It all started with a Twitter rant.
A single Catholic in D.C. (CNA’s Christine Rousselle, to be exact) sounded off in personal disappointment about a speed dating event that she was attending at a local parish.
Per the norm for many things related to Catholic dating, throngs of women quickly signed up, while the event struggled to capture the interest of men, despite the $10 price that included drinks and appetizers.
The tweet spread throughout so-called Catholic Twitter and beyond, and hundreds chimed in.
“What’s wrong with these men? $10 drinks and apps and talking to women and they still won’t show up?” one commenter said. “Seems like a silly event,” said another.
The conversation sparked by the tweet captured more than just one woman’s frustration with a one-time event. Single Catholics bemoaned the many difficulties of modern dating - finding someone with the same beliefs, limited options of single Catholics who live in certain areas, the uneven ratio of Catholic women to men, those who seem forever to be discerning and never committing, and so on.
Catholic-specific online dating options have also, until recently, been quite limited. One or two sites with dial-up era technology, no apps, and high prices remained the only options for years for single Catholics hoping to meet new people, but wanting to avoid the “Netflix and Chill” culture associated with certain secular dating apps.
Times are tough in the Catholic dating world, but there are people who are paying attention - and trying to change the game.
Meet the #CatholicYenta
Emily Zanotti, a married mother of 5-month-old twins and editor for the Daily Wire, is one such person paying attention to the woes of her single sisters and brothers in Christ.
In her personal life, she already boasts several successful matches she’s arranged between friends resulting in multiple marriages and, so far, five babies. She once paid a friend $5 to ask out someone she suggested - they are married now.
“I find matchmaking to be really fun and it's something that I've done for friends and acquaintances for quite a long time,” Zanotti told CNA.
When she saw the speed dating conversation on Twitter, Zanotti somewhat off-handedly offered her matchmaking skills to anyone on Catholic Twitter who wanted to be set up. She asked interested parties to respond to her Tweet or send her a message with some contact information and personal information that she could use to follow up with them and find them a match.
The response, she said, was “overwhelming.”
“By the end of about three days - and this is to some extent thanks to help from the Jennifer Fulwiler Show on Sirius, which I went on after this exploded on Twitter - we had a thousand people sign up for this #CatholicYenta matchmaking service,” Zanotti said.
A yenta is a colloquial term for a Jewish matchmaker (it was popularized by the musical Fiddler on the Roof - the real Yiddish term for matchmaker is ‘shadchanit’). The name #CatholicYenta originally started off as a joke between Zanotti and one of her Jewish friends, who tagged her as the #CatholicYenta when she found out what Zanotti was doing.
“So I was like, you know what? No one owns that domain. Let's go,” Zanotti said.
Now an official website, Catholics can sign up for the Yenta’s matchmaking services by answering 19 questions, including a question about liturgical preferences, questions about work and pace of life, and questions about family, hobbies and interests.
There’s no algorithm-generated matches here. Zanotti is combing through each one, following up with phone calls with each applicant, and doing what she does best - personally introducing couples whom she thinks would make a good match. She said most of this will be done through email. She’ll even help coordinate the first meet-and-greet for the couple, if necessary.
For good matches, Zanotti said she pays attention to personality traits and senses of humor the most, she said, as well as if they have similar tastes in blogs or podcasts or other media.
“I find that sense of humor is a really, really good way of telling which people go together,” Zanotti said. “If they laugh at the same jokes, if they read some of the same people, I get the sense that they're ready to be matched together.”
She’s also relying on prayer and the Holy Spirit to help inspire her.
Zanotti said she’s trying to keep the matches confined to relatively the same geographical area, although she is doing some long-distance matching for those who indicated that they would be open to it.
When asked if the gender ratios of her applicants were as skewed as the D.C. speed dating event that sparked all of this, Zanotti said it was actually nearly “an even split” of men and women.
“There's a lot of men who are very quiet about this. It's not something that I think they tweet about or say or maybe even tell friends,” she said.
“I think a lot of this has to do with the way dating is right now,” she added. “There's a lot of emphasis on app dating and hookup culture and so much of it is impersonal. And I think people just responded to the idea that they want a human connection...they want to meet people using that special human touch.”
