“What is courtship, and how is it different from dating?”
The question came from a Catholic college student involved in the
young adult outreach I work for. It wasn’t the first time the
dating/courtship question had come up. In fact, it’s one of the most
frequently asked questions I receive from the young adults I work with.
Why? Because “courtship” has become a relationship buzz word in many
Christian circles, and yet the term still leaves many Catholics
confused, skeptical, and wondering what courtship is really all about.
I remember the first time I heard the word “courtship” as a
teenager. It was around the time Joshua Harris first released his
best-selling bookI Kissed Dating Goodbye in the mid-Nineties, and many Christians were talking about this new model for romantic relationships.
Unfortunately, my young brain conjured up images of horse-drawn
carriages and arranged marriages when I heard people talking about
courtship, and I wasn’t the slightest bit interested. Even the word
itself made me want to reject what I assumed was a boring,
parent-controlling, freedom-inhibiting, romance-killing,
Little-House-On-The-Prairie-type (and did I mention boring?)
relationship model that would equal lots of rules and no fun for the
next decade of my life.
That was before I had any idea of what Christian courtship really was.
When I was sixteen years old, my dad took my younger sisters and I
to a purity rally in our home state. Being in the presence of several
thousand other Christian teens who thought purity was cool was
inspiring in of itself. But then the keynote speaker stood up to talk
to us teens about courtship. He laid out in simple terms the basic
philosophy and principles of Christian courtship, and explained that
courtship is not so much about a bunch of rules and regulations
governing a romantic relationship, but more importantly, courtship is
about a newattitude about relationships.
The speaker’s message that day revolutionized my perspective on
dating, and definitely made a courtship fan out of me. Since then, I’ve
encountered numerous single people who, like me, have been challenged
to investigate a new attitude, purpose, and direction in their romantic
Just the same, I know there are many single Catholics, like the
college student I mentioned above, who are confused about the details
of how courtship principles are similar to, and/or different from, what
we call “dating.”
While I cannot do detailed justice to the principles of courtship in
a single article, I’d like to explore with you some of the basic
foundations of Christian courtship, and my hope is that if, like me,
you’ve been skeptical of an antiquated term, you’ll at least give a
second look at the idea of a new attitude – a higher ideal – for
conducting a godly relationship in the modern world.
It’s All About Attitude
Forget the term “courtship” for 60 seconds, and let’s talk about the
world of romantic relationships as we know it today. Many of us are the
post-sexual revolution generation. We grew up in a culture where free
love reigned, and yet heartache, heartbreak, broken homes, fatherless
families, contraception, skyrocketing divorce rates, and the abortion
holocaust all became staples of our society.
In the midst of this moral meltdown, romantic relationships became
much less a serious discernment between two people of the call to
married life, and much more a casual, recreational, often
no-strings-attached activity – a practice we normally refer to today as
Most modern courtship authors and advocates actually place the
establishment of dating much earlier than the sexual revolution. In
fact, they usually link the invention of dating to the invention of the
automobile (c.f. Beth L. Bailey,From Front Porch to Back Seat ). The
introduction of the car to society was the first time that romantic
relationships between unmarried couples were taken away from the family
circle of activities and out on the road for lots of alone time.
When the car began to provide couples with the means for a more
exclusive relationship, most dating couples lost a lot of
accountability from family members, friends, and mentors. In large
measure, they also lost a deep sense of responsibility to each other,
because the relationship became more casual: investigating the
possibility of marriage was no longer the primary purpose of the
relationship. Instead of expressing interest in a girl or guy for the
sake of discerning marriage, couples began dating because they found
each other cute, exciting, and fun. Thus, modern dating developed a
serious lack of purpose and direction.
So if dating is a relatively new phenomenon, what is courtship, and
how does it differ from recreational dating? The principles of
“honorable courtship,” as the Catechism calls it, rest on a newly
restored attitude towards relationships, and include several core
Responsibility & Respect
The Christian courtship movement is a call for a return to the
traditional, time-tested principles of conducting a relationship with
purpose, responsibility, and respect. The sole purpose and ultimate
goal of courtship is discerning the possibility of marriage with each
other. Because courtship has a goal and a direction, it entails a new
attitude that’s counter-cultural to what we’ve grown up with in the
casual recreational dating culture. Moral theologian Fr. John O’Brien
offers one of my favorite definitions of courtship:
“Courtship fulfills a special function….to enable a couple to
learn more about the qualities of each others’ mind and heart and
character, to explore areas of congeniality in taste, culture,
disposition, and character, and to ascertain their fitness as partners
in the most intimate and enduring union. That’s no small job. Indeed,
it’s the most serious and important one they’ll ever be called upon to
Because the purpose of courtship is investigating the possibility of
marriage, the relationship is elevated to a much higher plane. When
your attitude about the relationship changes, so does the way you treat
each other and care for each other in the relationship.
