MEXICO CITY, JAN. 16, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of the address given today by Michael Waldstein, Max Seckler Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University, Florida, at the 6th World Meeting of Families, under way in Mexico. The address was titled: “The Family: Forming Human and Christian Values: Overview of USA and Canada.”
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In his letter to the World Meeting of Families in Valencia, Pope Benedict wrote, “Today more than ever, the Christian family has a very noble mission that it cannot shirk: the transmission of the faith, which involves the gift of self to Jesus Christ who died and rose, and insertion into the Ecclesial Community. Parents are the first evangelizers of children, a precious gift from the Creator (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 50), and begin by teaching them to say their first prayers. In this way a moral universe is built up, rooted in the will of God, where the child grows in the human and Christian values that give life its full meaning.”
The vision of this statement is clear and strong. Do families in the United States and Canada live up to it? Do they introduce their children to the sincere gift of self to Christ? Do they help them become mature members of the Ecclesial Community? The positive side needs to be mentioned first. Many families do follow their mission with admirable strength and devotion.
At the same time one must admit that many families fall short of their mission. The United States and Canada built up extensive systems of Catholic schools. Catholic parents have traditionally delegated much of their responsibility as educators to these schools and they are still delegating it. The schools, however, have changed. Like all academic institutions, they have become increasingly secularized, which severely compromises the transmission of the faith.
Strong efforts are being made in some places to strengthen the identity and effectiveness of Catholic schools. A few weeks ago, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, published a pastoral letter that is spearheading a renewal of the Catholic school system in his diocese. He sees the urgency of the situation and is calling for broad cooperation in the renewal. Yet this is only one diocese among many.
A more fundamental problem, however, arises from the strong reliance of most parents on the schools. Children spend much time at school and relatively little time with their parents. Only during vacations is the situation different. Since the life they share with their parents is often reduced to a minimum when school is in session, it is not easy to build up such a life during vacations. Parents and children often do not know what to do with each other during vacations.
There is another major force that is taking much of education out of the hands of the family, namely, the global youth culture. It is important to realize that this youth culture is a new phenomenon. It only began after the Second World War.
Two forces are perhaps the most formative in this youth culture. One of them is the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution is a child of the dominant utilitarian and consumerist adult culture after the Second World War. Utilitarianism and consumerism inevitably destroy the link between sex and love, between sex and procreation by reducing the other person in erotic experience to a means for pleasure. In the formation of the teenager, the piercing sexual passions of adolescent children were suddenly released into destructive premature relationships. Instead of being introduced into a culture of love, children were and are abandoned to a culture of the use of each other for pleasure or, to use their own preferred word, fun.
The second major force, intimately connected with the first, is the rise of a new music produced specifically for adolescent children. It is a music tailor-made for the absence of deeper personal formation of sexual passion by authentic love. This music and its cultural trappings could not have achieved the power it achieved without a large economic muscle behind it. American and European adolescents after the Second World War were perhaps the first generation of children who constituted a strong market by themselves in distinction from the adult world, because they got large amounts of discretionary money from their parents. The parents were happy enough to let the children do what they wanted while they themselves pursued their professional lives. The removal of women from the home and their induction into the work force increased the cultural vacuum in which children lived. It also increased the economic power of this vacuum. The entertainment industry exploded, aided by technological progress, especially by the invention of the radio and the television. Music turned out to be the single most important article of trade in this exploding market. It is a music that consistently conquers market share by preying on the most intense and most immature passions of adolescents, above all on erotic passion and on anger. The hearts of children were simply abandoned to the formative power of this music.
What should we do in this difficult situation? Many parents feel completely helpless. They see their children taken out of their hands and increasingly formed by another culture. Sociologists call this phenomenon the “generation gap.” History as a whole shows that the generation gap is not a normal developmental phase. The normal situation is for children to grow in the culture of their parents and their society. The generation gap is without precedent. Children in Jewish communities grew up Jewish; in Catholic communities they grew up Catholic; in Buddhist communities they grew up Buddhist. Now Jewish, Catholic and Buddhist children grow to be one and the same thing: they become copies of their peers in the global youth culture.
We parents must wake up and take action! We must recall that it is our inalienable duty and therefore also our inalienable right to educate our children. In his encyclical Divini illius magistri of 1929 Pius XI writes, “The family … holds directly from the Creator the mission (munus) and hence the right to educate the offspring, a right inalienable because inseparably joined to a strict obligation, a right anterior to any right whatever of civil society and of the state, and therefore inviolable on the part of any power on earth” (Divini illius magistri, 59, DS 3690). Following Vatican II, John Paul II insists on the same point. “The task of giving education is rooted in the primary vocation of married couples to participate in God’s creative activity: by begetting in love and for love a new person who has within himself or herself the vocation to growth and development, parents by that very fact take on the task of helping that person effectively to live a fully human life. As the Second Vatican Council recalled, ‘since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it. For it devolves on parents to create a family atmosphere so animated with love and reverence for God and others that a well-rounded personal and social development will be fostered among the children.’… (Vatican II, Gravissimum educationis, 3). The right and duty of parents to give education is [1-] essential since it is connected with the transmission of human life; [2-] it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; [3-] and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others” (John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 36).
The first and most important step is for us parents to embrace our duty and our right. We must defend this right as indeed inalienable. The second most important step is to spend time with our children, to build up a shared life. Only in a loving shared life can we transmit to our children what is dearest to us. The third most important step is to become involved in the education of our children. Archbishop Wuerl is calling on parents in his diocese to become involved in helping to renew the Catholic school system. For the majority of Catholic parents, such involvement in the children’s schooling is the form this third most important step will take.
In describing the situation of the United States and Canada, however, I must also point to a more radical way in which parents are becoming involved in the education of their children, namely, homeschooling. According to recent credible estimates, there are about two million families in the United States that educate their children at home. My wife and I have eight children. We have been and are educating them from first grade all the way up to the end of high school. Four of them have already entered universities. The main reason why we began home schooling was the report we heard from close friends about the effect of home schooling on their family. The children, they said, became more friends with each other, because they shared the same experience of schooling in the home. The parents also became more friends with their children, because they shared more of their life. Like many other homeschoolers, we have seen that the global youth culture is not an irresistible force. It is possible to pass on our own Christian culture. The generation gap is not inevitable.