Can a Catholic Engage in Dating? It is a rather thorny subject to be sure, but the Church certainly has some very clear teaching on the matter and in particular the moral issues associated with certain common practices of young people today. What follows are a number of quotations from authoritative sources on the subject.
Proposition condemned by decree of Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) on 18 March 1666: “It is a probable opinion which states that a kiss is only venial when performed for the sake of the carnal and sensual delight which arises from the kiss, [even] if danger of further consent and pollution is excluded.” [Denzinger #1140]
“That two persons who intend to get married should previously become better acquainted with each other is reasonable and right; in fact, ordinary prudence and the future happiness of the two demand as much. If they meet at times, provided they do not remain alone too much and especially at night, and then enter the married state in a proper and legitimate manner, such acquaintances can not be found fault with. But in many cases there is no prospect, or only a very remote one, that marriage will follow; at times there is not the slightest intention of marriage between the two that keep company. Or, when there is an engagement of marriage, they are constantly together; they are averse to the presence of other persons; they prefer to sit for hours in the dark; they wander about in secluded and out-of-the-way places; they are at every dance that is held for miles around. The Christian code of morals can never sanction such company-keeping. Such a method of courtship is fraught with the greatest dangers and generally constitutes a proximate occasion of sin.” -Rev. Fr. Francis Xavier Lasance (1860-1946), A Young Man’s Guide
“The purpose of company-keeping or steady dating, or courtship as it is also called, is to allow a man and a woman to get acquainted with one another and to enable them to learn how they are adapted to one another mentally and temperamentally, so that they can decide whether they should marry one another or not.” -Most Reverend Clarence Edward Elwell (1904-1973), Bishop of Columbus, Our Quest for Happiness
“Especially in the heart of their own families, young people should be aptly and seasonably instructed in the dignity, duty and work of married love. Trained thus in the cultivation of chastity, they will be able at a suitable age to enter a marriage of their own after an honorable courtship.” -Second Vatican Counctil, Gaudium et Spes, #49
Further commentary from manuals of moral theology (source):
F.A. Gopfert, Moraltheologie (1897)
What is to be thought in general of acquaintanceships, continued association, visits, etc., between young persons of opposite sex? It cannot be said that they are in themselves grievously sinful, but as a rule they are hardly anything else but the near occasion of grievous sin. Three conditions may be named under which they may be permitted, namely, that they should be begun for a good purpose, that the interactions must take place within proper bounds, and that the necessary precautions be employed.
1. They must be begun with a good purpose, in other words, with the intention to contract marriage soon, i.e., within a relatively short time…. Owing to the danger of mixed marriages [ED – between different religions not different races], inquiries should be made as to whether the other party is of the Catholic faith, and if not the person should be seriously warned against further interactions and against a marriage promise.
2. Interactions shall take place only within proper bounds, i.e., not too frequent and not too long visits. A greater frequency may be allowed if the wedding is to take place in a short while, say in a month or two; a lesser, the farther off the wedding seems to be. A greater frequency may be tolerated if the young girl is never left alone with the young man, but always under vigilant care; a lesser, when the young people are usually left alone, or when the girl is not under the care of parents or relatives who watch over her.
3. At these visits the necessary precautions must be taken: The young people must not be in each other’s company without the parents’ knowledge, and not without their silent or expressed approval; as far as possible not be left alone, and they must fortify themselves against temptation by spiritual means.
Where these three conditions obtain, such relations and courtships are not unlawful, even if a grave danger were present, because they are morally necessary conditions for to demand that one should marry a comparatively unknown person would be unreasonable, and if one would not admit this reason the confessor would accomplish nothing else than that the young couple would now… surely sin. For these reasons such visits may not be forbidden even if the parties fall into sin on account of them. The confessor will in such cases accomplish more, if he seeks by appropriate means to make the occasion a remote one; if he, for instance, advises that they never be left alone, that someone be always present, even if only a little boy or girl; in their presence grievous exterior sins could not (easily) take place; excessive marks of affection will not easily occur; he will counsel them to restrict demonstrations of affection in their frequency, duration and manner…. It is to be considered which is more promising, to demand that the couple employ other and more effective means or that they omit entirely their visits, marks of affection, etc., and this is to be imposed upon them in confession….
