A Look at Online Dating for Catholics: Benefits, but Also Risks

Couples weigh the promise and pitfalls of new-media courtship.

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ST. LOUIS — She was in her 30s, and eligible Catholic men seemed increasingly scarce. He had been burned by one broken marriage that ended with an annulment, and, as he entered his 40s, he was hesitant to meet someone new.

They both lived in the St. Louis area, but it took CatholicMatch.com to bring Ann Campbell and Dan Clegg together in early 2004. After 10 months of in-person dating, they married in 2005. 

Over roughly the last decade, online dating has gone from stigma to social norm.

Today, the most often-cited meeting place for singles (21%) is online, according to a Match.com survey published in USA Today last year.

In terms of Catholic sites, Catholic Match says it has served almost 1 million people since its founding in 1999. Three other Catholic sites — AveMariaSingles.com, CatholicSingles.com and CatholicMingle.com (Catholic Mingle is part of the Christian Mingle conglomerate (aka Spark Network) that operates other sites for Jewish and Mormon singles) — all have had under 500,000 visitors, according to Compete.com data. According to David Nevarez of CatholicSingles.com, the site has more than 200,000 active members. The site also is the only one of these sites that offers content in Spanish as CatolicosSolteros.com.

But the smaller sites are growing: AveMariaSingles.com has gone from 2,000 to about 5,000 active users since 2000. After 15 years in business, it has 3,000 marriages under its belt.

“It’s unrealistic for a single Catholic to assume they can meet their future spouse within their local faith community,” said AveMariaSingles.com founder Anthony Buono. “The other reality is that most Catholics in America do not believe 100% of the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Devout singles, he said, are in the minority in their community on issues like contraception, and thus they need a good way to find other like-minded faithful.

Ave Maria Singles and Catholic Match connect people with shared values and beliefs, their founders say. In contrast to secular sites like OKCupid.com, which offers quizzes on sexual habits and histories, Catholic sites have questionnaires on user’s beliefs about contraception, confession, the Eucharist and papal infallibility. Users are encouraged to elaborate about faith: On Catholic Match, they can list favorite saints and specify liturgical preferences.


Advantages and Disadvantages

Such sites pair people who would otherwise not meet due to distance or other circumstances, said Catholic Match CEO Brian Barcaro. One match involved a man stationed on a submarine and a nurse on a nearly all-female staff in a neonatal unit. “Online dating offered them access and advantages that were unavailable through conventional dating,” Barcaro said.

But there are disadvantages, too. In a new book, Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating, journalist Dan Slater warns that the plethora of choices on dating sites is a disincentive to make a commitment and creates anxiety-ridden second-guessing for those do. One New York Times critic has linked online dating to the “end of courtship” and the sexually casual hook-up culture of the millennial generation.

Similar issues could arise on Catholic dating sites, said Christopher West, a Catholic author and speaker on John Paul II’s theology of the body.

“I think one of the biggest problems or dangers is that of treating another human being as something you can ‘shop for’ based on a list of traits and qualities,” West said. “The great dignity of being human is that every human person is incomparable, totally unique and unrepeatable. If we’re only in love with a list of qualities, well, then our love will drift to anyone who has those qualities. We haven’t yet reached the dignity of the person.”           

Online personal ads “commoditize” people, violating Pope John Paul II’s personalistic norm “that a human being may never be used as a means to an end,” said Dawn Eden, author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.

Ann Clegg recalled one man who sent her four to five messages each day with riddles and puzzles. When questioned, he admitted to “basically playing the odds by sending out messages to 75 or more women at a time,” she said. 


Using Online Tools Properly

Catholic Match discourages members from having a shopping mentality.

“We remind our members that this is Catholic Match, not Netflix, and newest members are not like newest releases. Unlike the movies, which are designed to provide two hours of entertainment, meeting the right guy or girl is a completely different type of search,” Barcaro said. 

He says technology is not to blame for such attitudes. 

“Online dating … sites are tools — just like Facebook, texting, email or television,” said Barcaro. “Simply because a tool can be abused does not mean the tool itself actually promotes a certain kind of behavior.”

Instead, the issue relates to a consumeristic culture, Barcaro said. “We live in an environment where we are bombarded with choices,” Barcaro said. “When a couple gets married, they have unlimited choices for their reception, and, as a result, the couple [often] spends more time and money and concern over the party than the wedding Mass or preparing for the rest of their lives through the sacrament of marriage,” he said. “Is the answer to discourage or ban wedding receptions? Of course not; it is about establishing and restoring balance.”

