Friday, January 09, 2009

Courtship & Dating

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. 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. 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.

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 to arise 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. 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. Attraction is the basis for all of these things, and it was the most 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. Only if she fulfills all of these requirements ought he 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. 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. 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!
Click here for a follow up to this post on Love & Matrimony


Kimberlee said...

This is a very interesting post. It is indeed fascinating to look at the historical meanings of terms like 'courtship' and 'dating', but you don't make any effort to include what the terms mean in usage today. In general, people use 'dating' to mean pursuing a series of casual (and most often immoral) romantic relationships, and 'courtship' to mean seeking a spouse. That is a major difference. Yes, there are many, many ways people interpret and use the terms nowadays, but that is the basic difference, and you shouldn't acuse people of using the words in ignorance just because they don't have the same meaning as they did historically.(Although as you pointed out, calling something by a different name is no excuse for folly, and parents ought to know better.) And don't you think that by saying 'traditional morality' people are just referring to the concept of pursuing chastity - they aren't claiming to be following some set historical model of 'wooing'? Give people a little semantic slack.:-) On the other hand, your systematic 'here's how I think it should work' gives excellent advice and outlines what I thought was generally meant by the the word 'courtship' today.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff. I agree 100%. You're quite right that the obsession with finding one's pre-ordained soulmate is unbiblical, untraditional and all-round unwise. Yet that is the main focus of even a pretty smart young adult website like or books like "I Kissed Dating Goodbye".

Anyways, thanks for writing that. I'm marking it to follow-up and re-read. I have sons about to enter this phase.

Anonymous said...

This was a great post. I often hear the "traditional" label slapped on modern courtship rituals, as if it was an argument in favor of them, and it's always irked me a bit.

Love the Tolkein quote. Do you have a source?

Alexander said...

Thanks very much for the post.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate much of what you said. However, you should know that I - anonymous I know - feel the need to say that I disagree with some of your opinions with regards to marriage as 'vocation'. While you're right to wag a finger at those who wait years to find their soulmate as if they were chosen by your guardian angel, I don't think it is "traditional" to dismiss love-talk, and finding one's proper place in God's plan as a married man or woman, with a particular man or woman, because you love them and they love you. There's more to marriage to be sure, and I'm sure you agree with me on some level here, but I do think you are downplaying something essential here.

To quote the Princess Bride, this puts a damper on our relationship. :(

Perhaps you could revisit this in greater detail in the future and will change your mind. ;)

pax et bonum

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 12:19:
The traditional formula was "marriage therefore love" not "love therefore marriage".

We ought not to dismiss love-talk but we ought to downplay the importance of love before marriage. If anything, such strong emotions create obstacles to prudent, thoughtful decision-making. If a spouse is well-selected, love will grow. And this love, since it is set on a good foundation, is more likely to weather the peaks and valleys of conjugal life.

I don't think there's anything wrong with talking about marriage as a vocation. Marriage is a sacrament as much as Orders. It requires special graces to be a husband or wife, and to be an apostle to one's children. St.Francis de Sales calls marriage a vocation many times and he can hardly be called modern.

On the other hand, there is a danger in equating the two vocations, as though they were equal in dignity. Our Lord said of voluntary celibacy "He who CAN accept this, let him accept it". It is much like joining the military in a time of war. If you are able to bear the burden of priesthood, one should not be asking oneself "Am I called to marriage" but "Why should I NOT be a priest?"

Boniface said...


You hit the nail on the head. We certainly don't want to say love is not fundamental - obviously love is a very essential element to marriage. But the place of love is misunderstood.

Also, as I said in the post, of course thelogically speaking, marriage is a vocation, in the sense that God has a plan for our lives and we want to fulfill that plan. But it is not the type of vocation that people often make it out to be, and we certainly don't want to equate it with priesthood.

You said it best: "Why NOT a priest?"

Anonymous said...

"Because God doesn't want me to be a priest...I think."

Michael Gary Scott said...

I don't think he said it best at all. The default for all humanity seems to be the married state, unless of course God asks something above and beyond that sacrament, calling one to holy orders or religious life.

Asking oneself "why not" presumes that God wants all men to be celibate, to make themselves eunuchs, even if for the Kingdom, which hopefully people get married for as well. If anything, this kind of thinking is what got the Church into thinking that vocations were flourishing in the 30's to 60's, when really, only a percentage of vocations were actually genuine and truly pleasing to God.

Someone who knows Greek will have to do this work for me, but I would be curious to know what the Greek reads when Clavem quoted Jesus saying "He who CAN accept this, let him accept it". Something is being misplaced here, and it is not dignity of the priesthood in contrast to marriage.

As for the place of love, it neither should precede marriage, or proceed after it.

As for the alleged "traditional formula" when it comes to marriage (substantiate this please), what exactly is meant by "marriage therefore love" and "love therefore marriage". How we interpret these can make for very different understandings of the role of love in marriage. I shouldn't have to spell it all out for you. You should define your terms and phrases explicitly.

Anonymous said...

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.

Actually, love is required for all of the sacraments. Indeed, it is required for the entirety of the faith because that is what the faith is, that is what God is -- Love.

