It has been a depressing month. A few weeks ago, I had brunch with my brother, a loyal Sunday Catholic. He has a vacation home which he generously offers to our extended family, and during our meal he told me that our college-age grandnephew and his girlfriend had visited. The understanding was that they would occupy separate bedrooms for the duration, but within days, my brother said, chuckling, they were sharing a room. I was dumbfounded. Not just that my sister’s grandson was flouting our family’s moral standards, but that my brother was treating it as a cute anecdote.
That same week, my husband found out that his niece, a young lady in her twenties, reared in a “good Catholic family,” announced that she was buying a house with her boyfriend. No mention of an engagement. Just “We’re moving in together” stated without shame.
Our older daughter is engaged, and we are drawing up a wedding guest list. My family’s policy has been that engaged couples are invited to family weddings, but “plus-ones” will be considered on a case-by-case basis, with the presumption against an automatic invitation. Anyone who hasn’t yet become engaged isn’t serious enough to be considered as part of the “big picture” family-wise. This policy has always worked well—until now. As we looked at the guest list, we realized that “not engaged but clearly living together” couples abounded, and included close members of everyone’s families. To stick with our policy would be to alienate a healthy portion of our guest list and cause lifelong hard feelings toward the Bride.
It is not news that the moral fiber of our culture is gone. The news is that the toxicity has invaded our homes. My husband and I have always been grateful that the battlefield stopped at our front door. As bad as things were “out there,” our children were surrounded by families who embraced the teachings of the Church, and expected them to do the same. Now even that small moat is filling in. I am reminded of that old “scary story” told around campfires in which the babysitter receives a phone call from a Scary Man who threatens to murder her. Fearing for her life, she calls 911 only to have the operator suddenly announce that “The Intruder is in the house!” Many Catholic families realize that the Intruder is now in the house.
What to do? Acknowledge defeat and redouble our efforts to rear our children in an even smaller bunker of Catholic moral teaching? That choice is not practically possible; I know Catholic families who have tried, only to end up exactly where the rest of us are. The culture works like an odor-free gas that seeps in through every crack and window. Apart from the practical feasibility of “Bunker Catholicism,” we have that tricky little command from Jesus Christ to “Go forth, and make disciples of all nations.”
Most Catholic families I know have been struggling for a while with “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholicism. Our generation’s catechesis was so awful that it would be funny if the stakes weren’t so high. I learned nothing serious about Catholicism in the Catholic schools I attended from 1963-1987. I did learn that “Jesus is my most undemanding friend”; how to make a collage, and the lyrics to “Both Sides Now,” “Joy is Like the Rain,” and “Kumbaya.” Regardless of how nutty the outside world became, though, I always knew what the Catholic Faith meant inside my own extended family, and that was what mattered.
As poor as my generation’s catechesis was, the generation we are rearing has fared even worse. Whereas we were poorly catechized, they were UN-catechized. When our son was in the fourth grade, his Art Teacher told him that there are three positions on abortion: pro-life, pro-abortion, and pro-choice. (Why the Art Teacher was talking about abortion at all is another article altogether.) Before our daughter’s first communion, she was given a workbook on saints which named as Saints worthy of emulation Martin Luther King, Christopher Reeve, and Martin Luther. Before my son’s confirmation, his teacher asked the class to define the Holy Spirit. My son volunteered that the Holy Spirit was the “Third Person of the Trinity, created out of the love between Father and Son, and revealed at Pentecost,” only to have his teacher say that while his answer was “fine,” a better definition of the Holy Spirit was “The spiritual energy of Jesus.”
Our children survived—even learned to giggle at—these stories because what mattered to them was what we believed, what we taught them. They counted on us to teach them the truth, and we were supported in that task by our own families. What they heard from us was reflected in the lives of their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Now we are seeing the toxic culture encroaching on even our extended families. The robust Catholicism of our grandparents and parents has been slowly hollowed out and is now collapsing all around us. The stakes are too high to be satisfied with the usual curmudgeonly complaint about the state of the world. We have to act.
Before choosing the most prudential response to this situation, it is important that we correctly diagnose what has gone wrong. Certainly part of the problem can be traced to our generation’s own compromises with the culture. Too many Catholics of our generation have gradually pulled back from Church teachings that weren’t a “big deal”: taking a “vacation dispensation” from Sunday mass when on vacation, using contraception to avoid having a big family, ceasing from regular confession, neglecting Stewardship, not saying Grace before meals or family rosaries, and generally behaving as if no one’s immortal soul is actually at stake. We are reaping the fruits of those choices; materialism and laziness has done Satan’s work for him.
