Seven spiritual mistakes of “good Catholic parents”
A few weeks ago I wrote that the greater part of what is wrong with young people today is parents (see A Church of kids: Will the Synod on Youth get it backwards?). I also touched briefly on some key elements of sound Catholic parenting, particularly in education. But it would be wrong to give the impression that I know how to raise your children.
Prayerful, engaged parents understand their children better than anybody else does, except God. Moreover, each child is different. With children, while parents must be fair, one size does not fit all, and it never will. Neither the State nor the day care system nor the schools (nor even yours truly) can raise your children nearly as well as you can—if only you will avoid the very first spiritual mistake listed below. But check yourself against the other six mistakes as well. My purpose here is to help you avoid what I see as the seven biggest spiritual pitfalls for those who try hard to be good Catholic parents.
1. Failure to pray: The very first principle of good parenting is that parents are flawed creatures who, even with the best of intentions, make significant and even serious mistakes. Yet you would be amazed at how many Catholics do not recognize the inescapable corollary: Parents must pray daily both for their children and for themselves: To understand their children rightly, to raise them well, and to secure Divine protection. You and your children have guardian angels, too, so call them to account! The point is that grace is available for parents as parents and for children as children. Fostering the reception of grace in your whole family must be even more constant than your natural human love.
2. Over-engagement: Call it an emphasis on doing over being, or a lopsided preference for the active over the contemplative life: We live in a hyperactive and hyper-distracted culture. One symptom of this is constant overwork in our paying jobs, but it can also manifest itself in chronic over-engagement. For “good Catholics”, this often includes justifying too much time taken from family life for apostolic work. But even apostolate does not trump vocation. Over-engagement communicates to children that the culture of the family must take second or third or fourth place. A lack of presence of parents to their children, when it is not absolutely demanded by the survival of the family itself, teaches that the loving formation of children is not the high priority parents claim it to be.
3. Transcendental restriction: Consider the three transcendentals—truth, goodness, and beauty. Interest in and attraction to these transcendentals mark three different paths to God, and each person is more attuned to one of these paths than the others. In many counter-cultural Catholic families today, parents find themselves in conflict with a world which rejects nearly every specific teaching of the Church. In consequence, it is not uncommon for them to emphasize doctrine, doctrine and more doctrine. But these same parents are likely to have children who (whether generally or at certain stages) are far more attracted to saints than to catechists, or far more attracted to the beauty of God as manifested in nature and art than in the mastery of moral principles. Parental attention and approval must recognize and encourage all of the transcendentals, that is, all of these ways to God.
4. Spiritual smothering: When I was growing up, I knew neighborhood kids with over-protective parents who would never permit anything that involved even the slightest risk. The same problem can occur spiritually, especially in the midst of a culture hostile to faith and morals. But children who are too isolated from the larger culture, with all its benefits and all its dangers, can be easily overwhelmed when finally released into the world. Kids are not best served by what we might call the formation of theoretical virtues in the complete absence of temptation. Just as children need physical exercise, they need moral exercise. This requires judicious exposure to the life they will one day be called to live as mature Christians in the world. The same applies to a form of spiritual smothering which prevents children from awakening to all the gifts of God which manifest themselves outside the realm of specifically “Catholic” and “spiritual” activities.
5. Hypercriticism: It is hard to remain upbeat when living in a culture hostile to nearly everything we believe, and in a Church which too closely mirrors that culture. The Devil launches a gigantic wave of temptations against serious Catholics to be annoyed by every failing and to comment instantly on what is wrong (including in our kids). One of my adult children mentioned that he was so used to hearing me criticize bishops that it took him a long time to enter into a proper relationship with the Catholic hierarchy. (Happily, I have another adult child who remembers that, after Mass one day, when the kids were commenting negatively on how the liturgy had been done, I pointed out that not one of us is worthy of even the most poorly said Mass.) Parents who constantly criticize everything, including their children and their children’s friends, cannot be surprised if their children run for cover as adults.
6. Confusion between tradition and Tradition: Readers of CatholicCulture.org tend to accept everything the Church teaches and try to live accordingly. While many of their neighbors confuse cultural platitudes with the Faith, our readers are more likely to confuse Catholic traditions with Catholic Tradition. For example, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven is part of Tradition (and therefore revealed), but the use of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is not. The unique particulars of this rite and even the use of Latin itself are simply human Catholic traditions. This does not mean it is wrong to have a preference for them—only that they are preferences. Parents who treat any human traditions as if they are Tradition run the risk of alienating their children from the Church when they realize that something inculcated as a matter of Faith is not Divinely ordained.
7. Emotional piety: The cases encompassed by item 6 are often occasioned by unrecognized emotional attachments. Just as our approach to the Faith can be too narrowly focused on behaviors or doctrines as if they exhaust the Divine mystery (see item 3), so too can our piety be too rooted in human emotion. While this can affect us in all kinds of ways, a classic example is found in the charismatic experience, which tends to be emotionally stimulating, and can lead to a confusion between feelings and the action of the Holy Spirit. Parents run a risk when the experience of the Faith they offer their children is predominately emotional. Unlike reverence and the principles of faith and morals, emotions cannot be inculcated. No matter what the context, if emotions are at the core of religious commitment, children who do not experience these emotions will drift away as they mature.
This list will do little good for the majority of those who claim the Catholic name. Better indeed that they should fall into a few of these excesses than continue to be lukewarm, proud of being in step with the larger culture, refusing to make the sacrifices to give their children a truly Catholic education, and failing to recognize that Catholicism must effect that revolution in all their affections which we call conversion. Such parents may well see these pitfalls as warnings against the very effort to acquire what St. Francis de Sales would call true devotion.
No, this is for those who are self-consciously committed to raising children to be lifelong Catholics. I have tried to outline seven dangers frequently experienced by parents who take their Catholicism very seriously. For, serious as we may be, we are all still very much “on the way”. We may be committed souls and committed parents, but we are as weak and fallible and sinful as anyone else who has received the treasure of the Faith with far too little gratitude.
Still, much has been given to us in our children, and so much is expected of us. Therefore, we must not fully trust our fallen nature. As parents we must be trained and corrected through constant prayer, by the Church and by Christ Himself. And of course even after our children are grown—and even if they fall away—our prayers must never cease, nor our confidence that Christ and His Church will bring them safely home.
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