The award winning book How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating has recently been released in the US by Paulist Press. I had the opportunity to ask the authors, Leah Perrault and Vox-Nova’s Brett Salkeld a few questions about the book and how it came to be. FWIW this book is the best book of its kind which I have read, so give the interview a read and get yourself a copy of the book.
Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what your ministry is?
Leah: I am married to Marc, and we have a daughter, Robyn, who is just about four and a son, Eliot, who is six months old. We have made our home in Saskatoon, close to family and under great big prairie skies. I work for the Diocese of Saskatoon as the director of pastoral services. I have a Master’s of Arts in Pastoral Theology from St. Michael’s College in Toronto.
Brett: My wife Flannery and I live in downtown Toronto in Student Family Housing with out two little guys, Toby and Oscar. We’re expecting number 3 in March. I am currently working on my doctoral dissertation in Theology and hope to find work in the near future as a university professor in Theology.
Leah: Our speaking and writing ministry began when we were undergraduates at Campion College the University of Regina. As young adults, we found that most discussions among our friends and colleagues eventually led to relationships and sexuality. Conversations led to invitations to speak to youth groups, young adults, classrooms. Over time, we have expanded our repertoire, but the sex, dating and marriage talks remain very popular, especially since the publication of the book. Our website, howfarcanwego.com provides more details about our speaking on other subjects. These days we are both doing a lot of custom speaking work, tailored to the needs and interests of the school, church or group who contacts us.
How did this project get started?
Brett: I think there are at least three factors that led to us writing a book. The first is that almost every time we gave a talk someone would come up to us afterwards and say something like, “My daughter had badminton tonight and she couldn’t be here, but she would have really loved this. Do you have something I can take home for her?” Other people asked if they could video tape us for their friends who couldn’t make it. So one big impetus for the book was simply to have something available for those who couldn’t make it to the talks.
A second reason we ended up writing a book is that people are very careful with bringing in speakers about sex and dating. Sometimes we would end up in 3 hour phone interviews before giving a 1 hour talk. Some people want to know exactly what you’re going to say before they let you in. In a way this is understandable given the difficulty of cleaning up a mess if a speaker really misses the target. On the other hand it could get frustrating. Sometimes you’re thinking, “If you already know everything, why don’t you give the talk?” Having a book makes this process much easier. We can tell people, if you like the book, you’ll probably like the presentation. If you don’t like the book, we’re probably not the ones you want for your youth group.
The last factor is that we would never have thought ourselves capable of writing a book until we were enrolled in our Master’s degrees and came to realize that our theses were basically like writing a book. Once it became clear that we would essentially be writing books for school, writing a book didn’t seem so intimidating. (In fact, the American publisher (Paulist Press) that picked up How Far Can We Go? has also published my Master’s thesis. It’s called Can Catholics and Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment.)
Once it became clear to us that it would be good to have a book, and that it wasn’t unreasonable to try to write one, we put in a proposal to Novalis, the Canadian Catholic publisher. They were very interested and supportive right away.
What resources influenced your model for dating?
Brett: We are part of the John Paul II generation, so when we had questions about this stuff in early undergrad, we went looking through his stuff and other things in the tradition. Of course, there is very little explicitly written about dating in the Catholic tradition. Essentially what our model does is take a Catholic theology of marriage and work backwards from it. If sex belongs in marriage because it is the physical manifestation of a full gift of self, as John Paul II says, what should people who are in a serious relationship, but have not yet made that full self gift in marriage be doing? What should their relationships look like?
When we were working out a model to answer these questions, we assumed that dating was done for the purpose of discerning your future. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun too, but Catholic dating has marriage as at least a remote possibility.
One big key for our model came when Flannery, who is now my wife, and I went to see a priest we were close with when we started dating. We knew we shouldn’t have sex, but we had very different ideas about appropriate physical intimacy at that stage in our relationship. When we asked Father Peter for advice, he didn’t give us any specific lines, but instead starting asking us questions about our relationship in general. He made it clear that physical intimacy has to correspond to the other ways of self-giving in your relationships. And this is true for everyone, whether dating, married, friends, family members, whatever. Physical intimacy is an important way that human persons communicate with one another, but it needs to say what the rest of the relationship is saying or it can really hurt people.
Leah: We were young adults ourselves when we developed the model. We were trying to figure out how to date in a way that would prepare us for whatever vocation God had in mind for us. We wanted dating to be fun but also respectful of our own and others’ dignity. We were frustrated with the predominant models for faithful dating that had been offered to us: either don’t touch each other at all or draw arbitrary lines based on someone else’s advice and then try not to cross them.
