Keeping Our Kids Catholic: The Indispensable Minimum

I’ve found that being a parent is about learning to embrace your inner hypocrite.
~ Tom Kenny

The word is out from Rod Dreher that “Catholicism is failing in America.” Dreher looked at an interpretation of the recent Pew Research Center report on American religiosity, and he paints a pretty bleak picture. Roman Catholics are already falling behind Evangelicals in terms of conversion and member retention, and within a generation or two we’ll be a sorry minority. “If current trends continue,” Dreher writes, “Catholicism would come very close to collapsing in this country.”

What to do? To the ramparts! Look at the Evangelicals – they’re winning! So, we need more programs! More marketing! More jazzy youth meetings and young adult encounters. Guitar Masses and drums – or no-guitar, no-drum Masses, depending on focus group results. “Become all things to all men,” as Paul modeled, and then some! More internet! More streaming video! More tweets!

And Catholic families? All this hubbub is especially troubling to conscientious parents who strive to form their children in the Faith. Given the troubling stats and trends, it’s understandable that we’d be reduced to hand-wringing and agonizing. “My teens are bored,” we opine. “They want something…else,” followed by the kicker question: “How are we going to keep our kids in the Church?”

But that’s the wrong question.

This might sound callous, but I just don’t think it’s our job as parents to keep our kids in the Church, even in the short-term. That’s God’s job and, frankly, the job of our kids once they’re making decisions for themselves. Our job as parents is a lot more prosaic – and, consequently, a lot more challenging. “Parents have the most grave obligation,” reads the Code of Canon Law, “to do all in their power to ensure their children’s physical, social, cultural, moral and religious upbringing.” In other words, our grave obligation as far as the Faith is concerned is comparable to our obligations regarding food and shelter: Provide what is necessary for our children to thrive and flourish – to give them a good start on making it on their own. “Why?” Fr. John Hardon asks of this grave obligation to form our kids in the Faith. “In order to prepare them for eternal life in heaven. The only reason under God that parents even should bring children into the world is to prepare them for heaven.” Thus, it’s not my job to keep my children on the straight and narrow trajectory toward eternal life, but rather to prepare them for undertaking that task themselves.

For insight on how to carry out that grave duty, let’s turn to Dreher again. He writes that the average American Catholic worshiper “may find himself having to hold on to the truths of his faith by exercising his will and his imagination to an extraordinary degree, because what he sees happening around him does not convey what the Church proclaims to be true.” This might be news to Dreher and the folks at Pew Research; it ain’t news to the Church.

Indeed, it’s been that way from the beginning, starting with the Apostles themselves – including especially St. Peter, the first pope and betrayer-in-chief. There’s always been a disconnect between the visible Church – the one we ourselves inhabit in the here-and-now, the one with fallible, petty, sinful human beings in it like you and me – and the invisible Church “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners,” as C.S. Lewis described her. Using the voice of Screwtape, a senior demonic tempter, Lewis goes on to characterize the Christian’s experience of that disconnect in this way:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.

Sound familiar? Of course! It’s a great description of what the average Catholic has to go through every weekend, and it’s precisely why “exercising his imagination and will,” as Dreher puts it, is so crucially important. We’ll always come up against hypocrisy and dryness in the practice of the faith, regardless of location or epoch. Yet if, with God’s grace, we persevere – imagining that God might succeed in making even us saints and willing to seek after truth no matter the cost – then neither circumstances nor setbacks can ultimately deter us. “If once they get through this initial dryness successfully,” the more seasoned Screwtape warns his demon apprentice regarding a young Christian, “they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.”

A religious upbringing thus rooted in both a moral imagination that aspires to holiness and a will determined to affirm even unpopular truth becomes a lifeline of grace that keeps even the most wayward Catholic tethered to God – and can help him find his way home again. Chesterton’s Father Brown, relating his mediating role in helping restore a sinner to virtue, describes that lifeline as a “thread:”

Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

That thread, I think, should be our goal as parents: A thread of solid formation in morals and Church teaching that will keep even our most errant kids tethered to God – and which God himself can twitch to bring them back someday.