Zanotti met her husband the old-fashioned way, in person at Ave Maria law school.
“My husband asked me out on MySpace, so that's how long I’ve been out of the dating pool,” she said.
A lot has changed about dating culture since then. Zanotti said she hopes #CatholicYenta is helping to fill in the gaps where modern dating culture is lacking for Catholics.
Drops in the number of people of faith have alone narrowed people’s options, she said. Catholics are often found in small enclaves throughout the country, and if one doesn’t find a match within one’s limited enclave, it can be really difficult to meet other Catholics.
“I think people who are serious about their faith and serious about values are not particularly served by the options that are out there,” she said. “It is really difficult for Catholics and people of faith to find people who share their values in this dating pool.”
Zanotti has plans for #CatholicYenta’s expansion beyond the questionnaire, she said. She is launching a new, updated website soon, and hopes to expand the site’s services to include dating coaching, prayer groups, counseling options for married couples, and a network of people who are married or religious who want to help single people find each other.
She encouraged Catholics to pray more for their single friends who want to be married.
“To have people praying for Catholic marriages, praying for matches for the people who participate in this...the more prayer we can have, the better,” she said. “In order for Catholicism to grow and flourish, you have to have serious Catholics getting married and having children, and we need to pray for that.”
Catholic Chemistry: An updated look for Catholic online dating
While #CatholicYenta was created specifically in response to the recent Catholic tweet-storm, other initiatives have also been popping up to address the frustrations of Catholics looking for better options in the dating realm.
Chuck Gallucci is another Catholic who noticed that there was something lacking in the dating sphere for those who took their faith seriously.
While he got married in 2015, Gallucci said he had spent years prior to that on Catholic dating websites and grew frustrated with them.
“I always thought, ‘I could make something better than this. I can definitely do something better,’” recalled Gallucci, who is a web developer for Catholic Answers by trade.
“The sites felt like they were stuck in the ‘90s, they weren't really on par with modern web design. That was a big deal,” he said. “And then there didn't seem to be much unique about them. It's just a database of profiles. I get that it's hard to break out of that, it's hard to innovate in this space, but I did think that there were some things that can be done.”
Furthermore, he said, “there are many that present themselves as a Catholic dating site but... it's questionable, and this is so important, this is people's vocations. And I thought it would be good to have some service that would be conducive to the vocation of married life.”
That’s why Galluci, now a married father of three, started Catholic Chemistry last year. The site has an updated feel and a simple design, and a few funny videos about disastrous dates to pique the interest of potential subscribers.
“It was born out of frustration with the available options, solidarity with my fellow single Catholics and understanding what it's like, and just my love for web design and web development and knowing I can make something that can be useful to the Catholic community of single people,” he said.
Catholic Chemistry has many of the features of other Catholic dating websites - profiles with basic biographical information, as well as information about personality, hobbies, interests and questions about the Catholic faith.
Some new features, however, include more easily accessible and available chat features that make it easier for users to start conversations with each other.
“I think that's one of the problems in young adult Catholic communities is a hesitation to start anything, or it's just hard for people to start a conversation to make connections,” Gallucci said. “So I tried to come up with some features on the website that help singles to make more meaningful connections and make it easier for them to break the ice.”
One of those features is a quiz on the profile called “Which is more you?” Users are given the options between two different items, and they select which speaks to them the most. They might be religious things, like St. Francis or St. Dominic, Gallucci said, or more cultural things like soda or kombucha.
“It gives you a good feel of a more rounded picture of who this person is,” he said.
Moreover, it can be an easy and fun way to break the ice with a new connection, he said. Users can only see answers to “Which is more you” questions on profiles if they have also answered those same questions.
“And so if you're like, ‘I'm all about kombucha’ and then they answered kombucha, that's a starting point.”
The site then allows any user to click on the person’s response, which opens a chat window to start a conversation.
“You can say, ‘Hey, I've been brewing my own kombucha and I just can't figure it out. Do you have any tips?’ Something like that,” Gallucci said. Or if there is an image on someone’s profile, a user can click on that image, and a chat will open up with the image and a space for the person’s comment.
“It's just a way to break the ice,” Gallucci added.