Now, to be sure, the contemporary and modernistic concept of "love" -- the love of feelings and urges and longing -- is not required for the sacrament, but true love, the love of making a conscious choice to make a total and unconditional gift of self and selflessly seek the good of the other, the kind of love that can be the subject of the required vow and promise, the kind of love that is Christ Himself, that love is central to the Sacrament of Matrimony, including both the form/words and the matter/body of the spouses.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that, if the Renaissance/Medieaevals/Victorians had any recorded opinions on the (im)prudence of "marrying for love", then it must have been a well-known phenomenon, even if met with scepticism. On the other hand, I've not many case-studies handy to judge the relative successes of different strategies.

And furthermore, Love is a commandment! You're supposed to love everyone you meet, whether you marry them or not: most of the time, you won't. And I don't think I'm (entirely) equivocating on "love" here.

I seem to recall having something more cogent to say, but it might be just the sleep deprivation...

lawrence saliba said...

I had recently visited a web site and read with great interest the prejudice against women especially the unmarried and unprotected duRing the middle ages in Malta.

My point is that comparisons of past with present will only count when one considers the demographic variables plus others that fits in the formulae. Obviously, there is always different perception of how people visualise a situation, but this could always be factorised with statistics.

I therefore urge you to read this article related to inquisition times in Malta.

Anonymous said...

I think when dating, it is important to get to the point where one can say "I could grow to love this person" but I do not think it is necessary or even wise to come to the point where one is "in love" before marriage.

Regarding celibacy, the literal translation from the Greek has it "he who is able to receive [it] -- let him receive"

Paul teaches the same thing. "It is good for them [unmarried and widows] to remain as I am [celibate] but for those who lack continence, let them marry"

I would refer you to the Summa on the subject of the superiority of virginity over marriage, which itself quotes Jerome and other authorities.

I would insist that "Why NOT such-and-such-a-religious vocation?" is still a valid question to ask oneself and not one that leads to false vocations, displeasing to God. The eras you mentioned that seem to have produced many false vocations had other factors involved. The priesthood was a respectable, safe, easy career choice for a lot of people. Often children were pressured by family to go to seminary or pressured to continue. This is not at all what I had in mind.

And also, I do not think that God wants all men to be celibate but all men should try to explicitly rule it out as it is the more excellent path.

What I have in mind is looking for signs of vocation, not just in feelings and emotions, but in the tangible gifts and graces given to you prior to this moment. Nobody is going to think "I'd make a great priest" but they might be able to look at themselves at say "I think I could bear it".

Lastly, what do you mean that love should neither come before or after marriage?

Kateri said...

Thank you! I liked everything you said except for the part about love not being necessary.

Could you clarify: Do you feel that the couple ought to have fallen in love before they make vows to each other?

Boniface said...


I think this statement was misunderstood by many people - I addressed it in a newer post, which you can find here:


Anonymous said...

Also, keep in mind the definition of love given by St.Thomas Aquinas: to love is to will the good of another. It is an act of the will, not of the affections.

In this sense, love is required for a marriage to be valid, otherwise the vows would be made in bad faith.

It is similar to the situation where one spouse hides the fact that he or she is sterile but takes the vow to provide children for the other spouse - the validity of the marriage might be called into question.

James said...

Cool blog entry - are there a scholarly references you could give me regarding the origin of the "wooing" sense of "courtship" in 1596, and how it later came to have more respectable connotations?

Dating said...

Thank you! I liked everything you said except for the part about love not being necessary.

Boniface said...


Of course, practically speaking you are right - love is a "practical" necessity for marriage to work. It is true that, canonically speaking, love is not necessary in order to contract a valid marriage. Historically, love was usually considered secondary - people who married out of love were considered rash. So, yes, love is a practical necessity for a happy, successful marriage, but it is not a canonical necessity. Two persons can contract a valid marriage with no love.

The Schaubing Blogk said...

Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog. The book (of mine) you refer to is here:

It is written from a radical, protestant, and theonomic perspective: ie; what does scripture say about the issue. I would covet your comments.

I will reply more here as I have opportunity. However in quick reply to the last issue, Eph 5 makes it clear that marital love is not some external object about which we have no control, but is something we are commanded to do.

Going then to I Cor 13 we see the things we are to do in order to correctly practice the love we are commanded to have.

Cammie Novara said...

"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." What a statement! So true. There's a really interesting debate that I thought would be of interest on evolution vs. intelligent design going on at

Jamey said...

" I’ve said this before: withholding your child from dating until they are 18 or 19 is not traditional morality."

Our entire society has been slanted toward pursuing novelties and delaying having children as long as possible. The prime biological years (later teens and twenties) are now for fun rather than having babies. Its virtually impossible for a couple to date for 5 years travel, etc and then not break God's law.

Anonymous said...

I realize im a late comer by years to this article. Have another thumbs up for it. to me Gods will is incredibly simple it follows a few very simple steps

1) does doing so violate Gods law
2) does it violate the church

if favorable answer continue, if unfavorable stop, end of story, no go period its not Gods will.

3) is it within your power or capacity- education, money, maturity, etc to do so?

4)do you want to?

I just cant imagine needing to add anything else to that list? everything i think from "where he would like to live, to how many children she wants to strive for" can fit under 3/4 i think

Christendom Awake said...

Actually, in relation to a previous comment on here there is biblical evidence for spouses being predestined by God. In Tobit, St. Raphael says to Tobias.. "Do not worry. She has been set aside for you since before the world began".

I think this scripture puts a whole new dimension to what is going on. Since I discovered this I do now look for signs, but in prayer.