HomePage  Mary Shivanandan

Dating and the anthropology of Pope John Paul II
by Tom Hurley


Pope John Paul II developed his theology of the body to shed fresh light on the Church's teaching on marriage, sexuality and responsible parenthood for a society that has strayed far from Christian moral norms. One of the areas of life most affected is the relationship between men and women before marriage.

In a course on the Theology of the Body at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Professor Mary Shivanandan asks the students to apply the principles of the theology of the body to a contemporary situation. Thomas Hurley chose the problem of modern dating customs.

One of the primary areas of interest to humanity at all times is the area of relationships between man and woman. The fullest relationship in this area is the traditional marriage relationship. Therefore, the process by which two people reach the marriage state also has an obvious importance. Many different customs and moral guidelines have governed this area throughout the history of humanity, with varying results both in pre-marital relationships and in marriages themselves.

In the present day, it must be admitted that these results are what might be called mixed. This will be considered more precisely later, but common observation reveals that there seems to be little or no order in dating and courtship, which would normally be considered pre-marital relationships. Indeed, such relationships do not appear to lead to marriage with any reliability. Pregnancies outside of marriage, long-term sexual relationships outside of the ordering influence of marriage, and widespread divorce among those who do marry are just a few of the obvious concerns which confront modern humanity in this area.

It is the purpose of this essay first of all to examine the nature of the current state of courtship and dating, beginning with an analysis of the changes which have come about in the recent past. Then, possible approaches to changing the state of courtship for the better will be reviewed, concentrating on the inadequacy of attempted changes based on a mere return to the past, and not based in the subjective and objective reality of the human person.

Finally, the theological anthropology of John Paul II will be introduced as an appropriate standard for such changes, and speculation on possible specific consequences of this anthropology for the custom of dating will be discussed.

The beginning of courtship as it is known today occurred with the move away from arranged marriages, which brought the choice of marriage partner into the sphere of the prospective partners. In the United States, this change began to occur almost from the beginning. The arranged marriage, in the fullest sense of the term, was never as common in this country as in some areas of the world, and over the past two hundred years parental influence has steadily been declining. With the increasingly free choice of young people in the area of marriage came a gradual growth in the importance of factors such as mutual attraction, affection, and love, as opposed to the more "practical" factors of social status and economic benefit which had dominated to some extent when these decisions were made by third parties.

Both the free choice of the spouses and the rise of these personal factors made it necessary that greater occasions should be provided for the close acquaintance of prospective spouses. In the twentieth century, this gradually resulted in the social and moral acceptance of contact between the sexes in general during adolescence, and of increasingly exclusive and private contact between those considering marriage. Thus developed the custom of dating. Still, as late as the 1950s there was widespread moral disapproval of any form of exclusive dating, in the sense of consistent and relatively unsupervised contact, for people who were not capable of and interested in marrying in the near future.

However, following this point there was a rapid decline in standards in this area. Virtually all types of male-female relationships, at virtually all ages, became at least more acceptable than they had been in the past. As marriage decreased in importance and cohabitation became more common, the proximate possibility of marriage inevitably also declined as a standard. Today, exclusive and heavy dating is acceptable basically at the age of actual physical sexual maturity, and in some circles any activity is acceptable as part of these relationships, up to and including sexual activity.

One does not need any complex academic analysis to determine what the societal customs in relation to pre-marital opposite-sex relationships are today. In 1988, almost seventy-five percent of eighteen and nineteen year old women had engaged in sexual activity at some point.

Such a statistic indicates that it is common for young people to be involved in very close opposite-sex relationships, and full sexual activity in these relationships is, if not customary, at least widely accepted. It also indicates that such relationships are often not subject to a high degree of adult supervision, even in the form of proximate adult presence, even when children of a relatively young age are concerned.

This picture is confirmed by common experience, which shows young people pairing off at an early age, sometimes into relatively long-term and exclusive relationships, and sometimes into a series of shorter relationships. These relationships tend at least to make the claim of exclusivity, even if such is not the case. This is presumably necessary because of the level of physical intimacy involved, which is still not widely acceptable if practiced with a number of people at once.

