Although his online dating profile had not screamed marriage material, I found myself responding to his brief message in my inbox. My response was part of my effort to be open, to make new connections, and maybe be pleasantly surprised. Upon my arrival at the bar, I immediately regretted it. The man who would be my date for the evening was already two drinks in, and he greeted me with an awkward hug. We walked to a table and the conversation quickly turned to our jobs. I described my work in Catholic publishing. He paused with glass in hand and said, “Oh, you’re religious.” I nodded. “So you have morals and ethics and stuff?” he continued. I blinked. “Huh, that’s sexy,” he said, taking another sip of his beer.
This particular gentleman didn’t turn out to be my soul mate. Yet in a strange way the encounter exemplifies some key elements of the dating scene facing young adults today: We’re trying to be open, to build relationships, to find someone who shares a worldview that reflects similar morals, perspectives, ethics, a desire for growth and, well, other stuff. And we are still working out the details of how best to make that happen.
According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, 59 percent of people ages 18 to 29 were married in 1960. Today that number is down to 20 percent. While it seems that there are more ways than ever to find a spouse—online dating and social media alongside the more traditional methods of parish events or friends of friends, among others—this array of options can also be overwhelming. For Catholics, discussions of faith can serve as a shortcut to discovering those shared values.
Kerry Cronin, associate director of the Lonergan Institute at Boston College, has spoken on the topic of dating and hook-up culture at more than 40 different colleges. She says that when it comes to dating, young adult Catholics who identify as more traditional are more frequently interested in looking for someone to share not just a religious sentiment but a religious identity. And Catholics who consider themselves loosely affiliated with the church are more open to dating outside the faith than young adults were 30 years ago. Yet young people of all stripes express frustration with the uncertainty of today’s dating culture.
“I think what’s missing for young adults is the comfort of knowing what comes next,” Cronin says. “Years ago you didn’t have to think, ‘Do I need to make a sexual decision at the end of this date?’ The community had some social capital, and it allowed you to be comfortable knowing what you would and wouldn’t have to make decisions about. My mother told me that her biggest worry on a date was what meal she could order so that she still looked pretty eating it.” Today, she says, young adults are bombarded with hyperromantic moments—like viral videos of proposals and over-the-top invitations to the prom—or hypersexualized culture, but there is not much in between. The major challenge posed by the dating world today—Catholic or otherwise—is that it is just so hard to define. Most young adults have abandoned the formal dating scene in favor of an approach that is, paradoxically, both more focused and more fluid than in the past.
After graduating with a theology degree from Fordham University in 2012, Stephanie Pennacchia, 24, joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Los Angeles, where she worked at a drop-in center for teens experiencing homelessness. Today she is as a social worker who assists chronically homeless adults and says she is looking for someone with whom she can discuss her work and her spirituality. Pennacchia was raised Catholic, but she’s not limiting her dating prospects to people within the Catholic faith. “My faith has been a lived experience,” she says. “It has shaped how I relate to people and what I want out of relationships, but I’m thinking less about ‘Oh, you’re not Catholic,’ than ‘Oh, you don’t agree with economic justice.’ ”
For Pennacchia, finding a partner is not a priority or even a certainty. “People talk [about love and marriage] in a way that assumes your life will turn out in a certain way,” she says. “It’s hard to express skepticism about that without sounding overly negative, because I’d like to get married, but it’s not a guarantee.” She says that when she’s able to ignore her friends’ Facebook status updates about relationships, marriages, and children, she recognizes the fullness of her life, as is, and tries not to worry too much about the future. “I’m not interested in dating to date,” she says. “Just being open to people and experiences and meeting friends of friends makes sense to me.”
As young adults move further from their college days, the natural social circles within which they may meet new people become less obvious. Many seek out young adult events sponsored by Catholic groups, parishes, or dioceses in an effort to broaden their circle of friends. And while many acknowledge that such venues might improve their chances of meeting a like-minded mate, most also say they’re not arriving with a game plan for spotting a spouse. “In a way, I am always looking,” says Rebecca Kania, 28. “But it’s hard to say that I’m actively looking.”
Kania earned her doctorate in physical therapy and works at a hospital in Wallingford, Connecticut. The majority of her dates in the last year have come from CatholicMatch.com. She is currently praying about her next steps and about possibly joining more mainstream sites like Match.com or eHarmony.com. No matter where she finds her partner, she would like him to be a devout, practicing Catholic. “I would want my husband to have God as the first priority, and then family, and then work,” she says, adding that it wouldn’t hurt if he also likes the outdoors.
