A Church of kids: Will the Synod on Youth get it backwards?
I am one of those who is not sure whether to laugh or cry at the effort of the Catholic Church to devote a Synod of Bishops to youth. It goes without saying that the Church can do many good things with and for young people. But the prospect still raises all of my red flags. Sure, I’m a curmudgeon. But I think those red flags are important cautionary signals as well.
The whole tendency of the modern Western Church to focus on the young is, in most cases, an enormous mistake. To the contrary, the foundational problem of youth in the Church today is the wretched Catholicism of their parents. The vast majority of Catholic parents fail to recognize the first principle of what it means to be young. I will quote this principle from the Book of Proverbs: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6).
This does not mean that there will be no worldly temptations to lead young people astray from the values of even very good families, especially in a secular culture which significantly disadvantages serious Christians. But it does mean that there is no effective way of reaching young people, while they are young, if their parents are not thoroughly and actively engaged in raising them as happy, well-adjusted Catholics who are prepared to live their Faith in a hostile environment as a simple matter of course.
Sadly, a huge majority of Catholic adults, at least in the West, are not themselves committed to living their Faith in a hostile environment, let alone making the sacrifices necessary to raise their children with this commitment in mind. Worse still, even most Catholics who attend Sunday Mass are not significantly challenged to live their Faith in a hostile environment by their priests and bishops. As often as not—perhaps more often than not—they are encouraged only to do those things which the larger culture approves (such as being generous to the poor). They are seldom encouraged to be faithful to Christ in all the ways which the dominant culture rejects.
It is characteristic of a Church with no conception of muscular renewal that it will want to bypass adults and do nice things with the kids. Yet nine times out of ten, or perhaps ninety-nine out of a hundred, young people will not become Christian signs of contradiction as future adults unless their parents are living signs of contradiction right now. Instead, they will have the same reservations about the Catholic Faith that the surrounding culture tells them to have, the same reservations that their parents already have in practice, even if they do not talk about them much.
The truth about youth is simply this: Such children will grow up to be one step further removed from commitment to Christ than their parents were, as a normal consequence of unchecked cultural attrition. Without first addressing what it means to be a Catholic adult, and especially what it means to be a Catholic parent, devoting a synod to listening to youth risks being just like so much else in contemporary Catholicism. Put it this way: Reading the signs of the times is not the same thing as seeking direction from the prevailing winds.
Parents, youth, and education
With reference to young people, then, let me say something about what it means to be a Catholic adult, and a Catholic parent. I can only cover a little here, so I will choose the highly important issue of fulfilling the serious marital obligation of giving children a Christian education. Obviously this begins with parents who are themselves deeply committed to a Catholic family life. Concerning formation and education, the parental viewpoint communicated to each child must be something like this:
“We will educate you well along the lines we think best. But as you grow older, it will never bother us if you choose this or that subject or activity or, later, this or that field of study or, still later, this or that line of work, depending on your own interests, not ours. No, what would bother us is if you do not seek to know God’s will and follow it, if you do not take special care to discern your vocation in every respect. That is what we pray for every day. It is our first responsibility to prepare you for that. In that context we will be more than happy to see you do whatever God calls you to do. No matter what that is. But if you do not seek to know and follow God’s will, we will be heartbroken.”
Within this attitudinal context, when young people are raised in a solid, counter-cultural Catholic family, this means that they will be educated either at home or in schools serving like-minded families, and will be in contact with other kids with the same Catholic family values. If parents pray constantly while making decisions for their children’s good, and teach their children to do the same; if they refuse to regard it as an onerous sacrifice to give up the extra-curricular opportunities and financial freedom offered by public schools; if they make sure their children come into close contact with good priests and religious; if they do all this through the end of high school, while continuing to pray just as hard thereafter: Then they stand some sort of a chance.
But still not necessarily a high-percentage chance! Even under these excellent conditions, the end of high school is too soon to be sanguine. Ordinary (as opposed to heroic) Catholic parents are a strange breed. They are likely to think: “We’ll send the kids to parochial school for the first eight years, and then they can go to a ‘real’ high school.” But what they should be thinking is this: “Even if we make sure our children have a rock-solid Catholic education and formation all the way through high school, will they be ready to survive a typical worldly college?” In many cases, probably most, the answer is “No.”
