Is Traditional Courtship Really “Unrealistic” Today?

My imaginary sparring partner Mike has come back with some trepidation, because he never wanted to be maneuvered into saying that he wants to allow the killing of a weak and innocent human being. But now he speaks the language of “realism.”

I have learned, and sometimes to my chagrin, that the Church is almost too realistic for us ordinary sinners to bear. The Church notices that language is for sharing truth, and therefore she forbids not only lying, which most people can avoid, but also that indispensable pleasure of community life, detraction, whereby you tell the truth or a piece of the truth but not for the sake of truth; you tell it to hurt your neighbor. The Church notices that the love of parents for their children is natural and salutary, and therefore she abominates any attempt by a state to sever or to supplant that relationship, and has gone so far as to declare the obvious—for it takes courage in a mad time to declare the obvious. She says that parents are the first and supreme educators of their children. Then we hear from educational bureaucrats that that isn’t “realistic” either.

(How, if not in state institutions, will children learn to read Shakespeare, to understand the important movements and the crucial personages in the history of the world, to be familiar with the physical and human contours of the world’s nations, to grasp as a coherent and systematic whole the grammar of their mother tongue and that of at least one other, to be conversant with great men and women of letters, and to have a basic knowledge of flora and fauna, rock strata, planets and stars as they appear in the sky, and—never mind.)

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But Mike has a different kind of realism in mind. It is not realism, but a worldly surrender to the common un-realism of man, who devises spider-web tangles of argument, special pleading, fantasy, and illogic to justify what he wants to do, or not to do.

“I think that it is unrealistic to teach abstinence before marriage,” he says. “So, when birth control fails, there should be a last resort available. I don’t like it, but I don’t see a way around it.”

“Mike, you are right not to like it. But I want to go back to that business about reality.”

“I wasn’t talking about reality, but about what human beings are going to do, even if they are being unreasonable.”

“I understand. May I ask you a blunt question? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want.”

“Go ahead.”

“When you first—I’m going to use the Church’s term, and I don’t want you to take it as criticism—when you first fornicated with a girl, what exactly were you thinking?”

He flushes a bit, smiles sadly, and looks at his hands.

“I wasn’t thinking.”

I let that stand for a moment or two. “That’s the easy answer, but I don’t believe it. I am guessing that you were thinking of a hundred things, and very fast, and that your feelings were a mad jumble of contradictions. Did you entirely want to do what you were about to do?”

“I have to be honest?”

“You have to be honest.”

“I was scared to death.”

“Because you were doing what married people do, what your own mother and father did.”

“That thought crossed my mind, but then other thoughts came in, too.”

“Thoughts about a child?”

“Not at first.” Mike starts to move uncomfortably in his chair. “At first I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to, you know.”

“You needn’t tell me the details. But what about that made you afraid? Were you afraid that she wouldn’t love you?”

“I wasn’t even sure she really liked me! But if I ducked out, who knows what she would think, or say about me. I was worried about my reputation.”

“Now that is strange,” I say. “It reminds me about how Augustine described his adolescence. He said that he boasted about shameful things that he had not done, because he was ashamed of not being as shameless as his fellows. Some reputation.”

“That’s the way things are, though.”

“Right. I’ll bet she was worried about that too. But if you were so unsure about whether she loved you, why did you begin to do the thing in the first place?”

“Who says that I was the one that started it?”

I raise my eyebrows involuntarily, but the moment of surprise passes. What he has said is entirely credible.

“Ah, and that explains why you were all the more hesitant to hesitate. You know what occurs to me? What we’re describing here is a perfect haze of uncertainty, untruth, evasion, suspicion, and longing. Would you say that you were happy?”

“I was excited.”

“Obviously. But that’s not what I asked.”

“No,” says Mike. “It was as I told you.  I was scared to death. Afterward,” he continues, thinking about it, “after it all I guess I can say that I was happy. Then we just got used to it.”

“Used to it. Not an enthusiastic endorsement of a way of life.”

“No,” he says. “I think that I learned to love her because of the sex.”

“Are you two still together?”

