Guest Book Review: How Far Can We Go?

[Ah, spring, that heady time when a youth Catholic’s mind turns to, “Is this a sin?” And to answer these questions, and generally provide a brief respite in the tactical politics which we all enjoy so much, I present a book review written by my wife, the lovely MrsDarwin. Enjoy. –Darwin]

In my days as a young unmarried Catholic, I often suffered through chastity talks or had dating manuals pressed on me. The Protestant dating manuals (or, more accurately, not-dating, since apparently dating is right out in those circles, to be replaced by the nebulous concept of “courtship”) were painfully earnest in their descriptions of hypothetical couples who were keeping their relationships 99.44% pure by following strict rules of behavior. Chastity talks were even more painful because you had to be there in person, squirming in your folding chair and wishing the floor would swallow you as the speaker hemmed and hawed, or, even worse, was wildly enthusiastic for Purity! There seemed to be no happy medium between  either rigid guidelines that seemed designed to minimize contact between a couple, or hazy exhortations to purity that gave one no practical guidance in the matter of a relationship rooted in reality.

After the discussion following this post about the proper level of physical interaction before marriage, Darwin ordered a book on the subject by Brett Salkeld, a fellow blogger and acquaintance. Brett and his co-author Leah Perrault know this sad scene all too well, and they have written a refreshing remedy and valuable resource, How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.

Here are two famous answers to the question “How far can we go?”

  • Keep both feet on the floor.
  • Asking “How far can we go?” is like taking your girlfriend or boyfriend in your arms, walking to the edge of a cliff, and asking, “How close can I get to the edge?”

We had to write this book because we think both these answers are unsatisfactory. We think we can do better. The first answer is very practical, but anyone with a little imagination can get around it. In trying to set out an easy-to-follow guideline for Catholic couples, it ignores the question of Christian formation. It says that physical intimacy is only about how you act, and has no connection to the kind of person you are called to become.  

The second answer is much more dangerous. The foundation of the metaphor it uses is that sex is roughly equivalent to suicide! In other words, sex is dangerous and sinful. Any advance in physical intimacy is just getting you closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. When we give answers like this it is no wonder the world thinks the Church is down on sex! 

…One of the reasons that Christian books on sex and dating have given a misleading view about sexuality is that they ignore the essential communicative aspect of sexuality. Sexual sin is presented as crossing some vague boundary partway up an imaginary list of increasingly intimate physical acts. But, in the context of physical intimacy, sin isn’t crossing an arbitrary line. Sexual sin is about using your body to lie to your partner (and probably yourself) about the nature of your relationship. There need to be one or two clear lines about what is appropriate for unmarried people, but those lines are not drawn to keep people from acts that impure in and of themselves. They are drawn to keep people from lying with the language of their bodies. This book, then, is not primarily about which acts are and are not permissible. This book is about learning to speak the truth with your body.

One thing I really appreciate here is that Salkeld and Perrault have a respect for their young audience, and don’t treat the question “How far can we go?” as an attempt to find out how much whoopie one can get away with, but an honest query about what is right and appropriate at any point in a relationship. (I snickered out loud at their description of a youth group leader who answers this question from a young couple by saying, “I’ll let you in on a little secret. Your relationship will do much better if, instead, you ask yourselves how pure you can be.” If you haven’t heard twaddle like that, you haven’t been around the Authentically Catholic! youth scene much.) They emphasize from the start that their model of dating “presumes that those who use it are sincerely trying to live holy lives. If you’re hoping to find loopholes so you can get away with as much as possible and still say you’re following Catholic rules, this model isn’t for you.”

Just what is this model? It relies on honestly answering the question “How much of myself does God want me to give to this other person?”

Sex is not a shortcut to intimacy! If you want to have sex but don’t want to get married, you need to look at your reason for not getting married. If it’s not a very good reason [the financial demands of a big wedding being an earlier example], work through it and then get married. If it’s a good reason, it’s probably a good reason not to have sex. Sex speaks a profound language of the body that is both a sign and a source of the kidn of unity that married people share. If you’re not ready for marriage, then you’re simply not ready for the demands of a relationship that includes sex.  

