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Sorry, Mr. Dad. Not in My Catholic Household.

Posted by on July 20, 2011

I’d generally consider myself a fan of Armin Brott, aka Mr. Dad. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his books on fatherhood. His podcast sometimes catches my interest as well. In this case, though, I have to strongly disagree with him.

Someone wrote to him as follows.

“Dear Mr. Dad: It’s been a longstanding tradition in our extended family to attend church on Sunday and then go out to brunch. However, now my 14-year-old daughter says she no longer likes church because she finds that services are boring. My husband says we should force her to go, but I don’t think that would work. What’s your take?”

Religion and parenting is always an interesting combo, isn’t it? Let’s see how Mr. Dad responds and why I would take his advice with a grain of salt, shall we?

Brott’s response begins:

“If Sunday services have been a family tradition for years, I can certainly understand your disappointment at your daughter’s refusal to go with you. As you can imagine, there are quite a few factors that might have led to this sudden change of heart. Chances are, though, that few if any of them have anything at all to do with religion.

I’m inclined to agree that this girl’s reasons for rebelling against going to church has very little to do with religion. However, I must object to both the questioner and  Brott’s characterization of attending religious services as a mere family tradition. Family traditions are regular walks, seasonal fishing trips, summer vacations, special bedtime routines, and even going out out to brunch after church could be considered family traditions, but not going to church. Perhaps for Chreasters (those who attend services only on Christmas and Easter), going to church could be called a tradition, but not for anyone serious about their faith.

It’s simply not the nature of religion, a word that has roots in the Latin “religo“, meaning “to bind fast”. Religions are what bind us tightly together in faith and practice. It’s something that obliges us. Corporate worship is traditional in the sense that it’s handed down from older to younger generations, but it’s much more serious and important than the colloquial meaning. More on this in a bit.

Skipping a head a little

“So what should you do? Well, you begin by not doing what your husband suggests. Forcing your daughter to go to church when she really, really doesn’t want to will backfire. Instead of getting her more engaged, you’ll be driving her away and she’ll dislike services even more than she already does.”

I understand where he’s coming from, but this is really where we have to part company. Pardon me as I move from vaguely Christian to explicitly orthodox Catholic.

I don’t know what kind of church the questioner attends, but I know the rules about attending Sunday worship (mass) in the Catholic Church. Keeping the Sabbath holy and attending mass is the first precept of the Church, and deliberate failure in this obligation is a grave sin. That means as long as my kids are living under my roof and by my rules, attendance at Sunday mass will be mandatory. They’ll have only two choices in the matter: they can either meet their Sabbath obligation or confess the sin of failing to do so at the earliest convenient time. As their parent, I’m responsible for making sure my kids are raised in the faith. It’s one of my obligations to make sure they meet their obligations. Simple teenage rebellion does not constitute a serious reason to skip mass.

“Instead of criticizing your daughter’s decision, you and your husband need to talk to her about how important the services and religion in general have been to you personally. Have there been times when your faith has given you strength and hope in difficult circumstances? Or when members of your community have provided help and support when you needed them most? If so, share this with your daughter. If she can see the benefits and meaning that your faith and your community have given you, she might be more willing to reconsider her decision.”

I actually agree with this entirely.

“Her complaints that services are boring, however, are something altogether different. She may, in fact, be right. What’s the average age of people who attend services? If it’s mostly older folks or young families with small children, the sermons and community activities that may be perfect for those groups would be completely irrelevant to a teenager.”

He’s gone off the rails again. There was a time that I would have strongly agreed with him. That time lasted after when I joined the Church in 2000. However, I’ve come to learn that the aesthetics of high liturgy have rich catechetical value, and those who are bored are generally copping out. Even poor liturgy, however, does not destroy the most important and central aspect of worship. That is the Eucharist, the Divine Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, is so important, so significant, and so beautiful that it trumps even the worst aesthetics. Of course, that doesn’t mean poor liturgy can’t be psychological and/or spiritually harmful or superb liturgy enriching. It just means that warm fuzzes or smells and bells aren’t why we’re obliged – or should desire – to attend.

“As a compromise, could you find a nearby church that offers a youth ministry and outreach programs geared to teens? I’m betting that she’ll be able to relate much better to that type of worship environment than to traditional services, and she’ll be hard pressed to find excuses not to go.”

Church-shopping is often understandable, and I’ve been known to do it myself, but it shouldn’t be uncritically encouraged. It would be best if parents considered which parish(es) in their area offered the kind of religious education, liturgy, and faith support they needed to carry the family through all their children’s formative years. Sure, unplanned changes sometimes have to be made, but the intention should be to find a parish and stick to it. Looking for a new parish in the midst of adolescence to satisfy fickle tastes is self-defeating and could be harmful to the whole family. Tastes change, priorities are rearranged, patience grows, and children mature. The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ on Earth, His Holy Bride, is constant and everlasting.

We shouldn’t be accommodating our children’s whims, but guiding our children on the path we desire them to follow. Children have free will, and we can’t force them to believe as we believe or behave as we behave, but it’s a parent’s responsibility to raise them to become integral adults – whole persons, with consciences formed in authentic faith. Indeed, it is a profound privilege we have received, as persons created in the image and likeness of God, that we may participate in God’s creation as priests, prophets, and kings for our families.