The Personalist Project

As my friends know, I have had a book on courtship on the back burner for years. Yesterday I got an email from someone who had read this article of mine, asking whether I’ve published anything on the topic since. I haven’t. But now that the Linde is up and running, I shall try again. I find I write best in dialogue with others, so if you have thoughts or questions or objections or feedback, please do write!
My hope is to apply the personalist insights of JP II and Dietrich von Hildebrand to the question of courtship. I am particularly interested in trying to throw light on the role of love in courtship—something that I think tends to be oddly neglected in popular Catholic teachings on dating. Here is a paragraph from that article:

Just last night, reading George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, I was struck by this line: “Love, for Karol Wojtyla, was the truth at the very core of the human condition…” (p.101) Similarly, he saw it as the core of authentic courtship. In the experience of falling in love, Wojtyla shows, the meaning of the universe is mysteriously revealed, and with it the lover’s personal vocation: to give myself in love to this other, and to receive the gift of his love for me.(5)

Comments (19)

John Brooks Randle

#1, Jul 1, 2009 1:14pm

To add another voice on this topic, I was reminded of last year’s post by Bridget Karl “I kissed courting goodbye.” This appeared in Hillsdale Collegian, Volume 128, Number 8, November 4, 2004.

The link is:

Now to my own question. My question for exploration is:

What are the personalist arguments for preserving sexual purity outside of marriage for unbelievers?

The answer for Christians is easy: no sexual relations outside of marriage is permitted. But what persuasive answers can we offer to unbelievers?

In Love and Responsibility KJW / JP II carefully develops the personalist norm until he reaches the final Chapter IV on Justice towards the Creator. He writes:

“In asserting that the person must not be an object to be used, but only an object of love (hence the commandment to love), the personalist norm lays down the rights of the person. Thus love presupposes justice.”

There he makes the distinction between “horizontal justice” with persons and “vertical justice” with God at 245.

When I read this on 28 May 2009, I wrote:

“I have asked how we justify sexual relations only within marriage on philosophical grounds without relying on the easier justification as a command of God. This is necessary to argue for sexual purity to those who are agnostics or atheists presently. Karol Wojtyla as a priest and deep believer could never argue without this fundamental belief in justice to the Creator as truth. He tried with the personalistic norm. Is the personalistic norm persuasive to agnostics or atheists?” 

Many young people in their 20s and 30s have their faith challenged and some no longer believe in the Christian faith in which they were raised. So what are the “horizontal justice” arguments based on the personalist norm? Can we set them out in a persuasive manner? 

Further on in JPII’s section “Mystical and Physical Virginity” he includes primarily justice to the Creator arguments, but within those arguments are set forth “the order of nature or the personal order, which demands that they base their relationship on true love” at 249. What does true love demand between the persons regarding purity? The Problem of Reciprocity at pages 84-88 comes into the question for me.

Following the first sentence in the Mystical and Physical Virginity section at 249, how does monogamous and indissoluble marriage solve the problem of sexual relations in a way that is just, not only to the Creator, but to the man and woman as persons, even if unbelievers?

He writes at 250 that love aims at unification of persons. The unification of persons requires a reciprocated love. See the footnote 74 of JPII. The persons must love and will to unification. The persons, one or both, are free to love or not at any time. In the Jeweller’s Shop, Anna and Stefan once loved each other, but now Stefan may no longer love Anna. JPII offers no easy answers here as what Anna and Stefan are to do.
I would like to marshall JP II’s arguments, as well as those of DvH. I have yet to tackle his Purity or go deeper into The Nature of Love. DvH also sets forth arguments for purity in Man and Woman: Love and the Meaning of Intimacy and in Marriage, The Mystery of Faithful Love.

I intend to try and distill the arguments, but would like others to help marshall those arguments.

Could we set out 10 or more arguments by the Church, JPII and / or DvH that would persuade a non-believer to remain pure until marriage and then maintain a monogamous and indissoluble marriage with mutual self-giving love until death?

16:08 to Time of Posting

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jul 1, 2009 10:13pm

John, one basic difficulty you may find here is that, speaking personalisticly, arguments, no matter how objectively valid and compelling in themselves, do not persuade unless a person is genuinely open to being persuaded. 
“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” is all the reasoning most people want when it comes to sexual immorality.
I think the best we can do, besides pray, in such cases, is to live the truth in all its plenitude, in a way that over time elicits desire for something better and truer.  Part of that will involve deepening our own appreciation for the mystery of love—not directly in order to convince unbelievers.
What do you think?