If you understand our explanation of the Church’s teaching on premarital sex, you should be able to follow our dating model. It works on exactly the same principle; physical gifts of self ought to reflect our self-giving in other areas of a relationship.

The dating model the authors set forth is firmly rooted in responsibility and free will: not a “one-size-fits-all” set of rules (because every person and every relationship is unique), but guidelines for discerning at each step of a relationship the appropriate levels of not just physical intimacy, but spiritual, intellectual, social, and emotional intimacy All of these are often bound up with one another because humans are bodies and souls — what effects one must effect the other. One of the most common-sense statements in the book is that intimacy needs to grow gradually over time, and the authors provide examples of couples at different stages of life and relationship — high school students, couples in college, working college graduates, and high-powered career men and women — to show how this discernment can play out in various ways. There’s a fun set of graphs that examine how all forms of intimacy progress over the course of the journey from perfect strangers to spouses. The authors aren’t shy about expressing the Church’s teachings against common sexual pitfalls such as pornography and masturbation, and clearly explain the reasons for these teachings. They are unequivocal on the Church’s teaching against premarital sex and activities that try to mimic the effects of sex, and devote the last chapters of the book to marriage and NFP.

I absolutely recommend this book — I really think it’s one of the best resources I’ve encountered for an honest and balanced treatment of what it means to be a faithful Catholic moving toward marriage. For what it’s worth, I find the authors’ discussion of sexuality and intimacy in relationships to be very true to Darwin’s and my experience of having a real and intense and Catholic unmarried relationship while trying to steer a good course between prudery and prurience. This is the book I’ll give to my own children to read when they’re old enough for such discussions, and I can give no higher praise than that.

UPDATE: You can hear more about Brett and Leah’s approach and speaking work at their website:

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  1. A couple thoughts from a 55 year old gent:

    First, I think the distinction between courtship and dating is useful in that the former suggests a type of dating whose objective is finding a future spouse. I have come to believe that dating that is not so oriented is either pointless or worse.

    Second, the courtship process today is too extended. Couples date for years before they become engaged, and then wait more years to marry. It seems that there is a consensus that under 26 is just too young. I think that is nonsense. This type of thinking has two bad consequences: First, the idea of chastity is inimical to a prolonged courtship. Eventually, hormones and feelings get the best of even the most well-intended human beings. Second, these practices are not compatable with our biology. It is simply wrong-headed to create a social order where it is expected for people to wait to have children until they are past peak fertility years.

    I realize that my views are contrarian, even in many Catholic circles. But I’m happy to defend them.

  2. A thought from a 61 year old bore.

    In my dya, that would depend on whether on not the young lady in question had attended a Catholic high school and her definition “third base.” Today all bets are off.

  3. Mike,

    MrsDarwin and I are both 33, so we’re kind of half-way in between there.

    The big place where that age difference may come in is that there was a lot of talk about “Christian Courtship” going around in conservative family circles by the time I was in high school and college, and as I result I tend to be fairly turned off by the term. I agree that dating should be the process of discerning whether to marry someone (and the book states that as well) but a lot of the stuff on Christian Courtship going around was of the “kiss for the first time at the altar” and “time alone together is the devils’ tool, never go anywhere together without a parent or sibling as chaperone” kind of stuff. I was similarly unimpressed by the “ask the girl’s father for permission to court her before bringing up the topic with her and ask her father’s permission to propose to her before you do so” rules that “courtship” guides usually emphasized. So when I hear “courtship” in a modern context as an alternative to dating, that’s what the term tends to evoke for me (and for MrsD).

    On age of getting married: We met at 18 and got married at 22, which given that we were first semester freshmen in college when we started dating was pretty much as soon as we could practically get married. (Getting married before graduating seemed highly improvident.) So I’d say that a long wait before marriage without breaking any commandments is certainly possible, but at the same time dating for nearly four years (and being engaged for a year and a half of those) seemed like a really, really long time. If we’d been free to do so, we probably would have got married less than a year after meeting. And I certainly think that the tendency of so many of my secular peers to think they need to have a high level job and own a house before they can think about getting married is deeply wrong headed. (Of course, to use the old metaphor, it’s a lot easier to put off buying a cow when milk is free.)

