A Theology of Attraction

To love another person is to see the face of God.

-Victor Hugo

In the postscript to an earlier post, I alluded to an idea which a friend of mine has discussed in more detail: attraction to (understood as the desire for and capacity to enjoy the company of) any given individual can and often does change over time based on one’s perception of that individual.

My goal in this post is to add my quasi-theological reflections to his philosophical analysis. Chris has suggested that attraction to any given individual “may be a positive means for friendship, community, service, charity, and sanctity,” and therefore ought to be considered a good in itself.

In the context of theology, the suggestion that a thing is good is the suggestion that it has something to do with God; that is, if we experience something as good, it is in some sense an experience of God’s Love, and therefore sacramental in the broadest sense: the good that we experience is a concrete sign of God’s invisible Grace.

Attraction to any given individual allows us to see God’s Grace at work in and through that individual, not only in their physical appearance, but in their thoughts and their choices– in other words, their intellect and free will. To be attracted to another person not (as the saying goes) as a piece of meat but as a whole person is to be attracted to precisely those qualities in which the Divine Image (c.f. Genesis 1:26-27 and paragraph 1704-1705 of the Catechism) is most clearly present. Furthermore, to perceive these qualities as compelling and attractive is to catch a glimpse- however fleeting- of how God sees them (which is to say, as they truly are).

Here we return to the idea that attraction is not consistent: although we may for a time be swayed in our actions and attitudes toward that individual, the perception does not last. However, if what we perceive through attraction is indeed the Divine Image as uniquely manifested in that individual, then the fault lies with our perception and not with the Divine Image: the qualities that God loves in the individual are there regardless of whether we can clearly perceive them, and in that sense, every attraction we experience is, if only indirectly, a reminder of the intrinsic dignity of each human person. Or, as Blessed Cardinal Newman put it, “The love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men.” As we learn to love our friends, in whom the divine image is more frequently perceptible, we learn to love those in whom we cannot as readily perceive God’s Grace at work.

This may be good enough in the context of friends whom we know well, but in the throes of infatuation, we do not perceive and therefore are not attracted to the other as they truly are, but rather, are in love with an entirely imaginary person that just happens to have the same name and physical appearance as someone we know. It seems impossible to assert that a picture that is entirely the product of one’s imagination is in fact a glimpse of the person as God sees them. This is true.

However, this does not mean that infatuation is in itself worthless. The content of the imagination is not quite the same thing as the impulse that inspired the imagination in the first place. Insofar as infatuation is characterized by a desire for communion with the beloved and a desire for the good of the beloved, it is an imitation of the divine eros, and if only through the characteristic passion of infatuation, we gain a deeper understanding of divine love. That is, although an infatuated person does not perceive precisely what God perceives, they perceive the other person in the same way.

Another way of explaining it: the parents who would call their own baby ugly are unusual, not because every baby possesses perfect physical proportions, but because it is natural for parents to develop a strong emotional attachment to their own infant.

I’ll not pretend to have done justice to the interplay of divine eros and agape as we find it laid out in Deus Caritas Est, but I would like to think that I have made at least some contribution to Chris’ argument that attractions ought to be understood as goods in themselves. I would also like to note that a definition of attraction that includes friendship, infatuation, and parenthood is very broad, and therefore cannot be brought to bear directly on marriage or marriage-minded dating; however, defining attractions as goods does open some doors for further analysis


Why Dating is Dead

The entire article is worth thinking about, but I’m going to use a paragraph from the third section as my springboard for this blog post:


A friend shared an experience she had as a freshman at a well-known and well-respected Christian college. She and a few classmates were excited to be invited to a breakfast with the college president. She was surprised when the president suddenly asked the gathering of students, “So, what’s wrong with the dating scene here? Are you all just wimps, or what?” She thought he really wanted to know—until he called them all wimps. She went through college believing dating was reserved for “pretty girls who attracted handsome men who would escort them out of their dorm and down the aisle.” She realizes now this “marriage hunt” mentality put a lot of pressure on young adults who were serious students and hadn’t completely figured themselves out yet.

