This short book, first published in 1995 by The White Horse Press, Ottawa, has since gone out of print. Some of the situations it describes have changed, notably the new developments in provincial and federal government in Canada, and also international developments promoted by the United Nations organization and the European Union. In both spheres the new totalitarianism continues to spread as it is outlined in this little anthology of essays, the full text of which is included below.
by Michael O’Brien
John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio
“This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is time to preach it from the rooftops.”
John Paul II, World Youth Day, 1993.
Portions of this booklet have been previously published as articles in the following journals: Caelum et Terra, The Canadian Catholic Review, Catholic World Report, The Chesterton Review, Communio, Nazareth Journal, and The Sower. With love and gratitude to my wife Sheila and our children, John, Joseph, Mary-Theresa, Elizabeth, Benjamin, and Angela.
© 1995 The White Horse Press, Canada.
The most tempestuous weather is the best seed-time.
A Christian is an oak flourishing in winter.
The words of the 17th century religious poet Thomas Traherne have stayed with me ever since I first read them twenty-five years ago. I have never forgotten them because they express in a few potent phrases a fundamental element of our Faith: we are a people who stand as a sign of hope, and a sign of contradiction, in the midst of this confused world.
I know little about the climate of England, where the poet wrote these lines, but I assume the British oak must be famous for standing sturdy against the North Atlantic rain; must shake its arms in defiance against the occasional fall of swift-melting snow. The poet’s metaphor is a powerful one, and I have always loved it, though it lacks a certain accuracy for those of us who live in sub-Arctic regions. We too have oaks, the kings of the eastern woodlands, but they do not exactly flourish in our sort of winter.
A few weeks ago I went hiking with our children on a high hill that overlooks the valley in Ontario where we live. We approached the summit of a rocky cliff that faces the village. Above us on the crest there was a stand of oaks thrashing their burgundy leaves against a cloudy sky. They were among the last trees to retain their foliage, for the winds had combed the surrounding forests, tearing away the blanket of stunning colour which covers it for a few weeks each year.
In late autumn everything is stripped down to its essential form. On this particular day the rolling muscles of the earth were uncovered, the arteries of creek and river were laid bare; the light in the sky was alternately cruel and exhilarating, slate-grey with occasional gashes of cerulean blue. A hawk flew over, soaring on updrafts. A few last yellow birch leaves twirled by on a crosswind. It was stark and beautiful—so beautiful in fact that the children abandoned their customary galloping and noisemaking, and were content to sit and to see—to gaze with deep draughts of long looking.
Messages in the Earth
We sat on the edge of the cliff for a long time, and after a while we prayed together for the people of the valley, for the many good enterprises that are bustling there. We prayed for our own needs, for the Church, and for families throughout the world. As we prayed, a gust of wind burst through the woods behind us. It was strangely warm, despite the cold day, and it carried the intoxicating smells of the ending year. Within that pungent aroma was the smell of acorns. A lovely smell, but one that contains messages about death and rebirth. It is a commonplace that written into creation are “words” from our Creator, but it bears recalling from time to time. God has designed all living things, even the simplest, to be messengers, to bear a kind of witness to larger truths. An acorn, a maple key, pips in a pine cone, even the lowly mustard seed—tiny, deceptively simple—contain a vast library of meaning. A seed is so much more than just a code-word for distant Spring. More than just a statement of faith on the part of a tree, a biological equivalent to the virtue of hope. A seed is a kingdom, a world really. It has the future wrapped tightly in every cell, waiting to unfold; entire forests lie buried in each small nut.
God is lavish. Many seeds are dropped onto the soil. Many do not sprout. Yet beneath the appearance of waste nothing is wasted, nothing lost. Giant trees crash to the forest floor, decompose and become the soil out which the saplings arise. Similarly, in human affairs, movements are created, rise, do a work of God in the world, decline, go back into the soil, and provide the rich humus out of which new life springs. Generations come and go. Sun and rain, winter and summer, seed time and harvest. Always the Word of God remains constant. His people are called over and over, generation after generation, back into this constancy, back to this mysterious fluid stability—the only real security worth having.
It is important to remember this, especially now, for we are entering a period of extreme instability in the human order. The mighty of the earth are moving towards absolute power in an effort to establish control over what they perceive to be the chaos of the human condition. It is a harsh period, for winter seizes the hearts of many. Love grows cold. Honesty declines. Crime reaches epic proportions. Marriage is picked to pieces by analysts; the relations between men and women have become horribly complicated, fraught with tension, riddled with ideology. The family farm has given way to the factory farm. The village to the metropolis. The craftsman to the mega-machine. The shop to the corporation. Men hurl their malice upon each other in high-tech wars, though the machete is still in use here and there. Millions of children die unseen within the death-chambers of our clinics and hospitals, accomplishing, for sheer numbers, what Auschwitz, Bosnia and Rwanda could not begin to do. Belief in human life falters, hearts are pumped full of dread. Theorists discuss ways in which the death of billions of human beings can be accomplished effectively, humanely—billions of miracles, billions of mysteries. And thus, more and more people are drawn into despair on one hand, or sensualism on the other, searching for the merest hint of the great fire of Love—a love that longs for them to turn to Him, if they would only believe.
Called to the Impossible
Pope John Paul II has often pleaded with the peoples of the West, most urgently in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, to turn away from their massive consumption, their omni-economies, their addiction to comfort heaped upon comfort—to all those things that secretly contribute to the piling of victim upon victim in the dark places of our society, and which openly push us all toward another end of things. He asks us to build more human-size economies, more responsible ways of living, to create a civilisation of love in the midst of what he calls a “culture of death.” He asks the impossible of us, because it is precisely the impossible to which we are called.
The Holy Father speaks often of the coming of the third millennium, and he does not want us to wait passively for it. He sees it as a time for a new evangelisation, as seed time, as a time of flourishing. But he knows also that there will be a death involved, a death to our selfishness. Advent, placed so strategically at the dying of the year, is good training for this. We must not be like the ancient pagans who watched the coming of winter with a kind of terror-stricken obsession, mesmerised by the spectre of death, enslaved to death, sacrificing their children to the insatiable appetite of death. During Advent, we learn to gaze into the growing dark with Spring in our eyes. Impossible? Yes, it is. But Christians must always keep an icon of the impossible in their hearts as a model of the true shape of reality, so much bigger than our terrors.
This is the time to recall that Mary’s womb contained the impossible, the unthinkable. In that sacred little room of hers was nurtured the seed that would save the world from darkness. Encoded there, as if on a double helix, were the martyrs and mystics, the cathedrals and the statues, the Christian East and the West, the songs of the monks, the encyclicals, the poems, the millions of children who might not otherwise have been. Is it any wonder that we are rather fond of her? Is it any wonder that at Christmas we think of her so much? Is it so odd that we should call her Mother?
Joseph too—small, hidden man from the least of villages—he contained the heart of the true father, and made it possible for a new world to come into being. Joseph—foster father to a fatherless world, living icon of the Father. He remained open to messages and thus helped make it possible for God to come as man. His obedience protected the very existence of the child. His vigilance, his justice, his love, made it possible for the child to grow as man. What a marvel this is—and what a scandal. Why all this weakness? Why the poverty, the smallness, the hiddenness? It does not make sense: God born in a cold time. Heaven come down to earth in a season of peril. The saviour of Israel revealed as powerlessness during the final ruin of the nation of Israel—for those people, our elders in the faith, it was the End. Therein lies the puzzle, the paradox and the scandal: he came at the worst possible moment, let us say even the impossible moment, and the world, which was powerful and sick unto death, burning and dying in its sins, was born again.
It is hard to get your mind around it. It has to be heard again and again: God’s strength is to be found in weakness. Nazareth of Galilee was the place where that small, clear, indestructible message was first lived. It is lived again and again in each generation, often in the face of overwhelming odds. Civilisations rise and fall. Saints and tyrants, kings and poor men are born, grow old and die. Cultures, theories, opinions, fashions, theologies, movements, rise up and disappear again. That is why our faith can never be merely a system of religious thought, a set of ethics or a beautiful culture—as necessary as those are. When everything is stripped down to its essential form, our faith is a belief in Jesus, true God and true Man, the only Christ, dwelling in the heart of His Church, He who was, who is and who is to come. That is why our home is the universal Church, the throne on which He reigns, a Church that is within time and yet outside of time. That is why we can say that the Church is 900 million people gathered to worship the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus lifted up over the world on a papal altar in glorious Saint Peter’s, and at the same time it is a battered priest dressed in rags saying a clandestine Mass in a ditch in a concentration camp.
The Church in Nazareth
The Church passes through eras in which she glories in the summer’s triumph, and other periods when she goes down into the cold earth, apparently beaten. It may well be that her highest glory is to be found precisely there, hidden beneath a carpet of leaves, to all appearances dead, but very much alive, waiting for Spring. In this regard, I think often of one of the thousands of unknown saints who are buried outside Rome, a martyred girl lying in the catacombs of St. Callistus, in a tomb inscribed with words that leap like fire across the ages:
“Sleep, little dove, without bitterness, and rest in the Holy Spirit.”
Little girl, overcomer of lions! She will rise on the Last Day. We will see her face to face. We will chat with her, our small sister, our mother in the spirit. She too is the Church and she too is Nazareth. So also are my daughters, climbing the mountain, playing in the wind. So also my sons. So too, your children. Yes, the Church is all of us. She is, indeed, the “people of God.” And yet, so much more than just the sum of our parts. She is an incarnation of Christ in us and us in Christ. Whenever we make a separation in our minds between the “People of God” and the “Mystical Body of Christ,” as if the Church and Jesus were two unhappily yoked entities, we get into trouble. We begin to misread reality. We deepen the wounds from which the Body is now bleeding so copiously.
The Church in Nazareth is composed of the extraordinary sacrifices of a victim soul, unknown to anyone except God, and also the trillions of ordinary diapers changed by parents, offered up as a sacrifice. It is to be found in the great thing done well for the love of God: the genius’s sculpture, the essays of a brilliant theologian, the missionary’s journey. But her secret glory is the “little” thing done well for love of God, the weeded garden, the patient attention to an old person’s reminiscence, the “small” temptation resisted, the teaching of a child to pray.
If Nazareth tells us anything, it is that such things can determine the future of the world. Nazareth is a mother’s hug and her saying, “I know it was an accident,” when you knock over and smash her statue of Our Lady. It’s a nice sandwich in your lunch box, and a new baby brother. It is giving life during a season of death, and being willing to pay the price. It is the holy folly of caring for the stranger dying of a shameful disease, loving him as if he were a son or daughter. Or the labourer trudging off in the dawn to a day of toil for the sake of his family. It is worship and tradition, creativity and fun, and exhaustion. It is adoration. It is consolation and desolation. Nor should we forget popcorn and a new box of crayons. It is weeping by an open coffin and it is laughing at the small pink toes of a newborn curling and uncurling around your finger. It is being thankful to God for existence itself, and telling Him. It is making a hearth full of sweet fire in your home—the domestic church. And it is zeal for the House of the Father—the universal Church. It is defence of the truth, and mercy for the sinner. It is a courageous bishop teaching with fidelity, and a layman listening with attention. It is the wedding night and the confessional. It is a nun at worship, a mother in labour, a craftsman with his tools. It is a wild birthday party. It is a rag-tag family sitting on a mountain praying for their brothers and sisters.
On that blustery afternoon, the children, being less ponderous than their father, could take only so much stillness. They scattered across the mountain top in search of discoveries. I was happy enough to just sit where I was. Eventually they all came back with things to show. Some had gathered oak clusters, brownish-purple or winey-red. Pockets were crammed full of acorns, some old and black, missing their berets, others green and jaunty in fresh caps. One child had found a miniature garden of moss, from which red trumpets blared their soundless music. The youngest lad braved the prickles of a juniper bush and pried off those old dead berries that look so deceptively like blueberries. He chewed the bitter mash for a few seconds then spit it out violently. At that point his older sister ran up to us. She had found a white fungus growing on a stump, and demonstrated how you could draw on the surface, as if on a blackboard. She drew a tree, a sun, a house with smoke coming from the chimney and, underneath it, her name.
These frail letters inscribed on the surface of creation tell a story larger than the sum of its parts.
“I am,” they proclaim. “I was here,” they say. “The world is beautiful. It makes me happy and I love it!” And perhaps at a deeper level, it reveals the soul’s awareness that, “He who made the mighty oak made me.”
The Church may go on to the third millennium and convert the world, or it may shrink to a small remnant of believers. We do not know. Only Christ knows. But of this we can be sure: the family will remain what it is—an oak flourishing in winter. The family will continue, as it always has, to make the seeds of the second spring that is coming after this present winter. When the tyrants and the propagandists and the experimenters have all gone, when the hatred and hopelessness has exhausted itself, the earth with grieve and be born again. The Church and the family will remain. Then, all who have sown in struggle will reap a harvest in joy.
During the 1994 International Year of the Family many parents were blessed with a renewed awareness of the presence of Christ living in our families. We turned our hearts toward our children with joy and hope, and with the awesome knowledge that we are entrusted by God with the generation and the nurturing of eternal souls. My wife and I have six children, and they are the delight of our hearts. At the birth of each child we have sensed anew the profound mystery of the human person, for each one of them is a unique being, never before seen, never to be repeated. This initial burst of rejoicing is a powerful grace. At the same time we are confronted with a parallel grace: a call to love over “the long haul”; to guard, reveal and communicate love in the hurly-burly of family life and in the midst of a profoundly confused society. This task demands of all parents heroic effort and confidence in Divine providence.
Family, Become What You Are.
In the introduction to his encyclical on the role of the family in the world, Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II notes that the family, perhaps more than any other institution, has been beset by the many rapid changes that have affected society: “Many families are living in fidelity to those values which constitute the foundation of the institution of the family. Others have become uncertain and bewildered over their role, or even doubtful and almost unaware of the ultimate meaning and truth of conjugal and family life.”
In his now famous exhortation, “Family, become what you are,” the Pope calls families to rediscover their identity and mission. The family is to be a “community of life and love.” With love as the point of departure, the Church emphasises four general tasks for the family: 1) forming a community of persons; 2) serving life; 3) participating in the development of society; 4) sharing in the life and mission of the Church. In order to support this four-fold mission of the family, the Pope urges all pastors of the Church to show special love for the family, and to be especially vigilant about the many dangers which assault its integrity:
As a preface to restoring the family to confidence, let us look at some aspects of the “dangers and evils” which menace it. Are these dangers and evils purely abstract? Is to examine them an exercise in pessimism? Is ignoring them an exercise in optimism? Neither optimism nor pessimism are Christian viewpoints, for the Christian is ultimately a realist. True confidence is founded upon the reality of who God is and who we are. Our children are God’s work of art. They are icons of Christ. Any one of them is of inestimably more value than the stars, more eternal than the ocean, more meaningful than the man-made structures of worldpower. And yet at conferences in Cairo, New York, and Beijing, in corridors of power in Ottawa, London, Washington, and around the world, there is spreading a mentality which denies the sacredness of the human person. It is totalitarianism wearing a mask of humanism, a cultural revolution that is not truly accountable to the ordinary citizen. Exercising undue social pressures, manipulating public opinion and government legislation, small elites are seeking to redefine us to ourselves. They would determine who and what we are, and what we shall become. In the process they are undermining the rights and duties of the family.
The Global Context
On the level of global events the United Nations Organization has taken a leading role in drawing mankind away from the universal guiding principle of the sacredness of the person. It has consistently pushed for the establishment of a global mandate for radical changes in the fundamental definitions and basic structures of the human social order.
The 1994 U.N. International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo hosted delegates from 183 countries, along with numerous observers from a broad spectrum of religions and social organisations, including representatives from the powerful entities which helped to engineer the conference, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Canadian International Development Agency, the World Bank, the Population Council, UNICEF and a host of others who have come to think of the human community as a “problem” and a “crisis.” A number of nations voiced strong objections to the U.N.’s preliminary Draft Document for the conference, calling it a manifesto for “contraceptive imperialism.” The draft promoted removal of “unnecessary legal, medical, clinical and regulatory barriers to information and access to family planning methods, retaining only those necessary to ensure informed choice and a high quality of services . . .” The “services” to which the document referred are, in fact, artificial contraception, sterilisation and unlimited state-funded abortion. It also proposed a universal indoctrination of the young in sexual information, in an effort to stem the tide of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS and (one supposes) pregnancy. If the Draft had been passed in Cairo, it would have become a powerful weapon against the moral independence of peoples and nations.
A surface reading of the state of the planet inclines unsuspecting people to assume that the U.N. knows what it is doing. After all, it appears to be an assembly of the best and brightest and most idealistic representatives of the nations. Isn’t it? Well, yes and no. For even the best and brightest of us are human, subject to all that implies, especially our universal vulnerability to the power of impressions and selective data. Consider the following as just a sampling of factors which were ignored by the population conference: the “poor” peoples of the world have an extraordinary love for their children; at the same time, as one moves north into the wealthy Western nations the valuing of children declines drastically—a revealing demographic fact. It is also a symptom of schizophrenia. Let us throw into the equation a few other curious items.
