Sexuality, Dating, and Marriage
Updated: Nov 13, 2022
How Two Headmasters are Cultivating Healthy Attitudes and Habits at their Catholic Schools
To date or not to date while in high school: is that really even a debate? What seemed like a norm in the 20th century has come under fire in the 21st.
Most of us know at least one or two couples who started dating in high school and seem to have beautiful, fruitful marriages decades later. What could possibly be wrong with dating—especially exclusive dating—in high school? It turns out, quite a few things.
It is not merely that the divorce rate is much higher for high school sweethearts than it is for the rest of married couples. It is not merely that teenagers who date frequently are at a greater risk of emotional and behavioral issues including alcohol, tobacco, drug abuse, and premarital sex. It is not merely that romantic relationships have a negative effect on a high school student’s academic performance. It is all these things together, plus more.
High school students who date frequently (often in exclusive relationships) have less time to spend forming lifelong relationships with family and friends, and less time for studying, playing sports, working, volunteering, reading, playing musical instruments, and every other activity that they enjoy. They have less time to discover who they are as a person, what they enjoy doing, and what subjects interest them most.
Teenagers are immature—physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually—through no fault of their own. The human brain—particularly the prefrontal cortex which handles complex decision making—does not finish development until we are about 25 years old. Many teenagers feel insecure or inadequate, and being in an exclusive relationship is a common way of compensating for these shortcomings instead of dealing with them directly.
For all these reasons, waiting for college or even halfway through college to start seriously dating seems very prudent. It is completely natural for middle school and high school students to be attracted to—and even have romantic feelings for—others. But the purpose of an exclusive dating relationship, particularly for practicing Catholics, is to discern whether you want to marry someone. Father Thomas G. Morrow covers this topic well in his book on Christian courtship, a worthwhile read for any Catholic young adult.
One of the many challenges that any Catholic school faces is how to deal with dating within the context of a school’s culture. While Catholic parents hold a variety of views on when it is appropriate to begin dating—particularly exclusive dating—I think most of us can agree on three things:
Parents, not schools, should determine when it is appropriate for their children to engage in any sort of dating relationship.
Public Displays of Affection among students on campus are a distraction to all students.
Catholic schools should be supportive of parents. A school has every right to limit the activities that are allowed on its campus and should take action to make sure that student interactions conform with the culture and virtues that the school promotes. In the case of Catholic schools, this certainly includes both chastity and modesty.
I recommend the following resources for Catholic parents and Catholic schools:
Theology of the Body for Teens by Ascension Press
Theology of the Body K-12 curriculum by Ruah Woods Institute
The Body Matters PK-8 program by Theology of the Body Evangelization Team
Across the country, school leaders are grappling with how to help children develop healthy attitudes and habits relating to sexuality, dating, and marriage. Two headmasters who are leading the way in supporting parents in this important area are Mo Woltering and Luke Heintschel.
Mo Woltering is the headmaster of Holy Family Academy, a K-12 independent school in Manassas, Virginia. The mission of HFA is “to assist parents by providing an education that is faithful to the Magisterium of the Church through a classical curriculum in an environment that is thoroughly Catholic.”
In today’s world, being “thoroughly Catholic” means rejecting mainstream culture. That’s because the broader culture now makes a mockery of the most basic truths of Christianity: that human beings are made in God’s image and likeness for the purpose of knowing, loving, and serving Him and spending eternity with Him in Heaven.
Woltering says it’s critical that Catholic parents create a home environment that is free from the influence of pop media and entertainment and choose communities for their children that reinforce the truth of who they are and why they were made. As such, a primary goal for Woltering is helping students understand that they are all called to vocations—many to marriage and some to religious life. He says it is important that children develop healthy friendships as they mature into young adults and discern God’s plan for their lives.
That’s one of the reasons HFA is unapologetic about its embrace of tradition. “What people used to do a few generations ago,” Woltering says, “like insisting on high standards of behavior and appearance, made a lot of sense.”
