore, God has a will or a call as to what career I should pursue in life, for example. But people don’t usually refer to their jobs as “callings” in the religious sense. God has a will for everything we do, but we don’t always apply the words “calling” and “vocation” to them. I think in the modern Church, because of the drastic decline in consecrated virginity, people are over-anxious to apply the terms “vocation,” “discernment” and “calling” to other endeavors besides consecrated virginity, in an attempt to make it seem like everybody is still seeking God’s will even though there are a drastic reduction in vocations. God, however, has not stopped calling people – but people have stopped listening.

But that is a digression. 
So, what criterion does one use to pick a good spouse? 
Traditionally, the pick of a spouse was foremost an economic decision, and I don’t think this was an entirely bad idea. Economics are very important in marriage, and a home is more likely to be happy if it was financially stable. Therefore, a bachelor might look for qualities in a woman that would lead him to believe she could help him establish a financially secure home.

Did she have good work habits?

How did she bear up under trials?

Was she patient?

In some cases, did she have strong arms and a sturdy back?
Because a husband wanted his wife to be respectable as well, she had to be of solid moral character: Was she devout? Was she loyal? Would she make a good mother?

Therefore, the husband did not so much choose a wife because of an intense love or a desire to do God’s will, but of practical considerations based on what the addition of the wife to the husband’s household would bring to the family collectively; children, financial security, a pious atmosphere and respectability. Of course, all men wanted their wives to be attractive.(Although I would suggest to go more for the "Plain Jane" and don't go for the super model type. This is a broad generalization, so use prudence, the reason is that in our society beautiful women can tend to be psychologically unstable, because they have almost always gotten whatever they wanted by batting their eyelashes. As the old song goes here)

Attraction is the basis for all of these things, and it was often seen fundamental type of desire from which true love could grow. After a man secured a wife who would fulfill all of these requirements, he was considered happy and blessed if, in time, he came to truly love her and she him. But love was seen as secondary and in the end non-essential. It was an ideal to be strived for, not a building block that everybody felt like they had to have to get started.

To some sense, I applied these principles in my own life when I was dating my wife, though I was only 19 and still pretty ignorant. When I was dating my own wife, I looked at her and admired certain qualities about her: her fidelity, joy, industriousness, beauty and virtue. Therefore, based on these factors, I approached her and informed her that I thought we ought to get married. It is kind of amusing: I never asked her to marry me, nor did she ask me, nor did I ever ask permission from her father. If I could do it over, I would no doubt do so. But at the same time, there is a simple logic in the way I went about it: I simply approached her like it was a mathematical formula and said, “Based on X, Y, and Z factors I think we are a good match and ought to get married.” And she agreed (she was young and ignorant, too: only about 18 – that’s the only reason she agreed to marry me!).

That brings up another point: if you are trying to discern whom you should marry, the worst time to do that is while you are already dating them. How can a person make an objective judgment about this when they are already emotionally involved with another person? Just like in college, guys who joined the pre-Theologate program were forbidden from having girlfriends. The reason was obvious – one has a hard time hearing a call to the priesthood if you have a girlfriend distracting you. In the same way, you can’t figure out if you should marry a person after you are already involved with them. This is why so many people get married while they are infatuated, fail to see their partner’s flaws and then accuse them bitterly of “changing” after the marriage is complete.

Here’s how I think it should work: a man ought to observe a woman from afar, from a vantage point of friendship only, and a remote friendship at that. He should look at her objectively, asking himself questions about her virtue, modesty, industriousness, etc.[C.D. editor:In today's modern internet dating, I would suggest this be done on a trusted Catholic dating service to see if they are orthodox Catholics. Try to avoid the the long distance relationship. The more local the better. Arrange a date asap. and meet just on Saturday's in the beginning add a day or 2 if it seems to be working. This gives you time to analyze their character. Less contact in the beginning gives this distance to know if you are compatible and hurts less if there is a breakup.IN general date for a year or 2 and then marry, more than 3 years shows something is not right in the relationship, barring any special circumstances]  Only if she fulfills all of these requirements ought he is to go ahead and pursue a romantic relationship – and even then I don’t think he has to say for sure “yes, this is the person I think God wants me to marry,” but she should at least be a potential.

