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Teens and Dating

A theology professor and father talks about best attitudes and practices

It may come as a surprise to many, but dating is a relatively recent phenomenon. So says Jason E. King, author of Dating: A Practical Catholic Guide, published by the Knights of Columbus Catholic Information Service. Prior to our modern conception of dating, which arose in the 20th century, says King, a family was much more involved in identifying a spouse and arranging a marriage. Yet in today’s more autonomous relationships, dating can be a valuable experience for potential spouses, when rightly understood and practiced, says King.

Associate professor and chairman of the theology department at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., King holds a doctorate from The Catholic University of America. He and his wife, Kelly, have three children, ages 10, 7 and 5. In an email exchange with Fathers for Good, King discussed several aspects of dating.

The father of three children, Jason E. King teaches theology.

Fathers for Good: Is there a Catholic understanding of dating?

Jason King: What does the Catholic tradition say about dating? The short answer is: nothing. There is no Catholic teaching on dating. You will not find it mentioned in the Bible or Catechism.

Why is there no explicit mention of dating in the Catholic tradition? The Church as the whole body of believers, spanning both the globe and human history, tends to think about those issues that have touched on humanity for much of history and across most of the globe. “The Church thinks in centuries,” so the saying goes. The phenomenon of dating, however, is a rather recent one. Some might wish to thereby dismiss or marginalize the importance of dating but I believe that would be a serious error. The average age of marriage in the United States today is slightly below 30 for college graduates, just a little younger for others. The average age of first instance of intercourse is 17 (and the first sexual experience is estimated to be about 13 or 14). People in the United States are being something more than friends and less than married for upwards of 10 to 15 years of their lives — years of forming habits and beliefs, ones that will affect all of their subsequent relationships.

And while the Church may not have explicit teaching on dating, it has riches on human relationships. Understanding what the Church’s teaching on dating is requires us to apply its 2,000 years of reflection and experience to the present context.

To summarize the Catholic understanding of dating, we would have to say that as long as people who are in a romantic relationship with one another respect and care about each other, practice genuine Christian love in this relationship, and see the relationship in connection to the more fundamental pursuit of the kingdom of God, then they are embodying the Catholic understanding of dating.

FFG: What role does friendship play in dating?

King: Friendship is key. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that friendship is not only good but one of the supreme goods, “for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” Aristotle distinguishes three characteristics that generate friendship: utility, pleasure and virtue. Only the last one is true friendship for Aristotle. Why? A friendship based on virtue is rooted in the mutual desiring of the good of the other, finds joy in the other, and is built on complete trust of the other.

FFG: How important is the practice of the faith to dating?

King: Faith is essential. Faith is what enables us to see and understand the world the way God does. Faith has all sorts of implications for dating but, perhaps, the most crucial is that it teaches people about the nature of love. One looks upon Jesus and learns that love is paschal, incarnate and triune. If dating is to be taken seriously by Catholics, it must be able to foster this Christ-like love.

If paschal love is a pattern of life-death-new life, dating is excellent practice for this. Every dating relationship ends. Every one of them dies. They either break up or end in marriage. In either case one life has ended, and those involved must figure out, “like the saints and the poets, how to do something creative with the idea of death,” to quote Dorothy Sayers.

Incarnate? Dating is half friendship, half marriage. Two people are getting to know each other, hanging out together, discussing what matters. They are friends, even if nascent friends, but they are also more because dating involves some eros, some sexuality. Dating becomes a practice in trying to balance the friendship and the sexuality, of respecting both the spiritual and physical aspects of another person.

Triune? If dating is to foster Christian love, it must be open to others. A relationship that isolates you from your friends, strains your family relationships, or keeps you from the Church is problematic. Relationships in which one or the other or both members are the sole focus are too narrow and non-Christian. Love is supposed to overflow and lead us to engage and depend upon others. Just as God’s inner life is a community — Father, Son and Spirit — and we are invited into this life, so too dating relationships should help strengthen our communities and be open to others. Couples should feel free to hang out at home or go out with friends. Movies and dinners are fine but so are volunteering at soup kitchens, visiting the sick, after-school mentoring and other acts of charity.

FFG: What are some of the most dangerous attitudes toward dating that are prevalent in society today?

King: I think the two views I find most dangerous in our society today are both extremes. The first is the trivializing of relationships. Dating is just recreational. It is like a game or sporting event or party. It is fun while it lasts, but, after it is over, we go back to our normal life. Dating on this understanding is akin to “hanging out” or “hooking up.” It does not involve a substantive commitment nor does it take seriously other people. Culturally, we take this view when we think of dating as just a phase of life or a rite of passage. This view not only dismisses the experience of romantic relationships for so many people but also proposes a way of relating that is destructive of everyone involved. In trivializing relationships, we trivialize people. For a religion that posits humans as made in the image and likeness of God, this is wrong.

The second view, which often arises among Christians, is to condemn dating. This view is typically a response to the trivializing of romantic relationships. Since people who date break up, they suffer, and suffering should be avoided. Since people who date break up, they are practicing for divorce and training people to give up when relationships get difficult. Dating, even if it does not involve premarital sex, tempts one toward it. There are more reasons, and they should not be taken lightly.

The problem is that by age 16, 80 percent of people in the United States have been on at least one date. To cast aspersions on their character and actions is merely to push them away from Church. Moreover, I think dating can be essential for learning how to love and to love well. Without having romantic relationships, I am hard pressed to think of ways one might learn to practice genuine love in a marriage, a love that will endure good times and bad, sickness and health. In short, these extremes seem dangerous to me, undermining the value dating can have and, more importantly, damaging the people involved.

FFG: What advice would you give fathers on dating?

King: It seems to me fathers have three essential tasks. First, and this cannot be stressed too much, fathers must model a good relationship. Children first learn how relationships work from their parents; hence, fathers should ensure that their own relationships show forth the love of Christ as best as they can.

Second, fathers must trust their child and support them. Fathers need to take the dating relationships of their children seriously. The children themselves do. Fathers must invite conversations about the relationship as well as giving the child some space. Any concerns must be motivated and communicated out of true compassion.

Finally, fathers must encourage healthy relationships. Good relationships make those who are in them better. It makes the people better at school, better friends, better sons or daughters and better disciples. This is a key measure for a successful relationship. Fathers should find some way to encourage these types of relationships, through whatever wit or wisdom they possess. It is, at root, fostering a respect for the self and a respect for the dignity of others. This is key. This is Christian.

Read an online version of Dating: A Practical Catholic Guide.