Why Catholic Parents Can’t Just Do, “What works for us.”

You hear it a lot from Catholic families, “You have to do what works for you.”  I appreciate the sentiment.  People who say it genuinely mean well.  They are just trying to acknowledge the real challenges that accompany family life and extend sympathy to those who are struggling. Who could argue with that intention?  Certainly not me.   Unfortunately, while the intention is good, the delivery leaves a lot to be desired.  Catholic families must be comforted, they must be supported, they must be encouraged and they must be helped.  But they must never be told that they are free to do whatever works for them.  Here’s why.

The family is the crucible of culture.  More than any other social structure, it is the family that passes beliefs, values, worldviews and traditions from one generation to the next.

Because of this, the Catholic family is called to be a unique creature; a prophetic witness in the world; a light shining in the darkness.  The Catholic family must stand out.  It must stand for something different than what our Protestant (may God bless them) and secular neighbors family’s stand for because we are in possession of the fullness of the truth and they are not.  “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more”  (Lk 12:48).   Catholic families have been given much by our Savior and His Holy Church, and MUCH is required of us.  Our mission is clear.

So what is the mission of the Catholic family?  Here is what Evangelium Vitae says,

“By word and example, in the daily round of choices, and through concrete actions and choices, parents lead their children to authentic freedom, actualized in the sincere gift of self, and they cultivate in them a respect for others, a sense of justice, cordial openness, dialogue, generous service, solidarity, and all the values which help people live life as a gift. “In raising children Christian parents must be concerned about their children’s faith and help them to fulfil the vocation God has given them. The parents’ mission as educators also includes teaching and giving their children an example of the true meaning of suffering and death. They will be able to do this if they are sensitive to all kinds of suffering around them and, even more, if they succeed in fostering attitudes of closeness, assistance and sharing towards sick or elderly members of the family. The family celebrates the Gospel of life through daily prayer, both individual prayer and family prayer. The family prays in order to glorify and give thanks to God for the gift of life, and implores his light and strength in order to face times of difficulty and suffering without losing hope. But the celebration which gives meaning to every other form of prayer and worship is found in the family’s actual daily life together, if it is a life of love and self-giving.”

I will be doing a series of posts on each portion of this quote from Evangelium Vitae (#92-93).  For now, I would invite us all to ask ourselves…

What if these were more than just pretty words?  What if these words were the mission statement for my Catholic family? 

How well am I living out the example of these virtues in my parenting life? 

Am I actively teaching my children to live out these virtues, by example, by fostering their personal  relationship with Jesus Christ, and through direct catechesis?  

Does my family look different than the non-Catholic families on my block because of our family’s single-minded devotion to living out these virtues? 

What can we do improve our prophetic witness as a Catholic family by living out these virtues more fully in our relationships with each other?”

We have a tall order to fill.  Of course, we are free to do what we believe helps us fulfill the above mission.  But that is not the same thing as saying we are free to do “whatever works for us.”  The world needs Catholic families,  not families that look like everyone else’s except for the Catholic prayers they say.    We must parent intentionally at all times with these virtues burned into our vision.  We are NOT free to do “what works for us.”   That is the world’s way, not ours.  Catholic families are only free to do what we genuinely believe proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ and best exemplifies the virtues listed above that define the witness and mission of the Catholic family.   THAT is the meaning of “authentic freedom”–the ability to choose what is best and good and true and beautiful, not the ability to do “what works for us.”

None of this is to make anyone feel guilty or lose heart.  We are all on a journey toward this ideal and most of us have not yet arrived.  In fact, most of us are very far from it.  Thanks to God’s grace, that’s OK.   BUT we cannot take our eyes off the map.  We can take the time we need to get there.  We can rest when we must.  We can have bad days where we wish for an easier path.  We can have days where we break down and cry a bit from being stretched more than we imagined we ever would.  And especially on those days, we must get support from other like-minded families and other like-minded sources of encouragement.   But we are not free to choose an easier path.  We are NOT free to do, “what works for us.”  We are only ever free to do what serves the gospel and builds the Kingdom of God both in and outside our homes.   Everything we do as parents, we will be called to reckon for according to the mission outlined above.  It’s a serious obligation that we must take seriously.

I applaud your willingness to be that family that bears God’s face and the Catholic vision of love to the world.  May God give you his grace for the journey.

Why Do Catholics Bother?

Reflecting on Russel Shaw’s new book about reclaiming our Catholic identity, especially in light of the controversy caused by Bishop Vasa’s attempts to assert the Catholic identity of his diocesan schools, I thought it might be good to look at all the good things the Church tries to do and ask, “Why?”

Why do Catholics run schools, hospitals, charity organizations and the like?  Are we just terminal do-gooder busy-bodies who can’t just leave well-enough alone?

Well, of course the answer to that is “no.” But I wonder how many Catholics ever ask themselves why we do all these things.   The answer is important and it may not be what most people think.


The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church begins in a curious place.  It doesn’t start, as you might expect, with talk about the preferential option for the poor or even a fundamental right to life.  It begins with a reflection on the Trinity and how we are made in God’s image and likeness.  Why?  Because the entire point of the social doctrine of the Church is to stand up for the God-given dignity of the person as it is revealed to and understood by the Catholic Church.   So what?  Well, that statement really highlights a profound difference between social work and Catholic social justice work.

For instance, a secular social worker is interested in solving a person’s problems in the most efficient, legal way.  Is it legal?  Does it get the job done?  Good.  Problem solved.    But Catholic social justice work is not primarily concerned with solving the problem.  It is concerned, first and foremost, with upholding the dignity of the person as it has been revealed to and is understood by the Catholic Church.  We solve temporal problems like ignorance and illness and hunger and loneliness as a means of standing up for the dignity of the person as we understand it, not because we see these things as ends in themselves.


As a  Catholic social justice worker (as every Catholic is a “Catholic social justice worker” whether or not you are an “official, degreed helping professional (TM)”  ) I must do what I can to meet your needs, but I cannot meet your needs in a way that undermines my dignity as a person– or yours.  If I do, the entire point is lost.  Everything I do for you, and the way I do it, has to be mindful of our mutual dignity as persons made in the image and likeness of God.  If my actions communicate any other message, I am doing you, me, and the Kingdom of God a disservice.

Everyone gets their wimple in a knot when a bishop or pastor tries to “crack the whip” about the personal morality of his teachers or makes a fuss about how closely his hospitals and charitble organizations keep to the mission and doctrine of the Church.  “Why all this fuss about morality and doctrine?!?  There are poor people out there, children , the sick and hungry.  Aren’t we about meeting their needs?”

Well, not really.  We’re about saving their souls, and because we are embodied souls, we also attend to their needs as a way of saving their souls and witnessing to their dignity as sons and daughters of God.  But if we neglect our mission and become merely secular social workers, or doctors, or teachers, or whatever, then the gospel goes unheard in the charitable work we do.  We become clanging gongs.  Indeed, what does it profit us to meet their needs but lose their souls.  What does it profit us to do good works and lose ours?

By all means, dedicate yourself to living out all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  Be a fully-engaged Catholic social justice worker in every aspect of your life regardless of your state in life, but never forget that the point is not meeting needs, but meeting needs as a means of standing for the dignity of the person and proclaiming the gospel with our actions.  No matter what superficial good we might be doing, it counts for nothing if our life, mission, or methods are at odds with with the gospel our actions are called to proclaim.