Demographic research institutes have pointed out that food production has risen by 30% since 1980 while population growth is now at 1.6%. The population density of China is less than that of New York State (113 people per square kilometre vs. 143 people per square kilometre); population density in India is considerably less than that of England (266 people per square kilometre vs. 355 people per square kilometre). If the entire population of the planet were to live in Idaho, for example, or the little country of Uganda, they would still have more space per person than do the residents of New York City. Obviously, no one would want all the people of the world to migrate to Idaho or Uganda, nor to stand cheek to jowl in any other unnatural compression of overheated bodies. However, statistics such as these underline the fact that for more than a generation we have been bombarded with one-sided statistics that have created powerful false impressions in the mind, and are panicking people into seeking radical solutions to a largely fabricated crisis.
The real crisis has far more to do with the complacency of the developed nations. The Holy Father has called us to make “important changes in established lifestyles, in order to limit the waste of environmental resources” (Centesimus Annus, n. 52). The rampant materialism of the West is the problem, and the Pope has asked us to respond to it courageously and creatively: “Everyone should put his hand to the work which falls to his share, and that at once and straightaway, lest the evil which is already so great become, through delay, absolutely beyond remedy” (ibid., n. 56, citing Rerum Novarum).
A massive propaganda campaign has been at work through the media of the West for several decades, pounding into us the panic message that global population must be reduced if economic development is to proceed. Demographers from a number of nations have stated publicly that this is simply untrue; they state further that the U.N. has been leading a campaign that violates scientific principles regarding population statistics, and that it is doing so in order to justify the proposed abuse of individual freedoms. The U.N. draft document was consistent with this accusation (only six of its 83 pages referred to development; the remainder was about depopulation). It ignored the fact that many of the developing nations rely on their population base for the very development which the U.N. ostensibly wishes to encourage. What was not stated but was implicit in practically every page of the document is that we must eliminate the poor, if the poor are to become as fortunate as us.
Perhaps the poor do not want to become exactly like us, we who kill our children in order to pay for “the good life.” The poor may prefer their beloved children over a box of latex balloons or a slash of the knife aimed at the sources of their fertility—two messages that are as insulting as they are degrading. Perhaps the poor would prefer instead to have some tools, an acre of land, a water-well, education in Natural Family Planning (which is gaining in popularity in India and China with the help of NFP teachers). Perhaps, most of all, the poor would like some respect.
On March 19th of 1994 the Holy Father addressed a letter concerning the Cairo conference to the Heads of State of the entire world and to the Secretary General of the U.N. He called the Draft Document a “disturbing surprise,” and stated: “There is reason to fear that it could cause a moral decline resulting in a serious setback for humanity, one in which man himself would be the first victim . . . Furthermore, the idea of sexuality underlying this text is totally individualistic, to such an extent that marriage now appears as something outmoded. An institution as natural, fundamental, and universal as the family cannot be manipulated by anyone. Who could give such a mandate to individuals and institutions?”
Only twice before in the history of the papacy has a Pope addressed the Heads of State of the world, the first, during World War I, when Benedict XV proposed peaceful solutions to end the fighting, and the second when Pius XII warned that the Third Reich was about to submerge all of Europe in Total War. Clearly, Pope John Paul II sees this moment in history as decisive, and as he has so many times during his pontificate, he warns against the imposition of life-styles typical of elites within wealthy nations, “societies that are materially rich and secularised.”
The Holy Father repeatedly exhorted President Clinton of the United States to change his policy of support for the draft (to no avail). In his letter to Clinton, he pointed out that the draft pays no attention to the question of personal conscience nor to respect for cultural and ethical values which inspire other ways of looking at life. He asked what effect this approach would have on the young: “We may well fear that tomorrow those same people, once they have reached adulthood, will demand an explanation from today’s leaders, for having deprived them of reasons for living because they failed to teach them the duties incumbent upon being endowed with intelligence and free will.”
After months of repeated efforts to change the U.N. draft, the Holy Father asked Catholics to get back into the habit of reciting the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. He understands the present conflict as primarily a spiritual one, and his vision has flowered in the prophetic encyclical of March 25, 1995, Evangelium Vitae—The Gospel of Life. In this, as in previous documents, he continues to be a sign of contradiction that stands against a massive converging of powers and principalities on this planet. By his rejection of the U.N. documents is he defending starvation? Not for a moment. He is simply stating that one does not rid the planet of hunger by destroying hungry people. Is he defending huge concentrations of people in urban slums? No, of course not. He is saying that there are ways of encouraging economic justice, other than the elimination of the victims of injustice. He points out that such “solutions” also degrade, and spiritually destroy, their perpetrators, no matter how idealistic these social engineers may be. The Pope refuses to let the powerful of the world stampede mankind into unjust solutions, manipulations that could very well end, he knows, in our own version of “the final solution.”
Rome’s interventions at the Cairo conference helped to rally several nations in an effort to influence the drafting of a more just approach to population and development, and succeeded in curbing the most extreme measures that had been proposed. Even so, in the end the Cairo document called for most of the world’s financial aid to be allocated to antipopulation programs—17 billion dollars worth. Another 5-7 billion was allocated for food and health programs, 10-15 billion for sanitation and water, 5 billion for education. Similarly, the U.N. “World Summit on Social Development” held at Copenhagen (March 6-12, 1995) continued the pattern of blaming women’s fertility for the world’s problems. It set dates for the achievement of world-wide access to “reproductive health care services” and pursued a policy of redefining the family to mean practically any arrangement of cohabitation— “the family in all its forms.” Judging by the highly contentious preliminary meetings, the U.N. “World Conference on Women” to be held in Beijing in September of 1995, will be another confrontation between wise women and those ideologues who seek to impose a tragically stunted ideology upon the entire world. Blanca Reilly, vice-president of International Affairs for The National Institute of Womanhood, writing in a recent issue of Crisis magazine, strongly criticises the anti-life, anti-family trends of recent U.N. conferences: “All the UN approaches to women are subsumed by the driving need to control and curtail their fertility. . . . With the UN’s wonderful sense of irony, where else to hold a conference on the rights of women but in the land of no rights? Where else to discuss the ‘reproductive rights of couples’ but in the land of forced abortion? I’m sorry, I won’t be there. I’m having a baby.” (Bianca Reilly, “Gender Politics at the U.N.,” Crisis, June, 1995)
The U.N.’s persistence in raising the same questions over and over again makes it clear that the Church’s struggle to promote “the whole truth about man” is far from over. The U.N. “Convention on the Rights of the Child,” for example, is a multi-lateral treaty approved by the General Assembly of the U.N. on November 20, 1989. Under international law, those nations which ratify the Convention are bound by its terms. Ratification has been passed in Canada, and in the United States it has been signed by President Clinton, though it still waits confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
During the past ten years the U. N. has been at the forefront of the development of international standards in human rights and other issues. Its various Conventions have increasingly become benchmarks, standards, ideals, and legal references used by the judicial systems of various nations. While U.N. laws do not at this time have any right to override the laws of nations, nor do they have any power of punishment, nor do they impose sanctions against abuses, it is a prerequisite of ratification that national laws must correspond to the standards of the Conventions. Thus, we can expect to see governments implementing in national law both the good and the flawed elements of such international conventions.
Like so many other U.N. documents, the Convention on the Rights of the Child contains many praiseworthy goals: guarantees of the child’s right to education and health; protection from child-labour, sexual exploitation and physical violence. The child is defined legally as any person under the age of eighteen. However, there is no legal provision for children in the womb. Woven into the fabric of the text are a number of disturbing ambiguities which can leave the rights of the family virtually unprotected. In a Convention containing 54 articles, the single article dealing with parental rights is worded as follows: [Nations ratifying the Convention] “shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognised in the present Convention.” (Article 5).
But who is to define what is “consistent” or “appropriate?” The Christian Law Institute, an association of North American law professionals, lawyers, judges and concerned citizens, has pointed out that the Convention potentially “severely restricts the rights of parents to determine their child’s upbringing and the influences—educational, religious, cultural, etc.—that will shape the child’s personality and values. The predominant attitude embodied in the Convention is that child experts, not the parents, know what is best for children.”
The Christian Law Institute further warns that, “The rights enumerated in Articles 13-16—freedom of expression, of thought, of conscience and religion, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, freedom from interference with privacy and correspondence—strike a direct blow against parental control of the child.” (Release, March 12, 1995, Christian Law Institute, Box 205, David City Nebraska, 68632, U.S.A.)
The Convention as it stands is so worded that parents’ refusal to permit their child to procure a contraceptive or an abortion could be interpreted as an infringement of the child’s rights. Similarly, if the child is taught by his parents that abortion is murder, homosexual acts are gravely disordered, and God’s law takes precedent over all human law, this could be interpreted as a violation of the child’s “right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Article 14:1). Discipline (even the most reasonable forms of correction) could be interpreted as a violation of the child’s right to freedom from “all forms of physical or mental violence” (Article 19). Who will determine what is reasonable? Who will decide what is violent? Is the State to decide these matters? Who will judge if the State is being reasonable or unreasonable? What recourse will there be for parents whose rights are violated by the State?
In all traditional human communities, the task of raising children has resided in the family. Although the family has never been infallible, it is the repository of an inherent wisdom and grace that is based in Natural Law. To transfer the authority of the parent to the State, with all its vulnerability to politics and ideological instability, is a recipe for the ultimate destabilising of society itself. Its first victim is the child, for when the integrity of the family is atomised, the security of the child is damaged at a psychological and spiritual level. When the child is considered under the law as an isolated unit, he may develop in the direction of absolute autonomy and end in absolute alienation. And a nation of alienated people will soon destroy itself.
The Holy See signed the Convention, for it contains several praiseworthy developments in the protection of rights and freedoms of the child, which are especially needed in developing nations where the exploitation of children is common. However, the Holy See acceded to the Convention with the following reservations:
b) that it interprets the Articles of the Convention in a way that safeguards the primary and inalienable rights of parents, in particular insofar as these rights concern education (Articles 13 and 28), religion (Article 14), association with others (Article 15) and privacy (Article 16).
(Statement by Archbishop Renato Martino, press conference on the occasion of the accession of the Holy See to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, 20 April, 1990)
Archbishop Renato Martino, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the U.N., in a statement to the executive board of UNICEF, noted the contradiction in fundamental principles advanced by various bodies of the United Nations Organisation.
(Statement of Archbishop Renato Martino to the executive board of UNICEF, 17 April, 1990)
On June 26th, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the charter of the United Nations Organisation, the government of Canada declared its recommitment to helping the U.N. develop its role in the spreading of world peace and the war against poverty. The U.N., said Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet, is “an organisation that needs new tools to better and more effectively serve world peace . . . It is absolutely crucial that it be given the necessary tools and equipment to do what it has to do.”
If these “new tools” are consistent with the policies which U.N. agencies have been fostering, we shall see an increasing tendency to globalist thinking, in the name of peace, in the name of prosperity, in the name of rights. What is not yet certain is how far the member nations are prepared to go to achieve these ends. What is certain is that the ideology is launched, and the precedents have been set, for the over-riding of national, individual and family rights.
The Provincial Context
Let us look now at a more local situation, for it offers informative readings on the state of the family. Although it contains some unique elements, in essence it is similar to situations throughout the western world.
In 1990, Ontario voters placed the socialist New Democratic Party (the N.D.P.) into the seat of provincial government, giving it power over health, education and the family. This was a puzzling turn of events in a post-Marxist, post-socialist era, and especially because Ontario is the wealthiest and most populous province of Canada. The party was elected with a decisive majority (73 of 130 seats in the Legislature) by an electorate that is 35% Catholic, 82% Christian.
[The Candian federal agency, Statistics Canada, supplied the following information regarding the population of Ontario and the religious affiliations of its people, according to the 1991 Census: Total population, 9.977 million; Catholics, 3.545 million; Protestants, 4.428 million; Eastern Orthodox, 188 thousand; Jewsih, 175 thousand; Eastern Non-Christian, 380 thousand; “Para-religious” (cults, etc.), 9535 persons; No religious affiliation, 1.247 million; Others, 3880 persons. For larger religious groups I have rounded the figures to the nearest thousand. The present population (1995) of Ontario is 10.927 million.]
Legislatures in two other provinces (one of which is also dominantly Catholic) elected N.D.P. governments shortly afterwards. That the N.D.P. advocates a variety of immoral and deadly policies, and collectivist agendas, and campaigned with these in full view of the public eye, and has since proven itself true to its word, does not seem to cause its Christian supporters a moment’s hesitation. One of the party’s first acts was to make abortion a state-funded affair. Not only is an act which the Church calls an “abominable crime” now permitted on-demand, it is paid for by the government’s universal health care program. Every person in this province is forced to pay for it through taxes. Each time I purchase a diaper, a gallon of gas in order to drive to church, or a piece of paper on which to write a letter to the Commission of Human Rights (largely staffed by N.D.P. appointees), part of the sales tax on these items goes to finance the killing of human beings.
Our provincial Bishops’ Conference wrote to the Premier of Ontario stating their objections. When asked on television if he had received the bishops’ letter, he replied that he had not read it, and that he had office staff to weed out correspondence of not very great importance. The resulting silence in all quarters is one of the more disturbing signs that the Catholic people do not have a developed sense of the moral dynamics of politics. They have failed to grasp that the separation of a legislator’s personal conscience from his public office can have disastrous consequences for a nation, and that the separation of a voter’s conscience from his concern for his pocket-book can be equally disastrous. The promises which politicians make about better economic times can never be measured against the destruction of a single innocent human life. It begs the question: how has such a large number of professed believers remained practically ignorant of this fundamental principle?
In June of this year, 1995, a provincial election was held and the N.D.P. was roundly defeated, retaining only 17 of the 130 seats in the Legislature. This was largely the result of the economic situation, for the N.D.P.’s handling of the provincial budget during its five year term of office was, indeed, disastrous. The people of Ontario replaced the N.D.P. with the Progressive Conservative Party (which won 82 seats). A militantly pro-abortion government has been replaced by a seemingly more conservative one—apparently a lesser evil—but the new Premier is unwilling to make significant changes in the existing situation. The Provincial government, he says, will continue to make abortion services available, and moreover, his government believes that “the best way to provide equitable access to harassment-free abortion services is by providing the service in multi-service health-care facilities.”
The only pro-life party running for election, the Family Coalition Party, failed to obtain a single seat, despite its admirable policies and outstanding candidates. It seems that Christians have learned little from the bitter lessons of the past five years.
I once had a conversation with a professed religious sister regarding the N.D.P. She informed me that she was going to vote for the party because they were “against nuclear war.” I replied that not once in my life had I met anyone who was for nuclear war. Voting on that basis was like voting for a party because it believed in fresh air and hated bubonic plague. When I pointed out that the N.D.P. is aggressively pro-abortion, she shrugged and said that nuclear war was a far worse evil than abortion.
I quoted Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “The fruit of abortion is nuclear war.”
She shrugged again and changed the subject. This exchange underlined in my mind the widespread misunderstanding of the role of moral absolutes. Catholicism is a religion built upon objective Truth, and no Catholic is permitted to vote for an evil law, or a party that promotes evil laws, even if they appear to be lesser evils. One cannot compromise a part of the Faith without the eventual collapse of the whole. The dismal failure of our people is starkly revealed when contrasted with the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland under far worse conditions than our own. It also brings to mind a talk given by Pope John Paul II during his 1984 visit to Germany, in which he referred to the failure of the German episcopacy during the Nazi era. But what shall be said of us, we who are faced with a great evil and can confront it any day of the week with little personal risk? The Catholic population in this province, and indeed throughout the nation, is sufficiently large that if it were awakened it could overturn the culture of death. Yet most of our people remain indifferent. Why do they remain that way, year after year, decade after decade? It could be that the paralysis is due to an erroneous belief that the evil is growing democratically, and that it could not possibly be a totalitarian beast in disguise, and that it would be not only “inappropriate” but unChristian to toss more than a few nuanced words at its impervious scales.
Pope John Paul II has repeatedly exhorted us—both laity and pastors—to avoid the folly of waiting passively as political movements struggle for power.
How shall we build a truly Christian society if we do not have a clear understanding of the foundations? How shall we detect its counterfeits if the very shape of reality eludes us? There are signs everywhere that a massive shift in reality-consciousness is well underway in society, and that much of it has infected the Catholic people. It may be that the truly Catholic mind has been fading for a long time, and that the surface eruptions are the last stages of a longstanding sickness. The field of education is one of the clearest and most important examples.
In recent years my wife and I have discussed with employees of the Catholic educational system in different parts of this country just why we are disturbed by textbooks that appear to be completely secular and exhibit the worst form of revisionist history; why we do not wish our children made sympathetic to occult practices such as astral travelling or the beauty of witchcraft rituals; why at this point we do not wish to discuss the graphic details of sexual intercourse with our seven-year old; why we do not want our children handed book catalogues that contain a significant dose of horror, occult and inappropriate adolescent romance; why we do not want our children indoctrinated against “homophobia” before they learn about the dangers of homosexuality, and before they have learned about the beauty of Christian sexuality at an appropriate time and place; why we wish them to partake of the Sacrament of Confession before their First Communion; why we would rather they not be filled with irrational fears about men and affectionate touch in sex-abuse prevention programs; and why we don’t want them told by an authority figure that in order to avoid AIDS they should use a condom if their morality fails (advise that is as dangerous to physical health as it is morally corrupt). Other families in our circle of friends have suffered through similar skirmishes.