The college president’s attitude is not out of sync with what I’ve encountered from some well-meaning individuals who lament the death of a dating culture in modern universities. Some have been surprised by the fact that, between the pseudo-married couples on one hand and the hook-up culture on the other, there’s a large group of students who “opt out” of dating entirely for most of their college careers, and this “opting-out” is treated as a bad thing: if college students aren’t pursuing dating relationships, it is assumed that it’s either because students don’t know how wonderful romance can be or they’re (and this seems to be applied more often to men) “wimps.”

It is important to note first of all that the people I’m talking about don’t see dating as an end in itself, but as courtship- that is, a preliminary step for marriage. and I think that many of the people who are “opting out” realize on some level or another that romance finds its fulfillment in married life, and that because marriage (be it the companion or conjugal model) is not in their foreseeable future, neither is dating. Attempts to build a culture of healthy dating relationships have generally focused on the problems of the hook-up culture, but it seems (judging if only by the apparently low participation in the hook-up culture) that the problems of hook-ups speak for themselves to many members of my generation: what remains is to demonstrate the desirability and feasibility of dating relationships pursued in college.

The media narrative about college and hook-ups is neither factually accurate nor apparently particularly appealing to most undergraduates (exceptions notwithstanding); it is necessary to look to other reasons for students’ lack of interest in looking for serious dating relationships while in college. The reason that presents itself in the article just parenthetically cited is career concerns: students at prestigious universities are likely to be ambitious and driven: not only is their career their primary concern, but they realize how hard it will be to synchronize their plans and ambitions with someone with rather different professional ambitions. It’s easier to find a good job opening for one person than to find a career-advancing position for both husband and wife. Although a cultural preoccupation (perpetuated primarily by the media) with sex is probably a significant factor in the hook-up culture, the lack of a widespread healthy dating culture in college is more likely due to the demands placed on college students by the potential career tracks laid out for us.

The creation of a healthy dating culture, particularly in prestigious universities (as one Princeton alumna pointed out, the best dating pool some of us are ever likely to be in), is dependent on the likelihood of dating relationships formed in college lasting through graduate school, professional school, or whatever jobs we get after graduation. As things now stand, it’s generally a lot easier to navigate the professional world alone (despite the fact that the rest of life’s challenges are usually better met by a couple than a lone individual). The mainstream media’s disdain for virginity is insignificant compared to the professional culture’s demand for eunuchs. I know of a number of young couples who have taken on the challenges of combining the demands of married life with career concerns, but not every career path is equally compatible with married life.

This, then, is the sense in which the fight is not with Hollywood, but Wall Street- not with the media gatekeepers who shape our cultural perceptions, but with the corporations that set up career incentives and thereby shape the cultural reality.

At Notre Dame in particular, then, the battle to create a healthy dating culture or healthy relationships between men and women in general may have less to do with dorm parties and more to do with the Career Center. Take, for example, the letter sent out by Dean McGreevy of the College of Arts and Letters to rising seniors: each of the five pieces of advice he gives are aimed explicitly toward professional development or career concerns. His letter to rising juniors and sophomores is no better: in his advice to Arts and Letters students about how to make the most of their remaining time at Notre Dame, no mention is made of the impact students can have on each other, either in college or after graduation.

The importance of interpersonal relationships, I think, is the most important omission on the part of Dean McGreevy. Our peers are our friends and mentors, and making the most of our time at college means taking the time to build up friendships that will affect us for the rest of our lives. I’ve spent hours upon hours researching and writing papers that are read once and forever forgotten, but I’ve also had fifteen-minute conversations with friends that I still find myself contemplating from time to time.

The impact that my friends and classmates have had on me, though, is a subject for a different blog post with a less intriguing title: the fact remains that Notre Dame is a school full of people with similar values and intelligence levels: if there was less institutional emphasis on professional development and more on the importance of personal relationships formed in college, I think a more robust dating culture would form naturally. The fact that this would require a massive change in America’s professional culture is yet another story.


I’ve often found myself annoyed at non-Catholic acquaintances who mock the idea of indulgences as corrupt or nonsensical, and when I was yelling typing angrily at one on this subject earlier today, I figured what I was saying writing wouldn’t be a terrible blog post.

The way you get an indulgence, if I’m understanding it correctly, goes like this:
1. Take a concrete step toward what we’ll call moral or spiritual enlightenment. For example, diligently following the events and speeches at World Youth Day means exposing yourself to some intense stuff that will hopefully be of some spiritual benefit (if you don’t think it could, that just means that you should be paying more attention).

