Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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February 22nd, 2010

A Little Bit Married Sparks Discussion

On its 5th anniversary, Christine Whelan discusses the purpose of Pure Sex, Pure Love



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.

Question 1
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.

Question 2
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.

Question 3
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

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Theologienne

    Go, Christine. Man, I remember when you started this column! You’ve really grown into your voice in terms of presenting the reality and inviting a conversation about it, without fear or judgment. Congratulations on 5 years!

  • sensei ronald panlilio

    I love reading your columns. I heard a great talk by catherine zeno about “sex: god’s wau.” She talked about how sex and gender are a noun before they were ever a verb or action. Also have been listening and reading books by christopher west on theology of the body.
    I also was living a life of sin while I was in college. But I truly believe with confession and prayer we can reclaim our bodies, by staying pure in heart, thoughts, and actions. I am in singles for christ, and it is a great peer group to play, learn from, and be inspired. I also go to catholic underground, and nights of discipleship at the cathedral in downtown. Seek out other sources..and you can learn how to court a woman properly. Try “boy meets girl”, “love dare”, ” every man’s battle.”

    God Bless and may the lord answer the desires in your hearts :)


  • Matt

    We’re dealing with a bunch of seperate issues here, and some folks are trying to pretend they’re the same issue.

    1. Premarital sex. It’s a sin. It’s also a bad idea. Funny how that works, ain’t it? (Frankly I’d have pretty severe doubts about any religion that teaches that something is a Mortal Sin(tm) if the behavior in question weren’t demonstrably harmful.)

    2. Premarital cohabitation (in the specific sense of _living in the same household_, which is not the same thing as _having sexual intercourse_, regardless of what the culture implies or any specific couple is also doing).

    3. Young people who don’t want to make long-term commitments.

    4. Columnists on Catholic web sites who give advice which conforms to the moral teachings of the Church, but is phrased in practical terms of how to live a good life, rather than moral terms of “toe the line or you’re gonna burn in Hell”.

    I will assert that it’s not merely true but also very significant to the discussion that issues 1, 2, and 3 are not a single issue at all.

    As to issue #1, I’m very much a reformed sinner. I made a lot of mistakes in my youth, and they cost me plenty, in both spiritual and temporal terms. As to #2, I’m probably an extreme outlier…with the exception of my mother, the only woman I’ve ever lived with is the one to whom I’m now happily married. (Yes, we lived together before we were married. No, we weren’t having sex. I know this is true, she knows this is true, God knows this is true, and whether anyone else believes it’s true is immaterial.) And as to #3…well, there are certainly a lot of folks out there like that, but I’ve never really been one of them. Neither, for that matter has my wife. I knew I wanted to marry her within 20 minutes of the first time we met (if it wouldn’t have been obviously creepy, I’d have proposed then and there), and although it took her about 7 years to come around to my way of thinking, by the time we started out as an actual couple, it was already pretty clear to both of us that marriage was our eventual destination…it was just a matter of dispelling potential problems, buying rings, finding an appropriate time for a formal proposal, scheduling the wedding, and dealing with the other logistical folderol.

    As to #4, my opinion on the matter is simple. “Toe the line or you’re bound for Hell” is true, but has been massively demonstrated to be unpersuasive to the modern culture. For those without the gift of Faith, God has been so generous as to give us the persuasiveness of evidence. It is not a sin to use it…in fact, I’d wager it’s bordering on a sin to _not_ use it. People being led to virtue by instruction in the good life are still being led to virtue, which is what counts. People being turned off to the message of God by culturally tone-deaf preaching are thus left to Satan to do with as he wishes.

    To those who would condemn Dr. Whelan because she speaks the truth in the language of modern culture, rather than the language of dogma, I reccomend attention to the gospel stories of the interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees. What is more important to you? Satisfaction of your own self-righteousness through observation of public piety, or the salvation of souls by any means available? If you are a true disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and Savior, the latter must take precedence. Yet to many self-described Christians, the former concern quite obviously has a higher place in their minds.

  • Genesis and Beyond

    During our research for a study we authored for young adults, we found and used this info:

    In an article written by Cardinal Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia, the Cardinal brought out a “…very staggering and distressing statistic” about cohabitation in America.” “In 2004, more than 5 million Americans were living together in a relationship without the marriage covenant. In 1970, the number of persons living together, or cohabiting, was 500,000. Fewer than half of cohabiting unions end in marriage.” (Popenoe and Whitehead) Cardinal Rigali continues with a very insightful observation. He notes that most couples, even if they have not lived together previously, tend to do so when they become engaged. He surmises that it is out of a desire to get to know the one whom we will marry, in light of the high divorce rate. But as he warns us, this experimentation sheds no light on the commitment and permanence within our relationships.” (Cardinal Justin Rigali, Cohabitation or Covenant, October 28, 2006 edition of the Word Made Flesh, Catholic Standard and Times.) In the study Should We Live Together? by Popenoe and Whitehead, research found that “in their marriages prior cohabitors are estimated to have a risk of divorce that is 46% higher than for noncohabitors.” (Taken from Genesis and Beyond: The Divine Plan for Human Love by Peggy King and Marci Stone. http://www.genesisandbeyond.com)

  • Angie

    In response to your answer to Phil, it would be interesting to note that there is research those that did co-habit, show no change in divorce rates, but those that didn’t show a smaller divorce rate, and that’s what you would emphasize. Maybe not co-habiting shows a sign of character as to how the person values marriage, and thus is something young adults should strive for?