Matt Chominski

#3, Jul 1, 2009 11:55pm

A start to a response to the question, ‘What are the personalist arguments for preserving sexual purity outside of marriage for unbelievers,‘can be found in the first part of the Holy Father’s first encyclical.

He discusses (please forgive any misunderstanding or confusion on my part here) the nature of erotic love as one where eternity is promised, a certain dimension or scale of time, that I guess can be referred to as open-ended.

Getting a non-believer to reflect upon the thoughts, emotions, and sentiments he has had in the midst of romantic involvement, in particular perhaps high-school age relationships, I believe could lead him to notice the trajectory of erotic love as being one that moves towards a promise of open-ended commitment, that type of commitment found solidly only in marriage.

I bring up the high-school relationship because the potential for this marital commitment presents itself to the couple even though they may be in no position, perhaps even for years, to actually enter into that commitment, though they desire to bind themselves to one another in such a fashion.

And to couple this commitment with its physical expression, the marital embrace, may help a non-believer recognize the fact that such a commitment is expressed by way of sexual embrace with the one he has verbally made that commitment to. And sexual activity outside of marriage betrays the trajectory of love and its physical expressions.

I feel this was a rather poor attempt, so hopefully someone will supplement or correct me.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jul 2, 2009 4:38am

Very true, Matt.  I think beside the promise of eternity implicit in love there is also the desire for totality, absoluteness and exclusivity, don’t you think?  “You and only you, always and forever,” is what everyone longs to say to hear and mean with all our hearts.
People give up on the idea because they think it’s naive and unrealistic, not because they find something better and truer.

Matt Chominski

#5, Jul 2, 2009 6:30am

I certainly think the desire for totality and exclusivity is present, and not only the desire for it, but the human potential for it.

Perhaps in the desire for exclusivity we also see the sanctification or elevation of sexual desire, where it is not simply a base desire for this type of physical pleasure, but desire for this one person, and them alone, desire to love in this exclusive way.

Here it seems we also see a delineation between authentic friendship and romantic/erotic love. There doesn’t seem to be the sanctioned desire for exclusivity in an authentic or healthy friendship. And even if there is I feel it ought to be rooted out for the good of the friendship.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 2, 2009 6:47am

I agree.  There would be something disordered in a friendship that had no room for others.  But it’s not the same with spousal love, where an “openness” to others reveals a lack of strength and depth and seriousness of the love itself.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jul 2, 2009 10:22am

Apropos of the aspiration to totality and eternity that is implicit in genuine romantic love, I found this in an article in tody’s Wall Street Journal by Kay Hymowitz titled, “Losing Confidence in Marriage.”

“On the one hand, despite their sophistication, the marrying classes still want love with a capital L. The New York Times nuptials pages, once simple status announcements about Muffy Branford marrying J.W.R. Witherspoon, now include details of how the couple met and found a full-tilt, love-of-my-life connection. People may admit that passion fades a bit, but soul- mate idealism is a defining part of contemporary marriage.”

Matt Chominski

#8, Jul 2, 2009 10:42am

I will have to take a look at that article.

It does seem appropriate to marital love to have the ideal of a companionate marriage, to marry for love, perhaps what is referred to in the above excerpt as ‘love with a capital L.’

Perhaps what needs to be done is to illustrate, probably most convincingly in the lived witness of families, that this love ought to be permanent and open to further permanent legacies, such as children.

But I also think these romantic ideals need to be coupled with an understanding of the social and economic importance of a traditional understanding of marriage. I fear that if marriage is reduced or limited to solely ideal romances and soul-mate searches our understanding and experience is greatly impoverished.

The search for the soul-mate will hopefully lead to the openness to and the welcoming of new souls, children.

Scott Johnston

#9, Jul 2, 2009 11:11am

Here I have at least a (very) partial response to John and hopefully some food for thought for Katie. I comment in light of the subjective personal experience I had as a man relating to women before vs. after my conversion to Christ.

