Your Family Can Change the World
Catholic families can reclaim the culture by living the Gospel at home and in the community.
by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, | Source: Catholic.net
Let’s begin with a fable. We’ll call it "A Tale of Two Movies." And let’s call the movies Film A and Film B. They have a lot in common. Like every good fable, they teach a moral lesson.
Film A is about a married couple. They’re young, talented, attractive and they love each other very much. Then, one day, the wife gets sick, and she doesn’t get better. In fact, no matter what her husband does to
find a cure — and no matter how many doctors try to help — she gets worse. She can’t bear the thought of becoming a burden to her husband.
She also can’t bear the thought of becoming ugly and a source of resentment in his life. So she asks him to help her end the suffering.
The young man loves his wife, so at first he resists. Eventually, however, he sees that the best way to love her is to help her "die with dignity" — and so he helps her commit suicide. Unfortunately, the young man lives in a country with backward laws and very backward people who want to enforce those laws, so he’s charged with homicide. Yet the young man is so decent, and the case for assisted suicide makes so much common sense, that the court finds him innocent. The inhumane laws are discredited, and so are the inhumane people who want to enforce them.
Now let’s turn to Film B, about a boy who grows up in an orphanage. A wonderful, earthy, human doctor runs the orphanage. The boy becomes his protégé and the son he never had. Over the years, the doctor teaches the
boy all his medical skills. The boy becomes a gifted healer in his own right. Now, this doctor specializes in helping women who are pregnant and in trouble. One way he helps them is by delivering their babies and
then providing the newborns with a loving home in the orphanage until someone adopts them. The other way this doctor helps is by doing illegal abortions. The doctor’s young protégé has the job of burning the dead
fetuses in the incinerator out back. Being an orphan himself, the boy refuses to take part in any of the abortions. Of course, he doesn’t condemn the good doctor, but he won’t perform the abortions himself.
Eventually the boy leaves the orphanage to make his way in the world. When a young woman friend is raped and impregnated by her father, he realizes how selfish his scruples have been. He helps her by performing an abortion. Then he finds his way back to the orphanage, where he takes over the good work of his mentor.
Film A and Film B have a lot in common. In fact, they’re cut from the same cloth. Both were major commercial films. Both were popular with general audiences. And both teach the same lesson: that traditional
morality is the work of ignorant religious fanatics who don’t care much about human suffering. The real humanists are people with enough compassion and courage to break the rules and defy moral convention.
Some of you might recognize Film B. It’s The Cider House Rules. Michael Caine, the actor who played the abortionist, won an Academy Award for his performance.
Film A, however, may be a little harder to remember. Its title is I Accuse, and it was produced in Germany in 1941 to help justify the Third Reich’s extermination campaign against the chronically ill and the mentally and physically handicapped.
Watching The Cider House Rules reminded me, in a strange way, of Tom Brokaw’s best-selling book The Greatest Generation, which is about the men and women who fought World War II to make it safe for Americans (and
others) to live as free people. It would be ironic, wouldn’t it, if Western democracies ended up becoming what our parents and grandparents tried so hard to protect us from? Yet, it could happen, and in a way, it
I don’t mean we’re becoming Nazis. We don’t need to be that vulgar. We can lose our soul as a nation without supporting a lunatic ideology. We can lose our soul in a uniquely contemporary fashion — by being selfish and pragmatic, by being faithless in our commitments, and by twisting our freedom into the right to do whatever we want. We don’t even have to look very far for proof.
The first cell of society is the family, and as the family goes, so goes the soul of the culture. So, how goes the family?
Wounded Families Make A Wounded Culture
In the United States, for example, only one in four families can be described as intact and "traditional" — two parents, single income, with children living at home. This kind of family, which is more or less the
classic American model, has declined by nearly half in less than 30 years. At the same time, the percentage of children living with single parents has quadrupled. Out-of-wedlock births occur far more frequently
now than three decades ago. Divorce is much more widely accepted. Unmarried couples with no children make up one-third of all American
households. In fact, they’re now the largest single category of U.S. households.
The results shouldn’t surprise us. Wounded families make a wounded culture. In fact, for more than a decade, social research has clearly shown that easy divorce and so-called diverse forms of family structure
simply don’t work. Stepparent and single-parent families do not reinforce our social fabric. Rather, they unintentionally weaken it, and they have a long-term effect. Children from broken families find it
harder to build permanent marriages themselves. They have a tougher time
excelling at school, avoiding crime, finding intimacy in relationships and holding steady employment. Obviously, this isn’t their fault, and none of these observations are meant as a criticism of the many good
single-parent and blended families who struggle heroically to do the best they can. Yet the facts speak for themselves.
None of this information is new. None of it is secret. The only remarkable thing is how little sobering effect this knowledge has had on the unraveling of American family culture. The evidence hasn’t changed
anything. We know better, but too few people seem to care. Even when people do care, they can’t agree on what to do about it.
Meanwhile, even the legal definition of marriage continues to be challenged with
initiatives like homosexual "civil unions." The lesson here is simple. The day is gone when Catholics could feel safe with the instincts of our public culture. We still think of ourselves as more or less "Christian" people.
More than 90 percent of Americans still pray and describe themselves as believing in God. Church attendance in the United States is still very high by Western standards. Yet the content of our experience has changed dramatically.
When Pope John Paul II wrote in his "Letter to Families" in 1994 that "a civilization inspired by a consumerist, anti-birth mentality is not — and cannot ever be — a civilization of love" (13), he was probably
talking about countries like the United States and Canada, and the material comforts we take for granted. How do we change that? How do we build a civilization of love? First of all, by building a "family of
families" within our own Church. We will either preach Jesus Christ and teach the Catholic faith to our surrounding culture together, or we will fail separately.
