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.


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.

John the Baptist and Thomas More on Marriage

June 22nd is the feast of St. Thomas More; June 24th is the feast of the nativity of John the Baptist. Today, June 23rd, is smack-dab right-in-the-middle of these saints’ feast days, so it’s an appropriate day for me to publish a blog post about these two saints, both of whom I have long considered to be among my special patrons. However, it took me a long time to realize that, not only were both of these saints martyred, but they were martyred for reasons related to their views on marriage.

John the Baptist incurred the wrath of Herod’s wife Herodias (who had previously been married to Herod’s brother Philip) by insisting to King Herod that “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). After some intrigue, Herodias gets John beheaded. Thomas More was killed by King Henry VIII because of his refusal to recognize Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. Thomas stood by the judgment of the Pope, who had refused to grant Henry an annulment and whom Henry in turn had rejected as having authority over the church in England. After a prolonged imprisonment and a joke of a trial, Thomas was sentenced to death and beheaded.

Knowing what happened to each of these men should probably make me less eager to stick out my own neck on the issue of marriage, but these days, I think it may be more likely for me to be said to have lost my mind than told that I must lose my head for holding an opinion that challenges the mainstream.

Neither John the Baptist nor Thomas More can offer much directly to the question of same-sex marriage; it would be easy for an opponent to say that, because both were endorsing religious interpretations of marriage, neither More’s beliefs nor John the Baptist’s teachings can be of much help for the modern apologist for traditional marriage: we are working in an ostensibly secular society in which religious beliefs are (rightly or wrongly) excluded from discussions of public policy, and even with that aside, they seem to stand against divorce rather than against same-sex marriage. However, there are still lessons to be learned from their perspectives. The main lesson I want to draw from these patrons is encouragement, but more specific lessons are detailed below.

In Robert Bolt’s play and film A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More recognizes that the institution of marriage had integrity that the political concerns of Henry VIII could not overrule (I limit this to Bolt’s version because I haven’t had occasion to study real history, and so, like so many of my contemporaries, I rely instead on a combination of pop culture and my own presuppositions). Henry’s lust for Anne Boleyn is not adequate excuse to invalidate the marriage, nor is his claim that Catherine had become sterile and that England needed a male heir in order to avoid a bloody war of succession (like the one that had given rise to the House of Tudor) sufficient for his purpose. Henry’s final argument seems to lie (pun intended) in the assertion that his marriage to Catherine was adulterous in the first instance since she had been his brother’s wife, and I don’t see the need to provide further refutation than, under Levitical law as acknowledged by 1st-century Judaism and presumably for a long time before, if a man died before his wife bore a son, his younger brother was supposed to marry his widow. The objection to which I’d like to pay the most attention to the second argument, the one from political necessity: in the film, More says that he is ready to recognize Henry’s children through Anne as legitimate heirs to the throne if they are recognized by Parliament as such, but even at the cost of his life, “would not assent to the marriage.” Marriage, we learn from St. Thomas, is an institution with a certain meaning that cannot be changed based on the way the political wind is blowing.

As for John the Baptist, he landed in hot water for stubbornly pointing out that Herod’s marriage to the wife of his still-living brother Philip was no marriage at all. Herodias, apparently quite incensed by this suggestion, nurses a grudge against John for so long that, when her daughter comes to her and tells her that she had earned a favor from her uncle foster-father, Herodias decides immediately on revenge. One could easily contend that John’s statements were rash or otherwise un-compassionate, but John did not say that a friendship between Herod and Herodias was unlawful (one might even say that it would be politically astute): he said that they could not be married, and that it was against the Law for them to act as if they were. St. John shows us that marriage is not an institution that bends to our emotions. It is an institution with its own integrity.

Again, both of these lessons could be answered by the objection that these are appeals to religious definitions of marriage, and that both notions are from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but I think it is nonetheless sane to conclude that, even in our day and age, it is prudent to ensure that meaningful words such as marriage retain their essential meanings. Marriage cannot be enslaved to the “need” to produce a male heir to the throne any more than it can be brought to heel by someone who feels that the definition of the word stands in the way of their emotional fulfillment.