We must understand that the foregoing are surface manifestations of the real problem. The urgent need to examine this problem can hardly be exaggerated, for education is the arena where the interests of State and Family overlap; it is also where their interests are most likely to conflict. In Catholic education a third element is added to the equation, the authoritative voice of the Church—the only anchor in an increasingly unstable universe. What is happening in education reveals a fundamental reality-shift, a radical destabilising process that proceeds apace under cover of institutional structures which appear more or less intact.
The Church knows that parental rights are primary, springing as they do from Natural Law. And it also knows that with every right comes obligations. The protection of a proper understanding of both rights and obligations (they are inseparable) cannot be sustained unless we listen to the inspired teaching authority of the universal Church. When the family, formed and guided by the Church, is replaced by the State as the supreme educator, then a process of collapse into universal subjectivism occurs. If the local or “particular” churches do not develop the will to resist, and if they cannot find the vision to create and maintain authentic Catholic education, then the ideological invasion takes on a sinister dimension. The corruption then becomes disguised as a Catholic project—sanitized, “baptized,” ratified by bishops’ committees intent on preserving “Catholic education.” In such situations the structure is maintained but its heart has died.
So many recent educational projects, for example, attempt to process large numbers of children en masse, ignoring the directives of the Vatican and papal documents. For example, in England the national Bishops’ Conference recently issued a guideline for sex education in Catholic schools, Education in Sexuality. This document gives a distorted view of the Catholic vision of sexuality, recommends discussion sheets tolerating homosexual activity, masturbation, and various methods of artificial birth control, presents elementary school students with vivid details of sexual intercourse, and promotes literature from pro-abortion associations. It appears under the name of Most Reverend David Konstant, Bishop of Leeds, Chairman of the Catholic Education Service, an official agency of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Only one bishop—Most Reverend Maurice Couve de Murville, Archbishop of Birmingham—criticized the document and refused to allow it in his schools. Other bishops have since followed his lead, admitting that they had not seen the document before it was published. Until Archbishop Murville spoke out they had kept silence, because they had not wanted to disturb the united front of the conference, wishing to avoid any break (according to their thinking) in the bond of “unity.”
This is the latest step in a series of crises that have erupted in the Catholic Church in England. In recent years the bishops of England and Wales have published seriously flawed religious education programs after the Holy Father’s pointed criticisms of such programs during his ad limina meetings with them. Perhaps the main lesson to be drawn from this situation is that the Lord’s grace continues to be poured out directly through the Chair of Peter to the individual bishop in union with the Pope (as it has for the past 2000 years). This is not to say that national or provincial conferences cannot be helpful, nor is it to say that they cannot speak as a body on local matters. However, such associations have no canonically binding authority. Moreover, they have repeatedly proved vulnerable to being commandeered by theorists, experimenters, middle-level administrators or persuasive personalities, thus undermining the charism of communion between bishop and the Pope—the divinely appointed union from which any genuine “collegiality” must flow.
Personalism versus Collectivism
The mind of the Church is neither collectivist nor individualist. She is personalist. John Paul II has repeatedly underlined this basic principle in his teachings. For example, in The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful he writes:
Where the Church sees each human being as a person in need of formation and salvation, the collectivist mind sees a social problem in need of rehabilitation. Where the Catholic mind says that wisdom and truth will set us free, the collectivist mind says that knowledge will set us free, though one usually finds, ironically, that when a collectivist says “knowledge” he is not always referring to knowledge—for many of his projects are actually dominated by opinion, theory and myth.
In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II points out that when the principle of subsidiarity is violated, even in the interests of rehabilitating a society in crisis, hostility against the family can evolve into overt acts of aggression; society “attacks it violently in its values and fundamental requirements. For this reason the Church openly and strongly defends the rights of the family against the intolerable usurpations of society and the State.” (n. 46).
The family and society have complementary functions in defending and fostering the good of each and every human being. But society—more specifically the State—must recognize that “the family is a society in its own original right,” (Dignitatis Humanae, 5) and so society is under a grave obligation in its relations with the family to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity. (n. 45).
But the principle of subsidiarity can also be undermined by subtle, gradual erosion. In the long run this may be more destructive of the family than “violent attacks” and “intolerable usurpations,” precisely because acts of naked aggression are intolerable and can be easily recognised as such. How much more difficult it is to identify and resist a covert action that destroys the foundation while it neutralises protest and offers many benefits to those who cooperate.
Subsidiarity is at the basis of Catholic education (see Familiaris Consortio, 36-40). The term means that when parents, who are the primary educators of their children, choose to entrust their children to professional educators they do so on the understanding that the educators are committed to serve the needs of the family, and to support its mission. The system, the board, the local school, the teachers, and the curriculum are accountable to the parents. They must be willing and able to justify to parents the quality of education being offered to their children. In practice, however, one often finds a functioning reality which inverts the principle. While most Catholic schools still pay lip service to subsidiarity, it is not uncommon to hear of perfectly healthy, happy families of deep faith forced into positions where they must justify their parenting to the system. Some of our acquaintances have had their children confiscated by the State with the assistance of organs of education, on suspicion of child abuse. They were eventually found to be quite innocent, but—and this is the important point—they were presumed guilty until their innocence was proved. That is an ominous sign in a free society. The merest suspicion of abuse in some provinces and states now permits a teacher to oversee the legal abduction of children. This is a gross betrayal of trust. This is institutionalised abuse—excusable, we are told, because it is done in the name of saving children.
There are, of course, many converse situations in which innocent teachers have been falsely accused of brutality or sexual misconduct. Both situations are mirror images of each other. Both are symptoms of a deeper disorder at work in the consciousness of our people. The most obvious cause is the general loss of respect for authority, and the resulting collapse of institutions and individuals into a kind of spiritual flatland where everyone speaks of rights but rarely considers the responsibilities which are inseparable from rights.
When a child senses that there are no longer any significant consequences for his acts, when he cannot see his place in a sacred hierarchy of being, when he does not know his role in the social and spiritual ecology, he must degenerate into an autonomous being wandering about in a wasteland, and eventually he must grasp at the tools of raw power in order to assert his identity. He does not know who or what he is. He considers himself a thing—albeit a clever, talking thing, but an object nonetheless. Thus, a generation of children is being formed in habits of egocentricity, manipulation and intimidation. The politics of compromise replaces the flow of anointed authority. Civil law no longer is the guardian of conscience but replaces conscience. The threat of lawsuits hover over honourable educators. The threat of marginalisation and harassment hovers over traditional families. The bond of trust has been shattered; the fracture lines run in all directions.
Catholic institutions contribute to the process of collapse to the degree that they themselves have rejected that great chain of authority in which Christ the King reigns as the head of a hierarchical creation. It must be asked, how can our institutions respond to this crisis in any significant way when they are major participants in the flattening of the cosmos? A conflict between parents and educators which erupted in Toronto last year has much to tell us about the mentality of some educators in this regard. In the Metropolitan Separate School Board of that city parents of eight children claimed that during the 1992-1993 academic year a teacher had physically abused their children. She had habitually thrown objects at six year olds, slapped, bit and punched them. When the parents brought this matter before the principal, he responded that they were the only parents who had made such allegations. The parents maintain that the principal then called the Catholic Children’s Aid Society to have the complaining families investigated. Their appeals to the school superintendent and a trustee produced little other than the removal of the teacher to another school. No real investigation was conducted. The parents then asked Brian Taylor, the president of the Ontario Association of Catholic Families, to make a presentation on their behalf to a committee of the separate school board; he also wrote a letter to the board’s deputy director of education. He then wrote an open letter to the parents of that school community and handed out copies to those in attendance at the next school board meeting. The board then voted to serve Taylor with a $100,000. libel suit, claiming that as a result of Taylor’s statements on the controversy, the Separate School Board “has been injured in its public reputation and credit and has been brought into public scandal.” Taylor claimed that the parents’ allegations were true, made without malice, and were “a matter of public interest.” He filed a counter-suit against the board, claiming that the board’s suit was aimed at intimidation, and was an abuse of process. The case was settled without coming to trial, but a court order has imposed silence regarding the details of the settlement.
Regardless of the outcome, a very clear message was given to parents: if you speak to your elected representatives about your concerns, you run the risk of being sued.
[See articles in The Toronto Star, December 23, 1993, page A6; The Ottawa Citizen, February 13, 1994, page A12; The Toronto Star, January 17, 1994, page A15, The Toronto Star, January 12, 1994, page A20]
Here is a clear example of the politics of manipulation and intimidation. There are other elements to this case which may be factors in how it was conducted. The Metropolitan Separate School Board of Toronto is the largest and wealthiest educational entity in Canada. It has millions of dollars at its disposal, sufficient resources to use the legal system whenever it wishes to protect its interests or press its will on private citizens. The Board retains in its employ a large number of teachers and administrators who dissent from essential Church teachings. The most public example is Joanna Manning, a religion teacher who in 1992 was reassigned to teaching English and history because of her heterodox beliefs. Manning is an outspoken dissenter from Church teachings and has publicly attacked fundamentals of the Catholic faith. She is a co-founder of Coalition of Concerned Canadian Catholics, an organisation for the promotion of feminism and abortion rights. With the support of OECTA, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, she was recently reinstated as a teacher in a Catholic school and promoted to head of the religion department. In March, 1995, OECTA also honoured Manning with its highest award of merit.
By contrast, Brian Taylor raises his family of six children and operates the Ontario Association of Catholic Families on a severely limited budget. He, like most families, cannot afford the time, energy or money it takes to resist a monolithic system. It is to his credit that he did so. Perhaps it should also be noted that over the past few years the journal of Taylor’s association has consistently defended parental rights in education and has published carefully reasoned critiques of the social engineering programs introduced into Catholic schools. He is convinced, as are other thoughtful observers of the system, that his stand on these issues is the real reason the Board decided to bring down upon him the full weight of its power.
A Personal Encounter
A personal story, much milder than the foregoing, but informative, may serve to illustrate the split between the theoretical situation and the hidden rip-tides presently at work beneath the surface. A few years ago friends of ours withdrew their children from a separate school. This outstanding couple are people of deep faith. They live and work on a small homestead where they raise a large family of twelve children. It is a hive of endless activity. It is full of babies, toddlers, teenagers, books, adventures, forts, animals, art, model aeroplanes, pictures of the Sacred Heart, music (piano, organ, guitar, mandolin, accordion, singing), daily rosary and scripture reading, folk traditions, discussions, teasing, jokes, and laughter. Lots of laughter. Lots of training in generosity. Lots of diversity.
Now to judge by the surface appearance one might say this family is not a great success in material terms. Many broken objects wait to be repaired. The carpets are worn. There are no costly vacations, no sabbaticals. They drive a broken-down car that hardly deserves the name automobile. Almost all of their clothing is second-hand. They grow a big vegetable garden just to get by. They live far, far below the government’s statistical “poverty line,” and some months they don’t know whether or not they can meet the mortgage. But in human terms their home is a raging success. The children are healthy, smart, happy, affectionate, giving, endlessly creative and open-faced, and excited by learning. It is one of the healthiest environments for a child I have ever had the good fortune to stumble across. Many of the families in our area vie for the privilege of sending their children for a weekend visit with this family.
A few years ago the parents—gentle, non-confrontational people—began to feel uneasy about certain non-academic programs that were being introduced into the Catholic elementary school attended by their children. They went to the school and met with the teacher and principal in order to discuss it. They were greeted with defensiveness and vagueness. Their questions about why the school was implementing material that violated Vatican guidelines were not answered. They were informed that parents did not have the right to withdraw their children from these programs. The parents replied that both the Vatican’s Charter of Rights of the Family [22 October, 1982, Article 5] and the Vatican document on education guaranteed that right. [see also the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, n. 5; the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2229; and the Code of Canon Law, Canons 796-806].
The principal backed down. The children of this family remained in the classroom for strictly academic work, and were sent to the library during those periods when the questionable programs were taught. Our friends thought themselves lucky in this, because they knew of children attending other schools who had been forced to sit or stand in the hallway during the classes from which they had been withdrawn.
It so happened that the director of the school board to which this school belonged is also one of the chief formulators and publishers of the program to which they had mainly objected. In addition, he is a major figure in educational circles in the province. There were more communications back and forth, tensions increased, and weighing all factors, our friends eventually decided to try a year of home-schooling. The mother is a former grade-school teacher; the father has a university degree and, being self-employed, is at home much of the time, which would enable him to help with teaching. Despite the difficulties involved, they wanted to try it out, intending to examine at the end of a year the effects upon their children. Now, three years later, the many good fruits of this decision are more than obvious. Our friends made their decision and proceeded about their business quietly. They knew that home-schooling is not for every family. They in no way felt superior to anyone, nor did they think that home-schooling is the only kind of genuine Catholic education. It was just the best thing for their family at that time. A local priest helped them to see that the Church has always encouraged diversity. That is why the Church is healthy, he pointed out. He reassured them that their decision was in no way “abnormal” nor was it undermining Catholic education—in fact it was solidly within the rich and varied tradition of Catholic education.
However, the local board did not agree, for reasons which remained somewhat elusive. Letters went back and forth between the school board and the family—stating positions, feeling out the parameters of parental and State authority, which are blurred to say the least. The situation eventually lapsed into an unresolved truce.
Learning that the N.D.P. was making moves toward greater control of alternative education in the province, our friends decided to apply to the Ministry of Education for status as a private school (not realizing that under the law they were only required to file a notice of intent with the Ministry). This, they felt, would provide them with some legal protection. The children were thriving on home-education and the family contained twice the number of children legally necessary for the status. A representative from the Ministry of Education visited the family’s home in order to determine if it was suitable for qualification as a private school. The parents did not realize that this too was not required by the law, and indeed was beyond the authority of the Ministry, according to the Education Act. The investigator was friendly, encouraging, positive—and impressed by the quality of the children’s academic progress. He departed, leaving the strong impression that the granting of status would be little more than a formality.
A few weeks later our friends received a curt letter from him. He informed them that their Notice of Intent to Operate a Private School was not accepted. He gave no reasons. He further instructed them to notify their local separate school board so that the board might determine whether satisfactory instruction was taking place at home. If the board determined that instruction was satisfactory the children might be excused from attending school. Copies of the letter were forwarded to the board and the “Provincial School Attendance Officer” —the senior truancy officer.
Amazingly enough, a little bureaucratic accident occurred in connection with this letter. Perhaps it was divine providence, perhaps it was an angel, or maybe even a human factor: a small slip of paper had found its way into the envelope along with the Ministry letter and other documents. It was a memo written on Ministry stationary, which recorded a telephone conversation between the Ministry official and the director of the separate school board with whom the family had so much trouble. On the memo was written the following points regarding our friends:
* Family—back to basics.
* Objected to programs in [the memo names the separate school board].
* Campaign going on to slander a school.
* Have a market for some malcontents.
* Social skill of youngster.
* What church?
Point by point our friends assessed these items. Back to basics must refer to their purely academic approach to education. Objected to programs? Well, yes they were guilty of that, and for good reasons. Slander a school? No, they hadn’t done anything of the sort. They had questioned its policies a little, face to face, not behind anyone’s back. Have a market for some malcontents? The meaning was uncertain, but it seemed rather odd to grossly characterise Catholic alternative education as the work of malcontents. Social skill of youngster? Did the memo imply that one of their children was not “socialised?” Socialisation, our friends knew, was the argument which some system educators use to dissuade parents from considering alternative education. They maintain that children will become isolated and withdrawn, unable to cope with the “real world” if they are not involved in the system. The argument is a false one. Most home-school children tend to be very social. The home is a secure place, and children tend to become more surely who they are, and thus more able to go out into the world as individuals, freed from much of the tyranny of peer pressure which afflicts modern youth. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2224). Maybe this item referred to one of their boys who was especially shy? He had been just as shy when he was in the school, and besides, he was now coming out of himself. As for the rest of the children, the large family was a thriving little society in itself, not to mention the fact that the traffic of visiting friends and neighbours was heavier than in most homes. And regarding the final item, What church? Why would that be part of the equation?
As our friends thrashed these questions over in their minds it gradually dawned on them that the memo items were completely beside the point. They had nothing to do with the real question: were the parents able to provide a good education for their children as a private school? Obviously, something had happened during the gap between the encouraging visit of the assessor and his curt reply, and that was a prejudiced intervention by the local board. Not only were false judgements made against this family, not only were they outside the official lines of communication between the family and the Ministry, they were arguments based upon criteria that had little to do with education. Clearly, the family had not been assessed on its objective merits, but against a background of social agendas.
When the father of this family telephoned to the Ministry official to request clarification of the reasons why his notice had been rejected, he was met by an attitude that was a curious mixture of defensiveness and hostility. No reasons were given. The official accused him of being “irresponsible with taxpayers money” (forgetting that the investigation had been at the Ministry’s initiative, and furthermore that by teaching their children at home the family was saving taxpayers a great deal of money). He further accused the father of being an “élitist” and then proceeded to defend public education in a tone that was highly irritable to the point of belligerence. When the father asked that the arguments the official had presented during this conversation be written out in a letter, the official reluctantly agreed. However, more than a year later, the family has not yet received a letter from him.
The case of our friends is still in a kind of suspended animation. They simply continue to home-school. Their situation is by no means unique. The point of this story is not the outcome of a particular family’s interaction with the State and with systemic education. In fact their situation is moderate in comparison to conflicts which are taking place in some provinces and states. The root problem lies much deeper than administrative confusion or misapplication of the law. The real problem is a fundamental shift in a hierarchy of principles within the education system itself.
