Theology course explores marriage and love

Most extra credit assignments involve more schoolwork — extra readings, essays or problem sets. Tim O’Malley, director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life and associate professor of theology, sets an extra credit assignment that deviates from the norm.

In his class, “Nuptial Mystery: Divine Love and Human Salvation,” students get bonus points for going on a date.

But it’s not quite as simple as that, O’Malley insists.

“You have to ask them out. You have to pay for the date … You have to say, ‘I would like to take you out for a date,’” O’Malley said. Cell phone usage is prohibited, and alcohol consumption is limited to a glass of wine if the student is over 21. Bags of Franzia wine as consumed before football games are strictly off-limits, O’Malley added.

After the date, the students have to write a short essay about what they learned, drawing on themes from the class.

“There are multiple students who have gotten married from the dating assignment,” O’Malley said. He receives emails about once or twice a year from soon-to-be-married alumni of the class who met on a “Nuptial Mystery” date.

The class itself focuses on love and the Catholic sacrament of marriage. O’Malley begins the semester by discussing modern perceptions of love, and students read about the sociology of love from books like “Why Love Hurts” and “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation.” They then move to studying the history and development of the sacrament of marriage, reading works by Augustine, Bonaventure, Dante and Martin Luther.

Though discussions throughout the course relate the readings back to students’ personal experiences, the end of the class specifically focuses on future family life.

“Notre Dame prepares you for professional success, but it can sometimes forget that at least part of your life is probably going to involve some dimension of a family, whether that’s marriage, motherhood, fatherhood,” O’Malley said. His class aims to look intentionally at this component of adult life.

In addition to marriage, many class discussions center on friendship and platonic love. O’Malley provides the option for students who are uninterested in dating to go on a “friendship date,” where they meet up with a friend and discuss the nature of their friendship.

“The secret sauce of the whole class is that marriage is just a particular mode of friendship,” O’Malley said.

Grace Ducat, a senior science pre-professional major in the class, said she hasn’t decided whether she’ll go on a date or a friendship date yet.

“As a senior, I don’t know if I see the point of getting into a real romantic relationship right now,” she explained.

Either way, Ducat’s “Nuptial Mystery” experience has been very memorable. One day, she and a classmate held hands and got “married” in front of the 250-person lecture so that the class could understand what the sacrament of marriage sounds like, Ducat said.

Kate McCarthy, a senior psychology major, described O’Malley’s lectures as “really fun and energetic.” He begins each class with a country love song that relates to the day’s material.

“Even though it’s a lecture style class, it’s really participation-heavy, which is kind of impressive that he’s able to get people to participate in a 250-person lecture class,” McCarthy said.

As evidenced by its 250-person cap, the class is extremely popular. When asked why he thinks the material resonates with so many students, O’Malley said that it’s because the questions of love and dating and marriage are central to the life of most college students.

“This is your question. It’s the question that any 18 to 22 year old is asking of him or herself, which is ‘Where will I find friendship and communion for the next 65 years of my life?’” O’Malley said. 

He said that this stems from a dissatisfaction with dating and hookup culture at Notre Dame. 

“Like ‘Why can’t I look someone in the eye when I talk to them? Why can’t I ask them out? … Why are all my texts the result of a seven-hour back and forth with my female friends to determine if I’m saying too much or not? You know, what’s wrong? This is weird,’” O’Malley said.

Though he has adapted material from his class and book on a similar topic to speak at universities across the country, much of the class relates specifically to the Notre Dame campus community. O’Malley graduated from Notre Dame in 2004, and he said that he has grasp on “average dude life” in a residence hall.

“I think what makes Notre Dame unique around hookup culture is the single-sex dorm culture …  And the party culture is weird: parties generally take place in guys’ dorms. Girls are expected to go to guys’ dorms, and these parties are designed to facilitate drunken encounters with one another. All of that exists, but also a lot of you are super religious, or at least marginally religious and so you also have a lot of guilt about it,” O’Malley said.

Indeed, it seems like this class is particularly relevant at an institution like Notre Dame. Marriage is top of mind for much of the student body. This week marked the release of the Marriage Pact, a yearly quiz that matches you with another student based on your answers to a set of personality and value questions. Even after Marriage Pact season, the “ring by spring” is a phrase commonly used to suggest the supposed pattern of Notre Dame students getting engaged or married before graduation.

O’Malley, however, said that the “ring by spring” phenomenon is rare. 

“The average age that a Catholic gets married, incidentally, is 26 years old or 27. And in fact, it’s rising. It’s the oldest of any religious group in the United States,” O’Malley said. He said that instances of Notre Dame students getting married before they graduate are infrequent.

However, O’Malley is in support of the Marriage Pact. 

“I think it forces you to have an early encounter with someone that isn’t drunken, in a dark corner,” he said. “It puts marriage on the table from the beginning, instead of sex. So it’s a different sort of way of thinking about [how] students sometimes deal with romance.”

O’Malley’s goal for the class is for students to understand that theology is a “legitimate intellectual subject” that also deals with the deeply personal.

“I want people to understand that the intellectual life and the personal life are not separate spheres. You read and think and write also to live,” O’Malley said.

He also wants the Catholic students in his class to understand that the sacrament of marriage is not simply a blessing of two people’s love.

“[Marriage] is a consecration of your commitment. You have become different because of this and you have a vocation to it,” O’Malley said.

You can contact Katie Muchnick at