A friend of mine, a cradle Catholic who doubts her faith, asked me what she should teach her four-year old about religion. “Everything,” I said, “heaven, hell, God, angels, sin, grace, forgiveness, don’t leave anything out.” “How can I do that,” she responded, “when I’m not sure myself?”
Such attempts at parental honesty can leave a child in the lurch. Consider what children lose when they don’t learn Bible stories. They are deprived of a framework in which to think about the big questions — life, death, good, evil, and most especially, God. Their natural spiritual curiosity goes unfed.
Stories of fairies and goblins are not enough. As C. S. Lewis shows in The Chronicles of Narnia, stories and myths can prepare the mind for understanding spiritual reality. The day comes, however, when unicorns are packed away in the toybox.
Thinking about the immaterial world comes easily to children. Once on a long car trip, my then-six-year old daughter suddenly asked me “who made God?” She insisted God, like everything else, must have a cause. I countered that God’s being was unique and uncaused. We argued back and forth, laughing, but her mother and I were appropriately dazzled by this flash of metaphysical intelligence.
My friend also pressed me about how to talk about death. Her child was easily frightened; she didn’t know whether to take her daughter to visit her grandmother’s grave. Wouldn’t death come to mean being buried under the ground? I suggested she use it as an opportunity to talk about eternity, about heaven, about the soul rising to God. “But I don’t really believe that,” she said.
We all know mothers and fathers like this, torn between the urge to pass along the religious training they received, but held back by their own doubts and disappointments. Among Catholics in this country there is the added fear that their children will be infected by the old prejudices and parochialisms of an immigrant church.
As a result, the children get little or no spiritual formation, certainly no spiritual information, before they are let loose on the culture. What happens? Lacking the intellectual measure of a basic catechism, lacking the affective measure of religious awe, they accept whatever the culture at hand serves up to them. Evolutionary materialism becomes the last word on the “scientific truth.” Media images of soulless self-gratification become the height of personal ecstasy. Whatever the pitfalls of early religious training they must be preferable to these!
As a convert from Protestantism, I am always asked, especially by cradle Catholics, what made me enter the Church. They are often perplexed when I tell them about my discovery of Catholicism, the benefits of its sacramental system, the priesthood, the Magisterium, and its unparalleled gifts to the development of our culture. The look in their eyes tells me I am describing a church they have left without ever really knowing it. This is not the church they vaguely hoped would arise from the backdraft of Vatican II — democratized, therapeutically sound, willing to bend with the times.
As we anticipate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II it must be admitted that Jacques Maritain’s prediction has come true: the new pastoral emphasis of the Council was used to subvert Catholic intelligence, character, and culture. Maritain, who was the darling of the young intellectuals and religious who attended the Council until he published The Peasant of the Garonne in 1966, was suddenly branded as a senile, embittered old man who had lost touch with the modern age.
His point was simple and profound — if you lose the mind of the Church you will eventually lose its faith as well. Catholics who cannot affirm intellectually that God exists, created the world, and sent his Son to redeem us will struggle to remain faithful. They also will not know what to tell their children, thus passing on confusion to the next generation.
Some will argue that this is not so bad, at least these children will be able to make up their own minds. On this point, I can only say that children’s religious training is precisely what enables them to make up their own minds when they are older.
Others will argue that these children will lack the vices of the old Catholic ways — they will be more tolerant, more sensitive, more open to different perspectives. Flannery O’Connor commented that our age has achieved its gain in sensibility through a loss of vision. The post-Vatican II generation has not flocked to the new Church with its greater sensibility. Like children of every age we hunger for vision, even if it keeps us awake at night.
This column originally appeared in the October 1995 issue of Crisis Magazine.