Catholic parents taken unawares? Not any longer.
My visit to my oldest son’s family in the Dallas area this week leads me to reflect on family life as it is lived daily, not as it is lived in the head of a grandfather posting cultural commentaries online. In this case we are talking about Mom and Dad and two boys, ages six and three (and another boy in the oven). And what I discover again in my reflection is the importance of community, that is, of genuine Catholic community. Authentically Catholic communities inculcate values that pedagogical theory struggles to communicate, rooting families in a larger environment which lives and breathes and has its being in Christ.
My wife and I were fortunate to raise our children in two areas with strong Catholic subcultures: Front Royal, Virginia (where Catholicism has prospered under the influence of Christendom College, its many fine graduates and their relations), and Manassas, Virginia (where the same has happened under the influence of Seton Junior-Senior High School, its families and its graduates). It is not a coincidence that both schools were founded in the Diocese of Arlington, a relatively young diocese carved out of Richmond in the 1970s under the leadership of the remarkable Bishop Thomas Welsh. The Church in Arlington supports and nourishes faithful Catholic initiatives, both clerical and lay.
The son I am visiting is a philosophy professor at the University of Dallas, one of the more faithful Catholic universities in the United States. But I would argue that the most important feature of his vocational experience is not his philosophical work (which is excellent, and instructive “even to me”), but the simple fact that he and his wife have made their home in the midst of a strong Catholic community—replete with various new schools in which to educate their children, and full of like-minded families with whom each member of their own family can constructively interact.
This section of Texas is another one of those relatively rare places in the United States where the Church is fairly strong. Sound formation is readily available, lay and clerical Christian initiatives are welcome, and families have that network of material and spiritual support which makes for authentic community.
The genesis of new Catholic communities
There is some truth to the famous expression that lay people in the American Church before 1960 were largely expected to pay (generously), pray (at a rote level), and obey (promptly). While holiness was never completely over the horizon, one of the gifts of the Second Vatican Council was its emphasis on the importance of spiritual growth and apostolic work for the laity. In the wake of the crisis of the priesthood and the episcopate in the 1960s—when we learned how culture-bound the Church really was—the laity had to mature spiritually very rapidly simply to navigate the pitfalls of a cowardly new world.
In the early part of this period of turmoil, then, parents who were Catholic in largely unexamined ways often sent their children off to schools (first colleges and universities, and a little later at the lower levels) in which the cultural legacy of decades of Catholic institutional development was being displaced in favor of a newly popular secularism. To take but one example, parents could send their children to Catholic colleges which had nourished their own faith a generation before, only to find that these same institutions spat their own children out as secularists; or, to secular colleges which had had at least a generally moral atmosphere a generation ago, but had since become cesspools of sexual sin, loosely justified by wild new theories of the human person.
The same problems erupted in diocesan and parish schools, and of course in the public schools, and even in liturgical life and preaching from the pulpit. Almost overnight, Catholic community was shattered—or redefined into oblivion—and the Catholic families who were determined to hang on were dramatically and decisively isolated. Awakening to the danger was difficult enough; finding ways into new faith-filled communities was more difficult still. But these communities did grow and regroup, as desperate Catholics tended to gravitate and settle wherever they could find sound, child-safe parishes and schools.
If we build it, will they come?
The grace of God suffices; I do not mean to say it does not. But the tricky thing about grace is that it is offered in many ways and, in particular, through a wide variety of impulses. There can be no question that all Catholic parents must seriously consider the need to raise their families in the context of faithful Catholic communities. These, like the schools their children attend, are extensions of the indispensable community of the family for healthy natural and supernatural development.
A great many things will affect this consideration, not least of which is the need for employment and income. Not everyone will be able to join a positive community, but every parent has a spiritual obligation to make serious sacrifices of lesser goods to bring this about. It is not that involvement in a vibrant Catholic community ensures the salvation of ourselves and our children, but at least it makes gradual spiritual growth far more likely, growth that is far less likely to be reversed if the influences of a positive Catholic community can be retained through the college years.
The Church has always taught—and rightly—that parents will be judged in large part on whether they have fulfilled their God-given duty to provide their children with a sound Catholic formation and education. Therefore, they are very foolish indeed if they do not take seriously the need to provide this formation within a community which will not constantly attempt to tear down what they are working so hard to build.
Our children have free will. There are no guarantees of success along any particular path, and there is no question that saints can be made in relative isolation. But the broader cultural deck is decidedly stacked against us, so we have a serious responsibility to unstack it as much as possible. In this context, it is a Divine gift and a grace to have the opportunity to raise our families in supportive Catholic communities.
Parents must beware of refusing or undermining the very means God has put at their disposal for making their families spiritually fruitful. When we do this, we are complicit with the hostile culture which surrounds us—and we must bear the guilt. We must bear the guilt of failing to explore the vital possibility of receiving the gift and grace of becoming part of a vibrant Catholic community, and also the guilt of rejecting such opportunities from unworthy motives.
Perhaps we refuse to change jobs or take a manageable cut in pay, or we refuse to educate our children in schools that will not lead to the best performance in secondary areas or the best scholarships in “recognized” universities, or we refuse to change locations owing to non-essential factors of any kind. Or perhaps (God help us) we are simply content with being perceived as semi-decent people in step with their times, and do not aspire to anything more for ourselves or our children.
In the twenty-first century, Catholic parents can no longer claim to be taken unawares. Therefore, we must ask what such refusals signify. Clearly, they suggest that the parents’ faith is not strong enough to withstand the world, the flesh and the devil. Their faith is not the driving force behind their choices. Unfortunately, nothing is communicated more quickly to our children than the central motivation of our own decisions in life, both for ourselves and for them. It is not how much money we make or how many worldly opportunities we have that will make the essential difference to our children, but whether we subordinate these variables to the will of Jesus Christ and His call to eternal life.
Parents must take this question of community very seriously. No one solution is available to everyone, and no one solution is perfect for everyone. But the choice of community is among the most important decisions parents will ever make—and it is a key decision on which they will be judged.
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