Originally published in the May, 1989 issue of The Angelus, by Fr. Jean Violette (from "Communicantes")
Advice for young adults
Are there circumstances when it is not allowed to date or "go steady" with someone? There are certain rules regarding this because there exist certain dangers in company-keeping; dangers with regards to purity or chastity which, because of the weakness of our human nature due to original sin, we must guard ourselves against. We will try in this little exposé to give some rules regarding dating and also some advice on how to avoid the occasions of sin.
Definition of Terms
By company-keeping we mean steady, concentrated, exclusive association between two people of different sexes. Thus, for a young man to take a girl out once or twice a week over a long period of time, it is clear that he is concentrating on her and that she accepts the fact. They are keeping company whether they admit to it or not.
Before setting down any moral principle, two things must be considered:
The first is that steady dating or company-keeping has for its purpose marriage. This does not mean that two persons who date will necessarily get married. Even if the period of dating does not end with a marriage because of the discovery that a marriage between the two is out of the question, still, the purpose of testing, of finding out was still kept. And so the idea of possible marriage can never be excluded from steady company-keeping, because it is done to find out if marriage is possible.
The second thing to remember is that because of our human nature there are many dangers involved in steady company-keeping. God has placed in both men and women an inclination to marriage in view of procreation. This inclination is there to help them in the right and favorable circumstances to enter into marriage where their inclination can be virtuously satisfied, i.e., in accordance with God's plan for the propagation of the human race. But it is clear that our inclination cannot recognize God's plan. This is where the dangers arise, in as much as their inclination to company-keeping or steady dating may induce them to do things which their reason and faith tell them are lawful only in marriage. This is what is called the occasion of sin. This danger or occasion may be legitimately allowed as long as it is rendered less by spiritual and practical means, and only as long as the principal purpose of company-keeping is kept in mind, i.e., finding out if a marriage is possible and as long as a marriage is lawful and reasonable. When marriage is unlawful, impossible, or out of the question entirely, there is no moral justification for steady company-keeping because there is no reason justifying exposing oneself to the intrinsic dangers of such a relationship.
From these two principles we can conclude
- Lawfulness of steady company-keeping: only when a valid marriage is possible to both persons involved. Therefore all validly married persons whether they are living with their spouse or not (so long as the other spouse is still living) are forbidden by the natural law from steady company-keeping with anyone else than their spouse in marriage.
There are many examples of serious violations of this natural law. The married employer who regularly takes a certain woman, let's say his secretary, for social evenings, has long meetings with her, lets her know how much he thinks of her and "needs" her, is keeping company contrary to God's law. The married man who, because of business, travels often out of town and who has a "girl friend" in one of the cities where he often goes. The married doctor or lawyer who uses his services to a certain client to regularly take her out to dinner or a show and above all spends regular hours alone in her company for the sake of her friendship is only deceiving himself and doing serious wrong. The married woman who allows a male friend to call on her regularly when she is at home, lets him spend hours with her, welcomes his attentions and displays of affection, is guilty of infidelity even before any adulterous action takes place. Because it is forbidden for married persons to keep company with anyone, it is equally forbidden and gravely sinful for single persons to enter into company-keeping with a married person.
- Steady company-keeping is unlawful for divorced but validly married Christians. The reason is the same as the one given above, i.e., the fact that validly married persons are bound to their partners for life even if they have obtained a divorce. Divorce does not undo a valid marriage, only death can dissolve a valid marriage.
- Divorced or separated persons who have doubts about the validity of their first marriage may not enter upon steady company-keeping —
- until they have set about finding out from the proper authorities whether their first marriage was valid or invalid;
- and until they have some authority (outside of themselves) for the opinion that their first marriage may be declared invalid. And until their marriage has been declared invalid by the proper Church authority, they must consider themselves married, since according to Church law the presumption is always in favor of the validity of the marriage. There is a principle in moral law that states that one cannot act in a state of doubt as to whether one's action is lawful or unlawful. To do so would be to accept responsibility for the possible evil involved. If however the first marriage is certainly invalid, as the case of a Catholic whose first marriage was before a judge instead of a priest, then company-keeping is lawful. He must however exercise patience before he can get married and wait for the declaration of nullity.
- Steady company-keeping is lawful only when marriage is considered an acceptable prospect within a reasonable time. This principle is based on the dangers connected with steady dating. If marriage is out of the question for years or already decided finally against in regard to a certain boy or girlfriend, there is no sufficiently good reason to remain in danger. Therefore the courtship or dating must come to an end. There are two special kinds of cases to which this principle applies:
- First it applies to school children, either in the grades or early high school years. Children and adolescents who would not and could not entertain the idea of getting married for several years, and who do not yet know too much about their own passions and inclinations place themselves in a very strong and dangerous occasion of sin by steady dating. Parents and educators have the obligation of training and watching over their children and helping them understand this principle early in life and put it into practice. Parents who encourage their young children to steady dating or who look upon it as puppy love, or who think it is cute, place their children in a serious occasion of sin and will have to carry that responsibility before God on the day of judgment. It is false to argue that if children are to contract a happy marriage they must start dating when they are young. School authorities have the same obligation of using their influence to prevent such activities. They would sin gravely if they promoted it.
- Secondly, this principle applies to mature persons who have kept steady company with someone for a considerable period of time, but have made the decision never to marry the one with whom they are going steady. Whatever the reason for this decision the company-keeping should stop when marriage has become absolutely out of the question. It is not lawful to continue dating someone when marriage is out of the question just for the sake of having a regular partner for dates and parties. This is certainly an occasion of sin and therefore certainly sinful.
Those who are ready but external circumstances exist
What about those who want to get married; for example a couple who are engaged, and yet they must wait for a long time before being able to marry? For example one of them has the obligation to take care of dependent and sickly parents who have no one else to take care of them. Or the young man will be without income because he has two or three more years of medical schooling and training or some other profession or trade. In such a case it is lawful to keep steady company on condition that both cooperate in the use of extraordinary means to remain free from sin while waiting for many years. They should receive the sacraments often, and they must avoid circumstances and intimacies that they know would tempt them gravely to sin. It is useless to pray to God to remove the obstacle to the marriage while living in sin. Remember God will not be mocked. Sometimes also the couple will put off the marriage for foolish reasons. The man wants to make a fortune before the marriage, or the woman wants to have her career before having children, or both agree to wait until they can afford the best house and all the conveniences. These are worldly and foolish reasons doubly malicious in God's eyes and are certainly not a good excuse to prolong the dangers of company-keeping.
Though these are the guidlines and clear traditional rules of the Catholic Church, many situations require discernment based on particular details unique to the parties involved. In these cases, faithful are encouraged to not take these guidelines and "force" them to fit their situation, but to set a meeting with their local priest who can provide clear guidance according to their situation.