In Ontario, the existing statutes guarantee the right of the family to choose alternative forms of education. However, Ontario lawyers involved in disputes between families and the system have told me that there is a pattern repeating itself across the province: many boards are exceeding the authority granted them under the existing statutes. Many bureaucrats believe that the State bears the primary responsibility for the education of the child, and some even go so far as to believe that children must be protected from their parents. Many believe that the existing law is inadequate and therefore they tend to have little or no regard for the limits placed by the law on their authority. Yet, whenever parents have resisted efforts by bureaucrats to invade the family, the bureaucrats have backed down. By contrast, whenever families try to appease the system, the bureaucrats press for more and more control, demanding endless paper work and accountability from parents; in the worst cases they behave in a manner which legal experts have rightly called “harassment.” Is this dual pattern of aggression and retreat symptomatic of a social revolution which has not yet revealed its full power or intent? Are we witnessing an undeclared territorial struggle that is gathering momentum?
In Canada, government authority is defined by statute, the written law. The Ministry of Education, school boards, principals and teachers can only do that which the Education Act authorises them to do. Interestingly enough, the Ontario Education Act is carefully worded to ensure that all children receive an education, while at the same time protecting diversity in education, the sanctity of the home, and the primary role of parents in educating their children. Home schools and private schools are recognised as legitimate alternative approaches to education. Children are excused from attending school where they are “receiving satisfactory instruction at home or elsewhere.” [Education Act, Revised Satutes of Ontario, 1990, c.E.2, s.22(2)(b)] Satisfactory instruction is not defined. Home-school defence lawyers have pointed out that in all fairness homeschooling families cannot be judged more stringently than the system itself. It must be asked if the school system is providing satisfactory instruction to the rather embarrassing number of low achievers. If a family is providing an education at home that is at least as good as the system’s failures, is that less than satisfactory? Interestingly enough, an overwhelming majority of home-schools achieve an educational standard and enjoy a success rate that is superior to the system’s. This is the reason why some provinces and states actually encourage home education to the point of subsidizing it financially.
In Ontario, if there is solid evidence that a child being educated outside of a school is in fact not receiving satisfactory education, the Act requires that an inquiry must be held by someone who is not an employee of the school board. In other words, when a parent believes that his or her child is receiving satisfactory instruction at home or elsewhere, and a “school attendance counsellor” disagrees, the case must be assessed by an unbiased party with no vested interest in the outcome. [Education Act, Revised Satutes of Ontario, 1990, c.E.2, s.24(2)] Furthermore, the act prohibits school attendance counsellors from entering a dwelling “if exception taken” to such entry—if the family does not wish them to enter.
Regarding private schools, the Education Act defines a private school as an institution at which instruction is provided to five or more pupils between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Private schools must be distinguished from home schools. However, as noted in a Ministry memorandum, it is possible that a family with five children of school age could operate as a private school. Private schools must submit an annual notice form to the Ministry of Education, but are not required to “apply” or seek permission from the Ministry in order to operate. The Ministry does have the authority to inspect a private school and its records but does not approve or control private schools.
In the case of our friends, we must wonder why the Ministry was in their home if not for the purpose of inspecting. The Ministry had no business being in their home unless it was inspecting a “private school,” a status which they had not acquired, and which they were soon to be denied for no legitimate reason. Obviously, in light of what occurred subsequently, it would be difficult to construe this “visit” as a friendly one. The Ministry was acting outside of its authority under the law. Why?
A recent article in The Windsor Star perhaps hints at a reason. [see The Windsor Star, Windsor, Ontario, May 31, 1995, page B1] Under the headline, “Tougher Truancy Law Sought,” the Ontario Association for Counselling and Attendance Services is reported to be seeking an “update” of the law dealing with school attendance. Referring to students who refuse to attend school, young people who are working, and those who are taught at home “in an unsatisfactory manner,” a representative of the organisation said that nearly all such cases reflect some kind of “dysfunction” in the student’s life. The organisation wants the law to require mandatory counselling as part of the penalty for failure to attend school. This is an especially odd suggestion, because the existing statutes already allow a judge to make such an order if it is truly necessary. Currently, if a child does not attend school until the age of sixteen, charges can lead to probation and a thirty day open custody term. One wonders, therefore, what sort of counselling is implied by the OACAS spokesman. Add to this the curious fact that in the Essex County Board of Education, where the spokesman works, he deals with an average of five to ten such case per year. That is rather a light case-load for a salaried public employee. It begs the question: is part of the motivation behind the push for more legal controls over family life a desire to generate “make-work” projects for under-challenged bureaucrats?
Christopher Corkery, a Catholic lawyer from Peterborough, Ontario, maintains that, “In the present situation families must know their rights and be prepared to stand up for them, and must inform their elected representatives about abuses of the rights of the family by State agencies or by any other institutions that derive their authority from the existing statutes.”
A recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada indicates that the judicial system still recognises the primacy of parental rights, but sets certain limits upon these rights. The case of “R.B v. Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto,” involved the parents of an infant girl who had exhibited many physical ailments after birth and had received a number of medical treatments, to which her parents had consented. The parents had requested her attending physicians to avoid the use of blood transfusion because, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they objected to this medical procedure for religious reasons. The Children’s Aid Society intervened and was granted a “72-hour wardship” custody of the child for the purpose of administering this procedure. The wardship was eventually extended to 21 days, during which time the child received another transfusion while undergoing an exploratory operation for suspected childhood glaucoma. The child was then returned to her parents. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Children’s Aid Society and the Attorney General of Ontario, basing its decision upon what it called “principles of fundamental justice” for the child. In other words it was a matter of life and death. However, Justice La Forest made some very important cautionary statements which have bearing on family life and education:
While parents bear responsibilities toward their children, they must enjoy correlative rights to exercise them, given the fundamental importance of choice and personal autonomy in our society. Although this liberty interest is not a parental right tantamount to a right of property in children, our society is far from having repudiated the privileged role parents exercise in the upbringing of their children. This role translates into a protected sphere of parental decision-making which is rooted in the presumption that parents should make important decisions affecting their children both because parents are more likely to appreciate the best interests of their children and because the state is ill-equipped to make such decisions itself. While the state may intervene when it considers it necessary to safeguard the child’s autonomy or health, such intervention must be justified. . . . If one considers the multitude of decisions parents make daily, it is clear that in practice, state interference in order to balance the rights of parents and children will arise only in exceptional cases. The state can properly intervene in situations where parental conduct falls below the socially acceptable threshold, but in doing so it is limiting the constitutional rights of parents rather than vindicating the constitutional rights of children. [emphasis added].
[Supreme Court of Canada, Judgment n. 24, January 27, 1995, R.B. v. Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto]
While Justice La Forest’s statement seems to define a certain hierarchy of rights under the law, favouring the parent in situations other than life and death matters, it also exposes a number of ambiguities: The “principle of fundamental justice,” for example, does not apply to the child before birth. Who is to define “health”? Who is to define what is a justifiable state intervention? What is a “socially acceptable threshold”? Into the widening gap of interpretation on these matters many families may yet fall.
Do Catholic parents need to be unduly alarmed by the present situation, when it is not yet certain whether parental rights will suffer more direct assaults in the years to come? At the very least we should be alert to the fact that public life is becoming riddled with inconsistencies, and that certain state organs, such as the education system, are becoming “dysfunctional,” that the various administrative bodies do not always act with fidelity to first principles, and that as a result parental rights will often suffer. Education administrators should know the law, but many, it seems, are choosing to disregard it whenever it proves inconvenient to their social agendas. Granted, at times there are accidents, the normal imperfections one can expect from any institution. However, this does not explain the pattern of aggression at the administrative level. The most generous interpretation of the present situation is that many administrators suffer from a mixture of maladies: they have been swept up in a popular philosophy of education combined with ignorance of parental rights in education. The worst interpretation is that the Catholic educational system is engaged in a deliberate split between official policy and actual practice, between high-minded talk about the principles of Catholic education and the way real families are treated.
Idealism and True Morality
I do not mean to suggest that the education systems are bereft of highly motivated people who sacrifice much time and effort to do good to their fellow human beings. Most Catholic educators are highly motivated indeed. But idealism is not necessarily wisdom, and wisdom loses its primary place when educators are themselves trained in secular universities, where flawed theories of the meaning of the human person are dominant. In our family circle and among our close friends there are several Catholic educators: teachers, a principal, a vice-principal, and teachers aids. These are people who devote their lives to the formation of children, often at the cost of much effort and heroic sacrifice. They are busy about a holy task: that of reinvigorating Catholic education with a truly Catholic vision. Not a few of them, however, have discussed the difficulties this involves. For instance, they are at times forced to skip over social engineering elements in text books; they try to ignore certain directives from school boards which indicate the trustees are ignorant of guidelines from the universal Church; and they try to integrate sound teaching into official catechetical programs, because the programs currently in use omit basic building blocks of Faith and trivialise other vital points of doctrine and practice.
Until six years ago our children were enrolled in a separate school situated in a small rural community. My wife and I were grateful for the unfailing kindness and openness which the staff displayed toward us. Most of the staff were dedicated people of deep faith. However, they considered themselves trapped to a degree by the dictates of a Catholic education system funded by a secular government intent on social engineering. When my son, who was then in the seventh grade, got off the school bus one day and told me that he was soon to begin an AIDS prevention course, I requested an interview with his teacher. I wanted to learn more about the contents of the program and the teacher cordially showed me the material. He suggested I take it home and study it. He further suggested that if we felt the course was not appropriate for our son, he could go to the library during that class.
Then he said (with some embarrassment) that he personally disliked the program for several reasons; however he had no choice but to teach it it. The Ministry and the board had made it a mandatory part of the curriculum. The bulk of the teacher’s manual encouraged teachers to inform students about traditional Catholic morality on sexuality. However, the final section instructed the teacher to encourage students to use condoms if their morality failed. The foolishness of this approach should be obvious. Not only is the use of a condom little defence against AIDS, it is now proven that condoms actually encourage a false sense of security among the young and in effect contribute to the spread of sexual promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases. [Several recent studies confirm this. See especially Dr. Stephen Genuis’s article, “The Dilemma of Adolescent Sexuality, Part 1: The Onslaught of Sexually Transmitted Diseases” in the Journal of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, June, 1993] A figure of authority, representing an institution of Catholic authority, was giving a mixed signal. What do such programs tell an impressionable young person about the absoluteness of God’s moral commandments? How seriously will he take the Faith? Will he learn that morality is open to negotiation, that it can be bent whenever some other institution decides it knows better than parents and the Church?
I was further disturbed by a directive attached to the teachers’ manual, an instruction from the board that this manual was not to be shown to any unauthorised person who was not an employee of the system. This struck me as odd. Why should they have felt it necessary to give teachers such an instruction? How does this measure up against the Church’s exhortation that Catholic parents have the right to oversee the content of any educational program dealing with their child’s sexuality? [see Charter of the Rights of the Family, Article 5(c)]
In its Vatican II Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, n. 6, the Church affirms that it is the State’s duty “to protect and defend the liberty of its citizens, is bound according to the principles of distributive justice to ensure that public subsidies to schools are so allocated that parents are truly free to select schools for their children in accordance with their conscience.”
The Church declares this to be a fundamental human right. Thus, we need not feel beholden to the State for contributing to the cost of the education of its citizens. Nor should a state-funded system compel us to permit the invasion of conscience by ruling parties or social movements which manage to temporarily control the organs of public authority. By the same token, we should resist any parallel invasion of the conscience arising within the Catholic system. Shepherds of the flock of Christ have a grave duty to exercise firm authority over anyone who attempts either an interior or exterior attack upon the fundamental principles. It is an act of charity for parents to respectfully point out to their bishops whenever and wherever there are violations of the principle of subsidiarity. Bishops must recognize that the loss of accountability is not a mere managerial difficulty but is a blow to the very foundations of the Faith. [See the Code of Canon Law, c.803 and c.804]. When Catholic school boards consider themselves no longer truly accountable to their bishops (except in theory) Catholic education is thereby rendered servile to the whims of opinion, chance, or worse, to a subtle but relentless jockeying for power between moralists and moral relativists—all of whom may claim to be Catholic.
I once had a meeting with the director of religious education for a school board in which our children were enrolled. I pointed out to him the flaws in the sex education program that was being introduced into the system, and reinforced my arguments with the fact that four separate studies by psychologists (one Catholic, one Jewish, and two secular) were unanimous that the approach taken by this kind of program damaged more children than it helped. He shrugged and said, “You have your experts and we have ours.” When I pointed out to him that the program violated Vatican guidelines, he simply looked indifferent and changed the subject.
Thus, objective standards are destabilised, fidelity to the Faith varies from board to board, school to school, depending on the personal conscience of teachers, on how well trustees have been formed in Catholic principles, on how high a priority superintendents give to the Magisterium, and on any given bishop’s character. If he is unable to recognize ideological invasion, or if he cannot find the strength to exercise headship over the organs of the particular church, the actual government of the faithful is handed over to a class of administrators who are in effect accountable to no one but their own peer group of like-minded people. The bond of authentic unity is broken. Subjectivity replaces objectivity. “Consensus” replaces anointed authority. This creates a climate of general confusion and in the worst cases makes us entirely vulnerable to a transfer of power out of the hands of parents and Church, where it rightly belongs, into the hands of the State.
In this province, and in others, teachers are being forced to wrestle with their consciences in precisely the institution which is consecrated to helping families in the right formation of conscience. Properly informed teachers must now choose between disobeying the board for which they work or disobeying the moral authority of the universal Church. They can resolve their dilemma by bowing to secular thinking or by resorting to open protest (and risk losing their jobs) or they can choose clandestine resistance—none of which should be happening in a truly Catholic educational institution, and all of which are symptoms of decay.
What is the Catholic parent to do in such situations? How is he to communicate his concerns to people who simply do not understand (or have consciously rejected) the ground on which he stands? The dialogue between the idealist and the truly moral person can be full of confused signs. When parents stand before school boards, bishops’ secretariats, parliamentary committees and state agencies to utter simple truths which are at variance with new sacred cows, they usually do so at some personal cost. They risk being isolated and dismissed as “right-wing,” “pre-Vatican II,” “repressive personalities,” or “conservatives” etc. If parents are at times emotional about the situation, this is not so much a symptom of irrationality or error; still less is it a symptom of prudishness; even less is it evidence that they are “right-wing fanatics.” Their reaction is a sign of health. It is the natural frustration that the sane experience when faced with official schizophrenia. Their anger stems from a sense of betrayed trust. Is it any wonder that they feel a little emotional disturbance when their protests are repeatedly dismissed as alarmism or paranoia? It is usually forgotten, when the debate waxes hot, that parents are discussing the actual lives of real children for whom they have a pressing and ultimate responsibility. Whereas functionaries usually argue their cases and pursue their projects from a starting point of theory and a vaguely defined philanthropic passion.
A note of caution is needed here. While it is true that certain individuals who have power over other people’s lives are making bad decisions based upon clouded judgement, it is not our place to condemn them. They will render a strict accounting to the Lord one day. It goes without saying that the urgent need for truth does not mandate us to go rushing about tearing into our neighbour or our enemy, delivering harsh harangues at this or that erring soul, even to the extent of attacking the integrity of those in high places. Nevertheless, we have a right and a duty to speak the truth with simplicity, calmness and charity, clearly and fearlessly, without rancour or personal condemnation, wherever untruth invades the life of our family. The Catholic parent must take care to pray and fast a great deal before he attempts such encounters—for the world is drowning in words and few are able to listen without prejudice. He must avoid at all costs giving in to outbursts of anger and despair—sins of another order. Not only is it bad for his soul, it is bad for the souls of many children who will suffer because those in authority can then dismiss the advocate of truth as irrational. There is a bitter irony here. We should note the irony and avoid the bitterness.
3. Catechesis and Evangelization
Our perceptive eight-year old daughter, Elizabeth, once asked me, after a trip to the dinosaur wing of the Natural History Museum, “Why did God make dinosaurs?”
An excellent question. I glanced hastily about the room wishing that someone would write a book titled, “How to Answer Children’s Unanswerable Theological Questions?” We groped around the matter together for awhile, and her questions were really pressing: she wanted to know!
“I mean,” she said, “God is good. But why did he make something so horrible and ugly?”
“Maybe at first He made them to be very big and friendly like whales and elephants,” I replied, “but the devil corrupted the world and changed them from plant-eaters into meat-eaters. Then they started killing . . .”
The answers seemed to ring a little hollow. She knew it and I knew it. I prayed silently. Perhaps it was my guardian angel who prompted a thought:
“Elizabeth, I don’t really know for sure, but maybe He wanted to make a creature that looked like something we can’t see. Perhaps somewhere in the universe there’s an invisible dinosaur on the loose and it doesn’t like people.”
She thought about that for awhile. After a few minutes she said, “I get it.”
We nodded together, although there was a little faking in father’s nod, because he was still straining to get it for himself.
“Yes,” she said, musing, “Maybe God wanted to tell us that it’s kind of dangerous here. Like the angels and the devils and all that.”
“Yes, maybe like that.”
“But the dinosaurs weren’t evil, were they?”