Acceptance of the current situation is widespread, but certainly not universal. One can find spirited and intelligent dissent from the modern dating culture. This is no more than one would expect in view of the fact that this culture has led to consequences which are radically at odds with traditional morals.

However, much of this dissent appears to take the form of an appeal to the past. The dissenters wish to go back, and this is very understandable. The brief summary given earlier of the development of courtship and dating in the United States showed clearly that there were standards in the past where there are no standards now, and in many ways presumably things were better in the past then they are now.

Therefore, no one should be surprised when one finds an article on courtship in a prominent scholarly journal beginning with the sentence: "Anyone interested in improving relations between men and women today and tomorrow must proceed by taking a page from yesterday."

However, is this evidently true, and will such an approach ultimately be effective in bringing about change on a broad scale? Since a statement like this seems to be an instinctively natural reaction, and thus probably represents a common strand of thought, this is an important point, and deserves careful consideration before proceeding further with this analysis.

It is only realistic to acknowledge that there is a certain inherent uncertainty about the possibility of a beneficial return to the past as such. Historical circumstances have changed greatly in the recent past. The reality is that courtship has always been obviously linked to sexuality. In the past, the simple practical risk of pregnancy was enough to discourage much sexual activity in the unmarried, and by extension to discourage imprudently close relationships.

However, in this century contraceptives have become more effective and more widely available than they ever were in the past. In particular, the introduction of the Pill into general use shortly after the middle of this century had a revolutionary effect in this area, ushering in a supposed paradise for those who believe in the separation of procreation from sexual intercourse.

This separation of procreation from sexual intercourse is by definition the object of all contraception, and the possibility and ease of such complete separation today makes the courtship situation in the present radically different from that of the past. It is true that there may still be many young people who do not in fact consistently contracept.

However, contraception need not be universally practiced in order to have universal effects. The rise of contraception has had almost automatic effects on attitudes about sexuality, and it was inevitable that such shifts in attitude would revolutionize pre-marital relationships. In view of this, it is highly questionable whether a simple return to approaches to courtship which were effective in the past will be the most effective way of improving the state of affairs in the post-Pill "paradise."

Customs on courtship and related areas of life have changed. It will be difficult to change these customs again, but clearly some such change is necessary. However, there does not seem to be any particular reason to think that it will be any easier to change such customs to match those of the past than it would be to change them to match some other standard. Would it not be most reasonable to attempt to determine what kind of an approach to courtship would be best for the human persons involved, and try to implement that?

This is precisely what can be attempted in light of the anthropology of John Paul II. In his catechesis he never makes an appeal such as "Let us act as we did in the past." The message, rather, if it is to be reduced to such a short formulation, is that we must act as we should have acted in the beginning. Human beings should conform themselves to the real nature which God gave to them in creation, and in this they will find the road to true happiness.

This is true of all of human life, so presumably it is true of courtship. It may very well in fact be the case that in doing so many aspects of past customs will be resurrected. However, this should be based upon the objective truth about human persons, not on the past as such. By doing this, one can also increase the subjective appeal of the message, since it is clearly an appeal to human persons, in this case particularly to young people, to live in the way that will be most fulfilling for them.

If one bases an approach to dating and courtship on the anthropology of John Paul II, what would such an approach look like? That is the question to be answered here, primarily by reference to various aspects of the fundamental meaning of the human person as gift according to the Pope. Of necessity, this answer must be very general and highly speculative. However, it still seems worthwhile to attempt to reach some conclusions on this topic.

For this purpose, consideration will first be given to promiscuity, the major moral problem in the modern dating scene, and then to various more positive points on possible characteristics of a courtship system based on the anthropology of John Paul II. (Contraception is obviously also a major moral problem in the modern dating scene from the perspective of the thought of John Paul II, but since it only occurs in this context as a result of promiscuity, and the immorality of it is not specific to its use outside of marriage, it will not be discussed separately in this section.)

