Principles of Catholic Courtship

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?

(Want to help become a better man or woman for your spouse or future spouse? Start praying novenas regularly! This post has been brought to your by my free app, Pray the Catholic Novena app.)

Mark Shea and Catholic Tribalism

Mark Shea was let go from the National Catholic Register, and it has made big waves in the Catholic blogosphere.

I’m friends with a broad spectrum of Catholics, so I saw responses ranging from campaigns to help Mark Shea and get him reinstated, to neutral calls to prayer, to gleeful posts from his enemies happy he got sacked.

My Friend, Mark Shea

Some might think it odd that I consider Mark a friend. I have recently written some blog posts that are more traditional-leaning, and Shea has written critically of Catholic traditionalists. I also own guns and can see how someone could vote for Trump, and am ardently pro-life, so I fall within several groups that Shea has lambasted in the past few years.

Hanging out with Mark!
Hanging out with Mark!

Nonetheless, I have a long enough memory to recall reading By What Authority sixteen years ago as an Evangelical Protestant and it being a key piece in my decision to become Catholic. One does not easily forget such pivotal books in one’s life, and Mark Shea wrote it.

Over the years I got to know Mark in the blogosphere. While he always had a more cutting or acerbic style, I also found him thoughtful and his writings good. He even made a few posts over the years mentioning me or some book I was working on.

Happily, we got to meet in person with our families several years back. He was giving a series of talks in New Mexico not far from where I was living. I drove with my wife and children to the town and we all had a nice picnic together. He signed my original copy of By What Authority, and we got to get to know each other better.

I was struck by the obvious frugality of the Shea family. A small thing, perhaps, but important. During that time he would do a tin cup rattle, asking for donations via his blog to pay for basic stuff like antibiotics or needed car repairs. He was not getting rich off the Catholic gigs, that was certain.

So Now We Disagree

I watched as the past few years went by, and his tone became more caustic. Being a member of several of the groups that were in his cross-hairs, many times I read something he wrote on facebook and shook my head. He was painting with a broad brush. I didn’t consider myself a “gun cultist” even though I had, after much thought some years back, decided to buy a gun.

The same went with the other categories. Pro-lifers I knew and was close with were the most caring people around: they took care of women and babies before, during, and after the baby was born. So his criticisms of pro-lifers fell flat for me, even though I could see the validity of his criticisms against a small subset of the group.

she1So Mark and I disagree about some things. We see them differently. We’re both Catholic converts, both apologists, both seeking to follow the Church’s teachings. In a sense I feel like we were rain drops that fell on the continental divide and through a small chaotic difference he went west toward the Pacific and I went east to the Atlantic.

But while we disagree, I can see how he believes what he does. I can see how he internally squares them with Church teaching, even if I don’t find the case persuasive. Being in the public eye and needing to publish or perish to make a living, I can see how he was stretched and frazzled and became more brittle over the years and endless facebook battles.

I do not rejoice that he was fired from the Register. I don’t begrudge them their decision–it was theirs to make–but for the simple fact that I have benefited from Mark’s work over the years, especially as a Protestant, I wish no man to lose a chunk of his livelihood, and I know the fear that comes from that possibility.

All the Myriad Ways

I find myself in a unique place in that I can see the viewpoints of Catholics on this matter across the spectrum. I am more traditional now and so I can see how the traditionalists are happy that something bad has happened to one of their enemies.

I can see how many ordinary Catholics were repulsed by Shea’s painting with broad strokes and caustic tone. And I can see how, for lack of a better word, more “liberal” but still-within-the-orthodox-boundaries Catholics feel a great injustice has been done.

Mark Shea has become a lightning rod highlighting the tribalism that divides Catholics in our country (and beyond). I don’t think he desired that or is happy about it, but he was caught in the center of the vortex (no pun intended) and got torn apart by it.

What do I hope? I hope that Mark can provide for his family, one way or another. I hope that he is able to find the peace of Christ and a good balance of writing on various subjects in a way that is not inflammatory. I do not wish him ill–how could I, when I am Catholic in no small part because of him?–but hope for his good.