Some dating apps and sites have restrictions on who can initiate conversations, or on how connections are made (i.e. women must send the first message, only two people who have mutually “liked” each other may message, etc.). Gallucci said he considered some of these, but ultimately decided to let any subscribing user be able to initiate a conversation with any other subscribing user.
“I thought that would only put more friction on starting conversations and I didn't want to have that as a limitation,” he said.
Another unique feature is the search function, Gallucci said. Users can search for other users based on things they have mentioned in their profiles, like St. Therese or skiing. They can also search based on age, location, liturgical preferences, and so on.
“For whatever reason, I haven't seen that on other sites.” Gallucci said. “It's a great way to explore, to browse (profiles).”
Gallucci said he tries to make the site feel fun while also encouraging serious discernment of the vocation of marriage.
“The goal of (the site) is ultimately finding someone to marry and start a vocation with, but also not doing that in a way where it takes the fun out of it or becomes too uptight,” he said.
Soon after the launch of the site in 2018, Catholic Chemistry created an app, making them one of the first Catholic dating sites to do so. Since then, other major Catholic dating site players, like Catholic Match and Catholic Singles, have also launched apps.
“Healthy competition breeds innovation, so that's good,” Gallucci said.
Gallucci said Catholic Chemistry is “growing exponentially, it's growing really fast,” and he already boasts a marriage of a friend of his who met his spouse through the site and “many, many” other matches made through it.
“One of my coworkers at Catholic Answers was a beta tester for for Catholic Chemistry...and the beta testers who were single, they rolled over when the site went live. So he was on the site, and he ended up meeting his current wife. They just got married in November... I went to their wedding and it was beautiful,” Gallucci said.
Once users have found a match, they can close their accounts and complete an exit quiz about their experience on the site, Gallucci said. He also sends couples materials on discernment to help them in their relationship.
Gallucci added that the best advice he can give single Catholics hoping to marry is to put God first in their relationships.
“In today's cultural climate, it's obviously very difficult for a single Catholic to do dating right, to do it the way God wants them to,” he said.
“I know it's frustrating, at times it feels like they are slim pickings, to find somebody who shares your faith, not just nominally, but who lives it. And there's so many temptations along the way...the thing is Catholics know deep down that all their pursuits, everything driving them, even their pursuit of a future spouse is ultimately seeking God and pursuing God. If you don't start there, you're bound to end up in disaster.”
Reviving a college dating culture
Thomas Smith and Anna Moreland are both professors at Villanova University, an Augustinian school in Pennsylvania.
Smith and Moreland, who are friends as well as colleagues, talk frequently about their teaching experiences with one another, and started to notice several years ago that their students were excelling academically but not necessarily in other areas of adult life.
“I run the honors program at Villanova, and we started noticing several years ago that students were kind of overdeveloped in one facet of their lives, particularly academics, with a very relentless approach to professionalization and work life,” Smith said. “But they weren't as developed in other areas of their life that are equally important, and romantic life is one of them.”
Students’ lack of knowledge on how to date became immediately apparent to Moreland about 10 years ago in her Introduction to Theology course, where she offered a dating assignment based off the one created by Professor Kerry Cronin of Boston College.
Cronin, whose assignment is now featured in a dating documentary called “The Dating Project,” came up with an assignment for her students to ask someone out on a first date. The rules: They must ask a legitimate romantic interest out on a date – and they must ask in person. The date must be no longer than 60-90 minutes. They should go out to ice cream or coffee or something without drugs or alcohol. You ask, you pay – and a first date should only cost about $10. The only physical contact should be an A-frame hug.
A friend of Cronin’s, Moreland borrowed the assignment for what she thought would be a one-time thing.
“I offered it as an optional assignment instead of their last short paper,” Moreland said. All but one of her students opted for the dating assignment.
“When I read their reflection papers, I was really thrown back on my heels. So much so, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do this again,’” she said, and she’s been offering the dating assignment in classes and workshops ever since.
“I was hoping to talk about the Trinity and the Eucharist and in my intro theology class, I literally was not expecting to get into the nuts and bolts of how to date on a college campus. But the students responded so positively,” she said.
