I just listened to an excellent talk on Catholic courtship by Fr. Ripperger:
Every Catholic parent should listen to it and seek to understand it, and every young adult Catholic should as well. It could save you a lifetime of heartache!
Here’s a recap of what Fr. Ripperger talks about and how my wife Catherine and I courted.
Preparing for Courtship
Courtship has a negative connotation for many nowadays, being associated with antiquated and even harmful practices. But any such excesses or wrong-headed notions are not inherent in courtship itself.
Courtship is a means to a specific end: marriage.
Courtship vs. dating: dating, especially in our society, is largely recreational. Even if two people think that perhaps one day they may get married, dating does not entail marriage is even a goal or purpose for a couple.
Courtship however is not recreational. It is asking a specific question: does this person have sufficient virtue to be a good spouse for me?
Virtue, another word that has a bad connotation for many, is a set of good habits. They tell you how another person will most likely act. Will this person be able to share a life in common, rear children wisely, and be willing to do the duties of their state in life as husband and father or wife and mother?
From the natural law: the primary function of the husband and father is to protect the honor/virtue of his wife and daughters. So the father makes the final judgment about whether a young man is honorable and will be virtuous with his daughter.
Given that background, let’s get into the four stages of courtship.
Catholic Courtship Stage 1: Friendship
Any courtship first begins with friendship. Each gets to know the other as friends, without any romantic pursuits.
Recall that love is willing the good of another. “Love at first sight” is therefore meaningless. You do not know a man’s moral character on the first date.
Consider the prevalence of pornography and lust in our world, even among Catholic men. Women need to ask themselves whether the man is capable of love, or whether he is a slave to lust. Many women, including Catholic women, don’t even imagine that a Catholic man could struggle with lust, but the numbers indicate that they should be expecting it. (For Catholic men struggling with lust, check out my video course here.)
Mutual love at this friendship stage is based on virtue. Interactions should be done in public settings to see if person has virtue. Also, there should be no physical affection at this stage, so each person can have clarity of judgment.
If they do have sufficient virtue, and they judge each other’s personalities are sufficiently matched, they can go to next stage.
My wife and I began our friendship online, through a Catholic singles site. We then met in person for the first time, as friends, and got to spend time together. We became friends through phone calls, emails, and written correspondence, but it was only after meeting in person that we were able to really determine whether we were a good match for each other.
Stage 2: Courtship
The hallmark of the courtship stage is the beginning of exclusivity. There’s a recognition that you are considering each other for marriage in an exclusive way. Again, contrast that with modern secular dating where you might date four people at a time.
Before entering this stage, the young man should ask permission from the young woman’s father if he can court her. Now, this might seem antiquated and ridiculous, but I can attest the wisdom behind it. I asked Catherine’s father for his permission to court her. He laughed and couldn’t believe I was asking him. But I wanted to receive his approval, even if he didn’t realize it was his duty to give it.
Also during this stage, you should get to know each other’s family as well. These will be your in-laws, your brothers-in-law, etc. and you will see the environment in which your girlfriend grew up.
The principal function of this stage is self-denial: spend more time together to understand more deeply if the person is virtuous and would be a good match. Note the recurring theme here! Marriage without virtue is miserable. Better to know now then walk in blindly and pay the consequences.
Also, it may come as a surprise that there should be no physical affection in this stage either: it causes bonding to occur to various degrees, and that emotional bond can confuse wise decision-making. Since you are not fully commited to one another, if the courtship is broken off, those emotional bonds can cause great pain, so it is unjust to commit more with your body than you have in your heart.
The young man is looking to see whether the young woman can and will submit to his headship in marriage. She is looking for love: is he self-sacrificing? Is he capable and willing to suffer for her and for their children one day?
This period can last 3 – 6 months.
My wife and I entered courtship and it lasted for four months. We were still living in different states so every month I flew out to her city or flew her out to mine and we spent extended periods together. I saw in her a virtuous young woman, serious about prayer and following Christ through His Church.
Stage 3: Betrothal
Betrothal is often thought of as engagement in our modern culture.
But in older times, society didn’t consider a pair engaged until the betrothal. The young man needs to ask her father for permission to marry his daughter; and only after receiving that approval can he ask young woman for her hand.
If she says yes, now they go to priest for the rite of betrothal. This rite is a series of promises that says “yes I intend to marry you.” Most Catholics have no idea that such a rite exists.
Catherine and I, without any sort of guidance for a priest or other who knew about this, stumbled upon the existence of the rite and asked the priest to do it for us after we got engaged. The priest didn’t know what we were talking about but went ahead with it anyway.
Physical affection can begin during this stage, prudently, as only for grave reasons should a betrothal be broken. Of course, that physical affection should be done chastely and without breaking the commandments.
The couple also should be praying together seriously. They should not be alone together, as the young man needs to protect her honor and reputation.
Principal thing to look for in this stage: can he moderate himself in a relationship with me, and vice-versa? This stage is an opportunity to grow in virtue even more deeply.
Stage 4: Marriage
This stage is self-explanatory as it is the end of the courtship. By now the couple has discerned that they are a good match for each other, that they are marrying someone who will love them and live virtuously.
That doesn’t mean perfectly or without even erring or commiting a sin. But it does mean that they have a confident assurance that the other wills what is best for them and is willing to self-sacrifice for their good and the good of their future children.
Even going through all this, both persons are human. Both have faults and blind spots and weaknesses and areas of improvement. In our cases, I grew up in an atheist family and my wife grew up in a family with some particular challenges. These rear their head during marriage; it doesn’t mean they are insuperable but all the more reason that virtue is needed.
So, Catholic husbands and fathers: are you willing to step up and fulfill your role to help your daughter marry a virtuous man?
Finally, I know it can feel like finding your future spouse is an impossible or hopeless cause. What you must turn to is prayer, and I recommend a novena to St. Jude, who is the patron saint of impossible causes.