March 2016 Print

Quiet Heroism

Dr. Randall Flanery

I will assume that you understand and accept the theological basis for being a Catholic family, and furthermore, that you wish to employ all of the graces and virtues available to you, in order to live as a Catholic family as best you can. What is it like, psychologically, to live as a traditional Catholic family in a culture which tends to impose practices that are antithetical to Christ-centered family life?

Quiet Resistance

Living as a Catholic and as a member of a Catholic family means that you are different in many ways from your neighbors, co-workers, and most of the individuals you come in contact with as you go about your daily life. It will not take that long, usually, before those you encounter will notice that you are different in some important ways. The reactions of others to families who are obviously Catholic can range from the amusing to the hurtful. Other than an eye roll or some murmuring, most reactions are essentially non-events. Here are some examples, both large and small.

  • On the rare occasion that mom and dad venture out to the grocery or to a restaurant with all seven kids in tow, you might hear a sarcastic “Are all of those yours?”
  • Your young adult, just for getting an Accutane prescription for acne is asked with astonishment by the dermatologist, “He is not sexually active?” “Has no intention of being active?”
  • Similarly, your MD is actively urging birth control to you.
  • Your co-workers look at you questioningly when you tell them about your vacation: retreat, Ordinations, Dad’s work week at La Salette.
  • You are simply saying grace before a business lunch while others at the table are watching quizzically.
  • You provoke snickers or even groans when you let it known in a college literature or history class that you are Catholic.
  • All of these interactions elicit this message: “You are wrong, you don’t fit in. Change or get out of here!” Most will be indifferent, some will murmur, and a few overly sensitive individuals will say that you are shaming them.

    Resisting the coercion to conform is conducted daily without fanfare or drama. The effort is not aggressive but subtle. We hope it doesn’t make the papers or the blogosphere. But it will linger on whether we want to engage in the conflict or not. As Catholics, we cannot battle in the same way as those who oppose us do. The pressure is unjust; we are simply doing what we ought. We are not even advocating, except by example, that others imitate us.

    The subtle pressure that is encountered whenever you leave your home can result in what we psychologists call a “victim mentality.” It is characterized by a pervasive feeling that you have been harmed, that it is at least in part your own fault rather than the fault of others, and that you possess a sense of powerlessness to face the music. It is fundamentally an unbalanced view of one’s self, which can render you depressed, passive, cynical, hopeless, or irritable and short-tempered.

    Most families I know take on this challenge quietly, admirably, and mostly effectively. It is not flashy but it is heroic. And it is not necessarily done that well but, as Chesterton said, “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

    I think that much of the heroism that is required in meeting this challenge is because you realize you are in the uncomfortable position of being in the world but not of the world. I have observed, and have been tempted myself, to adopt one of two extremes: either to retreat and withdraw, or to aggressively look for a fight. He who avoids the world is living in self-absorption and loneliness, heading towards the ghetto mindset. The other option, looking for the trouble that you know is there, is going to cause just that… trouble!

    What are Catholic Parents To Do?

    I have had the opportunity to observe a number of families who have quietly, modestly, persistently, and effectively managed to navigate the challenges of being fully Catholic in a culture that does not support it, and at times attempts to actively suppress it. Interestingly, most of these individuals are well respected in their communities and seen as upright citizens contributing to the common good. What are they doing to be so quietly heroic?

    The parents of these families, I would say, from the perspective of natural science, are resilient, assertive Catholic men and women. They are resilient in the face of cultural pressures to not be so obviously Catholic, and when confronting those challenging life events that beset us as humans, they remain Catholic in addressing them. In the home, and especially there, the parents are assertive regarding how their family members will live their lives. Their parental recipe consists of an active, energetic approach, balancing firm insistence on certain standards of behavior with a flexible compassion for the defects that all humans possess. For the sake of clarity, I have summarized the aspects of the heroic parental approach in the following ten points.

    1. Know and constantly explain the reasons for what you are doing. I am speaking of the principle that is the basis for the action or decision, not simply the rule that is being followed. In order to do so, you need to know your own faith (catechism) and you need to attend to your own spiritual life.

    2. Be an assertive parent. Know and filter what comes into your home. Know and guide what your children do out of the home. Support and challenge family members to be Catholic when they go out into the world. Set limits. State clearly what you need from children, then kindly, gently, and firmly insist on it.

    3. Have high expectations, for your children and for yourself. Children mostly live up (or down) to the expectations that they believe the important people have for them. So do adults.

    4. Aspire for children to be good people. Hoping that they will just be happy, is setting the bar too low.

    5. Be a role model of striving for virtue and holiness.

    6. Be humble. Once you have a good grasp on who you are and how you fit in God’s world, you will have to be humble.

    7. Do not insist upon everyone acknowledging that you are right.

    8. Sacrifice. If you are to live in a Catholic family, it is given that you will sacrifice: money, time, creature comforts, etc. You might as well embrace it.

