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Jill RiceFebruary 10, 2023
Composite from America Media.

The genre that spawned “Bridgerton” and Fifty Shades of Grey is, on the surface, the least Catholic type of fiction available today. The sexual content, the occasional S&M, the salty language—all are so morally problematic that anyone who reads them needs to go to confession, right?

Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

In my many years as an avid romance reader and even more committed Catholic, I have had to face these questions from people who know me—and if I am honest, from myself.

One argument that emerges frequently, especially from religious critics, is that romance novels can promote infidelity in marriage. But would the same detractors argue that a murder mystery instigates readers to kill? While the vast majority of characters in contemporary romance novels are not religious, the way in which they face long-term relationships has a distinctly Catholic flavor. By its end, each romance novel roughly follows teachings from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which outlines the “free, total, faithful, fruitful” love that should ground every marriage.

Romance characters are always free to consent to the relationship; they are not coerced. This, too, falls in line with the Catholic view of love chosen by the will.

A Love that is Free and Total

According to the Romance Writers of America, a romance novel is only a romance novel when it has a happy ending, specifically one in which the two main characters enter into a long-term, committed relationship (often they are engaged or married in an epilogue).

“There’s true rapture and forgiveness modeled in romance novels,” said Vanessa Zoltan, host of the podcast Hot and Bothered about romance and feminism, in an interview with Harvard Divinity School. There is “radical consent and love and going through despair to get to hope. Because romance novels have a guaranteed ‘happily ever after’ in the genre definition, you can go to risky places with the characters because you know everything will end well.”

I recently finished Playing the Player, in which the male protagonist never wanted to get married to the female protagonist. It wasn’t that he did not love her. In fact he was prepared to declare to his friends that he was dedicated to her and to have children with her. But because of his parents’ issues with their marriage, he did not want to get married. This became the main source of conflict toward the end of the book; the heroine wanted the ultimate commitment, the permanence of marriage, and he did not feel he could do it. (Ultimately, after a few twists, he and his lover of course get married.)

Free love, as defined in the church, differs greatly from Woodstock-era “free love”; its freedom is a function of its unconditionality, and the fact that it is chosen by the will. Romance novels will begin with initial attraction, lust even, but that turns into something more. The book reaches a turning point when one character admits s/he loves the other. Especially if the relationship starts as a purely physical one, the characters must show that their love is more than lust. They abstain from sex; they prove their love through gestures or actions rather than in the bedroom.

Plus, romance characters are always free to consent to the relationship; they are not coerced. This, too, falls in line with the Catholic view of love chosen by the will.

Whatever skeletons hidden deep in the closet are dragged out into the open, the hero and heroine face these challenges together and the reader is assured that they will get over this hurdle and live better on the other side.

The love given by the characters is also total, meaning that prenups are not necessary. Whatever skeletons hidden deep in the closet are dragged out into the open, the hero and heroine face these challenges together and the reader is assured that they will get over this hurdle and live better on the other side. They are willing to give up money, power or position in order to stay together.

In The Austen Playbook, a theater critic and penniless theater owner falls in love with an actress with a problematic relationship with her father; the pair uncover dark and damaging secrets, including the fact that her father’s wealth came at the expense of his family’s savings. They could have seen their family issues as proof they should not be together. Yet instead they have adult conversations about what should be done to maintain their relationship and to rectify the situation. In the end, each is willing to give up career, money and reputation for the sake of the other because the love they share is bigger than any material or societal gains.

Relationships that are Faithful and Fruitful

Romance novels also always show faithful relationships. Characters very seldom have a serious relationship on-page with someone who is not their ultimate partner. And even characters who had slept around previously will not cheat on their partners once they have met and experienced a true connection. When they come together, they realize that their relationship is different from any one they have ever had; no other will ever satisfy.

Trust and forgiveness are vital to any relationship, and that does not change for these fictional ones. They are faithful to each other by the genre conventions, but they justify it not from some religious grounds but simply because they could not fathom loving anyone else in the same way.

The characters are faithful to each other by the genre conventions, but they justify it not from some religious grounds but simply because they could not fathom loving anyone else in the same way.

The idea of fruitful love is a simple explanation for the church’s stance on both abortion and contraceptives. While many romance heroines use birth control (and condoms are almost always mentioned directly before a sex scene), the statistic that these are not 100 percent effective still plays into many books. In fact, a trope found in countless romance novels (whether about sports, rock stars, cowboys or otherwise) is aptly called the “secret baby.” The characters have a one-night stand, they swear to never see each other again. But a few weeks later, the heroine finds out she is pregnant by the hero, and she must go confront him about his child.

There might be a short discussion of what she will do with her pregnancy, but in every case that I have read (which is a lot), she chooses to keep the baby, which then leads to a relationship and eventually eternal love with the hero. Though most romance readers and writers would describe themselves as pro-choice and liberal, crossing the line into on-page abortion acceptance is still taboo.

Perhaps it is because this is meant to be a happy story where the characters who have an accidental child will end up together in the end. But surely it is not because romance novels put unrealistic expectations of how easy life will be on their young, impressionable readership: From substance abuse to the death of parents to crime to trauma, romance novels and their characters do not shy away from difficult situations.

The emotionally satisfying ending guaranteed through genre convention allows characters to face huge real-life problems (ones that we might not even face ourselves) and prove that true and rightly ordered love—as the church recommends for all marriages—can outlast even the worst difficulties.

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