The following does not require any personal faith at all to take note of, only honesty and perceptiveness about one’s own interior experience (in this case, as a man). Any man who has not completely become depraved and given his soul over to darkness, I believe, if he seriously reflects upon his own interior state, can recognize the following tension in himself. (Note: if I seem to somewhat exaggerate the extremes of the experience, I do so in an attempt to make clear the contrast I want to illustrate).

One the one hand, a man senses (from what we Christians would identify as concupiscence, due to original sin) a tendency in himself to try to use women for his own sexual pleasure. Some of the messages of our culture and from the comradeship of fellow men encourage acting upon this tendency because it is considered to be demonstrative of masculinity and manliness. The conquest aspect of male sexual promiscuity feeds into this (false) notion of “being a man.”

On the other hand, a man also senses a desire to treat women with a certain deference and high regard. And (without meaning at all to be patronizing, but noble) every man wants to treat the woman he desires as a princess (he being her prince). Every man senses a certain interior need as a man to put the woman of his dreams, so to speak, on a pedestal—to elevate her above himself as something precious. He wants to see her as someone worthy of protecting, worthy of sacrificing himself for. (And I don’t mean this in an unhealthy sense of worshiping the woman, which is a deformation of the healthy intuition I refer to here).

But, and again I think any reflective man on some level realizes this, the man has a serious problem: these two tendencies mentioned above clash with each other! They are at war with one another inside the soul of every man (and war is the right word). He knows they are not compatible. One or the other must dominate and gain control over the other. Each one of them claim to provide a path to “being a real man.” And every teenager and young man wants badly to “be a real man!” But, he has a choice to make, a terrible dilemma; which path does he choose? Which desire (to conquer or to reverence) will help him to grow in manhood—both in his own self-assessment and in the eyes of others?

Speaking from personal experience, for a teen or young man who does not personally know Christ and who has little guidance from older men he respects, the interior tension between these two inimical ways to approach women can be a horrible source of confusion, uncertainty, and frustration. What do I do? How do I be a real man? How do I deal with my sexual desires? In what way should they be channeled—which path is the path to being truly and fully human and masculine?

I have to say that, on some level, I think most boys and young men realize somewhere in the clouds of confusion about all this that the path of reverence and self-sacrifice for women is the right path. But, many are confused as to whether one can—even should—take a detour for a few years along the path of self-indulgence before allowing the more noble desire to win out. Sadly, they do not realize that this very detour, if taken, has a very real potential of gradually drowning out and silencing the call of the way of reverence.

So, in light of the above, I might suggest that one possible component of attracting secular men to a more personalist approach to courtship, would be to 1) acknowledge the reality of our present interior condition with this war between the two ways of regarding women, 2) describe clearly that nothing less than attaining or killing authentic manhood is at stake (as they already realize), 3) proclaim that the true path to our highest fulfillment as men—the way forward to our greatest and most noble potential as men—is the way of reverence and self-sacrifice for women.

This will not work with all men. But, because it is indeed the truth, I think if presented in a compelling way, many men will resonate with it. If the above is simply described and clarified well, they, as persons made for the truth, will see more clearly which is the right path and know it is the path that they as persons who are men are made to embrace.

I would not make the above the entire content of an approach to a secular audience. But, I think it could be a helpful component at an introductory stage. Perhaps one might call it, “A phenomenological consideration of two mutually inimical ways men may treat women, concluding that one and only one is in keeping with the quest for real manhood.” Snazzy, eh? :)

Scott Johnston

#10, Jul 2, 2009 11:16am

I just went back and read Katie’s Concourse article from 2000 on courtship. I think it’s very good! I would like to say that my above remarks are more along the lines of what, especially for men, has to be addressed as a preparation to healthy courtship. Some of these issues (with grace) can be healed in the process of a healthy and chaste dating relationship. But, I would say that any man who remains confused in such a way that he is not clear which of the two paths he wants to follow really should not be dating until he has clarified this and firmly decided to choose the correct path.

Engaging in a dating relationship along the lines of what I think Katie would prefer to support—one that allows for romance and emotion and tenderness and even some intimacy within proper limits—a relationship that doesn’t attempt to run away from all experiences of passion as though it were a fuse on a stick of dynamite that once lit absolutely must end in a destructive explosion—does presuppose a certain minimum understanding of and desire to be chaste. And because of this, if one thinks of a secular audience (as John suggests above) of unbelievers, the slavery of lust as contrasted with the freedom of chastity must be addressed somehow before healthy dating could be directly taken up.

