Two weeks ago I wrote a column based on the book A Little Bit Married, a guide for couples in long-term relationships. In it, I hoped to offer some practical real-world advice for spiritual seekers who have been dating for years, and those who are living together or considering cohabitation as a trial run for marriage. Since we all know someone who fits this description, I thought it was a useful book full of research-based advice — and I was eager to hear how young-adult Catholics, and seekers of all faiths, might respond to my spin on the book: Living together isn’t the solution to a happy, long-lasting relationship… but honest communication is.
All of us know the “rules” about no sex before marriage and that living together before marriage is frowned upon by most religious denominations. So I didn’t focus my arguments on the teachings of the Catholic Church against premarital sex (although these issues are clearly the backdrop for many of the confused and uncertain feelings that spiritual seekers have about trial-marriage relationships). Instead, I used data-driven arguments to bolster the well-reasoned teaching of the Church that so many of us know, but aren’t quite able to follow. And by tackling the issue this way, I certainly struck a chord because a great debate erupted in the comments section.
Three big questions seemed to come out of the mix, and because I’ve been writing this column for five years now, I thought it was time to address them — and lay out my personal mission as I write about sex, dating and marriage for young adults.
Can spiritual seekers benefit from practical advice, or should the Pure Sex, Pure Love column focus on the doctrine of the Catholic Church as it relates to relationships and intimacy?
In 2005, I was a spiritual seeker in need of some serious help. Yes, I’d been raised Catholic, but I’d strayed from the Church during college and graduate school. And being single in New York City was putting me through the emotional wringer of bad dates, mixed signals and uncertainty about my personal rules for emotional and physical intimacy. The group of editors, priests and lay Catholic writers at Busted Halo® made me feel accepted as a Catholic for the first time in my life. Yes, my halo was pretty dinged, but through this website and the Busted Halo retreats I was encouraged to deepen my relationship with God. It’s that gift of acceptance that I hope to return in some small way in each and every one of my columns.
For me, Busted Halo® is a website where young adults — spiritual seekers, confirmed Catholics, those from other faiths — can come to learn what it means to try to live your faith on a day-to-day basis. My Pure Sex, Pure Love column isn’t about preaching to the choir: I’m more interested in being an accessible voice to those who feel like their own halos are busted to pieces, those who aren’t totally sure how they feel about the Church (do they want to join or return to it), those who know they aren’t doing the best they can but need another explanation for why they should try again.
My columns don’t focus on doctrine. (The fact is, Busted Halo® is filled with many excellent resources that do a much better job of that than I ever could.) My calling, as I understand it, is to use academic findings, survey data, popular advice literature and the world around me as a springboard to discuss real-life issues that face young-adult spiritual seekers. Through open debate and discussion, I believe we can see the workings of God as He guides us to the right answer — the answer that we know in our gut, in our soul, is waiting for us.
Should we, as practicing Catholics, stand in judgment of others who do not follow the teachings of the Church?
In the comments to my most recent article, Steve, Jason and several others discussed the idea of judgment: Should we point out that cohabitation and premarital sex is a mortal sin? By not stressing this point, and clearly delineating the line between right and wrong, was I not telling readers the whole truth as it is shown to us in the teachings of the Church? Does the Bible tell us we shouldn’t judge — or that we should point out sin in others as a way to help them correct it?
These questions are above my pay grade, but I’ll tell you one thing: I’m not comfortable judging anyone who is struggling with their faith, no matter how successful or unsuccessful they may be. My column — some might call it my ministry — is about explaining what real people are doing. If the majority of Catholics are having sex before marriage, then I report that statistic. I’ll also offer some guidance on how to better follow the teachings of the Church, but I’m not going to judge someone for their missteps because I’ve made plenty of my own along the way. If the majority of young adults of all religious background are living together before marriage, well, I think we should have a practical conversation about the pros and cons of that, too.
By acknowledging that the majority of young-adult Catholics don’t live their lives according to all of the teachings of the Church, does this column inadvertently sanction that behavior?
I’m a sociologist and a journalist. I research the attitudes and behaviors of young adults (and oftentimes, the American population as a whole.) And because there aren’t a lot of surveys focusing on young-adult spiritual seekers, I often create my own and ask you, the readers of Busted Halo, to share your thoughts. Then I report the findings, whatever they are.
At a speech last year to a Catholic group at the University of Iowa, I presented data tracking historical changes of college students’ mate preferences since the 1930s, and I noted that chastity, which had been in both men’s and women’s top 10 attributes for a partner in 1939, had fallen to last place in 2008. This was a shame — but the trend over seven decades was quite clear. Sex before marriage was becoming the rule, rather than the exception. And this was a reality that we, as Catholics, must address: It’s only through talking about it and being open to new approaches to educate young adults that we can deal with the issue, I said.
After my talk, a woman approached me and said she really wished I hadn’t presented that data. “It validates the bad behavior of all the college kids in the audience,” she said. “If they know this information, it might make them more likely to have sex and sin because they think it’s OK if everyone else is doing it.”
I disagree. Issues of sexuality, dating, relationships, delayed marriage, contraception and infertility are at the core of young adult life. In our 20s and 30s it’s all about relationship formation and family challenges. And these conversations are going to happen inside the Church or outside the Church. Let’s have them take place here, within the Church, so that all spiritual seekers can understand that the Catholic Church is open to discussions of personal faith challenges.
Information is power — and gives us the power to educate, change and reach people, one by one, with a message of truth and love. The Catholic faith is built on a strong foundation of intellectual questioning and reasoned responses. And while I’m certainly no great theologian, I can hope to translate research-based information of sex and love so that you, the reader, can make smarter choices going forward.
Pure Sex, Pure Love Turns 5
This month marks the 5th birthday of the Pure Sex, Pure Love column. It’s been a great journey — and I hope it continues for many years to come. As with all things, we grow and evolve, learning from our mistakes along the way. So let me know what you think, what you’d like me to do more of (and less of!) in the future. Let’s keep this conversation going.
Yours in seeking,
Dr. Christine B. Whelan