Tough Love

A recent television film about teenage drug addiction effectively and sympathetically portrayed the “tough love” of the parents of self-destructive and rebellious youths. The film focused on two young drug users, a boy and a girl who are romantically involved, and whose common bond is their rebellion against their families and their drug and “punk rock” addiction. The dark side of the glitz and glamour of contemporary rock as shown in MTV videos was striking. Equally striking was the portrayal of the parents’ grief and confusion, and the disordered self- preoccupation and downright nastiness of the kids, who resisted and rebuffed every earnest effort of their parents to help them.

The parents of the two youths meet through a drug therapy program. Everything else they have tried — making excuses for their children, “bailing them out” of the difficulties they get themselves into, putting up with endless insults and the total disruption of their families, trying to “keep the lines of communication open,” loving “dialogue” — only makes their rebellious children worse, and further erodes the family.

In the end one child, the girl, is lost — through a drug overdose. The other returns, like the prodigal son, thoroughly degraded and repentant. He agrees to abide by the rules his parents have set, accepts their authority, and consents to his own rehabilitation, restoration, and reconciliation with his family.

The film made clear that the “tough love” the parents offered to their errant children was often agonizingly difficult — tough — for them as well. Not only because “guilt trips” were “laid on them” by their child and by others who did not, perhaps could not, understand actions which seemed ‘unloving”; but because their decision to be strong — tough — ran counter to their own feelings. The parents were able to persist in their resolve, and to withstand the pressure to capitulate to the child’s demands, only through mutual support and encouragement.

Their strength comes from their deep love for their children, their strong desire to rescue their child from his or her own self-willed destructive impulses, and from their realization that to continue their “loving” permissiveness will certainly destroy the child and the rest of the family. Even the mother whose daughter kills herself realizes that she is not, ultimately, responsible for her daughter’s suicide, and encourages the other mother, who wants so desperately to have her son back that she is faltering in her resolve, to let him “tough it out” when he runs away.

The film also made clear that the kids’ feelings of alienation from and oppression by their families were the result of a defect within themselves, of their own disordered will, and not the result of any real oppression or abuse by their parents. In fact, if the parents erred, it was through permissiveness, not its opposite.

The kids blamed their families, however, for everything. They wanted to do exactly what they wanted (get high, sleep around) and furthermore, they used their families’ love (as well as all their other resources) in a completely callous way. Their concern was only for themselves and their “needs.” They manipulated their families mercilessly to get what they wanted.

Reflecting on this movie afterwards, I couldn’t help seeing a rather obvious parallel with certain current problems in the Catholic Church. The film also suggests an answer to the puzzling question about why the “dissident Catholics,” who bitterly resent the Church and everything it stands for, don’t simply, honestly leave it.

Leaving the Church, these individuals would automatically and immediately lose the benefits of their “family identity.” They would no longer be the center of attention, either in the Church or in secular society. Only as Catholics are such people at all interesting to the media, or to anybody else. Furthermore, financial support from the Church would cease. Many of the most vociferous “dissidents” are religious professionals who are literally supported by the Church — for instance, theologians teaching as “Catholics” at Catholic institutions, and nuns who are supported by their religious orders.

In a recent press interview, a woman who is part of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) says that the Catholic Church is her heritage and that she’ll “never leave it.” She describes the participants in the WOC as “tender and gentle.” Yet their rejection of the most central doctrines of the Church, their continual criticism of the hierarchy, and their treatment of orthodox Catholics (especially women) can hardly be described as either “tender” or “gentle.” These women have stated in every possible public forum that the very structure of the Church is inherently evil and oppressive and must be radically remodeled to fit their view and to accommodate their demands of it. Like the rebellious teenagers in the television film, the “dissidents” want all the advantages of membership in the “family” of the Catholic Church, while at the same time they are unwilling to accept either its teachings or its authority to teach.

Theirs is a logically untenable position. Common sense alone reveals the inherent paradox of the radical feminist position relative to the Church. Clearly, no other organization on earth would tolerate the public rejection of everything for which it stands from its members-in-good-standing.

But the Catholic Church is not a mere human organization. Like the family, it is of divine origin, and must deal with its wayward members much as the family does — with forbearing, long-sufferance, patience, and mercy. Yet also with strength and, when required, firmness and even what the world may perceive as “severity.” The Church, like other human institutions, has a right to make demands of its members. But, like the family, it also has an obligation to do so — not only for the benefit and protection of its integrity, its unity, but for the individuals who are part of it — including those experiencing a crisis of faith and who seem bent on the willful destruction of the Church, sacrificing it to their concept of personal freedom.

Because of this similarity with the family it becomes easier to see how the hierarchy (“parents”) find it difficult to deal with the continual assaults from some of its members. Bishops are responsible for the care of souls in their “families” — even those who are rebellious and destructive. Like the shepherd with the lost sheep, they recognize what a loss each member represents, and must do everything in their power to “rescue” those who endanger their own souls, even if they seem willfully to bring this peril on themselves. They must also protect the Church and all its members from the spread of false teaching, from the confusion and disunity it brings.

This is a demanding and difficult task. And at some point “tough love” becomes necessary. As St. Paul makes clear in the second letter to Timothy (chapters 2-4), Christians must patiently instruct “those that oppose themselves” in order that God may “give them repentance to the acknowledging of the Truth . . .” (2:24 ff); Christians must use their knowledge of scriptures “for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (3:16 ft); Christians must “preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” those who “will not endure sound doctrine” (4:2-3).

Bishops, of course, bear the greatest responsibility for this guidance to those in their care and oversight. We certainly must support the bishops when their “tough love” is misunderstood by the world. We must support them by our prayers — and by our actions. For we, too, are responsible for affirming the Faith wherever and by whomever it is attacked. We must prepare ourselves, intellectually and spiritually, for this difficult, sometimes agonizing effort.

“Tough love” is truly “tough” in both senses of the word — “strong” and “difficult.” But in our times no “weak love” or “easy love” will do.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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