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Lost in a World Without Courtship

September 17, 2009 13 Comments

In today’s Washington post Michael Gerson wrote a piece entitled “Lost in a World Without Courtship”. I would like to put excerpts here with my own comments in RED. You can read the full article HERE.

 By Michael Gerson, Wednesday, September 16, 2009, The WASHINGTON POST

There is a segment of society for whom traditional familyvalues are increasingly irrelevant, and for whom spring-break sexual liberationism is increasingly costly: men and women in their 20s. Interesting. He describes them as disaffected with the “casual sex” culture but not ncessarily convinced to return to more traditional family values. Here too is another sign that we as a Church have  not presented God’s plan for sex and marriage in a compelling manner. OR even more significantly, we have not communicated with many young people AT ALL. Our world view may not even be on their radar.

This is the period of life in which society’s most important social commitments take shape — commitments that produce stability, happiness and children. But the facts of life for 20-somethings are challenging. Puberty — mainly because of improved health — comes steadily sooner. Sexual activity kicks off earlier. But the average age at which people marry has grown later; it is now about 26 for women, 28 for men. Yes, I have noticed this quite clearly. When I was first ordained 20 years ago most of the couples I prepared for marriage were in their early 20s. Now they are in their early 30s. Also the number of weddings I celebrate has dimished by more than half.

This opens a hormone-filled gap — a decade and more of likely sexual activity before marriage. And for those in that gap, there is little helpful guidance from the broader culture. Notice here again the author makes no mention of the Church as offering helpful guidance to young adults. I do not observe this by way of a judgement of him. Rather, here again is more proof that we are not on the radar of most young people and to the extent we are, if our author is right, we have no compelling message or vision to offer young adults. Actually we do, but we have not communicated it well. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, argues that the “courtship narrative” in the past was clear: dating, engagement, marriage, children. This narrative has been disrupted without being replaced, leaving many 20-somethings in a “relational wasteland.” I remain struck at how many young people tell me this same thing. In this “communication age” it seems harder and harder for young people to meet on a meaningful level.

The casual sex promoted in advertising and entertainment often leads, in the real world of fragile hearts and STDs, to emotional and physical wreckage. But it doesn’t seem realistic to expect most men and women to delay sex until marriage at 26 or 28. Such virtue is both admirable and possible — but it can hardly be a general social expectation. So religious institutions, for example, often avoid this thorny topic, content to live with silence, hypocrisy and active singles groups.  Alot of hard truth here. It is difficult to remain sexually abstinent all  those years. However, I am not quite as pessimistic. I have been faithfully celibate since ordination and even before. However, I’ll admit that I am helped by the expectations upon me and by the fact that I do not date and am never alone with women. This is not usually the case with young adults. It is also true and sad that many clergy and religious leaders avoid talking frankly about sex before marriage. Growing up in high school and college, I never had a priest, deacon or catechist say a word to me about sex before marriage. As a priest, I have tried to remedy this terrible silence by speaking frankly and clearly that the Scriptures and Church teach that pre-marital sex is a serious sin. I am not unaware that young people have a difficult time fully living this and counsel them to be serious about chastity but to seek God’s mercy if they fall. But under no circumstances should they ever thing that pre-marital sex is “no big deal.” It is and infractions should be brought to confession. Gerson’s point about silence of the Church is however tragically the case for too many young people. We need to be clear, encouraging and helpful as well as understanding of the difficulty young adults face.

In the absence of a courtship narrative, young people have evolved a casual, ad hoc version of their own: cohabitation. From 1960 to 2007, the number of Americans cohabiting increased fourteenfold. For some, it is a test-drive for marriage. For others, it is an easier, low-commitment alternative to marriage. About 40 percent of children will now spend some of their childhood in a cohabiting union.Yes, as usual it is the children who suffer. I often grieve for children today who have to live with such confusing circumstances: mom here dad there, they have since split and are now with other partners; a mess and a terrible burden for children.

How is this working out? Not very well. Relationships defined by lower levels of commitment are, not unexpectedly, more likely to break up. Three-quarters of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up by the time they turn 16, compared with about one-third of children born to married parents…..

