In 1997, a 21-year-old, unmarried man published a book that took American Christianity by storm: I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Towards Relationships and Romance. For young Christians at the turn of the 21st century, it promoted an easy formula that nearly guaranteed God-honoring relationships; blissful marriages; and, most of all, effortless, completely fulfilling sex lives. Among the ideas promoted in the book were saving one’s first kiss for the wedding day and following a courtship model of relationships (in which marriage is the primary goal of the relationship from day one) as opposed to a getting-to-know-you model of casual dating. Although the book’s principles worked for some people, many faithful Christians were deeply hurt by its teachings and those of the larger “purity culture.”
The backlash against the book built up over the years, until the author, Joshua Harris, finally spoke up. Over the past few years, Harris has publicly opened himself up to his critics, both in his discontinuing publication of the book and in a 2018 documentary in which he met with and listened to people who had been negatively affected by his teachings. This past summer, Harris shocked American Christians again: In two separate Instagram posts, he announced that he and his wife were divorcing and that “by all the measurements that [he has] for defining a Christian, [he is] not a Christian.”
It can be too easy to look at the aftermath of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and think, “This is a Protestant problem. We are a part of the one, true Church founded by Christ himself. Look at John Paul II’s Theology of the Body! There’s no way this could affect us Catholics.” This is a naive and dangerous way of thinking. As American Catholics, in particular, we live in a nation whose founders were almost entirely Protestant Christians. For better or worse, Protestantism has shaped American public discourse since the very beginning. American Catholicism doesn’t live in a bubble; if a trend starts in Protestant circles, it’s bound to spread to some Catholic circles, as well.
I was five years old when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out (do the math), so I didn’t have personal experience with Harris’ teachings until I recently picked up a copy of the book to compare its principles to Catholic sexual ethics. As a third-party observer and Catholic feminist, I’ve discerned three major lessons that we as Catholics can learn from Harris and his public downfall.
1. Purity culture affects Catholics as well, and we need to call it out.
I could list dozens of personal stories from Catholic friends about the ripple effects of purity culture that they’ve witnessed in American Catholicism, but I will focus on one disturbing consequence taken right from purity culture: the overemphasis on physical virginity as an indication of spiritual purity.
Before I met my current boyfriend offline, I had an account on a popular Catholic dating site. One night, I was looking at a man’s profile. He was cute, believed in the seven major tenets of Catholic teaching listed on the site, and (praise the Lord!) had filled out the question and answer section, which was my favorite feature of the site. The Q&A started off promising, until I reached the second question: “Are you a virgin?”
Needless to say, I was horrified. First of all, I wasn’t about to reveal such personal information to a stranger on the internet. Secondly, I shuddered to think what this man might think of me if I selected “No.” Would I (or any other woman) be considered less Catholic if I had made mistakes in the past, sought Jesus’ forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession, and was now determined to live a chaste life? What about women who had experienced sexual assault? His question made me feel like I was either a perfect, pure prize that he could win for being a faithful Catholic man or an impure piece of trash that wasn’t worth his time. I didn’t finish that Q&A.
Would I (or any other woman) be considered less Catholic if I had made mistakes in the past, sought Jesus’ forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession, and was now determined to live a chaste life?
I Kissed Dating Goodbye opens with a deeply hurtful story about a girl who watches as, one by one, all of her fiancé’s ex-girlfriends approach the altar and stand by his side on their wedding day. He explains to his bride that he has given a piece of his heart to each of them but that “everything that’s left is [hers]” (Harris 14). The idea of giving pieces of oneself away is pervasive throughout purity culture and is a toxic misrepresentation of human sexuality.
Chastity is about the integration of sexuality with the whole human person (CCC 2337). Sexual sin cuts us off from God; it doesn’t cut off pieces of our bodies or hearts. Even if we are in a state of mortal sin (sexual or otherwise), we are still whole human beings, an integrated body and soul. Sexuality is a part of who we are — and an important one — but it is not all that we are. The Theology of the Body is for everyone, not just for married couples or single people called to marriage. It is essential for understanding the human longing for relationship with one another and with God.
