Catholic parents may well imagine that raising the child Jesus was a picnic compared to parenting today’s children. How hard can it be to turn an infant who is fully divine into a decent adult? Yet Jesus was also fully human and so, one can assume, a challenge and a riddle to his mother and foster father. Like modern mothers and fathers, Jesus’ parents were given the task of modeling compassion and wisdom—the prerequisites of social justice—as they brought their child up in their Jewish faith.
Some of our work as contemporary Catholic parents is uncomplicated: baptize our children, teach them traditional prayers, take them to Mass. As our children grow, we involve them in parish activities, teach them about social justice, engage them in liturgy. We soon grasp that bringing up our children in the faith is both a daily task and a lifelong commitment. As parents we can instill in our children the values that are important to us without necessarily being aware of it, just by the way we live. As Joseph and Mary must have done, we also teach without words by the way we respect and love each other, the way we handle crises and conflict, the way we show compassion and mercy. But as our children grow, we may begin to think more consciously about the values we want to teach them.
As Catholics raising our children at the end of the last century, my husband and I believed that teaching them the Catholic concept of social justice was as important as embodying a love for the Eucharist and a devotion to it. We tried to cultivate in their fertile hearts the church’s core principles of justice: to work for the common good, to insist that political authorities behave justly, to uphold human dignity and human solidarity and to exhibit a preferential option for the poor. To that end, we took active roles in the parish religious education program and made choices in our family’s lifestyle that honored those beliefs.
But when our children begin to flex their minds and pose theological and existential questions, the black-and-white of rules and dogma swirled into the nuanced gray of spirituality and faith. While my husband and I encouraged our daughters to be independent thinkers and ask questions, we, like other honest parents, did not have every answer. Who has not doubted his or her own wisdom when responding to a young and developing conscience? What sinful Catholic parent has not wanted to tell the children to “do as I say, not as I do”? The complexities of parenting grow alongside the miraculous growth of the skeletons, brains and muscles of our children. Theological parenting, like following any sacred call, is enlivening, humbling, confusing and best done with the most selfless love parents can muster.
An online search yields a treasure trove of teaching aids on the topic of social justice. But the corporal works of mercy—to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger and bury the dead—are best learned hands-on and by example. The surest way to teach social justice is to act justly. Like the public ministry of Jesus, teaching children to practice mindful social justice is a radical departure from the path of mainstream society.
Good, But Not Christian
The best, most practical advice on this usually comes from those working in the trenches: other Catholic parents. I consulted with experts by e-mail. I was curious about the experiences of other Catholic parents who had endeavored to raise their children—now adults—to embrace the teachings of social justice. As replies arrived, I discovered an unexpected common thread running through their responses. As one succinctly put it: “I believe I failed at raising an adult Catholic.”
While others did not phrase that feeling so baldly, the sentiment was the same. Coming from the loving and grace-filled parents of some pretty great children, I found this conclusion dismaying, even shocking. Yet it exactly expressed my own deep-down self-evaluation as a Catholic parent. Somewhere along the way, these parents and I feel that we must have gone wrong, because although our children are good people, many of them do not go to church regularly. We feel we have fallen down on the job of raising the next generation of Catholics. I include myself among the Catholic parenting failures, because of my four daughters one goes to church sporadically, one is thinking about returning to practicing the faith and two are emphatically not Catholic.
And yet all the parents in my decidedly nonscientific survey raised children who are kind, compassionate, generous and mindful of others and who exhibit a strong sense of justice. “He is not overly religious,” one friend wrote of his son, “but does seemingly have a sound set of moral principles. Of course he makes his mistakes, just like I do, but overall he is a good son.”
“We may not see the influence of our guidance in their everyday lives, outside of the fact that they are responsible, socially and politically involved and caring people,” wrote another about her three grown children. She concluded with my own private hope: “I suspect that as life happens, they will each find they do need the experience of, and commitment to, a larger community.”
Despite good intentions, success in their endeavors to raise children steeped in the Catholic faith can elude many parents. “He questioned the existence of God from fourth grade on,” wrote a friend about her son, who is now in college. A single mom, she was active with him in the parish, in the choir and in ministry to the homeless in Los Angeles. “He fought going to church and being confirmed, and the pastor told me not to force him, which I was shocked to hear.... I know I rebelled in high school and even somewhat in college, so I don’t know if he’ll come around as I came around. I think he’s a good person, caring and loving, so maybe church attendance is not the right measure. Who knows?”
From the East Coast came the thoughts of a friend in New York. He and his wife, long active in the church, “believe strongly in the seamless garment.” They have raised a doctor, a teacher and a lawyer, all of whose work serves underprivileged populations. “Our children are very well adjusted, emotionally mature and have a depth of care and spiritual presence to them,” he wrote. Nevertheless, they too have drifted. “As they grew into their college years, the church simply did not respond to what they were looking for.... [It offered] nothing about the lives they were leading.” Of his daughter, “who is a smart and capable and competent and professional woman...the church simply insults her for being a woman...a woman who is a leader in every right except in her faith community.” He ended by saying: “The sexual abuse scandal has probably been the nail in the coffin.”
An Unaffiliated Generation?
A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life bears out the anecdotes: Among young adults aged 18 to 29, one in four has no religious affiliation, although one in three was raised as a Catholic. In fact, 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. The survey tracks a constant movement among faiths as opposed to constancy. Catholicism has experienced the greatest net loss from people of faith having changed their religious affiliation. For American Catholics these are sobering statistics.
Last Christmas season, I found myself driving with several of the young adults about whom their parents worry. Tentatively explaining my journalistic interest, I asked for their thoughts about their own Catholicism and their understanding of social justice. They talked fondly about their earlier years, about serving meals at a soup kitchen, helping at a thrift store, walking in peace marches, visiting seniors in nursing homes. “We may not go to church, but we do some of the things our parents taught us,” said one. “Even something silly, like donating the hotel soaps and shampoos to the homeless shelter. My mom always did that.”
“I tried going to my boyfriend’s Christian church,” said another. “It was lame. They talked down about other people, especially gays. That’s when I knew I was Catholic or nothing. So I guess right now I’m nothing.”
I just listened. I tried to imitate the mother of God: “His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51). But my heart was heavy.
“I don’t think we have let the church down,” added a young adult, addressing my unspoken question. “I think the church has let us down.” A busload of issues then stopped at my door: a church that too often seems to care more about a person’s sexual orientation than whether people are being bullied to death in school, a church that seems to care more about the unborn child than about the one who is abused or hungry or in his seventh foster home placement in two years, a church that seems to care more about the trappings of liturgy than the destruction of God’s green earth, a church that seems to care more about the gender of a priest than about a homily that changes hearts, a church that seems to care more about protecting its clergy from lawsuits than protecting its young from predators, above all a church that too often demands blind devotion but does not itself consistently walk the talk of the Eucharist.
As I listened, it occurred to me that by educating our children so well in social justice, we may have unwittingly made it infinitely more difficult for them to go along with a church they see as hypocritical or as concerned with image over substance. The more passionate our children’s belief in social justice, the less tolerant they are of institutional posturing and inaction. Their lived experiences in their neighborhood parishes do not easily match up with the social teachings of Jesus.
I thought of Mary and Joseph, finding their young son in the temple, far from where he was supposed to be. Mary says: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety” (Lk 2:48). Certainly parents do not always understand or agree with the paths their children take. In intimate acquaintance with Mary and Joseph’s “great anxiety” over a lost child, today’s parents may not always trust that they can keep their children connected to the church. As a friend gently reminded me, “We need to remember and trust that God is working in their lives, and though they seem to have abandoned him, he does not abandon them.”