One thing that both Moreland and Smith said they started to notice in their students was that many of them were fed up or not interested in participating in the hook-up culture that is popular on college campuses, but they didn’t seem to know any alternative approach to dating and relationships. They found that their students were either hooking up or opting out of romantic relationships entirely - and a majority of them were opting out.
“Hooking up was really the only thing on offer, and not how to break out of that kind of paltry possibility,” Moreland’s students had complained to her.
“And it's not just dissatisfaction with the hooking up, it's this epidemic of loneliness that's starting to blossom,” Smith said. A 2017 survey of roughly 48,000 college students found that 54% of males and 67% of females reported feeling “very lonely” at some point in the past year.
Moreland said she had a student remark at the end of the dating assignment that she planned to use the same strategy to make friends - to ask them to lunch in the cafeteria or to a movie.
“Students have this default of watching Netflix on their leisure time. It's easy. It doesn't demand anything of them. They don't have to become vulnerable to anyone or anything,” Moreland said. “And so they're overworked and then they binge-watch Netflix. That's the pattern of their day, quite frankly.”
So Moreland and Smith, along with some other professors at Villanova, teamed up to create an Honors program called “Shaping a Life,” where one-credit courses were offered to teach students about dating and romantic relationships, as well as friendships, free time, professional development, vocations, discernment and more.
When it comes to dating, Smith and Moreland said their work in these classes is a “re-norming of expectations.” They talk about intimacy not just as something physical, but as “knowing and being known, and loving and being loved,” Smith said. They talk about appropriate levels of intimacy, depending on the level of relationship or friendship.
“We’ve got this third option that we're trying to rehabilitate called dating, and it's not what you think it is,” Moreland said she tells her students. “It's not casual sex, it’s casual dating. That takes a lot of work.”
Reviving a sense of true romance and dating is connected to other things that well-formed Catholic adults need, Smith added.
“The loss of a sense of romance in life is part of a larger flattening out of eros, the erotic dimension of love. That's clearly the kind of love that's in play when you go out on a romantic date, but it's connected to all sorts of other phenomena in life that Catholics should be in tune with,” Smith said. “Love of beauty, love of art, music, anything that really takes you out of yourself and invites you to unite with something that you find compelling, or beautiful ideas. These all have this kind of ‘eros’ dimension to them. So we're inviting them to think about loving a much broader way and I think a much more Catholic way.”
Smith and Moreland are currently working on compiling what they’ve learned through their Shaping a Life program into a book for college students that will serve as a guide to these many facets of adult life. Dating and romance, they said, is just one chapter.
The professors are also not alone among colleges and universities in the country who are noticing a lack of human formation in their students and are trying to address it. Smith said he knows of similar programs at multiple schools, including Valparaiso University, Baylor University, Notre Dame University, University of California at Berkeley, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania that are addressing similar issues with their students.
“These are places around the country that are really trying to think through in a different way what this generation of students needs and trying to get college right, because in a lot of ways colleges are failing in this task of inviting students into adulthood,” Smith said.
Moreland said she has been encouraged by her students’ strong desire for something other than what the hookup culture is offering.
“We have these little successes and one of them was in my office last week,” Moreland said. A student of hers in her Shaping Adult Life class came in, excited to tell her about his first date.
“And he said to me, ‘Dr. Moreland, I did it. I did it last Friday. I saw a girl across the room, we had a connection and I thought if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it now. So I walked up to her, I asked her out for coffee, I asked her for her number, then we went out for coffee on Monday. Then we went for dinner last night.’”
“And he just looked at me and he said, now what do I do?" Moreland said they sat down and came up with a plan for next steps together, including planning around finals week.
“It was like I was his matchmaker,” she said.
Smith said he’s encouraged that so many schools are taking notice of how colleges have failed students in preparing them for dating and other facets of adult life.
“There's lots of people of goodwill who kind of are waking up and realizing, well, this is not getting done in ways that are really compelling for students,” he said. “The students I have now have this palpable sense that the adult world is not there for them. They really feel like the adult world is not helping them over the threshold to become fully integrated adults. That's really a shame.”
“But I think it’s an untold story that there's a lot of good people across the country noticing this and trying to think the problem through.”