Another example: 5 years ago, I visited Lourdes during the 150th anniversary of the apparitions. The indulgence associated with that visit was, if I recall correctly, attached to visiting several sites in the town that were associated with the apparitions. The hope was that this would help the pilgrims to contemplate what happened (and no, there were not, to my recollection, admission fees for any of the sites).

Even better example: the indulgence for the Year of Faith, which included studying the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. For anyone who engages sincerely in such study, this should prove rather helpful.

2. Make a good confession. This means repenting of all one’s mortal sins. Bam. You’re going to Heaven.

3. Receive the Eucharist. In worthily receiving the Eucharist, we make that act of communion with the body of Christ, that is, the Church, as well as with Christ Himself, and venial sins for which one has repented are in and through that act concretely forgiven.

Every time I’ve sincerely engaged in an activity associated with an indulgence, it has helped to lay bare some of the ways in which I’ve failed to live up to the Gospel- that is, it has helped to show me venial sins of which I have not repented: one would expect that exposing one’s unrepented-for venial sins would help one to repent for them, meaning that Purgatory, which cleanses us of the temporal punishment due to us primarily for venial sins for which we have not sufficiently repented, is no longer as necessary.

The Pope’s attachment of an indulgence to an activity does not make it spiritually enlightening, but rather, points out spiritually enlightening activities, usually at times when these activities may be of particular benefit with regard to helping one reform one’s life and habits.

The bottom line is that an indulgence is not a coupon for reduced time in purgatory; rather, engaging sincerely in an activity associated with an indulgence should help to rid us of exactly that which makes that time in purgatory so necessary.

Why Religious People Have Better Sex


If you can forgive me for looking past the part where the data cited is as old as I am, this little news story actually provides me with a useful prompt to talk about my suggestion in a previous post (it was a long time ago, I know) regarding the various “standards of excellence” involved in marriage: if marriage is to be regarded as a particularly worthwhile practice, the standards involved should prove in combination to be worth more than the sum of the parts.

But before I get to the point I want to make, I have to admit to one important assumption that the data itself gives me no strong reason to believe: I am assuming that the most religious segment of the population is also the least likely to practice contraception. Revolutionary assumption, I know, but it’s important for me to make the point I want to make.

The point in question is related to the so-called unitive and procreative elements of sex. My assertion is that, if the religious married couples in question had “better” sex, it may have had something to do with the way in which these elements in combination contribute more to the loving bond between spouses more than either child-rearing or sexual-emotional intimacy do on their own. The theory is that there are some added effects from combining both elements not only in the same lifestyle, but in the same act.

Here we wander into the (small-s) sacramentality of marriage, which I can use to justify the use of religious models in the defense of what I want to call a secular institution: religious interpretations of marriage deepen the meaning of the practice (and therefore the participants’ commitment to it) without substantially changing its shape. Secular marriage acknowledges that married love does not only refresh husband and wife for their shared life, but can result in an entirely new human life. Marriage may be regarded as sacramental in that sex, the intimate act of self-gift between husband and wife, is a participation in the perpetuation of creation.

Love gives life: the divine love that gave life to the universe is echoed in married love that is, like the Trinity, naturally and eternally open to welcoming new life into their community.

P.S. There is a further point to be made here with regard to Christian friendship: enjoying the company of my friends ought to ultimately make me better-suited to respond to the needs of those around me. Sharing in Christian love and fellowship with my friends, if I am doing it correctly, ought to open me up to sharing that love with even more people in both the long and short run. The more I love my neighbor whom I like (at that moment, at least), the easier it ought to become to love the neighbor whom I do not particularly like (again, if only at that moment).

Marriage and MacIntyre

In my previous post, I insisted that marriage was an idea that deserved its own term: that is, among human relationships, there were certain relationships that could be distinguished as married, and I would like to think that I left the door open for any number of emotionally intimate or financially interdependent relationships to be recognized as good and valuable without calling them marriages.