When I met Marc’s fabulous French family for the first time, he walked into the house and kissed everyone on the lips. By the time I came a second time, his dad and other male relatives were giving me quick greeting kisses on the lips. While it took a little while to get used to that, it gave me an insight that we’ve been relying on for a long time. In healthy relationship with our families, friendships and even strangers, we navigate physical intimacy based on the whole context of the relationship. As we get to know people, our whole lives become more familiar to one another. Touch progresses along a continuum, according to the time we spend with someone, the commitment we have and with reference to social norms. Hormones often make this natural process rushed and a bit urgent when people are attracted to one another, and secular society’s norms around sex and dating aren’t helping young people to heed the Church’s wisdom to save sex for marriage. We needed a dating model which would help young people navigate growth in physical intimacy, develop skills to discern God’s plan for them, and develop a reverence for the mystery of the person they love. All of these skills are highly transferable to marriage, friendship and the rest of life, no matter where the relationship goes.
Can you give a brief synopsis of the dating “model” you propose?
Brett: The model grew out of our attempt to answer the title question of the book “How Far Can We Go?” Young people were asking us this question, as they ask almost anyone who works with them. They mean, primarily, “How far can we go in terms of physical intimacy?” or “Which physical acts are OK and which aren’t?” This is driven by a natural inclination towards physical intimacy, and that’s a good thing, but we thought it would be important to channel that natural desire into a way for discerning healthy relationships in general. While it is important to point out a few things that young people striving for chaste relationships should not be doing (e.g. engaging in acts that simulate sex or getting themselves into situations where avoiding sex becomes a real challenge), it is also important to teach young people how to be self-aware enough about their relationships to be able to answer this question for themselves.
In order to do this, we came up with a way for people to picture their relationships. There are actually graphs in the book! The basic structure is something like this: the person you will someday marry, started out as a stranger. You have to navigate the journey from stranger to spouse. That means you have to navigate from zero intimacy to full intimacy and from zero commitment to full commitment. But intimacy and commitment aren’t merely physical realities. They are social, spiritual, intellectual and emotional. To grow in intimacy in a healthy way is to grow across all the areas of human relationships. The best way to judge if your physical intimacy is healthy is to ask questions about the rest of your relationship. “Do I feel like he listens to me?” “What do my friends and family think about her?” “Am I able to pray with this person?” Our model teaches people how to ask questions about their relationships in order to gauge what a healthy progression of physical intimacy should look like. It helps them to keep all areas of their relationship in mind when they consider questions about physical intimacy.
And, if young people date in this way, they can use that natural desire for physical intimacy as a tool for discernment. It is very easy to a relationship’s physical aspect to take over so that people become blind to what else is going on in the relationship. Many young people are hurt when they get trapped into bad relationships that seem so intense when physical intimacy that has gotten out of hand. When physical intimacy is always gauged with reference to the broader relationship, it is easier to recognize and get out of an unhealthy relationship and it is easier to protect and nurture a good and healthy relationship.
Finally, physical intimacy itself comes to mean more, even if it is less intense for a time, when it is consciously linked with more than animal attraction. People can tell the difference between a kiss that says, “I care about you deeply,” and a kiss that says “I’m having trouble controlling myself right now.”
You say that the book is written for teens, but you have a short chapter which functions as a note to parents, teachers, and pastors.
Leah: We discovered very early in our speaking career that most adults are ill-equipped to support young people as they move through their dating years. Some didn’t follow the Church’s teaching themselves and feel a knowledge gap or hypocrisy, even though they hope young people will make wise choices. Others want to prevent their kids from heartache and hurt by making the decisions for the young people in their lives. And these reasons are usually coupled with a general discomfort with talking about the subject!
We also discovered that speaking to youth with their parents, teachers and pastors in the same room increased the likelihood that both young people and the adults in their lives would talk to one another about sexuality and relationships. When mom and dad drove the family home from the presentation, their teenage sons and daughters would initiate conversations with their parents about the presentation material – often for the first time. Parents came back to us with gratitude and a measure of awe. We think this is preferable to that awkward meeting after a presentation when young people walk into the kitchen to the dreaded, “So, what did they have to say about sex?”