This being said, I think it would also be important to clarify that a Catholic understanding of chastity does not place all sexual passion in the category of “bad; avoid at all costs.” It is (and I think this is a powerful attraction of TOB when presented well) wonderful to discover that there is such a thing (e.g. Song of Songs) as healthy and chaste erotic desire. There is sexual desire that inclines toward use/objectification (sinful); but, there is also sexual desire that is truly in keeping with authentic love. Rather than try to extinguish eros and romance altogether (as in some Protestant courtship approaches), we want to show that a truly and fully Christian view of sexuality has the firm hope of taking our wounded and confused eros and gradually healing and purifying it, giving it the power to blossom in a truly noble way because of the security and freedom attained for it by grace-assisted virtue.

Please permit me to quote myself from another thread, as I think it directly applies here:

Protestantism has a very hard time seeing that potentially dangerous aspects of life do not have to be entirely walled up and kept at bay like dynamite in order to remain safe. This is why Prohibition is instructive. Instead of realizing that one can—through a grace-assisted cultivation of virtue—use alcohol in a culturally healthy, beneficial, even life-affirming way, America chose instead to deal with its potentially dangerous aspects by simply banning it altogether.

Now, apply this to courtship, and we are being Catholic!

Proclaiming this in a careful manner, I think, has to be integral to what you are envisioning Katie in expositing a beautifully Catholic vision of potentially spousal relationships (whether called dating or courting or something else).

Christine Friedrich

#11, Jul 2, 2009 11:16am

I really liked the article, Katie!  I think you correctly identify a slightly puritanical strain running through a lot of abstinence/chastity materials that is detrimental to the cause.

One helpful distinction to make is the difference between affection and arousal.  If you are dating someone, it is entirely appropriate to show physical affection for them in a pure and chaste way. 

Has anyone read “Christian Courtship in an Oversexed World”?  I read this in college, and it helped crystallize some of my thoughts on the subject.  Fr. Morrow, the author, has a very balanced approach and a healthy respect for romantic love within a dating relationship.

As for John’s question, how to convince non-believers?  From a woman’s perspective, I think one of the most persuasive arguments for purity is that all of us desire to be loved for who we are as a person.  No one wants to be used as an object.  And living chastely helps to achieve that goal of being loved for who we are.  The girls always identify with this when I give talks.  I have never had someone respond and say, “yes, I want to be used.”  If a girl is giving much of herself physically, or feeling pressured to, there is always a feeling of uncertainty: is he in the relationship because he cares about her, or because he cares more about her body? 

And just for fun, this is a great satire on dating at Steubenville:

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Jul 3, 2009 7:36am

Thanks, Christine!  I guess I see the problem in “the Christian courtship movement” as more rationalism than puritanism.  It is a mistrust and denigration not just of sex (though that’s definitely there), but of the whole emotional realm.  Sometimes it is degraded even to the point of being reduced to “hormones”. 
I like what you say about the difference between affection and arousal.  Michael Healy made this point too in his talk on June 3rd.  Love and tenderness should be the “theme” of all intimacy in dating.  And couples who want to date well and chastely should have a sober awareness of how easily the natural dynamics of kissing can shift the theme from gift-of-tenderness to arousal, so that the power of the sexual urge rather than love becomes the driving force.
I will definitely need a chapter on renunciation.

Rhett Segall

#13, Jul 4, 2009 6:28am

I teach a course in Christian Morality to teens at Catholic Central H.S., Troy NY. It is definitely a challenge to present them with a persuasive case for waiting till marriage before becoming sexually active!

I find the teens are receptive to a phenomenology of sex and love along the lines of DvH. But, of course, not a few believe they can hold on to a reverence for sex and still be sexually active with someone they love! It is important, therefore, to develop the phenomenology of love carefully with them.

At a very practical level I ask them to consider the following four questions as a sine qua non before engaging in sexual intercourse:

      1. Do I want to live the rest of my life with this person?
      2. Does this person want to live the rest of his/her life with me?
      3. Do I want this person to be the father/mother of our children?
      4. Does this person want me to be the father/mother of our children?

