VIENNA — The first Catholic dating website in Austria has grown rapidly since it went online in 2005, helping around 1,000 members to get married and expanding to nine countries.
Called Kathtreff, the website was founded by Martin Kugler and his wife, Gudrun, both of whom have dedicated their lives to promoting the Catholic faith in the public square in an increasingly secular Europe.
In this recent interview with the Register in Vienna, Martin Kugler shares why they started the website, why he believes prejudice against using internet dating sites is diminishing, and why Catholic dating sites offer certain safeguards that others do not.
How did you come to set up the dating site?
Twelve years ago, I had just gotten married. I didn’t meet my wife on the internet, but we met the bishop responsible for the pastoral care of families in Austria. He said he had many friends, or knew of many people, who were wanting to start a Christian family but hadn’t found the right partner. They tended to be around 35 to 40 years old and were pessimistic because, in their village or in the place they worked, there were only divorced people, or they weren’t Christian or committed. So we offered the bishop help, to pray, but we also thought about trying to create similar Catholic organizations to those in the United States but which didn’t exist in Germany or Austria.
There were no Catholic internet dating sites at that time?
There was only a Protestant website in Austria, which was rather expensive. It’s also difficult for a Catholic country like Austria to use a website which is not, in a certain regard, Catholic … so it’s also a matter of the denomination, not just Christian, but Catholic. What we said was: “Okay, to be a member, they have to pay 50 euro a year, and they get the right to use all the tools. If he wants to say he’s not a practicing Catholic but on the way, or he’s still Protestant but he wants to still be open to the teaching to the Catholic Church, that’s okay,” as then we’re not controlling. This is really important to underline because there are some Jewish sites which, as far as I know, are very strict.
How was your idea initially received?
Journalists, even secular ones, were rather interested and sympathetic to this project. They liked it in a certain way and said it was interesting: This is a site on which there are fewer liars, it’s less fake, because it would be very crazy to have a fake profile on a Catholic site or to look for a one-night stand instead of a real serious relationship. So we have a kind of immunity against this kind of bad phenomenon.
How quickly did it take off?
When we started we were surprised that, on the one hand, the site didn’t become so big because there was still a prejudice among Catholics: “It’s a very serious thing to find the right partner for a family, so maybe it’s best not to use the internet.” But on the other hand, the rate of success was very high from the beginning. The first 500 members could join for free, as we had to start, but then it started to grow immediately. And one year after founding this site, we’d already had the first weddings, or at least announcements of weddings. Then at least 300 personal emails saying, “Thank you” arrived in the next five years. We have, of course, no notice [that comes to us directly through the site] about anyone who found their wife or husband through the site, but many of them sent a photo of themselves.
How is it different from the internet dating scene in the United States?
What is very different to the United States is that, in Austria and Germany, many people don’t think about the possibility of meeting and falling in love with someone who is not in the same area. In the U.S., it’s normal for a guy in Seattle to fall in love with a girl in Chicago or New York, for example. But here anything that is more than 50 kilometers is another world. So we had to try to break this barrier, which wasn’t easy. But in the meantime, we’ve had many who have come from different areas and regions who have met through the website.
How have you tried to overcome prejudice against internet dating?
After 12 years, we’ve tried to overcome the prejudice that the [Church’s view of] family’s serious and holy, and the internet isn’t serious enough. But I always say that’s completely wrong because if you find someone, if a young man talks to a young lady at a party or at a discotheque, it’s more by chance he meets the right person because it’s just based on appearance. And if someone is outgoing, he has big advantages. If you live in a small village, you have far fewer possibilities to go to events or parties, whereas on the internet you have rather serious criteria: You can look and say, “This guy is reading this book. He’s Catholic — he’s got these interests, convictions.” You can know he’s Catholic, or at least a committed Christian, so this is very common ground which already exists before you choose if the photo is nice or not. Then you have a very good chance — 99% are really honest — because someone who goes to a Catholic site should be more or less honest, which is not so clear on the internet [overall] but on our site is very good. And then you have still the possibility to write emails to many people and see how they respond.
Do you believe the chances of finding a spouse are potentially higher?
The chances are higher, and you’re not wasting much time. You’re also not disappointing anybody. You get an email from the site and can ask: “How are you? Where are you from?” This isn’t a vow or a promise.
Some people still feel ashamed to go to such websites. What do you say to those who still prefer to find a spouse the more “natural” way, or perhaps trust God to introduce them to someone in person?
God uses all means which he offers to us. Is it possible to meet someone whom you later fall in love with at a soccer game or at a swimming pool or in the doctors’ waiting room? But why also not via the internet? The internet is not in itself a bad thing, and young people spend at least 30% of their free time on the internet. So why not use this very important space? It would be ridiculous to say it’s not more natural. Why is it more natural to meet someone in the marketplace or in an art exhibition?
Some feel it shows signs of desperation.
Yes, of course, but step by step I think this prejudice is already going [away]. On our site, if I look at the photos, it’s ridiculous to think they’re desperate cases. It’s just natural that people who are a bit older are already more serious about their strategic agenda to start a family and then they get more interested in finalizing their friendships. When you are 25, perhaps you think you don’t want to marry tomorrow and then you don’t go to such a site, but why not? We have even very young people.
How many couples have been married since you started the site?
We started in 2005, and I think we have about 1,000 marriages. I can’t tell you exactly, because people aren’t obliged to say. But we know at least about 500-600 have married [through the site], and we estimate the total number to be considerably more. In the meantime, we have websites in nine other languages — [for example] Hungarian, Croatian, Slovenian, Slovakian, and also in Portuguese, which is very funny because then it could also conquer the market in Brazil. But the mentality in some of the southern countries is different. It’s very interesting that in Germany, Austria and Hungary it works probably much better than in Italy, because in Italy people are used to meeting in the street. They’re more outgoing. The climate differences make it interesting!
But what I like is that people get a chance to use half an hour of their free time on this, maybe on a night shift if they’re nurses and have no chance to go out on a Saturday evening because they’re too tired or still in the hospital. They can still check their emails. They have a window on reality. They see, say, five profiles of nice people, and they are happy to at least stay in the battle [to find a holy spouse].
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.