In 2013 Kania traveled to the National Catholic Singles Conference in Philadelphia. She went for the speakers, the fellowship, and the info on theology of the body, but not necessarily to meet someone, she says. It’s simply a place where she can be herself. No matter what, she says, “I pray for myself and for my future spouse as we both are on our path to grow closer to the Lord, and if it is God’s will, we will meet when we are both ready.”
Yet for other young adults, dating events geared specifically toward Catholics—or even general Catholic events—are less-than-ideal places to find a mate. “Catholic events are not necessarily the best place to find potential Catholic dating partners,” says Christopher Jolly Hale, 25. “In fact, it can be a downright awkward experience. You find that there are a lot of older single men and younger single women at these events. Oftentimes I find that the older men are seeking potential partners, while the younger women are simply there to have friendships and form community,” he says.
Hale, who lives in Washington and works for the faith-based advocacy group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, says he is looking for a partner who challenges him. “What I’m looking for in a relationship is a person that can draw me outside of myself,” he says. “She need not be Catholic, but it helps.” His models for good relationships come, in part, from two unique sources: “I think the perfect Catholic relationship is George and Mary Bailey [from the film It’s a Wonderful Life]. Their relationship is about three things: the love they share, their love for their children, and their love for their community.” His other source of dating advice? The first paragraph of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). “I think dating should be an invitation to experience joy,” he says.
Catholics in the dating world might do well to consider another teaching of Pope Francis: the danger of living in a “throwaway culture.” Brian Barcaro, cofounder and CEO of CatholicMatch.com, warns that while online dating has proven successful in helping people find dates and even spouses (Barcaro met his wife on his site), it also can tempt users to adopt a shopping cart mentality when perusing profiles. “We can easily make and throw away relationships because of the number of ways we can connect online,” Barcaro says. Yet it is the “throwaway” mentality rather than the technology that is to blame, he says.
Barcaro says many members of online dating sites too quickly filter out potential matches—or reach out to potential matches—based on superficial qualities. Yet the tendency isn’t limited to the online dating world. “Every aspect of our life can be filtered immediately,” he says. “From looking for hotels to shopping on Amazon to news sites, the idea of browsing and experience has been pushed aside, and that has crept into how we’re looking for dates. We now have a tendency to think, ‘It’s not exactly what I want—I’ll just move on.’ We don’t always ask ourselves what’s really exciting or even good for us.”
When Mike Owens met his now girlfriend of one year, he was actively avoiding a dating life. “I was trying to get over the idea that having a girlfriend would fix me or make me feel better about life and instead move toward building a relationship with God,” he says. “And that started to put me in a place where I could meet a girl where she was and build a relationship with her.”
The 28-year-old government consultant met his girlfriend at a happy hour sponsored by his parish in Washington. The two chatted and then continued to gravitate toward one another at group events. “I was still in this mind-set that I wasn’t ready to date, but I invited her out for a drink,” he says. “We talked for a long time and had this really refreshing but atypical conversation about our dating issues and histories, so we both knew the areas where we were broken and struggling. Out of that conversation we were able to really accept each other where we were. We essentially had a DTR [Define the Relationship] conversation before we started dating at all.”
Owens says dating someone after returning to the faith has definitely been a different experience. “I know that she wants to see me as I am, and I want to see and be with her as she is,” he says. “That shared orientation toward God affects everything else you’re doing and how you approach each other, and that for me has made a huge difference in my being able to enter into and sustain this relationship in ways I’ve never been able to do before.”
Recognizing one’s limits and desires is key to a healthy approach to dating. Michael Beard, 27, has worked to do just that during his past three years in South Bend, Indiana at the University of Notre Dame, where he recently earned his master of divinity degree. During that time, several of Beard’s classmates got engaged, got married, or started a family while earning their degrees. He has seen these couples work to balance their responsibilities in higher education with those of being a good spouse and parent.
Given his commitment to his studies and his temporary residence in Indiana, Beard felt the timing was not right to enter into a serious relationship. “At the moment my spirituality is more of a mendicant Franciscan, moving from place to place,” he says. “As I go forward and establish where I’m living and my career, it will be more like Benedictine spirituality, that stability and being committed to a place.”