Since 1993, HFA has been a leader in the movement to reclaim the Church’s intellectual and sacramental traditions, which include an immersion in classic texts of the Western canon intended to help children better understand God’s world and their place in it. HFA’s curriculum—which includes theology, philosophy, logic, Latin, and literature, among other disciples—provides students with a strong appreciation for the true nature of man and woman. Equality, difference, and the complementarity of the sexes are all in the canon of Western Civilization.
Woltering believes that a faithfully Catholic education must never compromise the moral formation of children to accommodate the expectations of the broader culture. This is especially true regarding the cultivation of healthy relationships between students of the opposite sex.
Out of respect for parents as the primary educators of their children, Woltering leaves decisions about dating up to parents, but he sets crucial boundaries at school designed to support a faithful culture at home.
For example, students are expected to conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times. Public Displays of Affection on campus and at school events are prohibited.
In addition, HFA does not have a homecoming or prom. Instead, it has a Barn Dance, Epiphany Ball, and Spring Dance—all of which are highly anticipated events rooted in friendship, not romance. Students attend dances with their parents, not dates. Modesty guidelines are strictly enforced. Girls’ formal dresses must be pre-approved, which helps boys and girls develop an affinity for classy styles while learning how to respect themselves and each other.
HFA’s dances are festive, with students participating in both contra dancing for groups and couples’ ballroom dancing throughout the event with parents sometimes joining in on the dance floor. At formal dances, students receive dance cards that list the names of students of the opposite sex that they are expected to dance with: out of friendship, boys are expected to approach certain girls to ask them to dance, and the girls are expected to accept.
Woltering says parents and students find HFA’s traditional culture to be freeing. While teens at most high schools encounter a highly sexualized dating culture beginning in middle school, students at HFA participate in developmentally appropriate activities throughout their education where family life, not recreational dating, is held up as the ideal.
Woltering has advice for school leaders seeking to reclaim a healthy environment:
Educate yourself and your school community about the dangers of devices that serve as a pipeline to unhealthy influences. This is a topic Woltering frequently raises with parents in conversation and through his weekly newsletter. In addition, he prohibits students from bringing devices to school.
Don’t be afraid of being called “too” traditional or old fashioned. Today’s post-Christian world is unconcerned with, and even hostile to, the duty of Catholic parents to cultivate faith and virtue in their children. All adults entrusted with the care of children must answer to God—not the world—for how they exercise their authority and influence over impressionable souls.
Be willing to dismiss or expel families that do not wish to cooperate with the mission of the school. When parents really support the mission of the school and reinforce it at home, almost any discipline problem can be addressed and eventually healed. However, when parents refuse to acknowledge a discipline problem or uphold school standards with their children, it is very damaging to school culture and can quickly dismantle what was painstakingly built.
It may surprise outsiders to learn that students and parents rarely complain about HFA’s traditional policies, but Woltering says it should not: what today’s world offers young people not only endangers their souls, but it also makes them deeply unhappy and even anxious and depressed.
Parents who want better for their children actively seek out communities like HFA. “Our school is not perfect,” Woltering says, “but we are a community of families who are generally united in our goal to live a Catholic life worthy of Heaven.”
Luke Heintschel is headmaster of Saint Joseph Academy, an independent K-12 school in San Marcos, California. The mission of SJA is “to form young men and women who, committed to live by Catholic principles, will transform and advance human culture.”
Founded in 1995, Saint Joseph Academy has a supernaturally inspired vision: to prepare students “for what they must be and for what they must do here on earth,” in order to gain the sublime end for which they were created.
SJA offers a “traditional learning environment” that provides students with a solid intellectual foundation in the order and meaning of God’s world.
Heintschel is intentional about creating a school culture that helps students discern and follow God’s will for their lives. He says most of his students will discern marriage as their vocation, although some may be called to consecrated celibacy.
“With both vocations firmly in mind,” he explains, “our students can use the wisdom of Holy Mother Church to contextualize, order, and direct their romantic inclinations, feelings, and desires.”
“Since this kind of formation encourages virtues like chastity and temperance, it will make them better mothers and fathers, whether of biological, adopted, or spiritual children,” he says.
Similar to Holy Family Academy, SJA leaves decisions about dating to parents, while encouraging healthy and chaste friendships between the sexes. To maintain a professional atmosphere of learning, Public Displays of Affection—including romantic hugging, kissing, handholding, sitting on laps, etc.—are not permitted at school or at school-sponsored events.
