The Catholic Thing
A Confusing Conundrum in Our Culture Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 30 January 2014

In a previous column, I suggested that real communication is often more difficult than we imagine, especially when it comes to topics such as sex or romance. Kissing, for instance, is by its very nature a way of communicating with one’s body the message that “I am interested in a serious relationship with you.”

If one does not actually have that intention, then one ought not to be kissing, for to do so is a kind of “lying” with one’s body, not much different from giving someone the “thumbs up” to indicate the water is deep enough to jump in when one knows it is not, or from someone saying “I will return this book,” when one in fact has no such intention. There are many ways of lying. Lying with words is only one of them, because using words is only one way we humans have of communicating or “signifying.” Words are one type of sign, but there are others.

When a culture shares a sense of moral propriety – that is to say, when we all have a sense of what the proper limits and boundaries are – and when a society has a shared understanding of what certain actions signify, this makes human interactions much less complicated, because when one party or the other does something, both parties know what that act is supposed to mean. Problems and misunderstandings arise, however, precisely when we lack these shared understandings.

So when a girl invites a man for coffee, if he interprets “coffee” to mean she wants sex, when what she really wants is to have coffee and talk, they’re in trouble. So, too, if a man invites a girl to dinner and pays for dinner (as he ought), and by that act thinks he is now “owed” sex (which he is not), we’ve got some very serious trouble. By the same token, if a man and woman get married, and one says to the other:  “Did you mean you wanted sex too?” now we’ve got trouble – and grounds for an annulment.

One of the only ways to resolve this potential for confusion when there is this sort of lack of a shared understanding is by constant, painstaking attempts to clarify matters through conversation.    

That sounds nice, of course, but in practice, it can be rather awkward. Courtship and romance should be like an exquisite ballroom dance where one is carried away by the sound of the music, the beauty of one’s partner, and the glow of the night. It’s not quite the same if the partners have to discuss each step in advance: “Is it acceptable for us to move left?” “Are we agreed that I should twirl you now?”  It’s possible, I suppose, but awkward, and not exactly the stuff dreams are made of.

Thus a key question that has to be faced in the inscrutable and often nerve-wracking give-and-take of modern romance is when and how to have “the talk”?   Most young people who aren’t “hooking up” will know what I’m talking about. You’ve met a person who seems “interested” – maybe – although it could be he/she “just wants to be friends” (oh no, not that again).

      Courtship as it was then . . . and should be now.

No one dates anymore so you can’t tell exactly what the other person’s intentions are. But you start seeing each other more frequently, and then one day, it happens:  The young man or woman finally shows some interest in kissing, which means there may be some actual romantic passion, and not merely the usual “we’re just sorta’ hanging out” thing going on.

If the young couple is lucky and warm-blooded, that kissing will be (we hope) something rather passionate and delightful. The music has begun. The question now is whether both parties are doing the same dance. If one party hears a waltz playing, while the other assumes it’s the opening notes of the horizontal flop, then there will be trouble.

But here’s the problem:  It’s often diplomatically (not to mention socially) “odd” to have “the talk” about sex and romance and all the rest with a person who isn’t really interested in that sort of thing with you. But you often can’t know whether a person is interested in “that sort of thing with you” until after you’ve kissed. (And even then, with some people, you can’t really be certain.)  And this is just downright awkward, because once the romantic kissing has begun, well, as they say in the south: “the horse is already half-way out the barn door.”

But until we can retrieve practices – shared non-verbal signifiers – that signal each partner’s romantic intentions (like, say, dating, where two people can actually get to know one another), then this is the rather awkward, and in many ways unromantic position emerging adults will often find themselves in: kissing passionately, and then having to stop, in order to have “the talk.” It’s awkward, but what happens if they don’t?

In Walker Percy’s wonderfully prophetic book Lost in the Cosmos, you can find the following “letter to Dear Abby”:

I am a twenty-three year old liberated woman who has been on the pill for two years. It’s getting pretty expensive and I think my boyfriend should share half the cost, but I don’t know him well enough to discuss money with him.
She lets him inside her body regularly, and she can’t talk to him — about something as relatively unimportant as money?  Has she been lying to him by lying with him?

Navigating the twisted, confusing roads of romance isn’t easy in the best of times. But many of today’s emerging adults have to drive blind, no headlights, no windshield wipers, in a driving rainstorm, along dangerous mountain roads. It should be no surprise, then, that too many of them crash and burn.