In the Church’s teachings on human sexuality, Catholics hold the antidote to toxic purity culture myths, but that doesn’t mean our own communities are immune to warped teachings. The only way we can root out purity culture is to combat it with the beauty and truth about our bodies; our sexuality; and how they are a reflection of God’s love, not a source of shame.
2. We need to kiss Christian celebrity culture goodbye.
With the publication of his first book as a young, unmarried virgin without any seminary training, Harris became the poster child for American Christian purity culture. Christians were all too eager to hold him up on a pedestal as a shining example for young people to follow. In the 2018 documentary I Survived “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Harris mentions that when he started courting his future wife a year after the book was published, he felt pressured to follow his own teachings perfectly — or else. Shortly after he released his recent Instagram posts, my Facebook and YouTube feeds were full of articles and videos attacking Harris and even questioning whether he was a Christian to begin with. As soon as he no longer promoted the agenda of American Christianity, the once golden boy found himself cast outside where there was wailing and grinding of teeth (Matthew 25).
As I watched the outrage burn Harris’ reputation to the ground, I kept thinking, “But this guy isn’t Jesus. He’s a flawed, fallible human being. Why are so many people shocked?” Then I thought of high-profile Catholics who have also gone through divorce, made offensive comments, or have has severe public crises of faith. Many of them had experienced the same kind of vitriol and hatred that Harris did, and much of it came from their once-devoted Catholic followers. (Side note: Criticism of the sinful or criminal actions of Christian leaders, such as sexual abuse, and the coverup thereof is warranted. Personal attacks on public Christian figures are not.)
We need to remember that neither our pastor nor favorite Catholic author is Jesus. Christianity is not about following a person, a book, or a podcast; it’s about following Jesus Christ. Yes, public Catholic figures can be wise, engaging, insightful, and relatable — but they are not perfect, and we need to stop digitally crucifying them when they remind us that they are broken and in need a Savior, just like us.
Christianity is not about following a person, a book, or a podcast; it’s about following Jesus Christ.
3. Your ministry cannot be the source of your healing.
What struck me the most as I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye was Harris’ emphasis on God’s mercy (which is good) but lack of discussion on healing from the wounds of secular dating culture. While we as Catholics value the Sacrament of Reconciliation, forgiveness from sin and healing from the effects of sin are two different things. Forgiveness of sin, through Confession or a conversation with a person we sinned against, seeks to repair our relationship with God or other people. Healing from the consequences of our sin is an internal, slow, and often painful process, and it can only be achieved through time and prayer (and, sometimes, counseling or spiritual direction).
In the opening chapters of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris states that he chose to write his book because he had been hurt by the dating culture that surrounded him and he wanted to prevent other young Christians from experiencing that same heartbreak. However, if you minister to others from your brokenness, you will lead them astray. You will turn to them or to a particular philosophy for healing, not to the Divine Physician.
When St. Paul wrote of his weaknesses in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, it was not to score relatability points or demand that the people in Corinth “fix” him; it was “in order that the power of Christ may dwell within [him]” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Too often in ministry, we focus on boasting of our weaknesses instead of being a living witness to Christ’s healing and forgiveness. This isn’t to say that past mistakes and experiences can’t inspire or assist us in our call to a particular ministry — but we should minister out of our healing from such experiences.
When St. Paul wrote of his weaknesses in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, it was not to score relatability points or demand that the people in Corinth “fix” him.
The time has come to officially kiss Harris’ book goodbye, but this is not how the story ends. There may still be deep wounds that need to be healed. There may still be difficult theological questions to wrestle with. It may still be awkward to talk to young people about human sexuality (on second thought, it will definitely still be awkward). But after deconstruction comes reconstruction; after death comes resurrection. One line from Harris’ July 26th Instagram caption gives me hope: “Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.”
In our current culture, Catholics have a unique opportunity to reshape the way American Christians think about sexuality, evangelization, and healing. We can reclaim the narrative of Christian sexual ethics and change it to reflect the dignity of the whole person, not just their physical purity — and I’m ready to kiss that opportunity hello.