Listening to single Catholic friends recount dating experiences is harrowing and mystifying. With seemingly so many eligible single Catholic men and women, you might think that discerning the vocation to marriage would be a straightforward process. Not so, it seems, for many unattached young adults drifting into their 30s.
What is amiss? As the trite saying goes: The odds are good, but the goods are odd. A full decade after college graduation, many of the highly functional people have settled down. The remaining pool of potential spouses is more likely to include frivolous women who object to dating a man solely based on his height and men resigned to languish in perpetual adolescence.
This observation, harsh as it is, is not unique to Catholic social circles. Nearly a decade ago, Susan Patton, dubbed “The Princeton Mom,” inspired fierce debate when she advised Ivy League women to “smarten up” and secure a husband while still in college. As our cultural understanding of traditional gender roles in the service of human flourishing has deteriorated in the intervening years, Patton’s advice is interesting to revisit.
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Patton aims her remarks at women, which, old-fashioned as it is, makes sense. Patton notes that men have a much wider dating pool for a future spouse, and men are more likely to marry a younger woman. Women who desire a family one day should think pragmatically about how to secure a spouse while still in college. Patton writes, “Despite all of the focus on professional advancement, for most of you the cornerstone of your future happiness will be the man you marry.”
Why begin the search in college? Patton, who gives the strong impression of being an elitist Princetonian to her core, notes, “It is an environment teeming with like-minded, age-appropriate single men with whom you already share many things. You will never again have this concentration of exceptional men to choose from.” Any serious young Catholic who picked a school off The Cardinal Newman Society recommended college list should take similar considerations seriously. When will you be in another place with so many like-minded single Catholics in the same age group?
While some of Patton’s advice is sound, her core assumptions need to be revised for discerning Catholics. Couched in terms approaching gladiatorial bloodbath, Patton seems most concerned with material success and a reductionist understanding of attraction and long-term romantic success. Even so, she has a point about the age group men find attractive, and she speaks with refreshing realism about the long-term health and happiness of romantic relationships.
Pragmatism is lacking in many Catholic single people looking for a spouse. Marrying a college sweetheart does not inoculate you against serious disorders, heartaches, and, of course, the evil of divorce. But it can contribute positively to a life well-lived in many ways. For starters, planning to find a spouse will change the way you date in college. You are not going on dates just to have “fun” but are likely to involve rational principles for evaluating character in a potential spouse.
For most single Catholics in their 20s, there is no reason to drift with the vague conviction that you need to “work on yourself” more before deciding what to do. The best way to grow is through challenge. If Catholics were challenged to discern a vocation to the religious life or marry a spouse before age 30, our world would be better for it.
Of course, all must transpire in God’s time, and no arbitrary number will adequately address the needs of all individuals. However, it seems likely that many of our peers are hampering God’s action in the world through tedious indecision rather than cooperating with the realization of God’s kingdom on Earth. Those who are married have the duty to stay married and raise their children well, in many ways a much more daunting challenge; but the first step is to make a decision.
Some of us still have grandparents who went to war at 18. Is it really so unthinkable that we expect young people to enter a religious order or choose a spouse at 25? It is not. And the young people in question stand to gain much by taking dating seriously at 20 instead of falling prey to the Brave New World of sexual perversion, self-indulgence, and self-loathing.
Vocations are a gift from God and cannot be demanded. But we can put ourselves in a position to receive God’s call by dating with purpose in young adulthood and being open and prepared to enter a religious order or matrimony while the getting is still good.
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