Let’s say I’m right, and the thread is the thing. Then the appropriate question to ask is not how to keep our kids in the Church, but rather this: How do we go about creating an ecclesial thread of imagination and will, and then getting our kids connected to it – particularly if, as sometimes happens, it might seem like our own thread is fraying. Speaking as a Catholic dad to other Catholic dads, let me cut to the bone with an answer: If nothing else, we need to daily attend to what the Catechism calls the “indispensable minimum” – otherwise known as the Precepts of the Church:

The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.

The precepts are certain obligatory behaviors and attitudes that our families, young and old, should take for granted because we ourselves, through our words and actions, take them for granted. They include the obligation to attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days (without exception and no excuses); to receive the Eucharist at Mass when properly disposed and at least annually, and to receive the sacrament of Penance at least once a year as well (just standing in line for confession is a public testimony that we take responsibility for our screw-ups, so the more frequent the better for our kids); to observe the laws of fasting and abstinence during Lent (again, this is priceless public testimony that we take the Faith seriously); and, finally, to provide “for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities” – that is, we tithe, even when the money is tight.

Even when we don’t feel like it. In fact, especially when we don’t feel like it. And that goes for all those precepts and duties.

Ought we do more than this indispensable minimum? No doubt! Certainly, vigorous and thorough catechetical instruction along with full sacramental initiation is also required for proper religious upbringing. Plus, daily prayer, even daily Mass; family Rosary and other devotions; the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – these are just a smattering of suggestions, but they all rely on the bedrock of those precepts and duties. When we enforce those, for ourselves and for our families, we silently, subtly, and powerfully shape the way our children navigate their worlds.

This was beautifully expressed by R&B singer Aaron Neville last week at Notre Dame. Neville was this year’s recipient of the University’s prestigious Laetare Medal that is bestowed on American Catholics who have made distinct and lasting contributions to the well-being of our society and the Church. “I hope I’m worthy of standing next to the people who have received it before me,” he said. “If it’s for me trying to get my life on the right track the way God wanted me too, then I am worthy, because I know, and God knows, that I’ve tried.” Neville went on:

My early life has been a preview of where I am now. It took who I was and where I came from to make me who I am. For that I have to thank my late parents, Arthur and Amelia Neville. They, along with the nuns at St. Monica’s Catholic School, especially Sister Damien, taught me morals and guidance. My Catholic upbringing helped me in some dark times.

Dark times? Yes, dark times that included drugs, larceny, and jail. Ah, but the thread was there, thanks to Sr. Damien and Neville’s parents – his parents who undoubtedly worried about their rebellious son and wondered how they could get him back to the Faith. It would probably come as a shock to them, but they had, in truth, already laid the necessary groundwork for that return years before simply by doing their job as Catholic parents: Teaching their son right from wrong, for instance, and, guiding him to respect the Church and Sr. Damien, not to mention the Blessed Mother and our Lord.

Then, in time, twitch! – and he was home.

Aside from continual and fervent prayer, I’m convinced that nurturing such an organic connection to the Church – however threadlike it might be, and no matter how threadbare our own connection may be – is the best gift we can give our kids. We hope and pray that they stay in the Church their whole lives, but if they stray? Let’s do everything we can now to ensure they can find their way home.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on God Haunted Lunaticthe author’s personal blog, and is reprinted here with kind permission.

Richard Becker


Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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  • motherof10

    Thanks for the excellent reminder, Mr. Becker! I worry about how I could/should have done better in raising my oldest, out-of-the nest kids who are not exactly practicing Catholics, and your timely article is helping me remember about what is important.

  • valoriesporleder

    I think St. Monica should hear from all parents regularly! 🙂 I should have her listed in my speed dial as often as we talk.

  • Antonia

    Does anybody have any practical ideas on how to reach out to my unbaptised grandchildren?

  • How old are they?

  • Danielle A. S. Barr

    Anybody even consider that people are leaving the Catholic Church for valid reasons?

    Also saying the religion is correct because you can pretend it’s real doesn’t make any sense.

  • Thanks for your question and comment, Danielle. Certainly it’s valid, on one level, for someone to leave the Church if he ceases to believe, completely and utterly. That just makes sense. However, a person’s loss of belief doesn’t affect the actual truthfulness of Catholic teaching or the reality of grace operating in the world, etc. I always encourage doubters to not only keep asking questions, but to be open to unexpected answers as they work through their doubts.

    I’m not sure what your second comment refers to. There’s room for doubt in the midst of faith, but that’s different than saying that we just ‘pretend’ it’s real.