So apart from the counsel of cold showers or “let the good times roll,” is there any good advice for those traversing the relational wilderness? …

First, while it may not be realistic to maintain the connection between marriage and sex, it remains essential to maintain the connection between marriage and childbearing. Marriage is the most effective institution to bind two parents for a long period in the common enterprise of raising a child — particularly encouraging fathers to invest time and attention in the lives of their children. And the fatherless are some of the most disadvantaged, betrayed people in our society, prone to delinquency, poverty and academic failure. Cohabitation is no place for children.  Amen! Just the point I have been trying to make in previous blog posts here. Marriage is fundamentally about children and what is best for them. We have to change our thinking today that so overemphasizes the emotional well being of the spouses (or co-habiting adults) and get back to being sober about the effect that this has on children. They deserve better. Marriage is meant to be a stable, lasting union where a man and woman cling to each other because that is what is best for children. God does not make arbitrary rules. He establishes them for good reason.

Second, the age of first marriage is important to marital survival and happiness. Teen marriage is generally a bad idea, with much higher rates of divorce….But people who marry after 27 tend to have less happy marriages — perhaps because partners are set in their ways or have unrealistically high standards. The marital sweet spot seems to be in the early to mid-20s.  Early 20s is still early for many young people. We take a long time to grow up in our culture. But I think mid 20s is reasonable.

Third, having a series of low-commitment relationships does not bode well for later marital commitment….Serial cohabitation trains people for divorce.

[Bottom Line is]….Delaying marriage creates moral, emotional and practical complications…..The answer, even in the relational wasteland, is responsibility, commitment and sacrifice for the sake of children. There we go again, CHILDREN, responsibility and commitment for their sake. We have to be more serious and realize that my lfe isn’t merely about me and what makes me happy.

Filed in: Marriage, Young Adults • Tags: ,

Comments (13)

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  1. CastingCrown says:

    I love how when pieces like this occasionally appear in the press it’s always written as though what it is saying is of some great surprise! Treating you heart and body carelessly doesn’t lead to fulfilment?! Shallow commitments reduce stability?! Shocking stuff.

    Your comments about the Church are justified, but at the same time, I think there has been a distinct shift (for the better) in attitude and in the engagement of the Church in presenting God’s wisdom to the young. No time to rest though, there is still much to be done…

    “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” – Proverbs 4:23

  2. Michael says:

    An important thread in the article seemed to be the casual nature of these relationships. And more specifically, the low-level of commitment that undergirds them. Though the article highlights and focuses on twenty somethings, it must be seen as a part of a greater relational wasteland.

    As a twenty something, I can say that it’s not just with the opposite sex. It’s with friends. It’s with family. It’s with jobs. It’s with Church. It’s with Bible. It’s with God. It’s difficult for anybody to find meaning in our culture, period. And it should be said that it’s not our age group’s fault, and it’s not something that only our age group is going through.

    I don’t have any answers for how to solve that problem, but the lack of courtship needs to be put into perspective in order to begin to help us understand what might help. Just telling young people what they were taught already about pre-marital sex and marriage isn’t going to do anything. We don’t want to be taught again, we want to be talked to, and listened to, especially by the Church. Msgr. is right about the Catholic worldview not being on our radar. But then again, many of us feel that we aren’t on the Catholic Church’s radar in terms of what we’re going through. The relational wasteland makes itself apparent again, where it’s difficult for meaningful connection. The sad thing is that it is precisely in Church where we are supposed to have the MOST meaningful connection!

  3. jj says:

    Amen. Marriage is about children, but it doesn’t end or begin there. There is also a sacramental union that has to take place before children enter into this union. This is where I think we’ve missed the mark. Marriage is a sacrament, and the courtship process doesn’t really speak to how young folks should be equally yoked, in mind and spirit. If we start with the basics before marriage, then marriage can and will be about the children. Let’s get back to fundamentals of what courtship is and what we should be looking for in a spouse. If we lay the right foundation, if a couple is childless, or fruitful they are still bound together by their sacramental committment.

  4. Maureen says:

    Unfortunately, women have let men off the hook in the courtship arena. Wait don’t yell… I say women, because we have to let men know we expect to be treated a certain way. A lot of the young ladies are content with a guy coming over and moving directly to third base. Our culture has said this is okay…it’s your body do with it what you want. When we do this, there is no expectation on the male’s part to take the relationship further. Why court her? Why marry her? Basically men can delay marriage because the young ladies don’t hold the men to higher standard.

    I think the Church has made it clear that sex before marriage is wrong. However, society has said “you don’t buy a car without test driving it first” thus, the mentality of the 20 something’s. Can the Church improve this? I don’t think the Church can change the philosophy. It will need to start with the young ladies saying, No…

    • Yes, there was a lengthy discussion on this blog on the same topic here: http://blog.adw.org/2009/07/marriage-can-wait/ I agree, women need to set the limits. I might not seem fair but generally men will respect the limits that are set. Somewhere in the sexual revolution women lost a sense of their power to set proper limits, or they lost a desire to, not sure which. George Gilder wrote a powerful book on the subject some years ago entitled: “Men and Marriage.” Recommended reading if you can still find it.