“No, not at all. They looked big and mean and ugly as sin, and they were dangerous, but they weren’t bad. Just as a snake or a shark isn’t bad. They’re creatures. And each of them tells a part of a big story. All of creation is like a book with millions of chapters.”
“Some are scary and some are wonderful.”
“Right! The dinosaurs are gone now, and the world is full of people, but they left a powerful message for us in the fossils, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” she said, getting really excited. “And that means we’ll never run out of good books to read. There’s always a new story.”
The theologians would call this “a teachable moment.” Family life tends to be full of such moments if one is on the alert for them. But because we parents are often distracted or exhausted by the demands of our times, and because of the temptation in an overly complex environment to shunt the responsibility of catechesis to the trained expert, we may begin to overlook such moments. Moreover, without knowing it, we can allow the normal life of the family to fall into the habit of indifference to those basic questions that work their way up from the child’s soul into his conscious mind.
I have come to believe that the distinctions between catechesis, religious education, and evangelization, while useful in a formal school setting, can be misleading in a family. It is a mistake to say, as one pulls a catechism from the shelf, “Ah, now I am catechising!” or as one engages in a teachable moment, “Ah, now I am evangelising!” or, as one discusses comparative religions with an inquisitive teenager, “Ah, now this is religious education!” For there is considerable overlapping of all three in a healthy religious environment.
This is but one of the differences between home and school which have not been thoroughly examined by educators and by those involved in the formation of the family. In my work as the editor of a Catholic family magazine I have met many families who suffer from the effects of this confusion –– so many of us have a vague sense that all three aspects the child’s formation are met if the school offers a catechism program. I would go so far as to say that an overwhelming majority of families are suffering from this assumption, and as a result their children are inadequately formed. Like most parents, my wife and I have experienced first-hand the pull of the present culture. We are continually forced to resist its often autocratic demands upon our six children. We have been hard-pressed to provide a substantial alternative to the plethora of choices and stimuli which their world offers them. Raising children in a state of cultural flux has been a continuous challenge: how to muster positive strategies, how to defend the young against ideological invasion without succumbing to hypercriticism or paranoia; how to give them a true culture; how to form them into genuine Christian Catholics. This is no easy task considering the speed with which a more or less Christian society has become a pagan one.
If my generation struggled with a despiritualized culture, our children must now struggle with a dehumanised one, one which John Paul II has called “the culture of death.” We were raised in a society that was still functioning on Christian assumptions about the very nature of reality. It was a flawed world but one in which we knew that the destruction of a child in the womb is an abominable crime, that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered, that cheating on your income tax is immoral, and sexual relations before marriage are a grave sin, etc. Our families coasted on a social matrix which at every turn reinforced moral absolutes.
My generation was the last to be raised on the old Baltimore Catechism, that sturdy yeoman of catechesis which accomplished its task of instructing us in the actual content of the Catholic Faith. It taught us doctrine and the moral absolutes, though, admittedly, I cannot recall many moments when it imparted the thrill of that Faith which I now know to be the greatest adventure of all. As my children arrived at the age of reason and began to ask the great, the perennial questions, I began to founder in the gaps left by my own inadequate formation. It was difficult to answer them in ways which helped them to see the connections between truth and their experience. In the ensuing years we have learned through trial and error that their short lives simply do not provide the tools for a complete discernment of reality. In order to understand the meaning and purpose of their lives they must be equipped with absolutes, with some abstractions, with wisdom. At the same time, vital connections must be made between the realm of ideas and that of lived experience.
My wife and I have searched for a catechesis which would help make these connections, which would retain the doctrinal substance of the old catechisms, and enliven its presentation of truth with the new awareness of the role of beauty. It has not been easy to find. We have had to grope our way through the cloud of confusion which covers the intellectual and spiritual climate, a climate that has in no small way invaded the particular churches. We have found many of the widely used catechisms to be weak in substance or distorted. A small number, including the exceptional “Faith and Life” series published by Ignatius Press, are most helpful. We have learned to think fast on our feet, to tell stories, and use parables and metaphors drawn from the events of each day; we read scripture and great Catholic novels to our younger children and adolescents; we make time for listening to their questions, talk with them, explain tough theological points to our bright eight-year old theologians; we keep growing in devotional life and love of the Popes and Saints, and their teachings; we pray and keep our eyes open, and pray some more; and we trust that the inherent power of the Sacraments, the Gospels and the witness of the sacred arts and the martyrs will be sufficient formation. We worry and suffer and come round again and again to hope. Yet we have learned that we cannot presume upon supernatural rescue operations if the natural ground has not been sufficiently prepared.
Grace builds upon nature, and in order to make a path for grace to do its work the parent must provide a sensitive balance of doctrine and experience, of rite and imagination, of word and image, and above all provide those moments when the child learns to open the doors to the Holy Spirit. The home and the Catholic school must be more than a place where people talk about religious facts or attitudes. It must be a house of prayer. Only in the atmosphere of reverence for being itself will the Holy Spirit be freed to evangelize our children; only in such an environment will catechesis take root. Reverence for being begins within the family. Here, as different personalities are thrust into the tumult of daily household traffic, a thousand encounters take place between soul and soul, person and person. Here, the joyful and the hard sayings of the Gospels “take on a local habitation and a name.” Here, opportunities abound to crucify one’s own selfishness, to feel death and resurrection in one’s very flesh. Yes, there’s no place quite like home for the transfiguration (or damnation) of man. Our four year old Angela (sweet in temperament) must learn to negotiate with her seven-year old brother, Benjamin the Barbarian, whose imagination is only barely baptised. Reflective, critical John, cracking dry theological jokes at the advanced age of eighteen must bear patiently the squabbles of his two “artistic” sisters, Elizabeth, and fourteen year old Mary. Quiet, gentle, spiritual Joseph, age sixteen, must learn to stand firm against all these stronger wills roaming at large in the household. Mum and Dad, in their mid-forties, somewhat tired out from coping with the stresses of the twentieth century, need the wisdom of Solomon just to get through an ordinary day. Yes, in the Christian home the human condition is operative full-force. It is this condition which we are called to evangelize, and to catechise.
It is tempting to turn catechesis over to the experts. After all, have they not studied the matter in depth? Do they not have so much more energy and maintain order so much more efficiently than most parents, who have their children home from school only for a few tired hours at the end of the workday and on busy weekends? After all, isn’t the Catholic school the Church? Well, yes. And no. By which I mean to say that even the most inspired of educational environments is not the complete Church. It is a member, an organ. The family is the fundamental sacred unit—the heart of the ecclesia, or in the words of John Paul II, drawing upon the Documents of Vatican II: the “Domestic Church.” It bears frequent reminding that if the family is in a state of siege, the Church will be in crisis to its very foundations. No matter the quality of the “solutions” applied to the crisis, if there is no hidden, humble, abiding miracle of spiritual regeneration in the culture of the family, even the most masterful catechetical projects will produce little fruit.
Fundamental to the dynamic of genuine evangelization and its first-cousin, religious education, is the mystery of the Incarnation. In the public worship of the Church we guard our world of symbols; we sing, read scripture, and have rituals in forms which are beautiful. We do so not only because God is honoured by glory, but because everything human is to be restored in Christ, including the senses. The sacred arts surrounding the Sacraments have an inherent power to draw us into awe and reverence, to pull us inexorably beyond ourselves into the mysterious and the holy encounter. Young and old we each need to experience the shattering revelation that we are called to become so much more than we think we are. Culture provides the moments when this becomes possible. It grips the imagination, that faculty which is so quintessentially human. The mind’s eye (some would say the heart’s eye) is a dramatic meeting place of the human and the divine. When the baptized imagination is gradually transfigured by grace and by the long labour of feeding it good food, it becomes a force within us for discerning truth and untruth, for recognising life and anti-life.
The documents of the second Vatican Council and subsequent papal statements speak urgently of the need for a regeneration of Catholic culture. Culture is concerned with handing down to the coming generations its hard-won wisdom, and catechesis, by its very nature, must therefore stand at the forefront of any cultural re-configuration. In the l977 Synod and in documents such as Catechesi Tradendae the universal Church states that all catechesis must be Christocentric. In his address to a group of American bishops during their 1988 ad limina visit, John Paul II said:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church promises to be a cornerstone of a new Catholic revival. At its centre stands the Lord Himself—Lord of all creation, Lord of History. Jesus is Man and He is God; He is a personal saviour reigning as the head of a hierarchical cosmos. By contrast some post-Vatican II catechisms have rejected a hierarchical vision of creation and replaced it with an immanentized model —a flattened or horizontal or purely sociological universe. While such a “Catholic” program may continue to say some things right about God, its methodology, its omissions, its use of imagery and language, and its undeclared assumptions can actually create in the mind of the child an immanentized worldview. Salvation is then perceived as a collective phenomenon, a linear process, a culmination of human history in a purely historical “eschaton”—a New Jerusalem created by man’s hands, not given by a transcendent God after the devastation of the world by sin and error. It is no surprise, then, that immanentized catechesis usually neutralises the ideas of transcendence, sin and error, where they are not eliminated altogether.
I have met more than a few families who have suffered the negative effects of various catechism series that fail to grasp the need for solid content. Since the early nineteen seventies, the development of catechesis has too often been turned over to “experts” functioning without accountability. Little consideration has been given to the fact that the social sciences are riddled with theories that are continually being dismantled and reconstructed and contain no end of interior contradictions. It was not foreseen that many Catholic catechists and educators would come to be formed by, or strongly influenced by, the secularisation of the social sciences—a phenomenon that has contributed to a grave weakening of the Church’s evangelical mission and identity. We should not assume that secular theories can be rehabilitated merely by a sort of sheep-dipping in religious language. In fact, there is overwhelming proof that they cannot. I am not questioning motives here. Clearly, flawed catechesis has been developed as an idealistic attempt to escape the weaknesses of the didactic approach of many pre-Vatican II catechisms. It attempts to remedy what has come to be considered a rigid formula instruction which supposedly kills the spirit, creativity, spontaneity—and faith. Like most reactive projects, experimental catechisms that are based on new theories of educational psychology and (perhaps unbeknown to their creators) on “new theology,” always go too far. They invariably offer a worldview rooted in the child’s personal experiences. A Christocentric vision is replaced by an anthropocentric one, an objective form of religious formation is replaced by a subjective one.
There can be no doubt that the producers of such programs are well-intentioned and highly-motivated by love of children, and impelled by a desire to make religion accessible to them. However, it is a tragic fact that a generation of young Catholics has been deformed by this pleasant, humanistic catechesis. A survey of Roman Catholic high schools in Toronto, for example, revealed that close to 80% of the students were religiously illiterate. They could not answer basic questions about the Faith. After twelve years of religious education they could not say precisely who is Jesus Christ, nor could they define the Holy Trinity, the Eucharist, sin, the need for personal redemption and a plethora of other essential points.
Because of these failures my wife and I have been forced to do precisely what the Church exhorts us to do: to become the “first teachers” of our children in matters of the Faith. In practical terms this has meant re-creating a wide-ranging cultural life within the family circle—admittedly with some false starts and much imperfection, (but a little goes a long way in family life). At the same time we have grown cautious about catechisms and religious education projects in which the authors are concerned with “demythologising” the faith. It was a surprise for us to discover that some texts inform the child that Baptism is primarily an “invitation” to enter the community of faith. No mention of liberation from original sin and death. There is repeated emphasis on the concept of immersion of the human person in the community—wherein he is supposedly to find his true identity. Some programs, marketed under the name “Catholic,” are actually more expressive of dissolution of the self, and as such are effective agents of monism, the pagan view of existence as a vast organic being in which all distinctions are ultimately illusions.
The Supernatural Sense of the Faith
Whenever a child is told that Jesus was a “special person,” a buzz-word employed indiscriminately to refer to Christ, to priests, sisters, Mum and Dad, our antenna should quiver a little. The use of jargon, the coining of trite neologisms and repeatedly turning nouns into verbs—in short, the customary signs of the trivialisation of language—these are sure signs of a failure of imagination, and they raise questions about the abilities of the writers of such programs. If they are reduced to the argot of sociological religion, we must ask if they have become locked into a mode of thought which, rather than being the broadest possible vision, is in fact a narrowing of human potential. A lack of understanding of the full meaning of the human person is operative in such cases. A lack of understanding of children is also apparent. Children have an inherent love of the richness and beauty of language. One can successfully speak of the faith in reverent, profound terms which impart a sense of awe for the mysteries they are about to learn. I do not mean by this that catechesis or religious education should return to a baroque style or antiquated formulas. But to merely replace fossilised language with modern clichés is not development.
A child is in spiritual danger if he is taught that the apostle’s experience of the Risen Jesus is “real” but not literal. One wonders what has happened in some catechisms to the Gospel’s adamant point that Thomas placed his fingers into the Lord’s wounds and Jesus ate fish after the Resurrection in order to reveal that He is indeed flesh and blood. In other texts one can read that the temptations in the desert were Jesus experiencing internal psychological conflict. No devil appears, only a “voice” of temptation. The glorious, frightening, informative drama of the Gospels is tamed, and by implication the struggle between good and evil is reduced to something one might solve with just the right therapy or rehabilitation project. This is not only naïve, in the long run it is a most relentless kind of cruelty against the child. When a child is told that Pentecost was merely the apostle’s recalling God’s “energy,” parents should recognize that a limited school of biblical criticism is at work. When the angel of the Annunciation is described only as a “messenger,” a powerful “teachable moment” is lost. Is an angel merely a psychological illumination, or a myth, or perhaps a literary device expressing a theological truth? Parents should beware of such lustreless renderings, for they implicitly tell the child that in the Gospels some “significant” but not very astonishing things have happened.
This is the mistake which many a modern educator makes. By attempting to make the mysterious understandable he robs the child’s world of mystery, and makes it not quite so interesting to search for the meaning of things. He thinks that by projecting the latest methodology-enthusiasm upon the heart and mind of the child, the child cannot help but be infected by his excitement. What he does not grasp is that an intellectual enthusiasm may be quite a different thing than a child’s rapture over the miraculousness of being itself —his own being and supernatural beings. A one-dimensional “messenger” full of theological nuances can be quite a dull character. By contrast, the arrival of an “Angel” is shocking, holy and beautiful. That he bears a name expresses the richness and mystery of identity, not mere function. He is a dramatic meeting with something outside of the boroughs of London or New York, indeed from beyond the parameters of the known world. It is the transcendent speaking directly to the human. The word which it speaks is vital, but that it speaks as a person is equally important; that it is beautiful and holy is also a message in itself. Wherever a parent discovers in his child’s religion texts a rendering down of the miraculousness of being, and a trivialising of those historic moments when the transcendent broke into the immanent world, that parent must awake and get to work. If he does not, his child’s understanding of salvation may be lost forever.
There is always a tendency in human nature (in parent, teacher, and student) to make personal experience into a kind of autonomous magisterium, in other words there is the danger of absolutising subjectivity, which can lead to the eventual over-riding of the objective teachings of the Church. It goes without saying that effective education is not just so much stuff packed into a child’s memory; it is vital to draw upon the child’s experience of reality, to connect truth to experience. But a delicate balance is needed here. A child’s phenomenology (if it can be said this way) only leads to genuine maturity when it is in submission to a hierarchy of wisdom. The subjective must be connected to and subordinated (gently but firmly) to a larger view of the universe.
A growing number of parents are teaching catechism at home. It is not an easy task. It is not simply a matter of finding the right technique or the best text. It is, rather, a discovery that our inner dispositions either deaden or animate the religious program. Indeed, parents who have their very selves invested totally can transform a syllabus from information on a page into a living experience of learning the faith. John Paul II has pointed out that in order for Catholic catechesis and religious education to work, teachers’ hearts and souls must be shaped by the Spirit of Christ, must think with the mind of the universal Church, must look upon and love their children as part of the flock of Christ. He exhorts us to work for the preservation of a genuine Catholic culture and ecclesiology. He reminds us of the dangers of “a partial reading of the Council” and points out that a unilateral presentation of the Church as a purely institutional structure “devoid of her mystery” has led to serious deficiencies, especially among the young.
Bishops have a responsibility to see that in preaching and catechesis, in religious instruction, and theological studies, as well as in Catholic publications, the mystery of the Church is presented in a complete way, as a mystery of truth and grace, at once human and divine (Lumen Gentium, n. 8), having the Holy Spirit as its principle of life. At this point in time a great effort is required to reaffirm the the truths of the faith, to arouse the supernatural sense of the faith, by which God’s people “clings without fail to the faith once delivered to the saints, penetrates it more deeply by accurate insights and applies it more thoroughly to life.” (ibid., n.12)
(John Paul II to the Bishops of England and Wales, 1992 ad limina visit]
The answer to the many crises of our time is not to be found in applying systemic solutions to the problem of man. Man cannot be saved from the outside in, as the informative events of our century have amply proved. The Church knows that collectivist approaches to the human person fail, and always produce at least as much damage as any good they do. The Church is neither collectivist nor individualistic. She is personalist—concerned with the salvation of each human person as an irrepeatable and mysterious epiphany of the mind of God. Catholic education succeeds to the degree that it is personalist, to the degree that it understands its role as a subsidiary support to the home. For in the home the healthy tensions between the demands of community and the uniqueness of each human soul are experienced to the full. By pouring its efforts into the protection and nurturing of family life, the Church will renew itself from the inside out, and in doing so will minister a long range healing to society itself. It is the slow method but the sure one.