“Part of growing up is learning to be temperate with regard to our desires,” he explains. “Ultimately, that is a prerequisite for authentic love.”
SJA’s teachers address these topics in the proper context, usually in theology class or on retreat. “It is important to make all the students familiar with the Church’s moral teachings on these issues as well as how to make prudent decisions when it comes time for them to court a young man or lady,” Heintschel says.
This semester, Heintschel spoke to the high school girls while the boys were on retreat, and the theology teacher spoke to the high school boys while the girls were on retreat. During his discussion, Heintschel asked the girls: what kinds of virtues do you want your future husband to have? The girls’ answers facilitated healthy discussions about the importance of modesty and chastity, among other topics.
“I find that having these conversations by way of question, good example, and contextualizing the theological ramifications of authentic love is an important formative experience that our students won’t get from the world,” Heintschel says.
He says parents today face challenges that were unimaginable decades ago.
“Without a doubt, access to pornography [through smartphones] is the gravest threat to our kids’ relationships,” he says. He explains:
Those devices give today’s kids access to the worst imaginable online content. This content malforms them on many levels. Spiritually, they’re damaged in their ability to relate to God and themselves. Socially, they are damaged in their ability to relate to their peers (and adults), especially of the opposite sex.
All of the damage is done with long lasting effects. It even effects their developing brains on a biochemical level. Whole libraries of books could be written on the horrific effects of widespread pornography in our culture. What’s more: we’re not talking about a magazine with risqué photos. We’re talking about degrading and debased content that is often shocking in its perversion.
All of this is walking around in these students’ pockets with them. It is difficult to imagine or overstate what could be more damaging to their future relationships.
Heintschel seeks to help young people have healthy human interactions at school without the danger and distraction of screens. Accordingly, computer use is not a regular part of the curriculum and cellphone use is not allowed on campus (except that high school students are allowed to use phones after school to arrange rides).
Educating parents about the dangers of technology has become an increasingly important part of Heintschel’s job as headmaster. He is pleased that several families are contributing to a healthier school environment by not giving their kids phones at all, giving them “dumb” phones (Wise Phone, Light Phone, Gabb Phone, etc.), and controlling their screen time and internet access.
He has advice for school leaders seeking to be more intentional about helping students virtuously live out their God-given inclinations toward romance and marriage:
Do absolutely everything possible to rid their lives of pornography. This is a necessary first step, he says. Without this step, nothing else will matter.
Get kids off their phones. Implement strict cellphone policies. “They are a headache to enforce, but if you love your students, you’ll do it,” he says.
Give students something beautiful to pursue. SJA offers social dance as an elective, which, as Heintschel explains, “helps students to navigate physical touch of the opposite sex in a chaste and comfortable way.”
Regarding SJA’s dance elective, Heintschel offers:
Social dancing properly serves as an analogy for courtship. It provides better practice for marriage than teenage dating ever could. Whereas teenage dating is like playing Russian roulette with hormones, social dance is more like practicing some skills helpful for excellent courtship: self-control, etiquette, courtesy, etc.
“At my school and others like mine, Catholic parents want us to give their children a wholistic Catholic formation,” he says. “That includes helping their children develop healthy attitudes and habits that will enable them to become good husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers as adults.”
Immersing Kids in the Good, True, and Beautiful
It stands to reason that forming faithful Catholics would require, at a minimum, shielding children from harmful ideas, images, and experiences. Indeed, to the greatest extent possible, Catholic parents and educators should shield children from the highly sexualized and otherwise inappropriate content produced for teens by social media influencers and the entertainment industry.
But as Woltering and Heintschel point out, it is not enough for children to not be exposed to what is harmful; they must also be immersed in what is good, true, and beautiful.
As Heintschel puts it, “We can’t merely focus on the ‘thou shalt not’ commands: there must always be a goal, something to run toward.” He says he tries to let Philippians 4:8 serve as his marching orders:
[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
“Our Catholic homes and Catholic schools should be alive with ‘these things’ that help unite our will to the Divine will,” he says.
Mike Ortner is president of the Ortner Family Foundation.