  4. I find the old Douay Rheims more earthy within marriage than the new NAB… in Proverbs 5:19 e.g. where it says to be inebriated in your wife’s breasts. The new NAB removes the breasts but fear not….the Douay Rheims follows the Vulgate which is the official Bible of the whole Church.
    Look at the difference…flesh and it’s disappearance:

    Proverbs 5:19 Douay Rheims
    5:18  Let thy vein be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of thy youth:
    5:19  Let her be thy dearest hind, and most agreeable fawn:  let her breasts inebriate thee at all times:  be thou delighted continually with her love.

    Proverbs 5:19 NAB Bible
    5:18 And have joy of the wife of your youth,
    5:19 your lovely hind, your graceful doe. Her love will invigorate you always, through her love you will flourish continually,

    Here here….bring back the Vulgate.

  5. We have six daughters. It’s tricky business discussing this and picking a resource like this book. In my admittedly experience, I have not found the “courtship versus dating”, “save the first kiss for the altar”, “time alone is the devil’s playground” coming from Catholic circles as much as from Evangelical Protestant ones. A bigger issue I found is my daughters have been surprised and disappointed in how differently boys view this issue from girls. We have fours sons. Boys seem to get to a decision point faster and view sexual experience as a skill set more so than girls. God, if in the picture at all, is a distant judge, not an intimate guide and loving parent who wants the best for each of His children. I think the comments about unrealistic trends for marrying late and prolonging courtship are spot on and these tend to pressure young Catholics toward being hypocrites or cafeterians.

  6. And I certainly think that the tendency of so many of my secular peers to think they need to have a high level job and own a house before they can think about getting married is deeply wrong headed.

    Most people in this country are working class, do not aspire to a ‘high-level job’ and the property they own is likely to be limited to consumer durables, home equity, a small savings pool, and perhaps an insurance policy (acquired in small increments mostly later in life). You might consider the thesis (being promoted by Helen Smith and Glenn Sacks) that the characteristics of family law and the behavior of family courts have made matrimony such a bad gamble for young men that they are now abnormally resistant to it. There is also the question of whether contemporary culture leaves any distinct and consensually recognized niche for a young man to fill in family life.

  7. Most people in this country are working class, do not aspire to a ‘high-level job’ and the property they own is likely to be limited to consumer durables, home equity, a small savings pool, and perhaps an insurance policy (acquired in small increments mostly later in life).

    True. Let my try throwing out a couple provisos and clarifications, though, for what they’re worth.

    – I was really just talking there about my work and social peers, which is mostly college educated people in their late 20s through mid 40s working in large companies or in education/academia. I realize it’s a narrow and non-representative slice of America, it’s just that it happens to be where I spend most of my time, so when speaking from experience that’s really most of what I have. (My extended family is mostly much more working class, but they also don’t tend to get married at all, and when they do it usually doesn’t last long.)
    – Talking about “high level” jobs was perhaps a slip up on my part. I basically meant the kind of 60-100k salaried jobs with clear career paths which seem to be considered “real jobs” by most people I hang around these days. (Whereas when I got married in 2001 I was making $14/hr.)
    – By “own a house” I meant not renting — certainly not own outright. We lived in a one bedroom apartment when we got married, and I figured that was normal because most of the people I knew had done so as well when they got married. However in the circles I find myself in at work these days home ownership seems to be seen as a prerequisite for marriage. On a couple of occasions I had a coworker explain to me that she and her fiance were planning on moving in together but not getting married until they could afford to buy a house.

    Now, like I say, the circles I find myself in clearly aren’t representative of the country as a whole. These are people who clearly can afford to get married (certainly by what I’d consider “afford” to mean), they just have the idea that marriage is something not entered into until their late 20s or more commonly their 30s, and they have a lot of financial expectations for what marriage involves.

    I’m curious to read Charles Murray’s new book The Great Divide which I gather talks a lot about the fall of of marriage among in the culture more widely.

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