4. The Restoration of Culture
Christopher Dawson, widely regarded as the greatest Catholic historian of the 20th century, has written much about the urgent need to reinvigorate the culture of the West by a return to the spiritual foundations of Christian life. In The Crisis of Western Education he writes:
(C. Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, Franciscan University Press, Steubenville, Ohio, 1989, page 174)
The Soviet Union has more or less disintegrated since Dawson wrote the above passage, but materialism is far from dead. Pope John Paul II has repeatedly warned us, notably in his encyclical Centesimus Annus and his recent apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, to avoid the grave danger of falling into materialism. Though many of the atheistic totalitarian states have collapsed, materialism is becoming increasingly invasive of all aspects of human life. The Holy Father has pointed out that the developed nations may in the long run bring about a more universal destruction of souls by turning man into a consumer without conscience, which is the direct consequence of failing to consider “the whole truth about man.” Whenever man is regarded as a one-dimensional being, he becomes fragmented, riddled with doubts, negations and inarticulate rage. He does not know who he is and for what he was created. As his interior and exterior world becomes a shambles he must be rescued by more and more remedies. Thus, the consumer society inevitably becomes the therapeutic society.
Social Agencies and the Family
The field of the therapeutic “sciences” is as confused as the field of education, and even farther removed from the Catholic mind. Father William McNamara, O.C.D., the founder of religious communities in the United States and Canada, writes about this in the Winter, 1994, issue of Forefront magazine: “A few years ago, renowned men and women in the world-wide field of psychotherapy gathered in Phoenix, Arizona for a convention. They came to an extraordinary conclusion: There was insufficient evidence to indicate that their professional work was often helpful. There was evidence that in many cases more harm was done. I have before me the names of twenty-five friends who have been in therapy for years. Only one has been helped. The others have been damaged.”
My own experience echoes Fr. McNamara’s. Some of our friends have embraced therapy as a way of life, and I have observed helplessly over the years as they grew almost totally dependent upon their therapists. Little by little the principles of sound Catholic psychology and spirituality declined and their self-absorption grew to the level of a kind of religious devotion. Regarding this phenomenon I recommend two very readable, insightful books: Dr. Paul Vitz’s Psychology as Religion and William Kirk Kilpatrick’s Psychological Seduction. Neither of these authors dispute the value of psychology as a science, for it is a river with many streams and tributaries. Both, however, offer criticisms of certain errors that are dominant in the movement, and warn us that it is growing as a powerful social force, and increasingly operates as a kind of alternative magisterium.
I know of strong Catholic marriages destroyed by “Catholic” counsellors imbued with secular notions about personality. Many couples go through periods of distress, and among those who seek professional help there are few fortunate enough to find a truly Christian psychologist. In our region I know only one man who fits this description, an outstanding doctor who ministers to troubled families. The fruit of his work is abundant because he calls his patients back to basic principles which God has “written” into human personality: forgiveness of those who have damaged us, repentance of our own sins, the life of prayer and sacraments, fidelity to the teachings of Christ and His Church, etc. He enjoys an amazing success rate. He damages no one. Although he is rather a rare creature in the “social sciences,” he is an indication that a genuine renewal of this field is possible.
I do not deny that professional help can be of assistance to some individuals and families, but there is a larger question here: When the help becomes a growth industry is there not something seriously amiss in our life as a people? Does merely increasing the dose of a bad drug get to the root of the problem? If there were significant numbers of dedicated Christians grounded in genuine absolutes working in the social sciences, the situation would not be as disordered as it is shaping up to be. However, even if such a turn of events were to occur, the question would remain: is there not a fundamental error in assuming that we can simply counsel away, or educate away, the wounds and flaws and sins of fallen human nature? Furthermore, we must ask if the relentless application of systemic “solutions” to the problem of man, is not itself a grave form of wound, flaw and sin. For even though it may save a few individuals and a few families (no idealistic project is entirely without redeeming qualities), in the long run it promises to generate a more devastating kind of abuse, damaging virtually every family and every person.
How has this state of affairs come about? And why is there so little public discussion about it? Part of the cause is that most of us invest an innate trust in authority figures. Most of us have been helped by professionals at one point or another. Physicians repeatedly rescue us from the ills of the flesh; police rescue us from criminals; teachers rescue us from ignorance. It is especially difficult to question the education system because most of us have spent at least twelve years of our lives under the authority of teachers. It goes against our grain to raise doubts about an institution which has been a cornerstone in our personal formation, and which has done most of us a great deal of good. Institutions, ranging from courts, to legislative bodies to hospitals, schools, and organs of charitable work, each function for the greater good of society. Subtract any one of them from our social environment and life becomes precarious.
What then, when these organs begin to display the symptoms of decay? We are put in a most difficult situation: that of having to maintain loyalty to the principles upheld by an institution, while at the same time finding the presence of mind to question individuals who have obtained power within those institutions, and who are bending its principles to their own purposes. Our situation is made more precarious if we do not have a sound knowledge of the teachings of the Church, the one institution that is both human and divine, built on a sure foundation, and which guarantees the sacredness of both our rights and our duties. Add to this the danger of not listening to our prophets, among whom John Paul II ranks foremost, perhaps one of the greatest teachers ever given to the Church and the world.
That a man of such vision is alternately ignored, patronized, or held in contempt by people who are in charge of the formation of minds and souls does not bode well for the health of the Body. Many an ecclesial functionary or separate school board trustee has lost his sense of the hierarchical cosmos, and has opted for a “democratic” one at precisely the moment in history when democracy is displaying its inherent weaknesses. Few of us would want to live under any of the alternative forms of government on this planet; nevertheless, when an elusive “voice of the people” declares that it knows better than the universal Church, and that it is permissible to invade the rights of the family, should we hold their delusions as sacred? No, it is the family which is sacred. It is the universal Church which has consistently proven itself loyal to this absolute. Wherever the informed conscience of the individual is usurped by a generic “will of the people” we must recognize that the human community is being replaced by the State (or by institutions manipulated by the State) and genuine unity is being usurped by uniformity. If we accept this as inevitable or natural, we have forgotten that governments make cold mothers. We should consider carefully any attempt by the State to replace roles once exercised by the universal Church, for the Church is a true mother and has a warm heart, if a firm one; for she desires her children to develop an ability to love to the full, and an ability to live by absolute truths. She defends with her very life the moral order of the universe.
By the same token, any attempt to de-emphasize the true community of the universal, hierarchical Church in favour of the supposedly “more democratic” model of regional churches is a grave mistake.
Reaffirming the vision of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent synods, the Holy Father writes:
History is littered with tragic examples of what happens to particular churches or “national churches” which abandon their union with the universal Church (such abandonment can be either open or secret disobedience, declared or undeclared). One of the consistent tactics of tyranny is to divide and neutralise its opponents, to isolate those movements or voices which stand in opposition to the dissolving of identity. The extent to which the Communist Party infiltrated an “independent” church— the Orthodox Church in Russia—and used it to subdue her sister churches and to shape, among other things, the errors of the World Council of Churches, should be sufficient warning.
Diversity in Unity
It bears repeating again and again: the Catholic vision is not uniformity but genuine unity—and such unity can only be founded upon Truth. The Church defends diversity within her universal community— and is able to do so precisely because she is a genuine community. There are some eighteen rites under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Many varying cultures and peoples find their identity within her. By contrast, the growth of regionalism in some corners of Western Catholicism only superficially appears to foster a heightened sense of identity, and that is why, paradoxically, the liberal revolt tends towards a numbing uniformity beneath the supposed “creativity” of its individualism. It exhibits something not unlike the arrogance of the adolescent who suffers under the illusion that he increases his personhood by rejecting the constraints of his family. Like a youth adrift, the regional church under social pressure can decline into isolation, loneliness and discouragement, a dangerous shrinking of perspectives, and eventual collapse.
There are signs in some quarters that the process has begun. Take, for instance, those dioceses where religious “liberalism” reigns, where Catholics in positions of power over the family entertain a distaste for anything that comes from distant Rome. Invariably they drift into alternative hierarchies of values, usually those provided by secularist theories or dissident theologies (or a combination of both). In time they simply duplicate the secular abandonment of the vision of man as incarnate spiritual being—as a creature of both heaven and earth. There are, of course, efforts to “baptise” the secularisation with a religious version of a psychologised-sociologised anthropology, stemming from the enormous trust which has been invested in the “social sciences,” despite the fact that the theories which fuel this social revolution have proven themselves gravely flawed. Are regional churches in this condition able to defend the family against totalitarian thought? To put it simply—no, they are not. They consistently prove themselves unable to do so. At their worst they even aid the destruction of private life.
The restoration of culture depends upon the restoration of divine order to human affairs. The survival of a truly human community on this planet depends upon the rediscovery of the principles of Catholic thinking, doctrine, practice and spirituality. This will depend largely upon the re-evagelization of our Catholic people, and that begins with the foundation—with the family. The greatest threat now facing the Catholic family is not so much the tyrant who can destroy the flesh, but the humanitarian who assists in the destruction of the life of the spirit, who through ignorance or pride attempts to dismantle and reconstruct the foundations of the City of God. In his book, The Judgement of the Nations, Christopher Dawson warns us about this real and present danger:
In such an order there can be no place for religion unless religion forfeits its spiritual freedom and allows itself to be used by the new power as a means for conditioning and controlling the psychic life of the masses. But this is an impossible solution for the Christian, since it would be a sin against the Holy Ghost in the most absolute sense. Therefore, the Church must once again take up her prophetic office and bear witness to the Word even if it means the judgement of the nations and an open warfare with the powers of the world.
(Christopher Dawson, The Judgement of the Nations, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1942, page 153)
The word totalitarianism usually generates impressions of dictatorial systems which crush civic freedoms and negate the humanity of their subjects in an effort to achieve complete control. Images of barbed wire, jack-boots and thought-control are conjured up in our minds. 20th century literature has given us some powerful works of fiction which suggest a variety of possible totalitarian futures: one thinks immediately of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Common to these dystopias (utopias which have collapsed into tyranny) is the absolutising of the power of the State, or systems controlled by the State.
Totalitarianism invariably strives to do away with genuine absolutes and to establish false absolutes in their place. Genuine absolutes are fundamental, ultimate, unqualified truths, independent of the ebb and flow of cultures, fashions, myths and prejudices. An example of genuine moral absolutes is the Ten Commandments. An example of false absolutes can be found in Marx’s ideology, where a theory called dialectic is posited as the mechanism which determines human history—an “abstraction” that has resulted in hundreds of millions of violent deaths.
G.K. Chesterton wrote in his 1935 book, The Well and the Shallows:
(G.K. Chsterton, The Well and the Shallows, Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. III, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990, pages 511-512)
Chesterton touches upon an important characteristic of totalitarian states. The absolute ruler always attempts to destroy diversity. He cannot rest content with a passive populace. As he extends his grasp into more and more aspects of human life he becomes hostile to everything outside of his own will. As his power becomes near absolute it grows increasingly negative, because by its very nature it must oppose what cannot be extinguished in the human person. It must seek at some point to destroy the inner impulse to genuine creativity which depends for its well-being on freedom from manipulation.
The tyrant in the beginning rarely looks like a monster. He usually appears to be the saviour of his people, though once he has attained power he soon shows his hand—at root he merely wishes to accumulate as much power as possible in order to obtain an absolute security or glory for himself, and to enjoy it at any cost. This kind of tyrant is not difficult to identify. When he runs out of gasoline or bullets or wheat the people cast him off, because he is a monster who looks like a monster. He has blown his cover. More difficult to pin down and to throw off is the idealistic tyrant who expands his power in order to protect what he considers to be the good of his subjects. He will reduce crime and make the trains run on time. He will balance the budget and bring order and a measure of material plenty to the nation. He will labour to make a better citizen of the raw material of his subjects. There can be a reassuring sense of security in all this. We like dependable public services and an ordered economy, though we would, perhaps, remain uneasy about trading away certain freedoms. But it is precisely the elimination of personal responsibility which is the tyrant’s ultimate goal, for this is what he sees as our fatal flaw.
It must be understood that the highly motivated idealist is not merely interested in improving the exterior forms of society. He wishes to save us from ourselves. Of course, he will find that basic human nature is rather difficult to remold, and as time goes on he will need to continuously expand his power until his control approaches the level of totality. If he is clever at it and fills up the world with beautiful rhetoric, and takes care not to grossly infringe upon our pleasurable rights, and if, at the same time, he takes upon his own shoulders our unpleasant rights, the ones which demand effort and sacrifice, then he may get away with it. This is never more possible than in a historical period of extreme stress. In such a climate the lifting of our responsibilities is not felt as deprivation; it feels, rather, like relief from intolerable tensions. Somebody at last is doing something about the human condition! A sick society is getting therapy! A cancer patient puts himself into the hands of his doctor, so why shouldn’t a “dysfunctional” people entrust itself to its social or political physicians? Somewhere during the therapy there is a decisive transfer of power and responsibility. When this happens on a massive scale something is seriously amiss. There may not be brown-shirts and jackboots marching in the streets. No public book-burnings. No grotesque executions. In some cases there may even be no visible dictator, only a system or a social philosophy which permeates and controls everything. Indeed, the world may appear to be perfectly normal. The Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper points out that this is the most dangerous form of totalitarianism of all, almost impossible to throw off, because it never appears to be what, in fact, it is. (Josef Pieper: An Anthology, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1989, page 228)
A Little Compromise?
Both the monster tyrant and the “humanitarian” tyrant offer something that appears to be a good. Both, in the end, will exact a terrible price. The person who wishes to remain free must understand that he cannot and should not pay that price. In the beginning the payments may appear small and harmless enough. We are asked to compromise a little here, a little there, unsuspecting that eventually there will be no strength left to resist the betrayal of everything. Pope John Paul II once said, “I would a thousand times rather have a persecuted Church than a compromised Church.” The Church stands as the one defender of the entire range of human and divine absolutes in the world. She knows that if she wishes to remain free—that is, free in the fullest sense of the word, free to be completely herself, free to defend Love and Truth—she must be ever willing to be a sign of contradiction, and if necessary to accept that society will condemn her.
Christopher Dawson, in The Judgement of the Nations contrasted the collapse of the Roman Empire to the collapse of a Christian civilisation. He believed that something far more ominous is at work in the latter:
Dawson was referring to overt tyrannies. However, he went on to sound some additional warnings for us all:
Dawson was describing here the shape of a possible future, a global non-violent totalitarianism that is the most serious of all tyrannies, from the Christian viewpoint, because in it evil has become depersonalised, “separated from individual appetite and passion, and exalted . . . into a sphere in which all moral values are confused and transformed. The great terrorists . . . have not been immoral men, but rigid puritans who did evil coldly, by principle.”
In his fascinating memoire, Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and armaments minister, wrote about the state of mind of the German people as Hitler rose to power. He says that most Germans disliked the sinister side of Hitler’s policies, but in a spirit of optimism, they assumed that he would leave behind his more unpleasant policies once he attained the dignity of high office. They overlooked his errors because they thought his form of law and order would be a lesser evil than the social disruption they were suffering during the nineteen twenties and thirties. By succumbing to the “lesser evil” argument, they brought upon the world an evil of epic proportions.
But what happens to the discernment of a people when a tyrant arrives without any of the usual sinister costumes of brutal dictators? What happens when the errors come in pleasing disguises, and are promoted by very fine people? Those living in such an environment have more than one difficulty to overcome in properly assessing what is happening. They find themselves within the events which are unfolding, and thus are faced with the problem of perception: how to see the hidden structure of their chaotic times, how to step outside of it and to view it objectively while remaining within it as a participant, as an agent for the good. How are we Catholic people to do this if we are not rooted in the Truth? Will we be willing to compromise moral absolutes in the education of our children merely because attractive personalities, very intelligent idealists, say we should? Will the homogenisation of our children’s minds be acceptable simply because we want the next generation to be nicely outfitted to cope with a profoundly disordered society? Will we be willing to sacrifice genuine diversity for the sake of the illusion of unity? Did our Catholic people help to elect a murderous social movement in this province and others, because its economic policies appeared to be kinder to the poor than the capitalist party that it replaced, forgetting the fact that abortion takes the life of far more children of the poor than children of the comfortable? Just as Dawson predicted, the confusion and transformation of moral values is seen widely as a moral cause.
How long will it take for our people to understand that when humanist sentiments replace moral absolutes, it is not long before very idealistic people begin to invade human families in the name of the family, and destroy human lives in the name of humanity? This is the idealist’s greatest temptation, the temptation by which nations and cultures so often fall. The wielder of power is deluded into thinking he can remold reality into a less unkind condition. If he succeeds in convincing his people of the delusion and posits for them an enemy of the collective good, then unspeakable evils can be released in society. Those who share a mass-delusion rarely recognize it as such, and can pursue the most heinous acts in a spirit of self-righteousness. Democracies are not immune from such delusions, although they tend to forms of oppression which are not overtly violent. Democracies in decline, however, will eventually revert to covert oppression and the overt, gradual erosion of human rights.
In The Gospel of Life, John Paul II writes:
In seeking the deepest roots of the struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death”, we cannot restrict ourselves to the perverse idea of freedom mentioned above. We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles, succeeds at times in putting Christian communities themselves to the test. Those who allow themselves to be influenced by this climate easily fall into a sad and vicious circle: when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man.