And finally, our model assumes that relationships are not private. They are part of the social nature of our humanity. This means that my dating affects my friendships, family, work, school, church and service in the community. All of these people can help to support those who are dating to make wise and healthy choice in and about the relationship. If I am called to marry someone, my relationship should make most of these other relationships even richer.
“To devote oneself to others and to act, misereor super turbam, that is the great saying, but how? Intellectual needs, moral needs, social needs, everything cried out for help. Christ is there, but who are we to give him to and where are we to take him? To devote oneself to others is the rule common to all men, just as Christianity is the universal remedy — but how? Is it to be in intellectual conflicts, in the melee of ideas?…Or in hand-to-hand fights, in the political and social fray?…Is it not action alone which defines ideas?…
There are three human ways of serving the supernatural: either my making room for it in the intellectual order, which invades it and seems to force it back, by preparing room for it with hte help of healthy, clearly defined, really scientific ideas in philosophy and in the theory of the human mind; or by making room for it in social and political action, by introducing it by example, by means of discussions and personal influence, into the traditions of the people, the customs of the countryside, through legislation and practical reason; or by calling upon it to reanimate the generosity of feelings, the dry or withering heart, the enthusiasm that is dulled by the abuse of material things, of positive, scientific things…In a word one must restore either the object, or the practice, or the feeling of religion and moral things. It goes without saying that each of these means only supplements the supernatural action upon any Christian, and upon others through the communion of saints. That is the common, impersonal source of the power for good; great thoughts, noble resolutions, striking and influential devotion to others, spring form the inchoate prayer and austerities of the humble and the ignorant.”
– Maurice Blondel, entry in Carnets Intimes for 15 Dec. 1883. Quoted in Introduction to The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma, p 37.
Without the Holy Spirit, God is far away,
Christ stays in the past,
the Gospel is a dead letter,
the Church is simply an organization,
authority a matter of dominion,
mission a matter of propaganda,
the liturgy no more than an evocation,
Christian living a slave morality.
But in the Holy Spirit:
the cosmos is resurrected and groans with birth-pangs of the Kingdom,
the risen Christ is there,
the Gospel is the power of life,
the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
authority is a liberating service,
mission is a Pentecost,
the liturgy is both memorial and anticipation,
human action is deified.
Metropolitan Ignatios of Latakia, Main Theme Address in The Uppsala Report 1968. Quoted from Tom Norris, The Trinity: Life of God, Hope for Humanity, p. 41.
Imagination is probably more important than we realize. Scholars in the theory of communications have argued that a person’s ability to successfully navigate various interpersonal situations depends largely on her ability to imagine herself in such situations. Such imagined conversations and interactions prepare her for successful interactions in reality.
Similarly, many successful athletes have spoken of envisioning their performance prior to the game or a key shot. Jack Nicklaus has said that he has never made a shot which he didn’t first see. Thus it seems that one’s ability to imagine how he will respond in certain situations can be an important indicator of how successfully he will interact with the world.
Unfortunately, many, myself included, seem to have significant difficulties imagining themselves living a holy life. Read more…
Language is sacred. It is holy. It is a vehicle of the communion for which we have been made. The WORD became flesh, sanctifying language and communicating with us through it and thereby raising us and our language to new heights.
But we have trashed language, not merely by speaking vulgarities and banalities, for we live in an age in which words have lost their sign value. They no longer actually refer to any objective reality in our minds. When one sees smoke, that signifies fire, but words no longer offer a direct link to concrete realities. They don’t really mean anything. We don’t stand by our words, thus language has become impotent – unable to communicate the truth of ourselves.
Indeed many of us have become abstracted from ourselves. We know a certain thing to be true, good, beautiful, but because the words no longer effectively signify, we have diffuclty reconciling our lives, our actions, with these truths. For our words to have authority we must be willing to defend them with our blood, our lives. We cannot determine whether we will ever be asked to stand by our words at such a price, but like the WORD, we must choose to do so. Only then can we hope to effectively communicate love to others.
However, this is difficult. Not only because we are to varying degrees formed by a society of deceit and half-truths, but also because this idea itself often fails to meaningly signify, to take root in us.
In a world which features the dis-integration of persons how can one overcome self-abstraction to stand by his words? How is one to live according to Truth when she so often recognizes it without standing by it, without living in accord with it? How is one to help others, family members, friends, students, etc., to stand by their words, to hear his words, or the words of the Gospel, as integrated persons, such that they are moved to communion and to a reciprocal and authentic communication?
How can I experience metanoia if the words which point to the WORD have been made impotent?