By the way, you will never know if the person you marry is the one you should have until you are old and ready to die.;[E.D.editor: What I would say is that there is no "perfect" person to marry. All we can hope for is to minimize threats, everyone has baggage. If you regret not marring the perfect person then the problem is with you not them. Once the vow of marriage is made then God has blessed your decision. This isn't about happiness so much as about helping each other to salvation. If saving your respective souls is a reality for both, the marriage will more then likely be happy.]  Only then can you look back on your life and really reflect on it. J.R.R. Tolkien said that all marriages were, in a sense, a gamble, and that most were probably mistakes. Here’s what he wrote to his son on the issue:

"Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to."

The last line emphasizes my thought exactly. Instead of worrying about who God wants you to pick (because you’ll never be able to be sure, and even if you are, you’ll second guess yourself as soon as things get hard and then start blaming God for your poor judgment), use the same common human prudence, enlightened by grace, that you would use if you were making any other long-term commitment. Date and marry based on this, and realize you are not marrying to make yourself happy but to make another happy and to establish a home – and in that your happiness will arise, and with it love.

Is it appropriate to be alone together while you are dating? 
Absolutely - in controlled environments.
How can you really get to know a girl if you’re sitting around with her mom and dad all the time? You can’t, and though you want to get to know the family, you’re interested in the girl, not in her family. If you do marry her, you’ll see enough of them in the future anyways (haha), so pay your visits to her, show deference and respect to the family, enjoy some family gatherings, but make sure there is time for you and her to get on alone. There’s plenty of opportunities, besides just going to Mass together: go out for coffee together, take her out to dinner, go for a walk in the park or just down her street.

Until you get to know her better, probably she should meet you at these places and drive separately (unless of course she has no car). If these are not options, a good middle ground is doing things together with her friends. This way, you are not alone with her, but neither is she in the company of her parents, and she will be freer to speak and be forthright with you in the company of her friends. Probably shouldn't spend a lot of time just driving around aimlessly, though. If you want to do something aimless, walking is a lot more wholesome than driving.

I have to throw out a closing gripe here: I dislike when people presume they are following traditional morality when in reality they are pursuing novelties. I’ve said this before: withholding your child from dating until they are 18 or 19 is not traditional morality. Talking about discerning whom God wants you to marry is not traditional morality. Adhering to the novel “courting” ideal where a boy and girl spend all their time together hanging out with the family is not traditional either. I’m not saying these are bad ideas – in our society, they may be necessary to protect chastity.

But let’s stop pretending that we are going back to some lost moral code with these things, because we are not. We are simply adapting to the times and slapping the “traditional morality” label on it. [C.D editor: Let's be real most good young Catholics don't come from  stable Catholic families. Many if not most have rediscovered their Faith and their families remain more secular than Catholic, even if they call themselves Catholic--there are many issues with families today - the Brady Bunch no longer exists] If we were really being traditional, the father would find a husband for the daughter with no spiritual discernment at all, would base his judgment on financial factors, would betroth the two of them and marry her off around age 16. The wife would be expected to run the husband’s household and prosper him financially, and maybe down the road they would grow to love each other. That’s tradition. I’m not saying it’s the best way, but that is the traditional way – and anything else that claims to be “traditional” is really just a novelty. Maybe a good novelty, but a novelty nonetheless.

In closing: courting or dating? Doesn’t matter. Spend time alone? Sometimes, but not in imprudent circumstances. Hang out with the family constantly? If you can stomach that kind of thing. How to make your choice? Virtue, Industriousness, Beauty, Piety. Who does God want? You can’t really know – just do the best you can.

These are just my opinions, and I only post them here because someone made the foolish mistake of asking me what I think!