Not only has our generation made too many choices to compromise Church teaching in the name of our own comfort, we have also patted ourselves on the back far too often for being “enlightened Catholics.” We have been told time and again that our American Catholics are the most educated Catholics in history. That is nonsense, but the problem is that many of us believe it.
Several years ago, a student asked me to oversee her Senior Honors Project. “Emma” was reared in a Catholic home and went to Catholic schools. One day she burst into my office, thrilled to tell me that she was engaged. As we talked, I realized that she and her fiancé were planning to contracept in order to postpone children until all graduate degrees had been earned. I gently told “Emma” that the Church stood against artificial contraception for some very good reasons. She was shocked. Her mother had told her that this was a question that the Church told its members to freely decide for themselves.
Emma was open to hearing about the teaching, and we talked at length. She viewed me as a successful professional with a happy marriage and a thriving family, and she was intrigued. Eventually, “Emma” became willing to try Natural Family Planning; she wanted her marriage to succeed, which she discovered was less likely if they contracepted. Having experienced her own ignorance—an ignorance she didn’t even know she suffered from—“Emma” decided to study Perceived vs. Actual Knowledge for her Project. She devised a questionnaire about Church sexual teaching on non-marital sex and contraception, and followed by a survey in which her subjects would rate their own grasp of Church teaching. Her sample came from the campuses of two sizeable colleges in the area, including her own. All were Catholic.
Over 90 percent of the respondents rated their understanding of Church teaching as “Very High.” Less than 40 percent of those very same respondents actually scored higher than 45 percent on the test—a yawning gap between perceived and actual knowledge of Church teaching on sexuality. These were college students, supposedly some of the most “highly educated” members of the faith.
Nothing is going to get better until ignorant Catholics recognize their ignorance. But how is that ever going to happen? What could ever inspire our children to acknowledge what they don’t know and search it out? Apologetics are useless if their audience doesn’t know it needs them. The Catechism doesn’t teach when it is on our bookshelves. The Theology of the Body can be an answer only if the questions are being asked.
This is not to claim that it isn’t important for Catholic parents to be ready to answer questions and teach; every Catholic parent needs to spend at least as much time on learning her own faith as she does on decorating the nursery or driving around to sports events. No matter how good our arguments are, however, they aren’t enough. In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More’s friends beg him to “be reasonable” and accept Henry VIII’s rejection of Church teaching on marriage. Thomas replies that in the end, it is “not a matter of reason, but of love.” It is not enough to know. We have to love.
Many Catholics are, in fact, catechized but deeply angry. When they converse about contemporary moral culture, rage and disdain drip from their words. The anger and fear are understandable, but it is time to get over it. Children and young people are attracted to joy. They will listen to what we say only if they want what we have. Do our children see us behaving as if Holy Mass is an incredible privilege that we are lucky to be invited to? Do they see us going to confession gratefully and regularly? This one is especially important; our children know better than anyone how flawed and sinful we are. Do they see us treating people with compassion and affection? Do they look at our lifelong committed marriages and see us as clearly “in love,” still exchanging hugs and kisses and doing nice things for each other without being asked? Do they hear us tell stories about our own courtship that reveal how much joy we experienced even as we worked hard to keep the commandments? One story my children adored was about my aunt who married in 1946. Her wedding took place at 7:30 in the morning, followed by a Wedding Breakfast. As I relate to my three, when I asked my aunt one day why on earth she married at 7:30 in the morning, she replied, “Because my husband was so handsome and I couldn’t wait to get right to the lovemaking!” This always sounded like so much more fun than today’s weary bride and groom showing up the day after the ceremony to open gifts, the “first time” being far back in the rear view mirror.
When I hear that my grandnephew is having a sexual relationship with no engagement on the horizon, and that my niece is buying a house with a man who cannot find the gumption to marry her, I am tempted to say, “Do you know that you have just cut your chances of a lifelong and happy marriage in half? Why do you think so little of yourself and your partner that you would risk your futures?” Yet there is no point in saying these things if these young people aren’t already attracted enough to my life to hear what I have to say. Somewhere along the way, the young people in our families stopped listening to their elders. Why aren’t they attracted enough to our lives to hear what we have to say?
When Catholics point out the brokenness of others without acknowledging our own profound brokenness, when we value prestige or financial success over holiness, what do our children learn about the connection between Catholicism and a joyful life? Would Jesus recognize us as one of his own? My safe perch behind my Catholic extended family is disappearing under my feet like the sand in the ocean when the waves move back out to sea. Any temptation to smugness is gone; young people no longer want what my generation has. It is time to ask if our lives are truly Walking Catechisms of Joy; if not, then our values will not be contagious. None of this will be easy. But we have to start, and not lose hope. The Intruder is in the house. But Jesus is standing with us, asking us to rejoice and be glad because it is the only way we can begin to disarm him.