    9. Be willing to ask for help, and be open to being guided.

    10. Allow trusted others to help you raise your children.

    Spend Time with the Family

    Acting as described above is no guarantee that your children will turn out to be good Catholics. When God gave you free will, he also granted it to your children. I have seen excellent parents who have done an excellent job preparing their children’s souls and, yet, one of them, once adult, decides to go and re-enact the story of the Prodigal Son. Remember that the ingrate did return. I have to assume that that father was doing something which stayed with that young man, and it drew him back when he most needed it.

    Do not neglect your relationship with your spouse. Take the time for adult conversation and for doing the things you enjoy together. If your wife is a treasure, you will want to spend time with your treasure. Make time for that in the same way that you allocate time for your children.

    It is easy to forget that debt to the children, but, besides providing material things for them, they need to be with you and know that you are available to talk to them. And pay attention to your relationships. The communication will break down if you do not observe the proper ratio of positive to negative interactions: at least three to one, three positive comments to one negative. Don’t let contempt creep into your attitude. With children, repeatedly and explicitly acknowledge how pleased you are of their trying to get the trash out and to set the table, however awkward the result sometimes.

    I will describe how some of these actions come into play in aspects of having a family. There are some challenges that are predictable; it is best to have a plan. I will discuss managing contemporary digital devices and assuring your child a Catholic education.

    Be Assertive Parents

    Not only do parents have to worry about what their children confront when they venture into the world, parents also have to be ready to intervene with what is brought into the home. Among US teens, a cellphone is seen as an essential tool for maintaining friendships; without a cell phone you will be a pariah. An argument is sometimes made that a cell phone promotes connection and safety, as if it was a necessity. While there is some validity to this argument, do you really need Internet access for it? Is checking Facebook or watching YouTube videos essential to safety?

    This is a prime opportunity to be an assertive Catholic parent. The first question should be: “Does my child really need that digital toy?” There really is a difference between playing Battleship on a game boy and playing the game against a real person. Do you want him playing soccer on a video screen or in the backyard?

    Know what your children are bringing into the home, either in their digital device or what they are watching. I would urge that you review movies, TV shows, songs, and games before your children engage. Be prepared to say no, even it means you have to give up access to things you enjoy. Install child controls, or better: get rid of the element entirely.

    If you are an assertive Catholic parent, you will be making your child different from many of their peers. I do not think teens, and certainly not preteens, need cellphones. If you are really concerned about easy communication, use a cell phone that is only a phone, and take it back when they return home.

    Instruct children about what is acceptable entertainment in other people’s homes. Tell your children that if they find themselves watching something inappropriate, they should call you, the parents, to come and to get them. Also tell your children that, in general, they cannot be in a friend’s house without an adult present, unless you okay it. In other words, the child is expected to behave in a moral Catholic way even when the parents will never know, although we almost always do.

    Assure a Catholic Education

    Obtaining a Catholic education for your children is a fundamental obligation, one of the most challenging tasks of parents, and one you cannot possibly do all yourself. I will assert that whenever possible, and even when you think it is not possible, you send your children to Society schools. There are circumstances in which families do not have that option, or have compelling reasons to choose an alternative. A child with a special condition, which cannot be provided for otherwise, will require special services elsewhere. But I have heard many other reasons: expense; my child does not want to go; teachers are not well enough trained; the school is not adequately stocked with computers, lab equipment, fine arts classes, the latest books. As well: “You mean besides paying tuition, I also have to help mow the grass and paint classrooms?” And: “No! anything but not fund-raisers!!!!!”

    Are these really sufficient reasons not to send your child? There are indeed sacrifices to be made, and they will hurt, but there will be benefits. Relating this to the same aspect in my own life, I can say that after the first three, all my children went to boarding schools. We, their parents, were less involved with our children than were the staff members. There is no denying the sacrifices, but there is no better preparation for youth to grow into resilient, assertive Catholics who are just like you. And, prior to making a final decision, I would urge you to consult a priest, as well as other parents.

    And what are the benefits? The first and the best: Catholic young men and women who are also well educated. Despite the lack of up-to-date equipment, fewer elective classes, and few teachers with the higher degrees, none of the children were hampered by their education, but rather they were better prepared than were many of their peers. They went to college with substantial benefits on the natural level: self-discipline, respect for authority, and ability to write a coherent essay and to think logically.

    A more crucial benefit is that if you want to fill up our seminaries, monasteries, and convents with religious, it really, really, really helps to have and support Catholic schools. While it does happen that religious come from families that were not especially Catholic or that did not attend Society schools, the example given by the number and quality of living, breathing priests, sisters, brothers, and committed Catholic laity shows that God’s plan for your child might include the religious life, which is supported by attending a Society school.

    It is difficult enough to be a Catholic adult, and it is even more challenging to be a Catholic teenager and young adult. As a parent, please realize that if you are intent on your child behaving as a young Catholic ought to, he or she will be acting notably different from most American youth. This difference can be distressing for adolescents who, by virtue of the developmental stage of life they are in, want to fit in with their peers and to feel confident about themselves as individuals.