(John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n.20-21)
Our defence of reality itself, our resistance to various forms of totalitarianism, will demand both strong reactive measures and pro-active ones: an examination of conscience, a restoration of reverence for the “whole truth about man,” a return to Gospel principles in all aspects of our lives, and above all a profound conversion to worship of God. We must become a people who are in submissio, that is, fully within the mainstream of grace, under the mantle of God’s divine authority, submitted completely to the mission of the Church, in statu missionis. Thus, by uniting ourselves to the obedience of Christ on the Cross, we participate in the reversal of Adam’s sin. In this way we will find a personal, secret joy hidden within the crucifixion of our wilfulness, a gateway to freedom, a dying which leads to life. And in doing so we will assist in the redemption of the world. [see “What is the New Evangelization?” in John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Knopf, Toronto, 1994, pages 105-117]
We must also support a widespread rebirth of those small, diverse, and beautiful works of man which retain their human dimensions and thereby foster the full meaning of the human person. There is need for a rediscovery of the family farm, cottage industries, new and old literature that is as vital as it is true, arts and crafts that are beautiful and made with love, schools small enough so that children can be known and nurtured as unique individuals, worker-owned co-operatives, small presses, libraries, community bees, works of mercy, discussion groups, etc.—these are only a beginning. We must learn and relearn that the only effective response to degeneracy, political, cultural, or otherwise, is to create an alternate culture that is so good, so beautiful and true that man is drawn back to his own true home.
The rediscovery of the family as a genuine social absolute is a crucial element of mankind’s rediscovery of the home. We must hope for this against all odds, but in the hoping we must have a realistic understanding of what those odds are. Pessimism is not Christian hope; nor is naïve optimism. We should not underestimate the capacity of modern man for self-delusion, especially when he has a great deal invested emotionally in the delusion. If awareness of the sacredness of the family has waned in our era, it is only partly due to attacks by exterior enemies. Catholics, to put it simply, have not valued Truth. We have been poorly educated in knowledge of the Truth and even more poorly educated in the spirituality of living the Truth. We did not see that our very lives hang upon the effective defence of Truth. As a result we have been fundamentally weakened and rendered virtually unprotected against the onslaught of propaganda from the media and the social sciences, which for many years have posited the origins of most human “dysfunction” in the internal politics of the family. Traditional marriage and family life are now commonly considered to be a form of oppression, even bondage. This, coupled to a loss of the sense of sin, has created a generation in which men no longer feel ennobled by self-sacrifice and the honouring of commitments. Nor do they feel endangered by the world of evil, by the possibility of personal slavery to invisible forces or to their own fallen natures. It is difficult for them to imagine that a pagan state might one day reinstitute an exterior form of slavery (although it would call it by a more attractive name). In his l930 essay “The New Paganism,” Hilaire Belloc noted that the liberal mind always abhors slavery in theory, but in the future, when liberalism has brought about the return of paganism, it will shortly thereafter resurrect the grand old institution of . . . slavery. However, he suggests, it will then be called “permanent employment.” Most people will have become unable to recognize that it is, in fact, what it is.
The supposed rationality of the idealist is perhaps the worst aspect of his condition, for it renders him less capable of pausing for a moment of reflection on what is real, or experiencing a healthy skirmish with self-doubt. It is this invincible self-righteousness which should alert us to the possibility that we may be living in the preliminary stages of a massive shift to totalitarian Statism on every level of society—including some of our religious institutions. If so, what are its exact parameters? How far will it go to usurp the perennial rights and duties of man? And if it is going to go very far (which is not yet certain) how do we stand in its path and resist it?
There are no precise blueprints of totalitarianism, for by its nature, even in its exercise of power, it is a shifting mirage. It does not know what it is, because it has no real absolutes on which to stand still and to know itself. It is urgent, therefore, that we recognize it for what it is, wherever it takes on a new form and attempts to dominate the human community. But how are we to accurately identify a force which appears in pleasing shapes and absorbs institutions with hardly an indiscretion? There are some traits which are common to violent and nonviolent forms of totalitarianism alike. The former justifies its harsh measures in the name of a so-called greater good—usually “the good of the people.”
Soft totalitarianism (a term coinded by the Canadian economist Richard Bastien) is not fundamentally different in this regard, although its invasion of the rights and duties of man are executed with somewhat more diplomacy. We must remember here that in the beginning most oppressive regimes do not begin with overt oppression; in their early stages they appear as liberators. But when the moral foundations have crumbled under the euphoric advance of theory, it is only a matter of time before the living reality works out its awful consequences in practice. It bears repeating that this form is in the long run more destructive of the family, for it preserves the illusion of freedom. It directs its subjects to many roads, but the roads do not lead anywhere. It creates an impression of a broader world, but it is a vast prison, on the borders of which are impenetrable walls—impenetrable most of all because its residents have come to believe that there is nothing beyond it. It maintains power by continuously shifting the ground on which its subjects stand. Right, wrong, good, evil, and the identity of persons and things are each re-examined in an ongoing inquisition.
In his 1993 encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, John Paul II warns of the consequences of sliding into this moral relativism:
(John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 6 August, 1993, n.101, with quotation from Centesimus Annus, 1 May, 1991, n.46)
Clearly, the Holy Father is not saying that Christians should abandon politics, for elsewhere he urges us to involve ourselves directly in the political process. He is here warning mankind against the folly of making politics into a religion that would displace the absolute rights of God and morality. The danger of this is so immediate that we can now reply to Marxism’s famous sneer, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” with the more accurate observation that the politics of manipulation is the opiate of romantic intellectuals. Have we arrived at the stage where the politics of manipulation, and the manipulation of politics, is indeed drugging the people of the traditionally democratic nations? Consider that in the present day West, the arts, the media, the courts, education, psychology, sociology and anthropology and their hybrid disciplines, have contributed to a redefinition of the human person. Judging by the literature and the rhetoric coming out of these seemingly disparate movements, they have made a unanimous leap of faith: the restoration of man, apparently, now largely depends on the restructuring of behaviour and personality.
In his masterful essay on education, The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis pointed out that man’s power to make of himself what he pleases really means the power of some men to make of other men what they please. In other words, the human person will be increasingly perceived as a cell in a collective, needing not so much redemption by conversion as re-education and rehabilitation. Lewis foresaw that programs of reform would be developed and managed by a new class which he called The Conditioners. They will not be bad men, he advised. They will be highly motivated, and in fact will see themselves as the producers of motivation. They will become more and more dangerous as they are “armed with the powers of an omni-competent state and an irresistible scientific technique.” Their primary point of focus will be the reconstruction of human conscience: “They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce.” They themselves are outside, above, the dictates of the very conscience they produce, yet they consider themselves “the servants and guardians of humanity.” (The Abolition of Man, Collier Books, New York, 1955, pages 72-74)
Lewis observed the growth of this phenomenon from a Christian perspective, but there were non-Christian minds of his generation who also saw it developing. Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World Revisited (l958), said that the totalitarianism he had foreseen in l931 was materialising in the Western world at a much faster rate than he had thought possible. In Brave New World he had predicted a society in which the family, religion, language and art had been neutered and all conflicts eliminated by genetic engineering. He portrayed a perfect synthesis of technology and paganism. In Revisited he had come to believe that the totalitarianism of the immediate future would be less visibly violent than that of the Hitlers and Stalins, but it would create a society “painlessly regimented by a corps of highly trained social engineers.” He maintained that in such a society “democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial,” but the underlying substance would be a seemingly benign totalitarianism. Huxley’s otherwise perceptive book was itself a victim of the modern misunderstanding of authority. He could not see the connection between his own brand of liberalism and the world it was helping to create. The book is marred by his prejudice against the Church, which he lumps together with Marxism and Fascism. George Orwell makes the same mistake in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” Like so many modern anti-totalitarians, they failed to distinguish between raw power and responsible exercise of authority. We should note their failure carefully, for if even the most honest and courageous minds in the secular camp cannot grasp such basic distinctions, then late Western man is in grave trouble.
Modern secularists, regardless of how articulate they may be, are very often victims of one-dimensional thinking. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis points out:
I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is the worse. That is the Devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors.
(Mere Christianity, Book IV, chapter 6, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1943)
There is a dangerous crack in the mind of modern man. In his supposed love for liberty and hatred of tyranny, he ignores the yawning crevasse which has opened up between freedom and responsibility. Unless those two are bridged by moral absolutes, he must eventually fall into the abyss, dragging his society in after him. In doing so he may unwittingly inflict a totalitarianism more complete than the full frontal attacks of monsters like Hitler and Stalin. The straw man of an “Inquisitional Catholic Church” lurks like a bogey in his subconscious; it does not impress him that the Roman Catholic Church has functioned for more than a century solely as a spiritual authority. It has no police, no armies, only the force of Truth and Love operating in the consciences of men. Veritas and Caritas, the Church knows, are the only real guarantees of social and individual freedoms. Curiously, it is her persistence in this regard which is found most objectionable to the modern mind, and especially to the totalitarian mind, violent and non-violent alike. The Catholic Church is portrayed on many levels of culture (including arts, education, and politics) as the monolithic structure which produces oppressed and oppressive personalities. Modern liberalism in its secular and religious mutations is creating this universal impression. The world it is forming is in an agony of moral and spiritual sterility. Truth is made relative, undependable. Love is eroded in the name of “love,” communication rendered pointless in the name of “openness,” human life is devalued (being itself is degraded and in the worst cases despised) in the name of “quality of life.” We swim in a tide of such ominous symptoms but we have come to think of them as “normal.” We assume that the diabolical will be restrained by the democratic process. This is colossally naïve. Not only does it fly in the face of the very informative events which have taken place in our century, it ignores some key warning bells which are ringing here and there in the Western world.
A Moment of Choice
We are at a turning point in history. The extraordinary pontificate of John Paul II is drawing many souls back to God, and many nations back to reflection on the moral absolutes and the meaning of man. The Church has all the resources necessary to restore man to his sense of purpose and identity. Yet, in the exercise of the ecclesial life of the West a kind of schizophrenia continues: we pay lip service to the Truth, and go on to do what we feel like. We say “Yes” and do “No,” but cushion the disobedience with subtly nuanced theology. The magisterial authority of the teaching Church is ignored while near-infallibility is conferred upon academic experts.
Crucial choices have arrived and more are approaching. The abortion and euthanasia issues are the most ugly of these crises, but they are symptoms of something much deeper. We face a situation similar to the crisis which Christian Germany reached when the National Socialists enacted the racial laws, when state-sanctioned evil was funded by a large number of its citizenry who regarded the acts they were paying for through taxes to be crimes. Is this acceptable merely because the state or that elusive “voice of the people” has decided that the Jew or the pre-birth child is not quite human? And in a few short years will the orthodox Catholic or Christian be considered “an enemy of the people?” And will the family which fails to conform to state-defined notions of health be categorised as “dysfunctional,” and thus undeserving of custody of their children? If we should wake up some morning to find that a massive infrastructure of conditioners is proceeding with the reconditioning of society—in the name of the people, in the name of the family, in the name of the child—who then will judge the State, and who will judge the people? Will we look back upon the present as the last brief period in which it was still possible to reverse the tide?
Is this a paranoiac nightmare or the shape of the world materialising under our very eyes? The objective signs should be sufficient to at least raise the necessary questions. Our pogroms and our crystalnachts are hidden away in clinics and hospitals. The people of the West are a nice people. An idealistic people. But note carefully the public rhetoric, note how the destruction of a child, the violation of conscience, the undermining of personal responsibility, the steady elimination of diversity, are lauded as steps in the protection of rights and freedoms. Have we reached that point to which Dawson, Pieper, Huxley and Belloc referred? If it is true that rhetoric about freedom and democracy intensifies as the real thing declines, then the Western world has entered a period of institutionalised unreality.
One of the great tragedies of the current situation in the Western Church is its fragmentation into camps. The terms “liberal,” “conservative’ and “moderate” are used by practically everyone in an erroneous sense—for these are political labels, and are misleading when applied to religious perspectives. Their use has played a major role in the isolation and dismissal of many believers who would otherwise be contributing to the Catholic restoration. This has occurred precisely at the moment in history when we need to be most united in offering the message of Christ’s redemption to a disoriented world. This has happened not at the hands of people given over to evil, but at the hands of people of good will who do not understand the nature of the crisis. It has happened many times in the history of the Church, most notably at the beginning.
The True Centre
Around the year 33 A.D. the people of Judaea were for a time quite impressed with one of the many teachers who were appearing on the scene. He performed unusual miracles and talked about the kingdom he would usher in. Everyone except a few lawyers and temple officials spoke well of him. Five days before the Passover he entered Jerusalem in triumph, accompanied by the cheers of a great crowd of admirers. They felt that this young rabbi might be the prophet-prince who would restore the fortunes of their nation, and save the people from the Romans. Just about everyone but Caiaphas and Herod was impressed.
Caiaphas, a shrewd judge of political affairs, pointed out that this Galilean idealist just might bring down the full wrath of Rome upon Israel. “You don’t seem to have grasped the situation at all,” he said. “You have failed to see that it is better for one man to die for the people than for a whole nation to be destroyed.” Gossip gradually spread throughout the city that the rabbi was perhaps not all he had been made out to be. He was really a religious fanatic, doing more harm than good, was he not? And all that unbalanced talk about sin! The people became uncertain regarding what was true or not true about him. They saw him erupting in anger when he drove the money-changers out of the Temple. They heard him use harsh words against their most respected elders. Clearly, he was rather extreme, and possibly dangerous. Little by little their impressions of him altered, and it was upon the basis of these impressions that the fateful events of the following Friday were to develop.
The power of impressions can be so complete that very few understand what exactly is happening to their world. By temperament, most people tend to have “moderate” views and modes of living out their beliefs. Their natural habitat is the philosophical centre. That is a valid position, but unless one is vigilant about its weaknesses, one can be betrayed by the very stance which seems to offer protection. Unless one is grounded in absolutes, it is very difficult to see the gradual shifting of the centre. As the world around us collapses into impressionism, people increasingly make their assessments of reality on the basis of their feelings. If they feel that a teacher of truth is not as sensitive to political realities as he should be, then they suspect that there is something wrong with his message. Or if they sense that a teacher of falsehood is a dedicated person, a nice person, then they invest a certain blind trust in what he teaches. If the media bombards them year after year with the manipulation of imagery and distorted commentary, they may gradually lose confidence in their own judgment, an example of which is the effective way that television networks have succeeded in convincing so many that pro-life activists are violent people, and “pro-choice” activists are rational people. Such direct inversions of truth are possible only in a society that has lost the ability to think and to judge rightly.
If people simply assume that they inhabit a sort of sane centre, then they will find no reason to reflect upon radical notions such as the suggestion that their society is collapsing into dehumanisation and that their local churches are under pressure to degenerate into a neutered form of Christianity, and that both are awash in deadly half-truths and untruths. Such proposals seem outlandish, inconceivable, and indeed too painful for the average person to consider. They must dismiss the idea as “extremism,” or perhaps as “alarmism,” because moderate Western Catholics trust implicitly in the collective good sense of the majority, the safe middle. Gradually they cease to listen to the voice of the Shepherd; little by little they cease to be a flock and become instead a herd. They may survive unharmed for a time. But what if, over a generation or two, the herd is inched bit by bit towards a precipice?
The true centre is not the mid-way point between extremes, for poles are always shifting, always unstable. The true centre, as the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand points out, is always above. If we do not steer by this “true pole” we will become disoriented and stray from our course. It goes without saying that we must always do everything in our power to foster authentic unity and the health of the community. But when “unity” or “the good of the people” is elevated to the status of an absolute at the cost of Truth and Love (the real absolutes—the true pole), a culture is gradually formed which is no longer able to distinguish between reality and unreality. Good becomes only that “good” which the collective mind has been convinced is good. Evil becomes only those things which the collective mind has been convinced is evil. A people which has been weakened in this way finds itself all too easily calling a thing good one day and calling it evil the next, according to the impressions created and how the group “feels” about it. It will find itself crying out in praise for a man one week and roaring for his blood the next. It is important to remember that, on the whole, mobs are not composed of evil people but rather the average decent citizen who simply does not understand what is happening to his world. The Gospel readings of the Paschal season have a warning for us: like the average citizen of Jerusalem on a certain Friday two thousand years ago, we are each of us capable of participating in the execution of goodness itself, thinking we are defending the “good of the people.” It is of utmost importance, therefore, that we know ourselves, and that we know our true foundations. If we do not, then it is quite possible that we too will betray, deny or flee when the impression has spread everywhere that the rock on which we stand is “an enemy of the people.”
Be Not Afraid!
John Paul II goes everywhere throughout the world proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord of History, as King of all creation. He speaks again and again on the theme of hope, for he knows that the great wound of the twentieth century is the temptation to absolute despair. He knows that when the human heart has hope it can face the reality of the human situation and see it for what it is. On the day of his election his first words were, “Be not afraid.” This is the central theme of his pontificate—Be not afraid! For we have a Saviour and He loves us! He is present in all our passing difficulties. He was, He is, and He is coming.