Promiscuity is perhaps the most obvious and measurable symptom of the changes that have occurred in attitudes about pre-marital relationships, as was indicated earlier. Clearly, Catholic moral teaching forbids such promiscuity. However, what basis beyond this can be found in the thought of John Paul II?

According to the Pope, the act of sexual intercourse is intended to fundamentally signify in the language of the body the gift of each to the other, and the acceptance of each by the other. This gift and acceptance is to be total, and thus it is to be permanent. Indeed, it must be total in order to reflect the reality of complete interpersonal communion which it is meant to signify, explained by the Pope in terms of original nakedness.

It is impossible to give oneself totally to several different people. What makes promiscuity promiscuous, so to speak, is this dishonest signification of total self-gift to more than one person. Moreover, this means that in the broad sense "promiscuity" applies even in the case of successive relationships, which considered in themselves are monogamous. If one truly gives oneself, then there is no other self to give, and no possibility of taking back the gift. Promiscuity by definition removes the full meaning of the gift from masculinity and femininity, and thus from the sexual act.

Thus, the desire to express love through sexual intercourse, while natural, inevitably frustrates itself unless it is restrained until it can be fulfilled in an exclusive and permanent commitment. The act, if engaged in with more than one other person, becomes self-falsifying and no longer in fact expresses the love which it was intended to express, and which human beings instinctively feel it should express.

Having considered the main moral problem relevant to modern dating according to the principles of John Paul II, it is now appropriate to look at the possible broader consequences of his thought for dating and courtship in general. In considering dating in a more general way, it is important first of all to be clear about the purpose of dating.

Historically, for the purposes of both sociological analysis and moral evaluation, dating has been defined as an aspect of the courtship ritual, and thus remotely or proximately prepatory for marriage. Although the custom has taken on an increasingly recreational aspect, this basic connection has remained at least in theory.

Even in the 1990s, and even among those at relatively young ages, there is still often an intention, however unrealistic, of eventually pursuing marriage, or at least a long-term relationship among those not convinced of the value of marriage. What precisely this will mean in the perspective of the teaching of John Paul II will now be examined, but this basic principle of connection will be taken as established in advance as something desirable, because without it one no longer has any clear definition of dating.

Questions concerning dating begin with questions concerning general contact with the opposite sex, and to what extent this should be limited among young people. There does not seem to be any strong basis in the thought of John Paul II for discouraging all contact between boys and girls even in a public group context, although this has been customary for much of history in Western civilization.

In fact, if anything one can find a counter-argument to this custom in John Paul II. The argument in favor of this custom has generally been that such contact from an early age may prevent boys and girls from growing up completely in the characteristics of their own sex. (The issue of a possible remote or proximate occasion of sin is not commonly raised until one reaches the level of private and/or one-to-one contact).

However, this argument does not appear to work completely if, as John Paul II indicates, the relationship between the sexes is from the beginning foundational for all human relationships, and each sex finds its full meaning in the context of an understanding and appreciation of the other. From this perspective, the best situation would appear to be one of a more balanced contact between the sexes than has sometimes existed in the past. On the other hand, this does not necessarily mean that some limitation of opposite sex contact among young people is not appropriate, even in a public group context.

In addition to the principle of original unity, the thought of John Paul II includes the principle of original solitude. While the implications of original solitude certainly could not be said to be clear in this context, it seems reasonable to speculate that, if the life of each human person to some degree reflects the same principles as existed in the original creation, there should be some separation of the sexes early in life, particularly in the early part of adolescence, which is probably the period when young people grow the most in their understanding of the otherness of the opposite sex.

Beyond general contact with the opposite sex, the issue of one-to-one contact arises, and the discussion enters the sphere of what is generally considered dating. One of the major potential departures from modern dating customs, apart from more strictly moral issues, arises at this point. Modern practice permits dating at virtually any age. When it is only a question of contact with the opposite sex, there is no substantial difficulty in this area. However, what is the purpose of individual contact between boys and girls?