Families have the mission of being a leaven of the Gospel in the wider world. In fact, married life and parenting are missionary vocations.
Preach Jesus Christ to the World
How can a married couple, or a family with many responsibilities, really begin living as missionaries? I have two answers to that. First, I’d wager that God is right now calling some of the Knights of Columbus
families reading these words to be active missionary families. Is that really so outlandish? Not at all. Protestants have been doing it for years.
So, going to the missions as a couple or as a family is not impossible. Or rather, it’s only impossible if you never listen for
God’s call. The opportunities exist if you look for them.
Here’s the second answer to that question of how a family can actually begin to live as missionaries. Many families are struggling just to meet the demands of daily life. Raising a family is heroic work. God isn’t
calling most of you to move to Zimbabwe with your Bible. Yet you still have the duty to preach Jesus Christ to the world. How do you do that?
Here’s a clue, and it comes from Vatican II’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity: "Let everyone be aware that the primary and most important contribution he [or she] can make to the spread of the faith
is to lead a profound Christian life" (36).
In other words, living the Gospel ardently where you are is a form of missionary witness. Living the teachings of the Church joyfully and loyally in the specific
circumstances of your life is missionary.
Here’s a simple question: Have you consciously tried to bring someone outside your immediate family into the Catholic Church in the last year?
If you haven’t, you’re hurting your own faith by preventing Jesus from reaching others through you. Do you talk about God with your spouse, your children, your family? Do you worship as a family every Sunday?
It’s common for teachers in our own Catholic schools to tell me that as many as half of their students don’t attend Sunday Mass regularly.
That’s in our Catholic schools, where tuition can be expensive. So we have a contradiction. Some Catholic parents — in fact, too many Catholic parents — are willing to sacrifice part of their income to get a good moral education for their children, but then they don’t follow it up in
the home with prayer, discussion and regular participation in the Mass.
Yet that’s where the really crucial Catholic education always takes place. Without living the faith in the home, these children grow up, enter society as citizens, and don’t understand why a movie like The Cider House Rules is essentially just propaganda for killing unborn children.
Sometimes the headlines in our newspapers tempt us sorely to lose faith in the basic goodness of people. Yet that’s a mistake. So very much remains in our countries that is decent and honorable. We’ve done a great job over the last three decades arguing about what’s supposed to be wrong with the Church and her teaching. Yet we’ve done a pretty poor job of being grateful for the Church as God’s gift to us — a mother who guides us, corrects us, and comforts us out of love, for the sake of our own salvation.
Archimedes, the ancient Greek scientist, once claimed that if he had a fulcrum and a long enough lever, he could move the world. Children and families are not levers. They’re human beings. They’re subjects, not
objects. Yet Archimedes’ words still have value. Families can move the world. The formation that spouses give to each other and to their children — if done with love, courage, energy and persistence — can move the world and change society.
‘Must Reading’ for Catholic Families
The Church has plenty of resources to help you and your family. I’m going to tell you about two documents. My advice is that you not only read them but pray over them. Discuss them. Get to know them intimately.
The first is Pope John Paul II’s 1981 document Familiaris Consortio (On
the Family). It describes marriage as the beginning and basis of human society. It describes the family as the first and vital cell of society.
It shows why the family cannot be an escape or an "enclave," and cannot avoid an active role in humanizing and Christianizing civil culture. In other words, the family is powerful. By its nature, the family greatly
influences those issues that are most intimate to civil society.
Therefore, any attempt to "redefine" the family, or to disconnect the family from social regulation of pornography, abortion, homosexual behavior, and similar issues inevitably damages civil society.
The second document builds on the first. In his 1994 "Letter to Families," John Paul writes, "A truly sovereign and vigorous nation is always made up of strong families who are aware of their vocation and mission in history." He goes on to say "how indispensable is the witness of all families who live their vocation day by day [and] how urgent it is for families to pray." — Archbishop Chaput
Teach Your Children: Eight Ideas for Parents
Remember that what you do is more important than what you say. The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother. Of course, the same applies to wives loving their husbands. If you love
each other, your children see and learn love. If you love God, they see and learn faith.
Teach your children to seek real freedom, not a counterfeit. A wider selection of sport utility vehicles is not freedom. A license to kill unborn children is not freedom. Truth is the inner structure of freedom.
Truth and freedom can’t be separated. The more we debase words like "freedom" to sell cars and cell phones and abortion and assisted suicide, the more we debase ourselves.
Teach your children to seek wisdom, not just knowledge. Put wisdom first in the hearts of your children, so that knowledge serves humanity, and not the other way around.
Teach your children to see clearly and think critically. Help them to understand marketing, advertising, and propaganda for what they are — not necessarily "bad" things, but very powerful influences on the way we think and act.
Help your children to remember their own history. The Catholic faith has a rich and marvelous history, and it’s always under attack from people who want to reinterpret it.
Teach your children to develop the virtues of the heart: fidelity, patience, simplicity, humility, cour-age, honesty, forgiveness, a hunger for justice.
Teach your children to revere the sanctity of life.
Teach your children to live 1 Corinthians 13: "Faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."
— Archbishop Chaput
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap, entered the Capuchin Franciscans in 1965 and was ordained a priest in 1970. He has served as archbishop of Denver since 1997. He is the state chaplain of the Colorado Knights.
This essay is excerpted from his book Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics (Servant Publications). It is printed here with permission of Servant and Columbia Magazine. All rights reserved.