With dating sites, the answer is not to “reject the tool,” but to educate people in how to properly use it, Barcaro said.

Catholic Match does just that, with a blog that features dating Q and As, meditations on faith and love, summaries of Church teachings and inspirational stories of Catholic couples. The site has a free “Guide to Online Dating,” and it has launched the Catholic Match Institute for Dating and Marriage to combat declining marriage rates among Catholics.

“The decline in Catholics getting married in the Church is undeniable, but it seems a stretch to blame online dating,” Barcaro said. He attributes the decline to fewer people valuing marriage.


Control and Commitment Problems

Even Catholics who intend marriage may delay it, Buono said. He faults Catholic men for having premarital sex with women they’d never marry and both sexes for focusing on their careers.

Plus, often, “Catholic men and women have a tremendous fear of making the wrong choice, so they avoid it all together,” Buono said. “I would agree that dating sites contribute to this dilemma, because of there being so many people to choose from. But at the core of this commitment problem is the problem of a lack of urgency, being too unavailable and fear of the wrong choice.”

At issue is not only commitment, but also the desire to control, at times. Online dating, Eden said, “encourages the modernistic ideal of self as god, by suggesting we may control every aspect of our interpersonal relationships.” 

For women, this doesn’t mean they should be utterly passive “Sleeping Beauties,” according to Eden. Instead, she said they should focus on cultivating personal virtue and letting their light shine through everything they do.

“When you focus the spotlight on yourself, no one can see how beautifully your light illuminates those around you,” Eden writes in Thrill of the Chaste.

Online dating over long distances also exacerbates the natural tendency to idealize our partners at the start of a relationship, said Jason Evert, a chastity speaker. “Since their relationship is not grounded in the day-to-day personal interaction that couples have historically enjoyed, they face additional challenges in assessing the suitability of the other as a potential mate,” Evert said.

For the Cleggs, making meaningful connections online was hard without the nuances and non-verbal aspects of in-person conversation. “Online dating … is like getting to know someone on vacation. It’s not real life. Anyone can be on their best behavior for a weekend visit,” Ann Clegg said. That’s why they made an effort to focus on in-person dating.


Not a Replacement

Barcaro agrees that online dating is no substitute for real-world interaction.

“I’ve always believed that CatholicMatch.com should complement, not replace, the activities that single Catholics are already doing,” he said. Barcaro suggests “online dating” is a misnomer for “online meeting.”

Meeting online is okay, but serious discernment of the sacrament of marriage should happen in person, Evert said. 

Evert advises those who do use Catholic online dating services to guard their eyes, hearts, imaginations and speech in online conversations in which inhibitions are often lowered, compromising purity. “In terms of purity, when a couple meets online, they need to remember that physical chastity is only half the equation,” Evert said.

Purity of heart also means recognizing the dignity of other persons on dating sites.

“If a person approaches this or any other method of dating with purity of heart — looking to love a person for his or her own sake, and not just looking for someone who happens to meet your ‘shopping list’ — then genuine love for the person has a much higher chance of developing,” West said.

Eden, however, does not recommend online dating at all.

“There’s nothing intrinsically evil about Catholic personals; it’s a matter of personal prudence, and my inclination is that the risks involved — particularly commodification of oneself and others — outweigh the potential benefits,” she said.


The Right Intentions

But the Cleggs say online dating sites work for Catholics who approach it with pure intentions, seeking to faithfully fulfill what they see as their God-given vocation to married life.

“If you are a faithful, practicing Catholic, desirous of finding another with which to share in and live the sacrament of holy matrimony, and hope-filled that this is the vocation that God has intended for your life, then engage others through the website with confidence and a discerning heart that can identify and reject those ‘Catholics’ on the site who are unable to articulate in words that indicate a robust interior spirituality or a real love of God and the Church,” Dan Clegg said. “If a potential suitor is unwilling or unable to give any indication of these qualities, after multiple back-and-forth correspondence, he or she is probably not ready for a real relationship.”

“What I liked about the Catholic sites was how much I could tell about a person from his profile, in terms of his faith life,” his wife, Ann, commented. “If God is the third person in a marriage, then … the spiritual lives of two people who are ultimately interested in that outcome must be a pivotal part of what makes them a good match.”

Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.