John Paul II makes clear that from the beginning the paradigmatic one-to-one relationship between man and woman is marriage. Based on this, individual contact with the opposite sex does not necessarily seem wise for those who are not in a position to contemplate marriage in the foreseeable future, a group which includes virtually all adolescents in modern American society.

This is not a question of limiting freedom, but of only entering into relationships which reflect reality. When the potentiality of marriage is not a reality, the legitimacy of relationships which mimic marriage in this way is at least highly questionable. This does not mean that no individual contact between the sexes should be allowed at all, since individual contact in some cases does not bear any close relationship to marriage.

Friendships between boys and girls can certainly exist on a similar level to friendships between those of the same sex, and occasional individual contact in a public context may be natural and harmless in the course of such friendships, and as such it would not constitute a dating relationship. However, the distinction of masculinity and femininity is foundational and cannot be erased, as John Paul II emphasizes. Given this, it is unrealistic to deny that a friendship between two people of the same sex is never exactly the same as an opposite-sex relationship, and the same rules cannot be applied.

Thus, if a relationship between a boy and girl resembles a dating relationship in its exclusivity, or if the frequency of the individual contact matches that of what are considered dating relationships, then the nature of the relationship is problematic.

Before proceeding on to an analysis of legitimate dating relationships, there is another aspect of close opposite sex relationships in the young, namely the aspect of shame and vulnerability. In a way, these are two separate aspects, but they seem to be very closely connected. John Paul II has analyzed shame very carefully, principally in the area of sexual shame.

In this area it is noteworthy that the Pope recognizes a clear positive aspect in shame, in that it defends the sexual values of the body. In particular, this supports the importance of modesty. Thus, in addition to other moral questions, young people need to be educated in the fact that any sexual character in a relationship, even if this only consists in provocative dress or manners of acting, lowers their defenses and makes them vulnerable to objectification, as an object of use or lust, by the other.

This also has implications outside of the area of that which is explicitly sexual. Any advancement in friendship, particularly toward a person of the opposite sex, carries to some extent the character of self-gift which the Pope apparently sees as the deepest meaning of human relationships. In itself, this is good.

However, in the gift of self there is always the possibility that the gift will not be accepted and reciprocated, so the giver is in a position of some vulnerability. This is one reason why the totality of self-gift should occur only in marriage, where indeed violation of it may still occur, but there is at least an explicit and institutional commitment to acceptance and reciprocity of the gift. Since this is true of totality in relation to marriage, it is also presumably true of greater and lesser degrees of self-gift in other relationships.

If young people are not in a position to enter relationships which are proximately prepatory for marriage, then ideally they should be led to understand that it is unnecessary and perhaps even unwise to enter into a position of great vulnerability vis-à-vis a person of the opposite sex, even if this is not on an explicity sexual level, because such a position of vulnerability may naturally lead to sexual vulnerability.

The problems of dating relationships without any possibility of marriage have already been discussed. This area changes completely among people who have reached an age where they may legitimately be seeking a partner in marriage. Even if changeable circumstances such as economic conditions or other commitments temporarily make marriage impossible, these people have a real interest at least in the search, so to speak, since such conditions obviously change, sometimes predictably and sometimes not. Regular and extended individual contact can thus be justified.

However, there is still the question of exclusivity. For the present purposes, exclusivity will be understood as the unacceptability of either partner in the relationship dating any other person. This is again not so much a moral question at this point as it is a question of the reality of a relationship. If a person really has focused his or her consideration of marriage on one particular other person, then certainly exclusivity is warranted. Otherwise, there does not appear to be a basis for exclusivity. After all, exclusivity is an essential aspect of marriage, but it does not appear to be necessary for any close relationship with a person of the opposite sex. It has already been explained in analyzing promiscuity that the totality of self-gift in marriage requires this exclusivity.

Furthermore, while the totality of self-gift is seen in conjugal intercourse, which is restricted to marriage, John Paul II also emphasizes that the spouses are to live out this total self-gift in their entire life together. In this aspect, greater commitments, in terms of time for example, and a more complete openness to the other are also natural in such an exclusive relationship. The man and woman will presumably become more and more a part of one another's life, always remembering the restrictions which the absence of the true commitment of marriage places on this development.

