Dating has never been an easy experience to navigate. Each generation has had its own unwritten etiquette around it. But today it can very much seem there are no rules at all, and any married person will tell you they’re thankful to be well away from the current dating scene.

So how are young Catholic singles to negotiate the nebulous world of finding a potential mate? One local Catholic organization for young professionals recently brought a group of Catholic singles together to try to figure it out.

The results proved interesting: the conversation quickly turned to the logistics of dating, and the panelists laid out what seemed on the surface to be a unanimously agreed-upon set of rigid fast rules for navigating dating dilemmas.

Except it didn’t take long much to reveal disagreement, and even discomfort, with some of the rules laid out by the panelists. The discussion quickly developed into a clash of viewpoints, with the panelists pulling for hard-and-fast rules for Catholic dating, while the singles in the audience hesitantly suggested dating cannot be so easily defined.

The event was inspired by the film The Dating Project, a documentary based on the experience of Prof. Kerry Cronin of Boston College. Speaking with her students she realized they had no idea how to date or develop a romantic relationship. Many had bought into the “hookup” culture, with its dead-end sexual encounters.

Panelists and audience members held conflicting views on the importance of traditional dating customs such as who invites who on a date.

So Cronin set about trying to teach her students how to date. She created “levels” of dating, lists of appropriate activities, and conversations for each level. Then she sent her students out to go on lots and lots of coffee dates.

The Vancouver forum brought together six Catholic singles for a panel discussion on dating, hosted by Dr. David Baird of Catholic Redeemer College and the YP Lounge – a branch of Vancouver Right to Life.

The young singles attending the forum were all committed, practising Catholics from different backgrounds and professions. All said they had no first-hand experience of the hookup culture, but agreed it affects their generation as a whole.

All had strong opinions on dating while remaining faithfully Catholic.

“Dating, as advertised by media, is not compatible with Christianity,” said panelist Sheldon Bjorgaard. For Christians, dating should be a necessary passage on the way to marriage, he said. Unfortunately the rest of the world treats it as “mini-marriage.”

For Bjorgaard and other panelists, the solution is to avoid getting too emotionally attached too quickly, and perhaps expect a lot less from a dating relationship. The Dating Project supports this approach. Cronin not only recommends what activities are suitable at each “level” of dating, but also the amount of time couples should spend together.

One panelist agreed with Cronin’s prescription, saying, “if more people were going on more coffee dates, it would just be coffee … [people would] be more adjusted.”

On the other hand, mightn’t going on more coffee dates, expecting less from them, and not getting too emotionally attached become simply a non-sexual version of the hookup culture? The panel didn’t address that possibility.

Instead, the conversation quickly turned to the logistics of dating: who asks whom out, and why. Presumably, if singles are going to be going on lots of coffee “dates” with no expectations, it shouldn’t matter who issues the invitation.

Young Catholics discuss questions about dating and whether a Catholic approach amounts to questions more important than who pays for dinner.

Yet the panelists firmly concluded a woman should not be asking a man out. Ever.

The rationale revealed some of the group’s beliefs and attitudes about the roles of men and women.

As one participant explained, “the male is supposed to be the leader” and the head in a couple’s relationship. If the girl does the asking, “she’s taking the leadership role” away from the guy.

Several young people concurred, referring to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve to show that the man is supposed to be the leader and the women is the nurturing “helpmate.”

The traditional view of courtship with the man taking the lead was nearly unanimous, although one single in the audience worked up the courage to voice a contrary view. She suggested rigid rules around things like “who asks who” don’t always make sense since what works in a particular situation might not apply to another.

She also expressed concern that in discussing such traditions as “who asks who out,” the panelists and audience were confusing non-essential customs with intrinsic moral issues involving good or evil.

Panelist Sheena Devota later told The B.C. Catholic that many single Catholic women want men to do the inviting, but in reality few men actually do. She would have liked the forum to spend more time on building healthy relationships and marriage as a call to mutual holiness rather than putting so much energy into discussing “who asks who.”

Which raises important questions about dating in the 21st century. While the rest of society wanders in a confused state about the meaning and boundaries of dating, are Catholics who long for a return to traditional customs misconstruing non-essentials with fundamental questions of faith? Is there a Catholic approach to dating that’s more important than who pays for dinner?

Although Catholic singles are struggling to examine the various roles in a dating relationship, a marriage and family therapist says it’s also important for them to work on the woundedness everyone experiences from living in today’s society.

Sister John Mary Sullivan, FSE, is a marriage and family therapist who oversees several different programs for the Archdiocese of Vancouver. She says the Church defines “the obvious in- and out-of-bounds things,” but everything else depends on the dynamics of the two individuals: their personalities, ages, emotional backgrounds, and “so many unknowns we don’t see.”

Next to living out a chaste relationship, Sister Sullivan said individuals need to work on their woundedness. “All of us are wounded on some level” simply from living in today’s society,” she said. “You need to have done enough work to be able to heal … develop your own faith, your own relationship with God.”

Emotional chastity is important, she said, not necessarily to avoid getting too attached, but because it’s a part of emotional maturity. Being chaste involves asking whether one is “sharing out of a desire for them to know me? Or out of a need to be affirmed?”

When it comes to who plays what role in a relationship, Sister Sullivan said there are some key concepts that need to be understood: the complementarity of men and women, the idea of “sub-mission,” and leadership.

While there is “receptivity that is innate to woman, it is not passive,” she said. This part of femininity can get distorted. “It is not standing back. Real receptivity is active encouragement of the other.”

Leadership, on the other hand, “doesn’t meant to dictate,” said Sister Sullivan. Good leadership means being in tune “with the movements of the person you’re leading.”

And while the concept of “submission” is often referred to in the context of marriage, that doesn’t mean the woman submitting to the man, she said. Rather, both spouses submit to each other and to the greater, outward mission they have been called to. “Marriage isn’t a contract you enter into for mutual satisfaction.”

Unfortunately, in today’s world “it just gets all muddled” and it’s easy to see how in reaction to that muddled message young men and women trying to live out Church teaching might take a rigid stance on traditional gender roles in a relationship.

“Truth is found in the balance,” said Sister Sullivan. “It’s not easy to figure out what that means, and it’s not easily defined, but it is very recognizable.”

Prof. David Baird chats with participants at The Dating Project forum.