Courtship’s new attitude will also help safeguard your heart from
dead-end relationships. For instance, if you know from the get-go that
you could never marry a person you are interested in, then you should
never enter a courting relationship with that person. In this way,
courtship serves as a natural barrier to a lot of unnecessary
Prepared for a Serious Relationship
Courtship also presupposes that a couple is spiritually,
emotionally, and financially ready to make a deeper commitment to each
other, in the event God leads the couple to discern a call to marriage.
Courtship promoter and author Carmen Marcoux writes of the positive
implications of waiting for courtship until you reach an age and state
in life where you’re ready for marriage:
“The stakes are high in a courtship because a couple is exploring marriage from the very outset of their romantic relationship, but it also makes them more honest. There are no mind games – trying
to figure out if the other person is serious or just playing with your
emotions. Therefore, you should not enter into a courtship until you
are of an age and stage in life when marriage is a realistic
possibility for you.” (2)
A foundational principle of Christian courtship is that you are not the center of the relationship – and neither is the he or she you are interested in. Christ
is the center of the relationship. In your courtship, you should be
glorifying Christ with and through each other. Putting Christ first is
a good litmus test to the success or failure of the relationship,
because making Christ the center and focus is good preparation for His
central role in your lives in the sacrament of marriage.
Seek God’s will and direction during this period of discernment in
your life. He promises to richly reward those who ask for His guidance:
“Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
Accountability in Purity
Another important principle of courtship is maintaining emotional
and physical purity in the relationship. This includes being careful
about where and when you spend time alone, setting standards and
barriers to keep yourselves out of occasions of sin, and having
accountability in your relationship through friends, family members, a
spiritual director, or priest to aid you in keeping your commitment to
Accountability is one of the principles of courtship that
drastically differs from casual dating. It requires virtue, humility,
and a resolute desire to keep the relationship pure to be able to ask
others to hold us accountable in this area. Courtship advocate Jason
Evert advises: “When we enter into relationships, we should allow
wisdom to chaperone romance. This involves having the humility to
become accountable to others.”(3)
A Family Affair
Another important aspect of courtship is making it a priority to
spend lots of quality time with each other’s families, especially early
on in your relationship. No one knows us and loves us as much as our
families do, and they can offer great advice, encouragement, mentoring,
and support for us and our relationships.
Do lots of fun stuff with each other’s families. Work together, play
together, and eat dinner together. For better or worse, we bring a lot
of our family into our relationships. Whether it is character traits,
quirks, flaws, habits, virtues, likes and dislikes – a lot of who we
are is a product of where we came from. Therefore, by spending lots of
time with each other’s families, it’s a great way to get to know the
person you’re interested in on a deeper level.
It’s also a wise idea to seek the counsel of parents and family
members during courtship, to obtain their feedback and advice for our
relationship. In his bookCourtship and Marriage, Fr. John O’Brien strongly encourages us to seek the counsel of parents and other family before choosing a spouse:
“Prudence suggests that, before making so momentous a choice, the
advice of parents and other sensible persons should be sought. While
such counsel is by no means infallible, it at least greatly lessens the
dangers involved. When a person is about to invest his whole life, with
all its hopes of enduring happiness, shouldn’t he at least consult wise
and judicious counselors about the momentous choice he is considering?
A person never makes a decision that involves consequences of a more
far-reaching character than those entailed in the selection of a
marriage partner.” (4)
Courting a New Attitude
My guess is that many of you will react to the principles of courtship discussed here by thinking to yourselves, “Hmm…
Christian courtship is what I’ve always believed to be best foundation
for relationships – I just always called it dating.” And that’s great!
In the end I don’t think it really matters if we call these principles
for relationships dating, courtship, company-keeping, discerning
marriage – or whatever else in the world you want to call it. What’s
important is that, in the midst of a culture that has largely lost a
sense of purpose, direction, and responsibility in relationships, you
and I take active steps to recapture and embrace God’s time-tested
principles for romance.
(1) Fr. John A. O’Brien, Courtship and Marriage, p. 31.
(2) Carmen Marcoux, article, What is Courtship All About?
(3) Jason Evert, If You Really Loved Me, p. 47
(4) Fr. John A. O’Brien, Courtship and Marriage, p. 20-21.
Recommended Resources on Courtship:
by Fr. John A. O’Brien
by Stephen Wood
by Stephen Wood
by Joshua Harris
A Catholic novel about courtship (as seen on EWTN)
by Carmen Marcoux
by Kimberly Hahn
Stephanie is the coordinator of NextWave Faithful ™, a youth and young adult division of Family Life Center International .
She has been a frequent guest on several Catholic programs, including
EWTN Radio's Faith & Family, which she currently co-hosts with her
father, Steve Wood, and EWTN Television's Life on the Rock and The
Stephanie hosts the first worldwide radio show for Catholic youth, NextWave Live , which airs weekly on the EWTN Radio Network.She also writes a monthly e-Newsletter for teens and young adults. She can be reached at Stephanie@catholicmatch.com