Improperly formed and educated Catholic children learn throughout their lives, both at home and in school, how weird “everyone” thinks faithful Catholics are. But for Catholic kids who are formed and educated well through high school, going off to college is to suddenly become immersed in an exciting new world only to learn from their professors and their peers that the “best and the brightest” in society think the formation they’ve been given, the moral code they live by, and the beliefs they hold are so utterly stupid as to be ludicrous. They will even be taught that their Catholic values are dangerous and, most likely, evil.
Not all kids love swimming upstream. In fact, most hate it. With the vast majority of young people, it is seriously sinful for their parents to place them in (or permit them to choose) a hostile educational environment just when they leave home and must begin to internalize for themselves the values they lived by as kids. Our culture is largely defined by delayed maturity. For those going to college, who will not yet be more rapidly matured through hard work, two to four more years are critical to this internalization process. Believe me, they will still face enough intellectual and emotional temptation to exercise their spiritual muscles. But if students adopt the Faith as their own in a generally supportive academic environment during these years, later defections will be the exception. Without such an environment, defections will be the rule.
We must also remember that there is something even worse than outright defection, as Our Lord said:
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. [Rev 3:15-16]
I mentioned our culture of delayed maturity, and this sort of lukewarmness is its hallmark. The Church is adversely affected by it as well. In the West, at least, she does not demand much of her members, and almost never calls sharp negative attention even to those who are most scandalous in adopting the hostile values of the larger secular culture. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the Church does not demand much of parents.
This is bad enough, but the full reality is even worse. Not only is she unwilling to demand much of parents, but she often bypasses the demands of adulthood altogether by orienting herself directly toward children, as if adulthood is already a lost cause. Again, I will choose just one example.
The Church in the West seems to think the right way to inculcate Catholicism is to make sure that children get to do everything liturgically, in their own especially cute little way, from elementary school on forward. Thus we have children’s masses, and children lectors, and children cantors and choirs, and children writing the prayers of the faithful, and even children planning the liturgy. Or perhaps we have adults doing all these things in a way that they would like to think should appeal to children. All of this brings the claim of “doing it for the children” to a new low.
In reality, no successful institution has ever proceeded by reducing things to an infantile level and putting the infants in charge. When the Church behaves this way, she teach that the liturgy is a childish thing, soon to be outgrown—after which we can all move on. This approach robs not only children but adults of their maturity. They are not drawn into a noble tradition which it is their solemn duty to continue. This is a grave miscalculation, for what children really aspire to is not “playing Church” but rather growing into all those roles and functions rightly considered to be the serious undertakings of adults. Children yearn, in due time, to take on adult responsibilities in an adult way, as they come of age and their parents grow old.
My own advice would be to delay confirmation until children are reasonably mature and to prohibit anyone from playing a liturgical role (beyond familial roles such as participation in processions and the presentation of the gifts) until they have received the mature and hardy grace conferred by that important sacrament. I grant that there are many sides to the Confirmation question, but it seems logical to me that Confirmation ought to mark the beginning of a truly adult participation in the Church. Instead, in the West, it too often marks the beginning of the end of participation. Either their participation remains childish as adults, or Confirmation marks that moment when the trajectory of “normal” life is to “grow up” and leave the childishness of the sacred mysteries behind.
I hope that this year’s Synod on Youth gets it right. There is much good to be done. But my perception is that, right now, we have got things mostly backwards. The Church, like everyone else, is fond of emphasizing that the children are the future. But neither the future nor the past exists, and we will get nowhere at all in the present as long as we pretend youth can be jollied into becoming active Catholics, without being formed by truly Catholic parents raising truly Catholic families.
Why are children constantly fawned over? This is actually something fairly new in the twentieth and twenty-first century West. Is it because they have the great virtue of immaturity? Is it because we are so afraid to die that we want to preserve that immaturity as long as possible? Or is it simply because we refuse to roll up our sleeves and make serious demands of adults? Whatever the psychological cause, it is no better for the Church to seek to live through young people than for doting parents to live through their children rather than forming them to be highly committed Catholic adults.
If children are our future, then it is bleak future if we do not insist that they grow up. Yet if we do everything for them to succeed as children, they will never grow up. Instead, what they need is to be carefully prepared to take their place in a Church that is a consistent sign of contradiction to the world. This requires seriously Catholic adults. This requires an adult Church.
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