When we reflect on the question of "How do parents inculcate Catholic moral values in their children in the midst of a popular culture that promotes violence and casual sex?" we may be tempted to throw up our hands. We live in a popular culture that entices young people by characterizing moral behavior as Puritanism; unrestrained sexual conduct as normative; and violence as fantasy. It is precisely this dulling of the moral conscience that is the prerequisite of the growing culture of death in our society.
Unfortunately, the remainder of this text could all too easily be devoted to examples of the depths to which our culture has fallen in the print and electronic media, in the music and entertainment industries, and in cyberspace. Let but a few suffice: the rapidly deteriorating standards of network TV sitcoms and talk shows; the explicit lyrics of heavy metal and rap music; the equally explicit depictions in music videos and feature movies; and, again, the Internet.
The old saying was: "It's ten o'clock. Do you know where your children are?" Today our children may be safe in their rooms, physically safe, but potentially still morally vulnerable to surfing the pornography websites, "chatting" with complete strangers about their most intimate secrets, or, increasingly, simply developing a mild-dulling addiction to video games that is potentially just as destructive as any variety of street drug.
Indeed, we might say that these moral threats to our children are so numerous that a parent's response surely would seem ineffective. Yet, it is precisely at such times that the Christian summons up the courage that arises from faith. The Christian parent's confidence in this context is inseparable from that grace which flows through the Sacrament of Matrimony to support one of this sacrament's principal objects: the begetting and raising of children. While it may seem "natural" at times to feel overwhelmed by the multitude of moral threats presently surrounding our children, to lose hope would signal a loss of faith—that somehow in our present age God's grace is not sufficient to see us through the present cultural crisis.
In order to make an adequate response, we should ask a prior and more fundamental question, namely, what is involved in raising Christian children in the first place? Pope John Paul II reminds us in his Letter to Families that, "raising children can be considered a genuine apostolate" (no. 16). This is so, the Holy Father observes, because each person "is called to live in truth and love" and surely the family is the first society in which these truths are experienced in a personal way. The raising of children is profoundly an educational process in which parents are the child's primary educator.
Yet the parents' role as educator can never be reduced to merely an academic exercise. Parents are first and foremost educators of their child in a way of life. And if this way of life is a calling "to live in truth and love," then the parents' primary role is as moral educator. The Church has always understood this to be fundamental to the married life. It is the reason why the couple is asked during the Rite of Marriage: "Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?"
One of the most devastating assaults on the consciences of our children is the attitude of today's secular culture that Christianity is merely an outdated moral code. In this view the moral teaching of the Church is reduced to a type of moralism that may have been relevant at one time in history but is no longer valid. Yet Christianity can never be reduced to merely one set of ethical rules which people are free to accept or reject depending upon their personal preference. As Pope John Paul II tells us in his encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, Christian morality "is not a matter only of disposing oneself to hear a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment. More radically, it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father" (no. 19). Christian morality is not abstract; rather it is essentially concrete and personal. It is something that must be conveyed in a personal way by parents to their children. The Holy Father repeatedly refers to the family as a "sanctuary of life." Thus, the Christian family responds to the threats to its children posed by the greater secular culture by itself seeking to become a smaller culture in which Christian values are lived and transmitted to the next generation. As a "sanctuary of life," the Christian family is called to be the first and primary "culture of life."
The Christian family communicates in a concrete way the moral way of life that consists in following Jesus. Through faith, the Christian family becomes a special communion of persons on a journey that is both moral and personal. The first step in protecting children from the growing anti-life tendencies in the greater society is to foster within the home a Christian family spirituality that is really present to the child as a way of living.
Central to this way of living is the notion that there are rules governing our conduct that do not depend for their validity upon our own disposition. In other words, there is an objective moral law by which to measure the rightness or wrongness of our actions. It does no good, it seems to me, to go back into the recent past to see where schools or other social institutions may have gone wrong in helping our children develop their consciences, at the very least according to the natural law—the law placed in all of our hearts by the Creator. Now it is necessary that parents convey to their children the lesson that there is a moral law consistent with their dignity as a person and that they may use this law to measure their conduct and the conduct of others.
Against this background then, it is possible to analyze more accurately the specific steps which parents can take to monitor their children's exposure to various moral dangers and protect them from their influence.
A recent study of young Catholics by Richard Featherstone of Purdue University provides important insights into the relationship between the tendency of young Catholics to accept the moral teaching of the Church and activities by parents within the home. He found three significant characteristics among young Catholics who accepted Church teaching on sexual ethics.
The first finding related to church attendance. Young Catholics who attend church with their mothers on a weekly basis were more likely to follow the teaching of the Church on sexual and procreative matters. Religious activity by the mother was a very important factor in the moral development of young Catholics.
Second, the study found that it was very important for young Catholics to have their views of sexual morality reinforced by their own peer group. As one would imagine, close friends play an important role in the development of a person's religious beliefs and moral values. Young Catholics are no different in this regard.
Finally, the study found that young Catholics with a strong sense of Catholic identity tend to follow Church teaching more closely. These young Catholics understood that being a "good Catholic" means living a life consistent with the teaching of the Church.