It must now be recognized that all of what has just been said concerns a very serious and presumably late stage in the relationship. There does not appear to be any other stage between this and the official (though revocable) commitment to marriage in the near future which begins the engagement period.

How else could the relationship enter a clearly new and more serious stage once it has become exclusive? This stage can only be said to begin when the man and the woman know each other well enough to focus their hopes of marriage entirely on one another. Since one would hope that a decision to focus on each other in this way would not be made on slight acquaintance, it is at least possible that the longest and most substantial part of the relationship will precede this "pre-engagement" stage.

It is not even necessarily the case that this stage of exclusivity will be particularly long. As importance as exclusivity is in marriage, and as necessary as some previous experience of exclusivity with the other is, it is only one aspect of self-gift. The human persons in any relationship are of primary importance.

Clearly, knowledge of the other person is more important than a knowledge of the experience of exclusivity, and this knowledge of the other would, as has been said, hopefully be fairly deep before a couple enters the final pre-marital stages. In a way, then, the key parts of a relationship leading to marriage would appear to be, not the latter stages, in which marriage is in very immediate view, but the parts leading up to these stages, and careful thought should be given to these earlier parts of a relationship.

Modern custom has made dating, even in the early stages, a relatively exclusive thing. After a few dates, it is not customary for a man and woman to date other people. However, absent pre-marital sexual activity, which obviously is unacceptable according to the Pope's anthropology (as was discussed in the section on promiscuity), and without a complete focus on one person as a potential marriage partner, there is no reason for such exclusivity throughout most of a relationship.

There may be factual exclusivity in any given case, since it is easy to imagine a man and woman who in fact do not know more than one person with whom they wish to have such a relationship, but this is only a circumstantial exclusivity, which has little meaning for the relationship in itself.

Depending on definition of terms, some might say that such a non-exclusive relationship is not a "dating" relationship at all, since it is sometimes the case that a man and woman who are explicitly "just friends," to use the common terminology, meet each other alone on a relatively frequent basis. This is not problematic for young adults in the same way as it was earlier said to be for those who are too young to contemplate marriage on any realistic level, because the man and woman in this case are within realistic range of marriage, if they were to decide that they wished to pursue that course.

This is not generally called dating, and yet it does not appear to be obviously distinguished from the non-exclusive dating which is being suggested here, except perhaps in that the latter may be explicitly incorporated in the minds of the participants into their search for a marriage partner. This may be only a semantic issue concerning the range of application of the word "dating," but at the same time it does lead to consideration of an important point: the relationship of friendship to marriage.

In the anthropology of the Pope, the marriage relationship supremely signifies the meaning of the human person as gift. However, the meaning of the human person does not only become gift when the person is married. This is from the beginning the meaning of the human person. The nuptial meaning of the body applies to every human being, not just those who are married.

This should be clear from the fact that this meaning applies even to those committed celibates for whom marriage is no longer even a possibility. This means that every human friendship, to the extent that it is a human friendship, participates to some degree in the category of self-gift. In fact, since the communion of persons not only includes but is constituted precisely by mutual self-gift, it is safe to say that the deeper and fuller any friendship becomes, the more fully it can be characterized as mutual self-gift.

A friendship between a man and woman is always characterized by the relationship between masculinity and femininity, which links it even more closely to the marriage relationship. If the man and woman in question are of an age, situation, and so forth, which would permit them to marry each other, then this link, as a practical matter, becomes even closer and tighter. The obvious conclusion from this is that friendship is the best preparation for marriage. This is not a truism, as some moderns might initially think.

First of all, the importance of friendship in marriage has not been emphasized for much of human history, though it is supposedly increasingly recognized in modern times. Secondly, even this modern recognition clearly is not based on a deep anthropological understanding of marriage as the sign of gift, and thus related to all truly human relationships, such as is found in John Paul II. This may be why the modern understanding of these matters places so much importance on dating relationships.