Re-posting a facebook comment about marriage, single life, and the Mass.

As St. Augustine famous wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (well, Augustine wrote it in Latin originally, but you get what I mean)

If singlehood is painful in a deep spiritual sense, then that pain will not be removed by marriage. The deep hunger in all of us for the presence of God will not be satisfied by marriage or even by religious vows. No matter how wonderful, holy, and well-matched the spouse or how well the charism of the religious order fits your spiritual gifts and needs, that deep hunger for the presence of God will still be there, and it will never be satisfied until you’re in Heaven. The deepest pain of being single is the deepest pain of being on Earth, and whatever pain is incidental to being a single person is small potatoes compared to the deepest hunger of our being.

In marriage, the spouses are called to embody God’s unconditional and total love in a particular and exclusive way. By giving fully of oneself to another and receiving the same, the married couple does indeed echo the Divine Love that is at the source and fulfillment of all existence. Indeed, when a married people love each other well, the sacramental nature of that love becomes all the more evident. However, it is not as though the Christian vocation to love completely and unconditionally is restricted to marriage; in fact, it would be a sad life indeed in which the wondrous nature of God’s love could only be discerned through the experience of married love. God has made his love for us clear in uncounted ways, not the least of which is the celebration of the Eucharist, the closest any of us are likely to come in this life to the fulness of God’s love. In the Eucharist, we are reminded of our deep hunger for God and drawn into communion with those who have recognized that same hunger in themselves as well as the way in which the unconditional love of God calls us all to love one another as God has loved us.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’ve stopped complaining about the sign of peace at dorm Mass. Christ, truly present in the Eucharist, does indeed invite our adoration and love, but he also invites us to share that love with each other. He wants us to allow His sacramental presence to be manifest in our actions and for us each to be able to discern it in the simplest act of human affection. In the sign of peace, we affirm each others’ deepest desire for the love of God, and the chaotic maelstrom of affection that is the sign of peace at dorm mass is the clearest embodiment of that principle that I have ever encountered. The sign of peace is intended as an act of communion, an affirmation of the sacramental mystery of the Church through which God’s love is manifested to the world. The sign of peace, at its best, is the result of reverberation of God’s love as made present in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a miracle that shatters the laws of the material universe; if I cannot allow it to crack my pride only so much that I can see, at least for that moment, that those around me experience that same need for God’s love, and, in that moment, sincerely express the wish that they may enjoy the peace that is God’s love, then what kind of Christian am I? If the presence of Christ himself cannot bring me to express love of neighbor, then when shall I express it?

Furthermore, if I can encounter that love in another person even once at Mass, what further can I ask of them? If, in the Real Presence of their Lord and Redeemer, they are nonetheless able to notice me and love me enough to, through signs of affection, invite me more fully into Christ’s Presence, what else might I expect? If that love is sincerely felt, then any other question of affection suddenly seems irrelevant by comparison.

Vows, in binding us to a person (as in marriage) or a rule (in orders), help us by defining exactly how and to whom we are called to manifest that Divine Love in our everyday lives, but the particular guidance granted by such vows does not in any way mean that the single person is somehow deprived of that divine love which the marriage vows only symbolize, or absolved of the Christian responsibility to share that love with the world. The divine love for which we all hunger is shown to us first and foremost in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The mundane sacramentality of married life is the same divine love under different signs, but being deprived of those signs does not by any means mean that we are deprived of either divine love or the responsibility to respond to that love by sharing it with others. Single life is not empty except to the extent that single people box out God’s love with love of self, to mistake the signs of divine love for the thing itself and to try to fill with worldly things that hunger which God alone can satisfy. Gold, be it in bars in a vault or a ring around your finger, is not an adequate substitute for God. Expecting your spouse to be anything more than an imperfect sign of that divine love only serves to foil the way in which that Divine love intends to draw you both closer to Himself through your relationship with each other.