  • Danielle A. S. Barr

    Thank you for taking time to respond. I should have elaborated more in my original post but was at work and did not want to forget to post altogether.
    My point with the first part of my post is that it often seems like those still choosing to remain Catholic decide why others leave without hearing what those that leave are saying.
    Unless I am misunderstanding your point (which is more than possible) it seems like the answer to people leaving the Church in the US falls in two categories. The first being that Americans are not being taught enough imagination and will to imagine the dogma as being correct and to stick with it if they do find it to be correct. This does not makes sense to me. I could easily imagine that I am a millionaire, or that my dog can fly. My imagining this does not make either true. Most people I personally know (who in general fall into the younger group that you are speaking of here) that leave the Catholic church do so because they have found no evidence that the faith is true. And if that faith is not true it makes no sense to follow a restrictive dogma.
    Lastly there is something I personally don’t understand that you touched on briefly. Any organization is who it’s leaders and members are. This is true of any group from boy-scouts to Fortune 500 companies. When there are so many cover-ups and allowances made for those who commit atrocious acts by an organization that claims moral authority no less, how can anyone dismiss those actions as relevant enough to cause people to leave that organization? The way many outsiders to the Church see it everyone someone tithes to the Catholic Church they are helping pay for the mistakes of men that should know better. For many leaving the Catholic Organization is the only ethical answer to the actions the Church takes.
    Thank you in advance for your patience. I hope you are having a lovely Friday!

  • Antonia

    Three children aged one, three and five from two families. Their parents are all good people but do not practise the faith any more.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Danielle. I think you might be mistaken regarding my use of the word “imagination.”

    As far as Catholic teaching is concerned, I most certainly agree that critical thinking and the weighing of evidence is not only legitimate, but highly advisable. Becoming and/or remaining a Catholic — or a Christian of any sort, really — is a very serious matter, involving an assent to some pretty outlandish claims (e.g., Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, Deification, etc.). Those truth claims should be tested; the arguments in their defense, analyzed and challenged. There are plenty of forums for you to do this — both in your neighborhood and online — and I encourage you to do so. We can even review some of them here if you like.

    The imagination part of my article had to do with “moral” imagination — that part of us that can conceive of things being better in the world, better in us even, and then desiring for those things to come about. Moral imagination is what causes us to both apprehend and desire the good, the true, and the beautiful. In terms of Christianity, it’s what makes us want to be saints — to become holy, in other words, to become heaven-bound.

    So that’s the imagination part. The truth part has to do with propositions that may accord with reality or may not — that’s where the testing of evidence comes in, and this touches on your last comment. I’m assuming you were referring to revelations concerning moral lapses among the Catholic clergy and hierarchy, right? All such occurrences are tragic. I trust you know that faithful Catholics certainly deplore them, and we support our bishops in their efforts to safeguard against them in the future.

    With regards to truth claims, however, I think it’s quite a stretch to say that the Church loses all her moral authority because some of her members commit heinous acts. If that’s true, then no human organization can speak to any ethical concerns whatsoever. Besides, the Church, by her very nature, is composed of sinners who are being formed into saints. As Pope Francis has said , the Church is more of a field hospital for the sick and wounded than a country club for the self-righteous. Even Jesus said that: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9.11, 13).

    Yes, we grieve over wrongs committed by Catholics, both lay and ordained. We strive to prevent such wrongs in the future, and we seek healing and justice for those who have been wronged. The Church herself, however, remains our home, our family no matter what. It’s very human sometimes, painfully human, but it’s also the place where we encounter the Divine. To paraphrase the end of John 6, where else would we go? The Church is Christ who himself has the words of eternal life. “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God,” Peter said of Christ. And that’s precisely the firm conviction that all Catholics cling to.

  • That’s hard, Antonia. Of course, I’ve no doubt that you already pray for them diligently. I’ll join you in those prayers, and I’ll pray for you as well.

    Do your grandchildren reside nearby? Even though their parents don’t practice the faith any more, perhaps they’d be willing to let you at least bring your grandkids to church with you — maybe even for baptism at some point, as long as you’re willing to take on the duties of raising them in the Faith.

    If they are far away, then perhaps you can include religious gifts and books among your other gifts at birthdays and Christmas. Again, I’d think it would be best to be up front with their parents that you’re hoping to expose them to the Faith in this way. Who knows? It might re-ignite their own interest as well.