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, January 30, 2014
WOW....Great Article and Such Truth!

written by JP, January 30, 2014
The toxic runoff from the hookup culture has so destroyed trust between the sexes that even dating in a specifically Catholic social setting is very difficult. Catholic women have had so many bad experiences with men, even the supposedly Catholic kind, that they freeze up and raise the proverbial deflector screens as soon as they see a man, any man, approaching. Catholic men, similarly, have had bad experiences and have quit asking women out because 99% of the time the relationship will be over before you get to the "talk" if not long before. By force of habit, they just don't talk to single women much in anything but a business setting. That is also why Catholic social events are often so deadly dull, with men on one side of the room and women and the other, like a bad high school dance. That, and the paucity of our numbers in the surrounding hostile culture, in my view, is the reason why so many single Catholics can't get dates and can't get married. Which of course will mean empty churches in another generation.
written by Rich in MN, January 30, 2014
Oh my goodness, "Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book"! I read that book about 30 years ago and I still smile (and cry) at some of the stories in it. For example, as I recall it included another "Dear Abby" letter in which someone asked: "If there were a nuclear war, would the electromagnetic pulses from the bombs detonating hurt my VCR tapes?" It's like listening to some bizarre hybrid of Narcissus and "Chancey Gardner" (a/k/a Chance, the Gardener, from the movie "Being There"). Great little book!
written by Lee McKenna, January 30, 2014
I'm sorry for todays young people because it seems as though all the fun has gone out of being "young". Where are the hayrides, the school dances, the church socials, the square dances...all the fun things to do with little pressure about "making out"? I was in the 8th grade before I got my first kiss and that was all that it was. A great deal of innocence is gone along with all the fun of being a young person. I'm glad I'm from a bygone age (apparently). I felt sorry for my 7 children and I feel even sorrier for my 25 grandchildren.
written by Mr. Levy, January 30, 2014
"Lost in the Cosmos" is an unknown gem. For those of you who don't know it, Peter Lawler's review at Big Think is a good introduction.
written by Athanasius, January 30, 2014
There is something to be said about sex being a total self-giving of oneself to an exclusive other, in which you pledge to give your time, attention, support, companionship, and co-parenthood to another person as well as your body. This level of giving can only occur in a marriage (and only a marriage that does not practice contraception). And it is in this way that sexual intercourse becomes something beautiful.

Having sex in any less of a circumstance is not an act of giving but one of taking. We have to teach our young people that Christian sexuality in not about "no", but about "Yes", to both God and your spouse.
written by Gail Finke, January 31, 2014
"Lost in the Cosmos" is one of my favorite books of all time. Great article.
written by Mary, February 03, 2014
I am already of a melancholic nature and perhaps that's why I couldn't get through Lost in the Cosmos or really enjoy any of Percy's works that I've picked up. Love and every other noble occupation has been identified and picked over by critics like me and you and Percy. How easy it seems to be to see all the ways we as humanity have gone wrong and how sad it is that we seem to need to continue to point the how's out. My cry is for seekers of truth to show me the good. For those who hunger for righteousness, cynical reflections are no supper. I know it is easier to be a critic, being one myself, than to be a be-er and doer and sharer of the good. Where are the artists, the writers, and the role models to teach us what good looks like? This is what I find myself seeking for in this hectic confused day and age. When I watch TV I go back to shows like The Dick Van Dyke and The Cosby shows. When I want a romance novel I read Austen again or pick up a short innocent Betty Neels doctor/nurse romance (sadly out of print). When I want art I reflect on my coffee table books of Michelangelo,Caravaggio, or my childhood favorite Cecily Mary Barker. The search for goodness and true love and true innocence has never stopped for me, though my inner critic has rather grimed up the lense sometimes. Perhaps that is why I have been so lucky or blessed in my love life, learning to love and let go, knowing I should love better and God would give me better if let go, and God knowing I am a terrible waiter sent me someone to challenge and satisfy that love shortly. There is hope for the young, as I have found out for myself, but it comes through the seeking for and practice of virtue, silence-being-and-waiting-in-trust being one of them. It doesn't sound like fun but for those who have the right Catholic expectation for a relationship that might be just what is needed. P.S. I can't tell you it is better to talk first kiss later, it happened the other way round to me and I have a clear conscience and a ring on.

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