Courtship and healthy dating among young Americans belong on the endangered-species list.

So says Connie Marshner, chairman of the Cardinal Newman Society and a longtime pro-life and pro-family activist in the nation's capital. Marshner, who is also author of Decent Exposure: How to Teach Your Children About Sex (Legacy Communications, 1994), spoke with Zenit news service about the state of dating, circa 2002. Here's a transcript of the conversation.

Zenit: Is courtship in decline on U.S. college campuses?

Marshner: What kids mean by “dating” today is what previous generations called “going steady.” You go out with one person, but only with that person. And “dating,” as the secular youth culture currently defines the term, is little more than a euphemism for serial sex partnering. Every public high-school student knows that to be “dating” somebody is to be sexually active — with a few prominent exceptions, such as Mormon or Muslim students.

Unfortunately, diocesan high schools are far from exempt from these attitudes and problems. It is hard for [many Catholics] to even conceptualize how sex is viewed by the young generation — at least in the United States and probably most of the West. Sex is not something special or private, let alone sacred; it is really regarded as little more than a rite of passage, something you do to prove you're grown up.

And when one of these serial partnerships gets boring, then the way to win the freedom to associate with a different guy is to have a dramatic breakup with the first guy. Meet, sleep with, break up — over and over again, that is the cycle of dating in America, from junior high around age 12 until marriage around age 25. It doesn't prepare anybody for marriage. It prepares them for divorce.

Those are the basic problems with contemporary dating: the sexual activity and the exclusivity it implies. Even on the “good” Catholic college campuses, it is little different.

Can healthy dating and courtship be restored? Or is it by nature incompatible with Christian living, at least in the United States right now?

Of course, serial fornication is incompatible with Christian living. Does this mean that Catholic parents should refuse to allow their adolescent sons and daughters to be in the company of non-related persons of the opposite sex? I don't think so. That would be an overreaction in the opposite direction.

The goal should be the happy medium: Our sons and daughters should get to know each other naturally, as siblings of friends, as coworkers on practical projects, as partners in academic projects, in groups, mainly through normal activities.

It is through shared work and activities that a person gets to see many different facets of another. By contrast, in the exclusive dating game, each wears a mask that is designed to achieve a certain response. ...

It is the girls who must make the difference. I don't mean to sound sexist, but the fact is, girls do set the standards in the whole courtship and dating thing. They are the ones who bear, disproportionately to boys, the consequences of sexual activity outside of marriage. I wish that men set standards of chastity, but the men in our culture seem to have abandoned the job of setting standards at all — but that is a conversation for another day. The fact is: Get the girls on the side of chastity, and there is hope for the guys.

What signs of hope do you see?

Several, actually. First, there's human nature coming to the rescue. People can deceive themselves for one generation, but the next is not so easily fooled. Reality can be avoided only so long.

The infatuation of one generation with libertine sex extracts a price from the next generation — father-lessness, divorce and the like — and the pendulum begins to swing back. We are seeing the pendulum swinging back already: Reliable surveys have been finding that eight out of 10 girls and six out of 10 boys wish they had not had sex when they did. When they feel that way, they talk to their friends.

Second, there is the abstinence-education movement, which is sweeping through all the Christian churches, and the common sense of which is even pervading public schools. Thanks to George W. Bush in the White House, HHS [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] is spending some money now on real abstinence education. These funds are helping the authentic abstinence movement.

The pregnancy rate of teens aged 15-19 was lower in 1997 than any year since before 1972. These figures are just becoming available, but the trend has been headed down since 1991. In 1997, only 93 out of 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 became pregnant. That's still appalling, but it's a lot better than the 110 it was in 1982. The trend is moving in the right direction, so something is going right.

Unfortunately, at the same time the pregnancy rates are going down, STD [sexually transmitted disease] rates are going up and up and up. Ten thousand teens per day contract a sexually transmitted disease. Nationally, one in four Americans has an STD. And they're not all curable, either, as teens find out when they contract one. An STD is a strong dose of reality for a kid who feels that nothing bad can happen.

What can parents do to help teens in this area?

They have to start when the child is an infant, as I explain in detail in Decent Exposure. Hopefully, before the child reaches the teen years, he has learned right from wrong, has learned that his parents want what is best for him and know more than he does, and has developed some of the other virtues which enable him to practice self-control. Make sure they know that sex is beautiful and wonderful when exercised in marriage, something really worth waiting for.

I'm afraid some parents still manage to convey the idea that sex is merely some dirty secret that should never be talked about. That attitude does a youngster no favor — because if they can't talk with their parents, whom can they talk with? Be careful to not be sarcastic, don't use “put-down” tones of voice. Be willing to be flexible. Don't condemn them, help them. Just because you love your children does not mean that your children feel loved — and that is a crucial distinction.

Beyond that, parents need to continually remind themselves to be reasonable, realistic, loving and sympathetic — and provide lots of structure for the social lives of teens.

The next thing to do is to know their friends and their friends' parents, their group, their environment — what rooms are in the place they hang out, for instance. Then know their lives and the pressures on them.

Know what they need from you, which is your help to balance all the demands of the peer group, the school, overloaded schedules, the plummeting self-confidence, the wild ambitions, the body that changes from day to day, the moods that swing from day to day, and all the other complexities of their lives. Make sure they are continually receiving spiritual formation in some form, and getting regularly to a good confessor.

And be on your knees every day for each and every one of them.