Dating in a Modern Waste Land

Facebook has just launched a new feature to “connect” us: a dating app. It was inevitable, given Facebook’s apparent desire to become a digital one-stop shop for its almost three billion users. This latest feature has drawn immediate criticism over data manipulation and hacking risks. Not only does the app play matchmaker, but users can create a wish list of “secret crushes”—only revealed if the crushees are on one another’s list.

Myriads of trusting users are confiding their secret loves, desires, orientations, and hearts to Mark Zuckerburg. What could possibly go wrong?

Facebook’s attempt to mediate human interaction is a symptom of modernity’s failure to foster true love and romance. Whenever dating is discussed in conservative circles, you’ll hear the obvious and valid criticisms of hookup culture, a lack of common morality, and the breakdown of traditional gender roles. And yet, while the Sexual Revolution was unfathomably destructive, it can’t be blamed for everything. It’s not just that Christian singles are sparse: even where they are plentiful, they often have a maddening inability to enter into relationships.

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Most of us regular churchgoers barely know the people we sit next to. We leave Mass and make a beeline for our cars. Spiritually united in the Eucharistic Communion, we are utterly isolated on all other levels. As a result, many good Christian men and women who feel called to marriage are trapped in unwanted singlehood. Why is this? Because healthy communities—traditional communities—have been handicapped by abundance.

Before the industrial revolution, neighborhoods were composed of families whose lives were woven together. Morality was the background music to the drama of a common life. T.S. Eliot called a traditional society one that “involves all those habitual actions, habits and customs, from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of ‘the same people living in the same place’.” From subsidiarity and local solidarity were born an organic approach to human interaction; there was so much you could assume about your future husband before you ever met him. Romantic relationships were easier to establish because there was a pre-existing social bond between all men and women—even strangers.

The Industrial Revolution shattered this organic unity. Extreme mobility disrupted local customs, as a global focus washed away the details of regional particulars. On the domestic level, common life was splintered and atomized by social planning influenced by the factory and commodities. Society was no longer a fabric with each strand part of a homogenous and harmonious whole. Rather, it became a salad bar full of individuals meeting needs in a “market” of public choice. In the new cultural configuration, our only required social connection is the barest minimum of civility; otherwise, the line will not move smoothly.

No wonder dating in such a climate is difficult. The would-be suitor must move against the underlying assumption of individualism and disrupt the mechanized movement of the social machine. Without the aid of shared cultures and customs, initiating meaningful human contact is fraught with so many uncertainties. We must lower our defenses and hope for the best, or else circle each other endlessly in a vague attempt to pierce the interpersonal fog.

That is why Facebook’s dating app will no doubt attract millions. Facebook promises to dispel initial uncertainty, bridge the interpersonal gulf, and provide shared interests. Two people confide to Facebook that they are interested in each other, and a connection is impersonally facilitated. Secret crushes can no longer be painfully crushed. J. Alfred Prufrock can rest assured that, if he dares to disturb the isolation of the modern universe, the lady will not respond, “That is not what I meant at all”: she has already liked him on Facebook.

The consequence of letting algorithms do our work for us is that it feeds the paralysis of modern loneliness. Modern man found that he was dreadfully lonely, and industrial technology (which is responsible for that isolation in the first place) promised him digital companionship. However, the mental health reports are damning: “social” media makes us antisocial. It’s a placebo disguising our isolation from us even as it clutters up our time and distracts us from meaningful human interaction in what is left of our local communities. Isolation grows, even as Silicon Valley enthuses over how very “connected” we all are.

Facebook offers comfort to wallflowers everywhere. Social skills? Unnecessary! No longer is courage a part of finding love. Yet risk and courage are necessary precursors to any deep relationship, especially a romantic one. Ladies the world over are sure to receive likes and swipes and DMs from “men without chests,” but are these the men they really want to date?

Dating is painfully hard in the modern world, especially for faithful Catholics, though it’s not simply because there is nobody around. On the contrary, there are plenty of people around. In my grad school town of Washington, D.C., for instance, there are scores of men and women who not only know each other, but also desire marriage one day. Yet so many of them lack the courage to stand against anonymous atomization and dare the restoration of real community. Dating and marriage have become a dreamy abstract—a good idea—but very few act effectively upon it in the painful, human concrete. This isn’t just because men are no longer men and women are no longer women: it’s because society is no longer human.

Facebook’s dating app is obviously not the cause, though it epitomizes our plight. What’s the solution? Decidedly not a robotic matchmaker. Christians must take a stand against the hypnotic urge of modern anonymity, especially in the area of dating and relationships. Single men and women should take seriously the call to the vocation of marriage and disrupt the status quo boldly, with all of its resulting awkwardness, pain, and uncertainty.

But it need not be all pain with no certainty of gain. The rest of us Christians must foster healthy local communities that support single people in their search for a spouse. I have a good friend who found herself the only young woman in a parish-sponsored study group on John Paul II’s theology of the body. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, right? But no. Surrounded by twenty young men, all presumably enthusiastic about the vocation of marriage, this perfect candidate was asked on exactly zero dates.

Where were the insinuating old ladies? Where was the overly frank monsignor? In 1919, they would have been busy at work. In 2019, Catholics have abandoned their young people.

The vocation of marriage is in crisis; that much is clear. But there is something that can be done about it right now, by every faithful Christian. While we can’t defeat the Sexual Revolution and its horrible effects single-handedly,  we can reclaim humanity from modern isolation and anonymity on a local level—one healthy, holy couple at a time.


  • Mary Cuff

    Mary Cuff is an independent scholar, wife, and homeschooling mother. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age. She teaches online high school classical rhetoric courses at Homeschool Connections.

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