  • Christine

    Wow, thank you all for these gratifying comments. I’m so touched by readers who take the time to share their experiences, and I appreciate your support for my work.

    I want this to be a column for you — and one that addresses your concerns as honestly as possible. So please do keep your questions and ideas coming!

    And Phil, to answer your question: There have been studies that find that cohabitating with the person you marry has no impact on divorce rates, but to my knowledge there hasn’t been a study that says it HELPS. If there were such a study, we’d have to examine why–and then figure out how we could replicate those benefits while also following our faith.

    Thanks for keeping the discussion going, and many many thanks to all of you for your kindness.

    Christine Whelan

  • Vanessa

    As a Catholic Youth Ministry Leader in a large urban area I am often confronted with the topic of sex and sexuality from the youth. I have witnessed how our lack of response to the needs of our youth to discuss sex and sexuality is leaving our youth vulnerable and often victims of their less moral peers. Unless and until our Church takes up the cross and the example of Christ, to meet them where they are, our children will continue to be like lambs among the wolves. It simply is not enough for us to say, “don’t have sex…wait until your married”, and then not tell them HOW or WHY, when they are constantly bombarded with messages from society to respond sexually. I pray for the day when we can provide meaningful and useful guidance to our youth to help them navigate through the perils of sex, dating and sexuality. Because for them, Silence = Consent.

  • Melissa Behrle

    Thank you Dr. Whelan for this article and the first article, “A little bit married.” Your presentation of the facts are articulate, intelligent, responsible, thought and faith provoking. I recently rediscovered the busted halo website as I was searching for a place online to grow in my faith as a young adult and a Catholic. I especially want to thank you for making this article response personal. You approached it as a fellow seeker and even though this means sticking your neck out to criticism, it also gives a face to the real struggles that many young adult Catholics face, including myself. Rock on Christine!

  • Phil

    Christine, I was at that talk last year. It was excellent. You are right about the statistics. While the modern numbers of people practicing pre-marital sex( or using artificial contraception) are depressing from a Catholic perspective(not to mention that such a reality makes it very hard to find a potential mate-even among Catholics- who actually agrees with the Church’s sexual teachings), we can not just bury our head in the sand and ignore them. How could the Church ever attempt to address such problems if we ignore them? Christ commanded his followers to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. That is exactly what you are doing.
    It is good that you contribute social science to this discussion. Those outside the church aren’t necessarily going to be persuaded by scripture(especially if they are not even Christian) or even by the Church’s philosophical arguments. As St. Thomas Aquinas might say, how could we speak to secular culture at large if we do not know their language? As imperfect as social science is, we need to understand it and utilize it when we can. People like you help us do that.
    I will pose one question to you. Suppose there was a study which claimed that cohabitation was somehow more beneficial to the success of a future marriage than not cohabitating(or something along those lines). How would you address that?

  • Jack Liu

    Thank you Christine for your great work in the last five years. Your approach really helped me form my conscience I firmly believe that if we want young spiritual seekers to listen to the Church’s voice, we must use the language that they can understand. I totally support what you do.

  • Mary

    How vividly I remember two articulate teenagers, leaders among their high school peers, being invited to participate on a parish committee convened to study needs of parish youth and how the parish could better serve them.

    Early on they were asked what they felt was the most important concern or topic that needed to be addressed. After a brief silence, the answer was “…sexual activity among High School youth.” The chairperson responded, “I hope what you mean is ‘abstinence’ by Catholic youth.”
    “No,” they responded. “We mean discussion of the realities, not just the ideal.” After some uncomfortable grumblings between committee members the chairperson called for order and said that this was the Catholic Church and the only reality was abstinence–end of discussion.

    For far too long parents have buried their heads in the sand and left teens to fend for themselves. And so, they have. Unheard and unwelcomed they move on, more often than not, reluctantly.

    Thank you Dr. Wheelan, for being a contributor to a website that addresses both the reality and ideal. I trust both the teachings of the Church and the spiritually intellectual arguments that brought about those positions. Meeting each spiritual seeker “where they are” is our strength as Church and is our example in Christ. Closing the door will solve no problems and may have, in fact, contributed to far more.

    Thank you

  • Christy

    I really enjoy your column Christine. I respect that you produce the facts & reality of adult life today. I agree with you that we need to talk about the reality, or else how can we address the issue. Talking about people having sex outside of marriage doesn’t make people have sex outside of marriage; it helps us understand why people are having sex outside of marriage & gives us ideas to help people deal with their issues in a Christ-like manner.

    I too come from a similar, tarnished-halo background. I really appreciate a Catholic place where I can feel welcome instead of judged :)

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