Without a definite yes to these questions sexual intercourse is utterly irresponsible. At any rate, that’s the case I try make! (cf. Vincent Genovese “In Pursuit of Love”)

Still,we have to be careful not to be too judgmental in this area. I think it’s helpful to recall that DvH and Gretchen (Dietrich’s first wife) did not wait for marriage to consumate their relationship!It’s important in this area to remind youngsters that failures in the area of chastity need not be a cause of discouragement but rather a time to turn more humbly to the God who is Love. (cf. “The Soul of a Lion” p.113)

Katie van Schaijik

#14, Jul 4, 2009 9:30am

I do not disagree with your last point, Rhett.  But I do want to point out, for those who might not know it, that DvH was not yet a Catholic at the time he fell in love with his first wife.  Nor was he (according to German law of the time) old enough to marry her without his parents’ consent (which they were withholding).  Yet, even then, as his widow tells it, the idea that sex was anything other than the expression and consummation of an exclusive, total, and life-long commitment of love was abhorrent to him.

About having to develop a phenomenology of love, I second the motion.  It’s a big part of what I’ll be trying to do in my book—trying to show why, if we desire a great and deep and lasting LOVE, we will carefully preserve and cherish ourselves, until the moment we give ourselves to our spouse, in front of God and the whole Church, for life.

Rhett Segall

#15, Jul 6, 2009 4:28am

Katie,Your points about Dietrich are valid and should be noted.

What I wanted to stress, however, was the difficulty of making an iron clad case for non-marital chastity within a non religious context, the point of John Randle’s query.I think many cohabiting couples today would acknowledge the dangers of non-marital sex but believe they can handle them responsibly. They feel the rewards are worth the risks. I’m not saying they’re right, I’m saying this is their mind set.

I would note further that even within a religious context there are couples who do not believe their sexual intimacy has violated their relationship with God simply because they have not gone through a religious ceremony. All of which begs the question “What constitutes marriage?”

Katie van Schaijik

#16, Jul 6, 2009 5:16am

As I see it, the case for keeping sex for marriage is overwhelming, even considered apart from God’s command. But there are two sets of difficulties involved in communicating it, namely: those who believe it often don’t understand it and/or can’t express it, and, secondly, very few want to hear it.
A couple of years ago I went to a talk at a L’Abri in Massachusetts by an evangelical parent and preacher on the subject of evangelizing youth in today’s culture.  He told a story of a young woman who came to him ostensibly because she was having an intellectual difficulty with the prohibition on pre-marital sex.  It soon became obvious that she wasn’t really looking for truth.  She had a boyfriend and was looking for justification for giving in to her desires.  He said, “I almost wanted to say to her what I knew I couldn’t say: ‘Go sleep with your boyfriend.  Get it over with. Then come back to me when you have honest questions.’”

I’ve always found it fascinating and mysterious and worth pondering deeply that the punishment for sexual sin mentioned by Paul in the Letter to the Romans is a darkening of the mind.

But I too would very much like to hear moral theologians take up the question of what exactly constitutes marriage.  In another discussion thread the relation between sex and the sacrament was raised and not satisfactorily resolved.

Matt Chominski

#17, Jul 6, 2009 11:55am

I am not sure what a satisfactory answer to the question, ‘what constitutes marriage’ looks like, but I suspect that what would need to be laid out in any explanation of marriage is the broader societal implications of marriage properly understood. What does it mean that marriage is at the foundation of society, etc.?

Perhaps one of the reasons ‘same-sex marriage’ seems more plausible to many people recently is that a healthy understanding of marriage and its extra-familial implications, demands and benefits have not been presented, or have been drowned out by other cultural factors and trends.

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Jul 7, 2009 4:25am

I suppose we are speaking of two different things here—or rather two angles on the same thing.  What is marriage from a religious and sacramental point of view (e.g. who is able to enter it and at what moment do they enter it) and marriage as a natural and social institution.

Rhett Segall

#19, Jul 7, 2009 5:38am

I would propose the following definition of marriage:

Marriage is the public commitment of a man and a woman to love each other exclusively in sexual intimacy with the hope of sharing this creative love with children and society in the grace of God.

I find it very difficult to separate the idea of the exclusivity and permanency of marriage from God’s reality.

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