The Cross and Catholic Dating Culture
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the dating world these days is abysmal. In the last few weeks, I have had many conversations with other single Catholic women, some of whom I was meeting for the first time, during which I’ve said, “It’s rough out there,” and received in reply a hearty, “ISN’T IT THOUGH?” I suspect that single men would not disagree with this negative assessment – what is less clear is whether they find this equally burdensome. Because along with the evidence that Catholic women aren’t finding the partners they long for, there is evidence that they are trying—trying and failing. This brings me to my central thesis: Any discussion or talk on dating—especially by Catholic ministries—that does not include the cross is doing a disservice to young women.
Catholic high school and college students mostly hear talks on dating at youth and young adult conferences. These young people are often living in a bubble in which there are many people of roughly the same age, education, socioeconomic class, and, in the case of Catholic universities, the same religion and shared values. We know, thanks to significant research, that men and women tend to partner up with people who aren’t all that different from themselves. This means that college is still an ideal place to meet a life partner. According to a study by Facebook ten years ago, 28% of married couples had attended the same university and a further 15% had gone to the same high school. That’s a pretty high percentage of young people who found their spouses early in life—43%. These are the people that can benefit from the standard Catholic dating talks.
But where does that leave the rest of the population? The majority of Catholics who graduate college today set off to figure out what to do with their lives, start careers, live in shared accommodations or with their parents or on their own, go to parties, and assume that getting married will happen “at some point.” And that is still true for many people— “some point” will come, but it may come much later than anticipated – late enough that children may be less likely or impossible. This is something that I think needs to be addressed—and never is—by Catholic “dating experts.”
The influencers who have set themselves up as authorities on Catholic dating are often so young themselves that they lack any sense of what the dating world is like once you step out of a Catholic educational context. With the notable exception of Lillian Fallon (thank you, Lillian!) what you will find if you search for “Catholic dating” on YouTube is young women who are in their 20’s, men and women who got married in their 20’s, or priests. Catholic dating influencers (and the companies sponsoring them) ought to recognize that older singles are going to see this content too. They ought not offer single Catholic women the “soft soap” of how, because God loves them, the right man is just around the corner. The right man may not, in fact, be around the corner. And thank God, our salvation does not ride on that!
Here is one concrete, quantitative example to illustrate this point. Emily Wilson is the most popular influencer in the Catholic dating context. She has 131,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel and 109,000 followers on Instagram (IG), and she mostly posts about things that Catholic women are most interested in: relationships, marriage, and family.
On August 1, 2023, Emily Wilson did something interesting on IG. She made a “matchmaking” post, asking singles who wanted to participate to write a comment sharing various pieces of information about themselves. She encouraged people to respond or message anyone who looked interesting. Wilson wrote, “I meet a lot of women in a true and honest search of amazing men and have to do what I can to help out.” That line acknowledged what goes unacknowledged in the rest of her content: Catholic women are out there looking, and not finding. What Wilson doesn’t say is the part that needs to be said out loud: Catholic men, by and large, are just not there.
This is borne out by what happened next, not only in this post but in a second matchmaking post a month later. Wilson appears reluctant or uninterested in the results of her own experiment (responding to me on IG that she doesn’t “think that’s the case at all” when I suggested the men far outnumbered the women). Here are the numbers:
Matchmaking Post #1
Average number of “Likes” for men? 53.
For women? 6.
Matchmaking Post #2
Average number of “Likes” for men? 31.
For women? 5.
My generation (Millennials) is missing a significant number of good-enough men for good-enough women to marry. It is not our imaginations; it is not our individual deficiencies and issues (everyone’s got ‘em) that is causing the Catholic marriage rate to plummet. I tend to blame pornography; others see the high divorce rates of our parents’ generation or other causes. There are Catholic dating coaches, matchmakers, and influencers who are ready to take women’s money to “help” them, even though the only help that women actually need is an introduction to a good man. These coaches tend to decry the “scarcity mindset” that women can fall into… But look at those numbers again and tell me that there is no scarcity.
The way Catholic speakers tend to talk about dating falls into the trap of preaching Christ without the cross. They seem to believe that they are speaking to young people who are like themselves—who will meet their spouse in high school, college, or early 20’s—and they assure their audiences that God loves them so much that he’s going to send the right person into their lives any day now. For the women, this hypothetical man will show initiative, ask them out, respect their boundaries, and seek to build a life with them. (For the men, they will find a woman who will look like a model, but be holy too!) But more and more of the young women in those audiences are like me— by age 24, I had been on one date, ever. My college roommates: no dates either. I have met many Catholic young women today in the same situation—they have never been asked out. By my thirties I accepted that “going online” wasn’t just something that might be smart, it was actually the only way I would get to go on dates, even as practice.
I’m not saying that we need to stop having dating talks at youth and young adult conferences—in fact, perhaps we need more of them! But the content has to change. Speakers cannot assume that everyone has a match out there that God will give them at the right time, almost as a reward for good behavior. That is not what God promises. He promises us more: He promises to save us from sin and death and to bring us into his kingdom forever as His beloved children. He does not promise me a husband or children, even if I desire those things.
A friend of mine told me once that she wants to write a book about dating entitled, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” Because even those who do marry and have children, that vocation and those lives are for the ultimate end of God’s kingdom, and are meant to lead to heaven. My task in life, since my Baptism, has been and will continue to be to serve God—no matter what circumstances I am in. I have for some time suspected that my suffering in not being married may, in the end, be the most fruitful part of my life, regardless of what happens from here on out.