Can the Internet save dating?

I didn't have it back when I was dating. My original attempts to woo my wife, then-girlfriend, Mary, almost met with utter failure.

“He's Lutheran,” her mother protested. “Surely, you can find a good Catholic boy to date.”

“I've dated Catholic boys, but Tim takes his faith more seriously than any of them,” Mary told her mother.

Twenty years after we started dating and 16 since our marriage, I remain thankful that neither Mary nor her mother protested too much, for it was the living faith of her and her family that helped draw me into the Church.

Now that I'm a columnist with a Catholic Internet dating organization, I can see that our experience ended up drawing a lot of its strengths from the same things that make online dating successful.

Mary and I were friends first. We didn't really begin dating until late in our freshman year at college. Not long after we began dating, summer break arrived, separating us by hundreds of miles, a three-hour drive and no cars to call our own. We resorted to long letters and — much to the consternation of our parents — equally long telephone calls.

Through those letters and calls, though, we truly got to know one another. After a day spent working at the nursing home, Mary would tell me about her work and the residents for whom she cared. I could imagine growing old with her. I would share the joys and frustrations of my own day — all in preparation for the day when we would be doing the same as an “old” married couple.

A wedding and five children later, I shudder to think of the contemporary dating scene and its many perils. Dating is certainly different from my high school days of chaperoned dances, a shared pizza or a movie.

Today, the Catholic single needs to beware not only of the suitor who doesn't practice his or her faith, but also of the sexually “liberated” single whose love life is a series of “hook-ups.”

While doing research for my book Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow's Church (Sophia Institute Press, 2004), I discovered that Internet dating is a bright spot in the darkness. It's a place that has kept the art of letter-writing — and soul-to-soul sharing — alive, albeit in an electronic form.

Here, at just the click of a mouse and within minutes, you can find out far more about someone than you can at your local bar or restaurant. Through detailed questionnaires, singles can learn not only about a potential suitor's personality, but also about the practice of his or her faith-life, and if the member so desires can send an e-mail or chat online with the other member. What a wonderful way to weed the garden.

The beauty of such services is that they allow the Catholic single to forgo the uncomfortable aspects of dating to quickly find out what their potential suitor believes and practices. There's no need for the painful experience of a bad blind-date, or a series of dates to learn that you are completely incompatible. In fact, there's no need to even talk with the other person online unless you decide to do so.

Of course, Internet dating has its share of downsides, too. Couples who meet online are missing a key element until they meet in person. And I never would have met Mary through an online dating service — we would have been incompatible from a faith perspective, and who knows when or how I would have found my way into the Church without her?

For every story like mine, though, I've heard others that make the opposite point. Some tell stories of those entering their late 30s, resigning themselves to a life of single-hood, when at the urging of a friend or parent they go online and discover someone they never before knew existed.

I've heard many of their stories, and never cease to be amazed.

Benedict XVI, writing about the importance of families, said “The vocation to love is what makes man the authentic image of God: He becomes like God in the measure that he becomes someone who loves.”

Online services are helping many a Catholic man or woman to become someone who loves — and someone who builds a strong family.

It's amazing that the Holy Spirit can use something like the Internet to allow faithful Catholics to meet, safely exchange e-mailed letters, enter sacramental marriages, and start new Catholic families of their own. At present, the three most prominent Catholic Internet dating services collectively account for more than 1,000 such marriages.

I find tremendous hope in that, not only for marriage, but also for the future of the Church.

Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minn.