This is the tale of two tales. One is the contemporary romance. The other is the Catholic romance.
The contemporary romance begins when boy meets girl. Boy is attracted to girl. Girl must tell boy, in so many words, to resist his urges and keep his pants on. Usually, boy and girl become serious when they finally have sex. Boy shows girl what she’s been missing all her life. Girl loves boy. Hopefully, boy loves girl.
Written in this way, it becomes clear that this story is not what we want. However, it’s the story we’re given as women and it’s the story that we need to rewrite as Catholic feminists.
Last year, I went through a Regency romance kick, reading novel after novel written by contemporary authors and set in Regency England. As a Jane Austen fan, I loved the setting, the wit, and the social dynamics in novels written by authors like Julia Quinn, Sarah MacLean, and Courtney Milan. And, let’s face it, I loved the love. I loved the romance. I loved the “girl meets rogue, girl changes rogue” trope. However, I didn’t realize just how much these novels influenced my own expectations of a romantic relationship.
I didn’t realize just how much these novels influenced my own expectations of a romantic relationship.
Last year, I also began dating my boyfriend and I realized that those contemporary romance novels – branded as feminist and empowering – teach us a dangerous lesson: if a man is attracted to a woman, he will barely be able to control himself.
But what if he is able to control himself? Instead of believing he cares about her as a whole person rather than seeing her as a conglomeration of exciting body parts, it’s all too easy for her to believe that he’s just not that into her.
Before I was in a relationship, I didn’t give much thought or attention to Catholic teachings on chastity and romantic relationships. I didn’t go out of my way to learn about chastity and consequently, like most of Americans, I had a simplistic understanding of what the word actually means: no sex before marriage. But why no sex before marriage? And what does that mean for how you should conduct yourself in a relationship not only before the wedding, but also throughout the marriage? Prior to my relationship, I hadn’t really thought about it, hadn’t really read about it, and definitely hadn’t talked about it.
However, when you’re a Catholic and a feminist, conversations about chastity are fundamental to a relationship. What I learned is that, as Arleen Spenceley says, “chastity is for lovers.” An unmarried couple can demonstrate their love for each other by exercising self-control. They love each other and, therefore, they prioritize the dignity of their significant other above the satisfaction of their physical desires.
[W]hen you’re a Catholic and a feminist, conversations about chastity are fundamental to a relationship.
What’s missing from the contemporary romance that the Catholic romance can offer? Self-giving love. As a man and a woman get to know each other, they build trust. Chastity is a way of protecting each other from self-interest. How can you have true physical intimacy without the spiritual intimacy that only comes in marriage? Pope St. John Paul II tells us in his Theology of the Body that, frankly, you can’t.
So, I propose a new story:
We love each other, so we respect and trust each other.
We love each other, so we wait to have sex out of respect for each other’s dignity.
We love each other, so we care about each other’s needs.
We love each other, so we see that we are more valuable than the sum of our physical parts.
We love each other, so we help each other be holy.
Dawn Eden tells us that “there is no dignity in a society that encourages touching another person’s body but not allowing that person to touch your heart.” In the contemporary romance, the protagonists touch the body first and the heart second (if ever). Let’s reorder this narrative to tell a story of true love - one that is centered on Christ, illustrated through self-gift, and grounded in wisdom.