These findings may strike some as obvious. Nonetheless they point to an effective "strategy" for a child's moral development. They suggest a lifestyle that has traditionally been a hallmark of Catholic family life. Fundamental is family worship—attendance at Mass is an important and frequent dimension of the family's life and the mother's role is significant, especially in teaching her children to pray. Also important is a social environment outside the home in which the child is afforded the opportunity to interact with children from similar families—historically this has been accomplished in Catholic schools or CYO, Columbian Squires or Catholic scouting programs. Finally, a home environment in which a strong sense of Catholic identity is present—traditionally organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, Holy Name Society and Legion of Mary have assisted in the formation of such a strong sense of Catholic identity. The home itself should have a religious character to it—there should be crucifixes in the home and especially in the children's rooms as well as art depicting their patron saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Family.
We could note here the results of another important study. In 1981 the National Opinion Research Center released the results of its study on Young Catholics in the United States and Canada, a scientific survey of attitudes commissioned by the Knights of Columbus. One of its most important findings related to the importance of Catholic schools. Catholic schools were found to have a significant impact on what young people read, believe, practice and value in their lives. It also found that participation in a Catholic school gives a person a sense of closeness to the Church.
Unfortunately, some have asserted that parents have no right to "impose" their own moral values on their children. They contend the family is nothing more than a loose association of individuals each with his or her own rights which at times necessarily conflict. The most obvious example is current federal law that permits a child to obtain an abortion over her parents' objection when a judge determines it is in her best interest. Such views undermine the family as an institution entitled to respect.
It is well to remember that John Paul II made the "Charter of Family Rights" an integral part of his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. The Charter serves as an international focus on the independent status of the family and it enumerated among the family's rights these fundamental principles:
- The right to exist and progress as a family;
- The right to exercise its responsibility regarding the transmission of life and to educate children;
- The right to the stability of the bond and of the institution of marriage;
- The right to believe in and profess one's faith and to propagate it;
- The right to bring up children in accordance with the family's own traditions and religious and cultural values, with the necessary instruments, means and institutions;
- The right to protect minors by adequate institutions and legislation from harmful drugs, pornography and alcoholism.
A lesson about drugs, for example, is brought home in one thought-provoking scene from the movie Traffic. The new White House drug czar asks his staff for ideas on what can be done to fight drug abuse. Not one suggestion is forthcoming. And then, we learn that the czar's own high-school-age daughter is an addict, turned on by her classmates. So, what is the lesson of the film? No family is immune; no child is secure from the temptation to do what "my friends" are doing. Here again the message of the popular culture is one that continually attempts to obscure a child's moral sense. More telling examples of the culture's message of moral nihilism can be seen in the recent films, The Cider House Rules with its relativist view of the morality of abortion and The Beach with its acceptance of euthanasia and the portrayal of the film's hero who asserts that his vocation in life is to seek pleasure. In these films the central characters create their own moral universe.
Parents must be able to expose these fallacies, and be willing to teach their children what is right and what is wrong even when the temptation is strong to allow almost any activity so as to avoid confrontation. Otherwise, not wanting to "alienate" their children, family members end up, often, as "ships passing in the night."
This is not the scenario envisioned for families by the Church. Indeed, Familiaris Consortio (no. 36), says: "The task of giving education is rooted in the primary vocation of married couples to participate in God's creative activity." And again: "Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it. ... Hence, the family is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs."
Even, and perhaps especially, sex education is "a basic right and duty of parents" (no. 37). It must be "carried out under their attentive guidance whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them."
Parents must also be involved in their children's religious education, whether in a parochial school or in a CCD program. The school or program itself must be committed actually to teaching the Faith to children according to their understanding; to pre-teens as they develop "in age and grace"; and to young adults who, if their understanding of religion has grown with their bodies and minds, should themselves be able to teach their children when the time comes. To teach according to the pupil's ability should be the norm. And we must disabuse our children—and perhaps even some parents—of the notion that once a child has been confirmed he has no more need of instruction and that he can make up his own mind about practicing his religion.
We are in the throes of a culture war that comes down to a conflict between the Culture of Death and the Culture of Life. As I noted in a statement issued for the anniversary of Roe v. Wade: "a just Providence governs the course of history. Ultimately our nation will open to a renewed Culture of Life. Therefore ... we are hopeful. We reaffirm our resolve that our nation will someday be 'a people of life and a people for life.' ... The Culture of Life will grow from society's commitment to respect the inviolable right to life and dignity of every innocent human being at every moment of existence."
And so, with John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio (no. 86) we say:
The future of humanity passes by way of the family. ... Loving the family means being able to appreciate its values and capabilities, fostering them always. Loving the family means identifying the dangers and the evils that menace it in order to overcome them. Loving the family means endeavoring to create for it an environment favorable for its development. The modern Christian family is often tempted to be discouraged and is distressed at the growth of its difficulties; it is an eminent form of love to give it back its reasons for confidence in itself, in the riches that it possesses by nature and grace, and in the mission that God has entrusted to it.
Carl Anderson is Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus, and professor and vice president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 2001, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc., Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. Illustration by Dolores M. Daly.