When the parties in question do not intend marriage, or if they, on account of circumstances, will never be able to get married, or if only after a long time (this must be left to the prudent judgment of the confessor), then the keeping of such company is occasio proxima voluntaria absens (non in esse) and if the parties have been warned a few times by their confessors, without result, then they are not to be absolved until they obey. This is to be enforced so much more strictly if they have been sinning grievously one with another, or if their conduct has given scandal. In this regard the parents, too, especially the mothers, should be earnestly exhorted in confession, so that they will not permit their daughters to be absent from the house at evening and night, to associate with young fellows, in which case sin is often not far off. This strict proceeding is all the more necessary if such acquaintances were already begun with no good intentions.
P. Gasparri, Tractatus canonicus de matrimonio (1904)
[Engagement] usually and more properly means a contract to enter into marriage at a later date. It is best defined as a mutual promise of future marriage….
A valid engagement has two effects: namely, it raises the impediment of publica honestas [this is a technical concept from canon law] and the obligation and right to marry. The first effect is a matter of ecclesiastical law, the other of natural law….
An engagement, by the natural law itself and by reason of justice, confers on both parties both the right and the obligation to marry….
The right and obligation is to enter into marriage; therefore one party cannot, against the wishes of the other, either demand anything or release himself from anything by virtue of the engagement contract…. Things which are not lawful for single people are also unlawful for engaged people, e.g. kisses, embraces, etc, except in cases where this is in line with custom and all danger of pollution and sexual pleasure is absent…. It is therefore clear how dangerous cohabitation is, as well as excessive and lengthy familiarity between the couple. It is therefore very desirable that the couple do not spend time alone, but that they always have relatives or others present. This matter is to be considered to be of very grave importance.
The Casuist – A Collection of Cases in Moral and Pastoral Theology (1906)
Courtship and company-keeping cannot be condemned at random; young people must have an opportunity to become acquainted before they become linked together for life.
Courtship and company-keeping is, however, permissible only where there is the intention and the possibility of ultimate marriage. Where one or both of these is lacking, such relation must not be tolerated. In other words the one starting or indulging in a courtship must have the will and the ability to marry the courted person.
The so-called company-keeping… between persons of opposite sex is in itself not immoral, provided that there exists between [them] a proper and sincere intention, and a not too remote prospect of marrying, and provided further the relation… appears to be free of impropriety….
In fact, in case of contemplated marriage, a previous consociation is judicious, and even necessary, because the young people should get knowledge of each other so as to convince themselves that they can respect and love each other.
T.J. Gerrard, Marriage and Parenthood – The Catholic Ideal (1911)
Courting time is a preparation for a great Sacrament….
On the one hand the young people who have arrived at this interesting stage may be expected to take it seriously, but on the other hand they must not be expected to deport themselves as if they were preparing for a funeral. Company keeping is one of the happiest times of life, and if it is not attended with joy and brightness there is something wrong somewhere. At the outset, then, let it be known to all parents that there is nothing sinful in their grown-up children looking for partners…. Of its nature it involves a certain amount of modesty and shyness. Still, from its earliest signs and movements it is something which ought to be perfectly aboveboard, known to father and mother, acknowledged in the presence of the family….
The first qualification that a Catholic would look for in a partner for life would be that the partner should also be a Catholic. Mere acquaintances feel that they have a common and lasting bond between them if they are both Catholics. This feeling must be indefinitely intensified between two who are to live together in the intimate life of holy matrimony…. It is part of the solemn duty of parents to watch over the children in an affair of great consequence…. With reason, then, does the Church oblige children to consult their parents in the matter. Of course, cases may and do arise in which the consent of the parents is unjustly held back…. In case of dispute, however, the children will not go against the wishes of their parents without first consulting their confessor….
Character or virtue will be the first quality to be sought for in the choice of a mate. The predominant and essential virtues expected from the man are honesty and sobriety. These are especially manly virtues…. The predominant virtue expected from the woman is chastity. This will be measured by the care which she takes in avoiding occasions of sin. Here it is not a question of having sinned grievously, but of a constant observance of all those habits of modesty, reticence, sobriety of language and gesture, and, above all, utmost decorum in all necessary interactions with members of the opposite sex.