“No, we broke up last year.” He says this with some resignation and sadness, and looks to the window. I wait a few moments.

“You do realize that what you’re describing is utterly backwards.”

“It does seem so. But what was I supposed to do?”

“Do you know anything about what meth addicts feel, once they’ve broken the addiction? They can no longer take pleasure in the ordinary things of life. You might say that their brains are exhausted, all used up when it comes to pleasure. Can you guess where I’m going now?”

“Yes, and it’s not a happy thing to think about.”

“No, not happy at all. Have you ever known the pleasure of a chaste and innocent kiss?”

“Is there any pleasure in that?”

“Think. Let’s suppose that you are living in a time when people do not first take their clothes off and then ask one another their names.”

“That’s harsh!”

“Is it unheard of?”

“No, that happened to one of my roommates.”

“All right. Let’s suppose that everyone understands that sex is for marriage, period, but that boys and girls will naturally go through a period of many years, when they learn about one another, they flirt, they go to dances, they may go together to see a show, they talk, they meet the parents and the brothers and sisters—they may end up falling in love.”

“And they never touch each other?”

“How often do you see boys and girls these days holding hands, in public?”

“I never see it.”

“How often do you see them kissing each other, in public?”

“I never see it.”

“A strangely lonely thing, this life of hedonism. Why do you suppose they don’t hold hands, or kiss, in public?”

“I guess it’s because if they do that, then everyone will know that they are sleeping together.”

“Very strange. But there’s another reason, too. If you notice that people are not doing something rather simple and easy to do, you might well conclude that they simply don’t want to do that. They don’t enjoy it. Why would that be so?”

“Because it doesn’t give them much pleasure, I guess.”

“That could be it. But you see that the problem is not with the hands or the lips. The problem is with the experiences that have come before. The methamphetamine addict cannot really go outdoors and listen to the robins singing. It brings no pleasure anymore. Imagine instead a world that is clean, insofar as a world of fallen human beings is ever going to be so. Imagine then that a boy’s heart would beat a hundred times a minute just at the thought that he might hold the hand of the beautiful girl whom he admires so much—because she is kind and good and merry. Imagine that they have walked aside from a feast at their parish church, to watch the herons wading in the river to catch their fish, and the sun is deepening to orange in the west, and the sounds of children playing come to their ears from far away. Imagine that she too can hardly think of anything else but his presence, and that she is hoping that he will take her hand, though she is a little shy of it. Imagine that that they sit on a bench, and when they run out of things to say, he places his hand upon hers. And they sit like that for a long while.”

“That’s a different world.”

“Yes, it’s a different world. It is the way things used to be, in many places all over the world, and within living memory.”

“How do you know that for certain?”

“I talk to old people. I read things. I keep my eyes open. I knew some of that myself. But let me ask you a question. Wouldn’t that be a better world?”

“I don’t want to judge.”

“Judge the pleasure, then. That boy and girl I have described will remember that moment for the rest of their lives, whether or not they end up marrying one another. It will be a memory filled with the sweetness and the innocence and the promise of youth. It will be a moment without guilt, or shame, or, God forbid, the remembered fear that they might have made a child, one that they were not in the slightest bit ready to care for, and one whose life would be at grave danger as soon as he were conceived. They could stand before God and man without anything for which to apologize.”

“You are saying that they would have a life of greater joy, while we have a life of greater grief and confusion.”

“Did you expect anything different? Did you expect joy to come from hedonism? What hedonistic society in the history of the world was ever joyful?”

“I don’t know enough about history to answer that question.”

“Do you know enough about people at drinking parties to answer it?”

“Yes, I see.”

“There’s one thing sadder than people using alcohol—or drugs—to persuade themselves that they are happy and that they really care about the people they are with.”

“Go ahead, doc. Let me have it. Don’t spare me now.”

“People doing the child-making thing, pretending to love, but afraid to make a child. They are living in an unreal world.”

“They would say that they are living in the real world.”

“People will say anything, won’t they?”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Proposal” painted by William Adolphe Bouguereau in 1872.


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