It was perhaps not sufficiently clear that, although I am confident that marriage that marriage is a particular kind of  relationship, I am not at this point prepared to discuss what sorts of policies ought to be set up around the institution. Therefore, I cannot neither affirm nor deny most of what Rachel put forward in her comment on the last post. My argument was that “marriage” is the name we assign to a particular kind of human relationship, rather than the name we assign to the most emotionally validating and/or financially interdependent relationship which we may happen to have (or at least that the sort of relationship historically known as marriage is  differentiable-enough from the latter concept to warrant a unique term).

I can see no clear line from that assertion to the assertion that the government only has an interest in protecting the former category or the opposite assertion that government should get out of the marriage business altogether and leave religious matters to religious institutions. The former assertion doesn’t sufficiently examine the values of other relationships, and the latter wrongly treats marriage as a sectarian institution; although marriage is indeed counted among the Catholic Sacraments, it does not find its genesis (pun intended) in Catholic sacramental theology, and it is therefore possible to defend marriage as a public institution without making it explicitly sectarian. In short, I am not ready to  jump from the linguistic question to the legal one. This is a conversation that we have to walk through from start to finish rather than leaping from first premises to final conclusions.

One important step along this route is the recognition that marriage is not “just” a consensual and emotionally fulfilling relationship nor “just” a legal contract for the sharing of property; neither “relationship” nor “contract” seems to quite have the necessary scope to adequately describe marriage. It has too many explicit rules and expectations to be a casual relationship, and too many implicit expectations to be a contract. I think that it will be helpful to understand marriage as a “practice,” as famously defined by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue:

“[a practice is] any coherent and complex form of socially-established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended” (MacIntyre 187).

This does not directly answer the question of what role the government has in promoting or defending a given definition of marriage, but it does give us a better idea of what questions to ask: What are the goods internal to marriage as traditionally understood? What are the standards of excellence? How do the standards of excellence, both individually and in combination, contribute to the realization of those goods? To what extent can these goods be realized apart from the institution of marriage? Each of these questions must be answered in turn before we can ask what interest the state has, and the answers to these questions will (probably) be explored in an upcoming blog post.

Defense of Marriage: Not Bigoted But Pedantic

It goes without saying that a word can have multiple definitions, and that the definition of a term can change based on common usage. There are currently two definitions of marriage in common use, and the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act seems to be based on one definition rather than the other.

The definition of marriage behind the Supreme Court decision on DOMA reads something like this: marriage is the public affirmation of an exclusive and loving commitment between two individuals. This is how our culture has come to treat the institution, and it is this common social understanding of marriage that has motivated recent attempts to change the legal institution. Indeed, under this definition, there is no compelling reason to limit the institution to opposite-sex couples. If we say that marriage is about recognizing the value of human relationality, then we cannot discriminate based on sex. As Justice Kennedy’s opinion suggests, asserting that genuinely human and fulfilling relationships can only occur between one man and one woman wrongly demeans every other kind of fulfilling interpersonal relationship.

Anyone who, having accepted this definition of marriage, refuses to expand the legal institution beyond the limitations of one man and one woman can rightly be called arbitrary or even bigoted. However, neither I nor other defenders of traditional marriage oppose expanding the legal definition of marriage on these untenable grounds. Rather, it is clear to me that, as valuable as human relationships are, the particular kind of relationship traditionally referred to as marriage serves a particular and necessary social function that we cannot afford to put aside.

Marriage, under a more traditional usage, is a loving and exclusive sexual relationship between a man and a woman that is both open to the creation of new life and ready to take responsibility for that new life. This definition of marriage involves the public acknowledgement of an exclusive and loving relationship between individuals, but its limitation to opposite-sex couples is justified in that marriage is understood as a way of harnessing both sexuality and emotional attachment as a means for creating families: through marriage, children can not only be created, but brought up with their biological parents as their primary caregivers. Defenders of traditional marriage are not arguing that loving relationships between adults have no value, but rather, that the difference between a generic publicly-affirmed loving relationship and one that exists between a man and the woman for the purpose of creating a family is significant enough for the latter idea to have its own exclusive term.

It is not that words cannot have more than one meaning or that the primary meaning we assign to a word cannot change, but that there are certain concepts -such as traditional marriage- that demand a term of their own if for no other reason than conceptual clarity. The actual choice of word might be arbitrary, but the recognition that this choice must be made can hardly be called bigoted.