He enjoys lively discussions with people whose opinions differ from his own, but he is not interested in being in a relationship where one person tries to convince the other to change. “I have dated folks who aren’t religiously affiliated, and that’s been a challenge for me and them,” he says. “There’s no condemnation, but it’s difficult. I’m a theology nerd, and I want to do ministry in the church. It’s important and helpful to have someone who has a similar understanding and framework to operate out of.”
What women—and men—want
That shared framework can be helpful among friends as well. Lance Johnson, 32, lives in an intentional Catholic community in San Francisco with four other men, who range in age from 26 to 42. “It can be hard to be on your own and be a faithful Catholic,” he says. Johnson appreciates the perspectives within his community on topics related to relationships, as well as the support for living chaste lives. “We have a rule that you can’t be in your bedroom with a member of the opposite sex if the door is closed,” he says. “The community cares about you leading a holy, healthy life.”
He knows his mother hopes for grandkids, but he says in a young, largely secular city like San Francisco there is little pressure to get married. “Society sometimes seems to value fun over marriage,” he says. “Society can pull you in another direction, and sometimes it’s hard to focus on the important part.”
Johnson has found that many young adults yearn for more clear-cut dating roles. “It’s all this weird hanging out,” he says. “But a man is afraid to ask a woman out because he’s afraid she’ll say no, and women feel like if they say yes then it’s an admission that they are about to start planning a wedding. I wish it was more a culture of understanding that we just want to talk and get to know each other.”
Katy Thomas, for one, agrees. She and Johnson have been dating for several months, though they were friends before they went on their first date. “If you’re expected to make out with a guy on the first date, then it can be creepy,” she says. “But he might just be figuring things out, too. In Catholic circles we have a chance to set up a different kind of etiquette. How do you make intentions clear without freaking each other out?”
The 29-year-old San Francisco native and book editor spent a couple of years discerning religious life, which left her little time for dating. “I thought I’d be married by now,” she says. “When I realized that I didn’t have a vocation to religious life, I felt pressure to get married and it seemed like there were fewer options. Still, I’d meet a guy in his 40s and I’d think why is he not married yet? And then I’d realize that people could easily ask that about me.”
The practical challenges of raising a family also weighed on her mind as she discerned a future with potential partners. “Many guys who are intellectual, faithful Catholics and not seminarians are often underpaid philosophers,” she says. “This is a hard place for someone to be if they want to support a family.” Thomas’ desire to strike a healthy work-life balance also plays a role in the way she thinks about relationships: “I want someone who would accept and value my education and professional skills and who also would be OK with me being home with our kids when they were young.”
Save the date
While many young adults struggle to define (and redefine) dating, Anna Basquez, 39, is making a living at it, at least in part. The freelance writer from Colorado is the founder of Denver Catholic Speed Dating, a business that grew from an after-Mass dinner club. At her first event the crowds were such that a friend suggested they abandon the speed dating format entirely in favor of a more casual mixer. But Basquez persisted, and the name tags were distributed and the tables were arranged and Thai food was carried from one table to another, and in the end it was all worth it, she says.
She now hosts the events every four to six months. Basquez estimates more than 1,000 people have participated, and several marriages have come from the process. She says those who attend “really crave to date in virtue and crave to date to marry, and they crave to date in the values they grew up in.” And while she hopes to continue to attract new participants, Basquez always encourages those in attendance to search for partners in a variety of settings. “You have to help God out,” she says.
Basquez recognizes it can be easy to give up on dating. In fact, she has several friends who have pledged to do just that. “If you meet someone that you’re interested in, don’t fall back on saying, ‘I’m on a dating hiatus.’ God gave you your life to live. It needs to stay fruitful.” Basquez has tried speed dating, though she generally avoids dating at her own events. She also has participated in trips for Catholic singles to Ireland, Boston, and Rome. “It’s about starting somewhere,” she says. “As my aunt said to me, ‘You’re not going to meet someone on your couch at home.’ ”
Of course, sitting on the couch at home does have potential these days. The sofa in my living room is where I sat while first reading the online dating profile of another man, one whose profile did, in fact, scream marriage material. I found myself responding to his brief message. I agreed to a first date and did not regret it. In addition to a shared interest in hiking and travel, and a preference for tea over beer, my now boyfriend and I share similar morals, perspectives, ethics, and a desire for growth. We are excited about the possibility of a long-term future together. And we are still working out the details of how best to make that happen.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 12, pages 18–22).