In his apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente the Holy Father calls us to prepare for the Jubilee of the year 2000 by a process of self-examination and conversion:
. . . It is fitting that the Church should make this passage with a clear awareness of what has happened to her during the last ten centuries. She cannot cross the threshold of the new millennium without encouraging her children to purify themselves, through repentance, of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency, and slowness to act. Acknowledging the weaknesses of the past is an act of honesty and courage which helps us to strengthen our faith, which alerts us to face today’s temptations and challenges and prepares us to meet them.
. . . Many Cardinals and Bishops expressed the desire for a serious examination of conscience above all on the part of the Church of today. On the threshold of the new Millennium Christians need to place themselves humbly before the Lord and examine themselves on the responsibility which they too have for the evils of our day. The present age in fact, together with much light, also presents not a few shadows.
How can we remain silent, for example, about the religious indifference which causes many people today to live as if God did not exist, or to be content with a vague religiosity, incapable of coming to grips with the question of truth and the requirement of consistency? To this must also be added the widespread loss of the transcendent sense of human life, and confusion in the ethical sphere, even about the fundamental values of respect for life and the family. The sons and daughters of the Church too need to examine themselves in this regard. To what extent have they been shaped by the climate of secularism and ethical relativism? And what responsibility do they bear, in view of the increasing lack of religion, for not having shown the true face of God, by having “failed in the religious, moral, or social life”? (Gaudium et Spes, 19).
It cannot be denied that, for many Christians, the spiritual life is passing through a time of uncertainty which affects not only their moral life but also their life of prayer and the theological correctness of their faith. Faith, already put to the test by the challenges of our times, is sometimes disoriented by erroneous theological views, the spread of which is abetted by the crisis of obedience regarding the Church’s Magisterium . . . .
In the universal Church and in the particular Churches, is the ecclesiology of communion described in Lumen Gentium being strengthened? Does it leave room for charisms, ministries, and different forms of participation by the People of God, without adopting notions borrowed from democracy and sociology which do not reflect the Catholic vision of the Church and the authentic spirit of Vatican II?
(John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 10 November, 1994, n.32-36)
In this spirit of honest self-examination, let us ask ourselves if we are bearing the fruit which we are called by the Lord to bear. Let us ask ourselves if we have been faithful in little things and in great things.
* In the Gospel of Matthew we read about a meeting between Jesus and the Pharisees. Desiring to test him, they asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to them in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Parents might take the season of Lent and Advent each year as periods of gentle but firm self-assessment. We should ask ourselves, “Do I put the love of God as the first and greatest commandment in my life? In the life of my family?
* We might ask ourselves if we are fully alive in Christ? Do we try to attend daily Mass whenever possible? Have we neglected the Sacrament of Penance? Have we become lukewarm believers?
* Have we studied our Faith?
* Do we have daily prayer together as a family?
* Do we involve ourselves in the evangelising and catechising of our children?
* What efforts have we made to build the culture of our family on Christian sources? What books, games, music, discussions, art, entertainment, etc., do we provide as an alternative to the pseudo-culture thrust upon us by the mass media and the commercial mind? Does the television dominate the home and form our children’s perceptions of reality?
* How much has the thinking of the world penetrated? To what extent have family activities and values been overwhelmed by a materialist culture? How much of our time and resources are devoted to consumerism? Have we become too tired and too discouraged to resist the powerful forces of a secularised culture? Have we shut off a part of our minds because it is just too burdensome to have to “fight one more thing”?
* Do we spend quality and quantity time with our children? Whether it is working together or playing together, communicating, listening, teaching, laughing, creating, reading, cooking, swimming, building a bird-house or simply being—do we do it together?
* Do we take part in some apostolic activity, however small it may be?
* Do we rise up in defence of the rights of every family, or wait until the State becomes a problem for one’s own family?
* Do we vote for moral politicians? Do we demand that they state clearly their platforms when they run for office? Do we let our elected representatives know what we expect of them through letters, phone calls and personal encounters?
* Do we defend the truth whenever and wherever we see it undermined? Have we taken pains to know the truth? Do we live the truth entirely, and promote it as the path to life itself?
* Have we asked our bishops to speak with prophetic clarity to legislators and governments that violate personal conscience and family rights?
* Have we turned aside from speaking the truth because we cannot bear to be disliked or categorised?
* Have we forgotten that one day we will be called to render an accounting to the Lord?
The Renewal of Diocesan and Parish Life
The psychology of a civilization’s collapse is complex, and not easily remedied. The tide can be reversed only by a genuine renewal of the spiritual and intellectual life of our people. For it is through these faculties of perception that man is enabled to see reality and to respond accordingly. The primary task ahead of us is the restoration of the “great chain of being,” the hierarchical concept of the Church. The key figures of this restoration are bishops, for they link Jesus’s headship, through his Vicar on earth, to the flock of Christ—and through them to the rest of mankind. It is no wonder that throughout history bishops have been the primary targets of the forces of ideological invasion. Against these pastors the spirit of anti-Christ (which has been active in the world from the beginning and will be until the end) wages a relentless war. For if the shepherd is struck, the flock will scatter.
Bishop Austin Vaughan of New York once said, “When you become a bishop you can be sure of only two things from then on. You will never again have a bad meal, and you will never again be sure if someone is telling you the truth.” Bishops, being human, are prone to the influence of impressions, theories and trusted advisors. They are not infallible. In these times they must deal with a mass of problems and decisions, and an even greater flood of printed matter pertaining to their responsibilities. When a bishop is confronted by an angry parent he instinctively feels defensive—as the parent would if the situation were reversed. The bishop cannot help but contrast the irate parent to mild-mannered administrators, and ask himself which of the two classes is acting in charity and truth. The power of instinct has great influence on how people assess reality, and bishops are not exempt from this tendency. It is difficult for them not to conclude that the administrator or expert, (regardless of his “theology”) is “more Christian” and the irate parent in the wrong. We parents must take hold of ourselves and remember that thoughtless anger merely defeats our purpose, and in fact entrenches the very errors we are attempting to change.
After his own conversion, the lay person’s foremost responsibility in the restoration is to pray persistently for our bishops. This prayer must be backed up by fasting and sacrifice. In those dioceses where heresy, disobedience and dissent are rampant, there is an urgent call to the faithful to embrace frequent fasting and sacrifice as a way of life. This is the most hidden, and the most important, part of the struggle.
Yet, wherever the sins and errors of those who minister in the name of Christ’s Church invade the life of the family, parents have a responsibility to speak to the offending parties directly and request that they reconsider. If no change is forthcoming, they are then duty-bound to speak to the bishop. If no change for the better is forthcoming after that, parents should express their concerns to the papal Nuncio and then to the Holy See.
It is not easy for devout Catholics to question their pastors. In fact, they more than any other of the faithful, desire to be submissive to the spiritual direction of their shepherds. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Saint Francis de Sales, that most gentle and pastoral of bishops, argues rightly against criticism. However, he makes one exception:
The “enemies of God and His Church” almost never see themselves as the enemy. They are victims of a web of utopian dreams, theorising, impressions and self-justifications, and consider themselves to be saviours of the Church. Most are victims of ignorance; few, if any, would ever wilfully, knowingly undermine the work of the Holy Spirit. They are often nice people, even spiritual people. However, their opinions and their acts are not so nice. When a priest decides that he is within his rights to criticise the Pope or advance erroneous moral theology, or to make of the sacrifice of the Mass a personal artform, he is doing much more than he thinks. When, for instance, he takes the most Christocentric act of worship in the universe and makes it man-centred, or worse, centred upon his own personality, a profound blow is given to the work of the Holy Spirit. Institutionalised disobedience, public disobedience, is to put it simply, a “scandal.”
When my four year old daughter turns to me during Mass and says with puzzlement in her voice, “Daddy, why is Father doing that?” I am forced into the position of lying to her or reinforcing the latent split in her young mind between the universal Church’s authority and the subsidiary authority of the pastor. I can delay her discovery that disobedience is considered acceptable by some people, even by people she admires. Or I can tell her that Father is not doing what he is supposed to be doing—thus undermining her faith at another level. None of these things should be happening in a parish that is truly Catholic, truly Christian. My daughter’s unease of soul in such situations is not evidence that she is anti-creative or a hidebound reactionary, nor is it a symptom of brainwashing by fanatical parents. Rather, the eye of childhood is clearer than our jaded old eyes. Children have an instinctive love of ritual, sensing a doorway into an infinitely larger universe. When a personality plants himself in the opening and asks the child to focus on him, the pathway through to a truly creative universe becomes cluttered, camouflaged and in the worst cases closed.
Universal standards of doctrine and practice are not pharisaical. On the contrary, they are intended to avoid phariseeism, the essence of which, Jesus says, is to turn religion into a man-made and man-centred practice, making it harder for souls to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Whenever the accusation of phariseeism is made against universal norms, parents should recognize that the accuser has made a false judgement at some fundamental level: he has decided that the inspired directives of the universal Church are merely arbitrary man-made laws unconnected to the authority of Christ. He has broken the “great chain of being.” He has failed to grasp that universal norms clear the passage to freedom by protecting the flock from subjectivism. That is why parents must speak out whenever the objective norms of the Church are violated, for such violations are not “mere abstractions.” They are an invasion of the spiritual integrity of the family. And they are never more dangerous when they come in the guise of “creativity.”
Still, the individuals who commit the acts of violation may not be fully culpable. We must always distinguish between the sin and the sinner. Jesus commands us to love him. That is why he must be treated with respect as a person, while the errors he propagates must be pointed out to him. But always, correction must be carried out after much prayer and fasting, in order that the words of Truth be infused with the power of Love.
There are many practical remedies that are well within our power as a local Church. The following is just a partial list, but I believe it would turn the tide:
* The restoration of the practice of Benediction and “holy hours” during which the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for public veneration. In many places this practice is bearing an abundant harvest of conversions and vocations to the priestly and consecrated life. That we are astonished by this is perhaps one of the signs of how far we have drifted from what was once considered normal Catholicism.
* The return of our pastors and laity to objective norms of worship in the liturgy.
* A stringent self-examination by every baptized believer. Each of us must ask ourselves if the spiritus mundi, the spirit of the worldliness, has seeped into our thinking. Each of us must repent, and “go and sin no more.”
* If pastors would sit in the confessional and pray that penitents will come, come they will, if given the opportunity. Times of confession should be frequent, convenient for parishioners and regularly advertised in the parish bulletin.
* Pastors must be free to take retreats at least twice a year. Retreat masters, and the material provided during retreats, must be chosen by bishops with great care to ensure the building up of pastors’ understanding of their ministry as alter Christus, other Christs. There should be an end to attitude-formation or psychology-based “retreats.”
* Parishes should offer ongoing classes for adult education in the Faith, using the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a primary teaching tool.
* Classes for the education of parents in effective methods of family life formation, and formation of a truly Catholic vision of sexuality. Workshops should be conducted on a regular basis. Pastors should frequently exhort parents to avail themselves of such assistance.
* Every parish should offer the services of at least one couple capable of instructing parents in Natural Family Planning. In larger parishes this should be an ongoing seminar, well-advertised, frequently reinforced by encouragement from the pulpit.
* A parish library should be easily accessible, and full to overflowing with Catholic classics (old and new) and audio-visual material that is evangelical, educational, spiritual and social in content.
* All periodicals and leaflets which disseminate dissident propaganda should be removed from magazine racks. Selections from the vast wealth of solid material that is available should take their place.
* Bishops must ensure that all seminaries are firmly under their direction, and be willing to enforce their authority with dismissals of disobedient faculty. All classes should be taught by thoroughly orthodox professors who have taken the Vatican’s oath of fidelity and consistently prove that they are faithful to it.
* Seminarians should be familiarized with common dissenting opinions, but only as examples of error, and should be trained in apologetics.
* The spiritual life of seminarians must be carefully formed. Care must be taken to avoid the pole of the cold rigorism dominant in many pre-Vatican seminaries, and the opposite pole of laissez-faire attitudes which dominate many post-Vatican II seminaries.
* If renewal is slow in forthcoming, bishops and seminarians could seek out seminaries which are faithful to the fullness of Catholic priestly formation. If necessary, they can band together to form small orthodox seminaries.
* A course in recent papal encyclicals should be taught, with special emphasis on Veritatis Splendor, Familiaris Consortio, Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic School System
* School boards must become accountable in practice to their bishops. The bishop must exercise firm authority in this regard, for dissident educators can undo his every effort in other fields. It is true that in many places the Catholic educational system is not owned by the diocese and the bishop cannot enforce disciplinary measures under force of civil law. In many places he can. But in all situations the bishop is the embodiment of a moral force which no one worthy of the name Catholic can ignore.
If significant numbers of Catholic administrators do ignore the bishop’s authority, or merely pay lip service to him, the life of his flock will decline, and in some places could decline to the point of extinction. History provides numerous examples of this. In our present situation, if Catholic teachers and administrators were to turn to the State to help them manipulate or intimidate their bishop, either through legal suits, union pressure, or other means, the bishop must be ready, for the good of souls, to close a school, if he is the legal owner of the school. He might even consider disbanding the separate school system in his diocese, if there is an overwhelming refusal to function in submission to his authority. It is unlikely that a bishop would need to resort to such an extreme measure. The State would be most unwilling to deal with the financial and bureaucratic nightmare which it would inherit. Teachers would not wish to suffer job insecurity during the collapse of the system. Parents would be divided, of course, but many would rally round the shepherd of the flock. There would be a short-range loss but a gradual restoration to sanity—a long range victory. In such cases the bishop can rebuild Catholic education according to the mind of Christ and the mind of His Church. In the unlikely event that legal manoeuvres were to make it impossible for him to do so, he could gather loyal educators about him and institute small alternative Catholic schools which would gradually draw many students. The task of reproducing an entire system is a daunting one, to say the least. It could be done effectively by gradually converting a few schools per year to orthodoxy, and by active support of alternative forms of Catholic education.
* Catholic teachers should be well-formed in the teachings of the Church regarding education and catechesis. It is highly unlikely that this will be given as authoritative teaching at universities (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) where there is little or no accountability. Bishops might consider the creation of two or three regional teachers’ colleges in the nation. At the very least they should ensure that all teachers in the existing system graduate from courses which impart the Catholic vision in that field. Ongoing professional and spiritual development days should be mandatory for all teachers and administrators, and utmost care must be taken to appoint “teachers of the teachers” who have a thorough grounding in the true Catholic vision.
* An end to the current mass-processing of children in the field of “family life formation” (sex-education), a shifting of focus in this most delicate area to the parish and home. A concerted effort to form parents in the skills necessary to imparting the vision of Christian sexuality. For children from families where such a mature approach is not possible, the Vatican guidelines outlined in Educational Guidance in Human Love (1984) and subsequent directives must be strictly adhered to—that is, the individual, personalist approach must be taken.
* Present catechesis should be examined with a view to its effectiveness. There should be interim supplementing of existing programs with material containing more solid content, while solid-content catechesis (Christocentric) is developed in light of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
* Development of genuine Catholic curricula. Especially urgent is the restoration of history, literature and social studies to its classical purposes. Remove all social engineering elements from these subjects.
* Development of reading programs and book clubs which offer material that is wholesome. As one parent expressed it, “It’s no defence of a cake if the ingredients are 75 percent good and 25 percent poison.” Eliminate poison from the diet of our children.
* In a technological era the decline of “the humanities” is bringing about many negative side-effects. Renewed emphasis on cultural studies, notably the arts, without abandoning technical developments.
* More direct involvement of parish priests with the schools associated with their parishes.
* Bishop’s and pastors’ involvement in encouraging their parishioners to vote for school trustees who have clearly demonstrated their complete fidelity to Church teachings.
* Encouragement of alternative models of education, with a view to the spread of diversity. A conversion on every level of Catholic education from the false notion of systemic or collectivist solutions. Emphasis on the more human vision of personalism.
Parents desire above all to have life for their children—fullness of life, abundant life. But life always costs something in terms of sacrifice. The Christian family was liberated to become what it is by Christ’s sacrifice when he died for us on the Cross. Each generation of parents is called to participate in some way in that sacrifice.
(John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, n.86)
In a Babel of voices how shall we hear the words that direct us to the path of life? If we do not listen with attention, and with humility, how shall we even begin to recognize the voice of truth when we hear it? Our teachers and prophets are speaking. The universal Church under Peter has just given us the magnificent Catechism of the Catholic Church which will be an anchor in an increasingly unstable world. The Church is the one voice in this world that speaks “the whole truth about man,” and does so in a spirit of love. The Catechism is a rich resource, intended for families, parishes and dioceses. It will strengthen us in our understanding of genuine absolutes, the fundamental, ultimate, unqualified truths that are independent of the ebb and flow of opinions, fashions, myths and prejudices which buffet the family from every direction.
God has given us a Pope who speaks the truth from the heart at a moment in history when man has begun to falter in a kind of global confusion and fear. John Paul II has also written a series of extraordinary encyclicals, The Splendour of Truth, The Jubilee of the Year 2000 and The Gospel of Life, which call us to grow in humility and reverence for the Truth. He says that we are in the midst of a grave crisis, yet he calls us to total confidence in the saving power of Jesus Christ. He teaches that our freedom is vitally connected to knowing what is true, and that we must build our lives upon this sure foundation if we desire life for our families. He proclaims throughout the world that Jesus stands ready, at every moment, no matter how loud our noise, or our confusion, or our discouragement, to restore us and our families to Himself.