  5. GregK says:

    A few suggestions.

    1. Older couples should see this as a ministry opportunity by making their home a place for youing people to gather and meet in a safe environment.

    2. Preachers could actually talk about courtship, dating, etc. (I don’t believe I have ever heard a sermon on this topic at a Catholic church.)

    3. Parents should see it as their responsibility to raise children who are mature enough to get married when they’re in their early 20s. Adolescence now seems to stretch into the 30s.

    • You are certainly right on all three counts. I am most challenged by by # 2 and will try to do a better job incorporating it into my preaching. One talk I did give on the subject was at Theology on Tap and can be heard here: http://frpope.com/audio/TOT%20Marriage.mp3 I heartily agree on point # 3 Maturity in our culture is getting hard to find, many people never grow up.

      • Maryann says:

        Oh dear. “Parents should see it as their responsibility to raise children who are mature enough to get married when they’re in their early 20s. Adolescence now seems to stretch into the 30s.” Since when do parents dictate the rate a child matures? Human beings do not all traverse the same terrain at the same speed, there are variations, and variation is normal and OK. Also, since when is marriage the event that correlates to or determines one’s level of maturity? The young man or woman that realizes they are not responsible or committed enough to marry in their 20’s may in fact be more responsible than the college graduate that gets married in his or her early 20’s.

        I believe most parents do the best they can at raising their children. I also firmly believe that maturity is something that cannot be dictated. It can be nurtured and encouraged, but ultimately, a child will mature at his or her own God given pace. Do parents make mistakes when trying to raise responsible children? Absolutely. Do children make mistakes when maturing and trying to be responsible? Absolutely. It’s called being human. Have you ever noticed that all the children in a family, created from the same gene pool, are not the same? That each child is a unique individual? Well, each individual is unique because he or she travels through life’s developmental stages at a pace God designed – a pace that man can guide and nurture, but cannot create or force.

  6. GregK says:

    Oh — and what could possibly be on that guy’s cell phone that is more interesting than that heavenly creature in the black dress?

  7. Katherine G ERT says:

    I work in the ER, and in the Emergency field there is a lot of infidelity (think Grey’s Anatomy, but except in Emergency). I have made it a policy of my own to not date coworkers for this reason. It is also policy within my hospital that dating/having a relationship/marrying within the department is forbidden, but many people do not listen to that policy. We do see a lot of bad stuff in the ER (to put that lightly) and I think that casual relationships are a release for some people.

    I find that when I am going to church in my scrubs after a long night shift, people are very nice and friendly to me. They almost treat me as if I were a hero (I do not think this of myself – in fact many times in my job I do not feel good enough.) I noticed that when I am in street clothes, people tend to ignore me or think I am “just another teenager.” I am the same person, just in street clothes. Yes, I am nowhere near perfect, but at least I am coming to church and trying to find guidance when I have fallen. I am not going to sit here and tell my life story but I will say that a lot of people are not “young adult friendly.” The people that are, though, and the priests that are willing to let me vent to them, I am extremely grateful for. Without them, I would most definitely be on a path of destruction that is common for some of things that I have seen and have happened to me.

    As for premarital sex… sometimes people get it and sometimes people don’t. Unfortunately for a lot of people, learning the hard way is how they learn they shouldn’t do it. I do agree with the fact that young adults and teens need to be taught what the consequences are, and how much better they will feel about themselves for being chaste. Someone who has already learned the hard way may be a good teacher, especially if they also discuss how being chaste turned their life around. It pays to be a prude in relationships…then you can see who will respect you and who won’t very quickly. Sorry for the essay here hahaha…had a lot to say on this matter.

    • Amen to all this! Especially the last paragraph. Chasity really does help to prove the nature of attraction. Is there love for the person or just the body. Chastity helps a relationship to grow around more than sex.

  8. Maryann:

    I think it is possible not to judge every individual case and still observe that in our current cultural situation people are maturing later than ever. There is definitely a widespread pattern here that doesn’t seem overall to be a sign of health. As for parents role I think I can say that my parents had a lot to do with how fast I grew up. I suppose one could argue that certain kids will go their own way no matter what a parent does. But as I rule I think we can safely say that parents have a lot to do with how quickly thier children reach responsible adulthood.

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