If friendship in itself is the best preparation for marriage, the importance of dating as a custom is dramatically lessened. Distinctions between those who are dating and those who are only meeting as friends become less important. From this perspective, it is not clear why such distinctions should ever be important until the stage of exclusivity. Perhaps it is true, as some might claim, that dating is not dating if it is non-exclusive.

If dating is defined in this way, then dating should properly be limited to the pre-engagement stage. What difference does this make? It is not clear that it makes any difference at all. What is important is the development of an unusually close and deep friendship between a man and a woman. This probably will be accompanied and facilitated by arranged time together, which one may or may not call dating. Any man or woman may possibly develop such a friendship with more than one person of the opposite sex at the same time.

Certainly, such friendships may very well not lead to marriage. This does not change the fact that this should usually be a most important part of any relationship which will in fact lead to marriage. This has a couple of very practical advantages.

First of all, it may remove some of the impatience of those who are too young to participate in this process, if the process is understood only as a development of friendship up until a relatively late stage. The young, after all, can also develop friendships with the opposite sex, although not in the same way, and this may leave them more willing to increase their pursuit of these friendships gradually, if the popular importance attached specifically to dating can be diminished.

Secondly, the non-exclusive nature of such developments of friendship will prevent the feeling and reality of wasted time in long exclusive dating relationships which eventually break off rather than leading to marriage. Doubtless further consideration could reveal other advantages, and perhaps apparent disadvantages as well.

Most importantly, however, this approach would correspond fully to the reality of the human person, basing itself on the reality of true friendship as self-gift, and marriage as the totality of self-gift, according to the anthropology of John Paul II. It is not apparent that the same can be said for the dating customs in the United States in the present day.

A number of general conclusions have been reached here about possible consequences of the anthropology for John Paul II for the custom of dating. Obviously, sexual promiscuity must not be a part of dating. Less obviously, contact between the sexes among young people seems appropriate and even necessary, but only to a limited extent, which does not include dating as we know it.

In the stages directly prior to marriage, on the other hand, close and exclusive contact between the prospective spouses is desirable as preparation for marriage. Perhaps most importantly, however, the anthropology of John Paul II does not appear to support the importance attached to dating as we know it in our society.

This should not necessarily be very surprising. Dating is, after all, a custom, or an artificial construct, and a relatively recent one. Modern society presents certain great advantages in the preparation for marriage. Men and women are now allowed to interact more freely than they have been at many times in the past, and thus hopefully to know each other better.

However, the advantage of this is actually diminished by an over-emphasis on exclusive dating relationships. The reality, depth, and development of a man-woman friendship, ultimately of a communio personarum between the two, which is not dependent on exclusive dating, is the most important preparation for marriage.

It is the development of such interpersonal communion, through a process which may possibly only include dating in the modern sense as a last short step, that most effectively brings a couple to the commitment of marriage, in which each becomes total gift for the other.


Alan Guttmacher Institute. National Survey of Family Growth
. New York: Alan
Guttmacher Institute, 1990.

Bonacci, Mary Beth.
Real Love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996.

Cate, Rodney M. and Lloyd, Sally.
Courtship. Newbury Park, CA: Sage
Publications, 1992.

John Paul II.
The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan.
Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1997.

Kass, Amy A. and Leon R. "Proposing Courtship."
First Things 96 (October
1999): 32-41.

Kelly, George A.
Dating for Young Catholics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday
Publishing Company, 1963.

Shivanandan, Mary.
Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage
in the Light of John Paul II's Anthropology
. Washington, DC: Catholic
University of America Press, 1997.

Stack, John.
Courtship Patterns in the United States: A Moral Evaluation.
Rome: Pontificalis Universitas Gregorianae, 1957.

Wojtyla, Karol.
Love and Responsibility. Translated by Willetts, H.T.
Revised 1981 ed. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993.

December 8, 1999

Tom Hurley would welcome any feedback to his paper at-:

Copyright ©; Tom Hurley 1999

Version: 11th February 2003

 HomePage  Mary Shivanandan