This essay is excerpted and adapted from the author’s forthcoming book (Holt, March 16), Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living.
To borrow a thought from Catherine of Siena, nothing great is ever achieved without suffering. No one wants to suffer. No healthy person seeks to do so. But most people do know that accomplishing anything important is hard. Suffering can be fruitful if we understand its roots and channel it toward good ends.
Tocqueville saw that democracy isolates the individual in the name of liberty. Wendell Berry attacked the gigantism of modern life; how it turns persons into passive recipients of meaningless choices. And Christopher Lasch often spoke of “the minimal self.” Under siege, he claimed, a person’s self shrinks to a defensive core. Its focus becomes little more than psychic survival. In effect, despite all our culture’s noise about the wonders of “you” and “me” as individuals (i.e., each of us as consumers), the scope of our problems and institutions leaves us feeling powerless.
Put simply: The flaw in the modern self is not that it’s too strong. On the contrary. It’s too weak. Today’s consumer life is ordered toward creating that weakness. While flattering the individual self, it also controls the self with massive advertising, media fantasies, and a limited range of material choices.
Strong families do the opposite. Who we are as “selves” is largely the product of formation and nourishment by others. The forge of a mature, resilient self is the family ruled by intentional love. Scripture describes love as being “strong as death” (Song of Sol. 8:6). And for good reason. Nothing has more persuasive power than self-sacrifice; the example, sustained over time, of giving oneself to or for another, purely for the sake of the other.
That kind of love, the real kind of love, shapes the life of a child. The child may one day stray from it, but he or she will never escape its memory and effect. Predictably, given its power, real love also has a cost; a cost in discomfort and suffering. The cheap and impermanent nature of sex relations in current American life disguises an evasion, even a hatred, of love’s cost and the personal entanglements it brings. But the cost is justified by the return: The child shaped in virtue by parental love becomes the adult grounded in a strong identity and deep humanity. And such a person is much harder to dominate.
So how do we get such families? And such persons? No one in recent memory matches Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, for the work he did in advancing Christian thought on the dignity of marriage and the family. By training, John Paul was a philosopher, but he was also a skilled pastor. He enjoyed and connected avidly with everyday people. He spoke to their worries, hopes, and needs. In a sense, his life illustrated the words of Catherine of Siena: The suffering wrought by a world war and two totalitarian regimes made him stronger, more real, more human. Thus, his teaching reaffirmed with uncommon beauty and depth the lessons of long Christian experience. And he did it in a way easy to distill as principles of family life:
Actions speak louder than words.
Our words should be used to speak the truth. Our actions likewise “speak” a language. Just as we can lie and abuse with our words, so we can lie and abuse with our example. A son who grows up in a home where the father mistreats the mother will have a hard time learning how to respect and love women. Personal witness shapes the world, whether we act consciously or not. Children see everything. If parents love each other, their children learn love. If parents love God, their children learn faith.
Freedom is not license.
The decline of real freedom is a feature of modern life. Tolerance is revered as the badge of an enlightened people. But an unwillingness to name evil, to teach right from wrong, and to resist the behaviors wickedness creates, is a recipe for license, not freedom. John Paul stressed that authentic freedom is the ability to do what’s right, not necessarily what we want. Parents need to teach the same. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand, and our responsibility is to Truth. Jesus himself said that “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
Knowledge is a blessing. Without wisdom, it becomes a curse.
Knowledge ennobles the human intellect through the acquisition of facts and experience. But facts divorced from a moral framework of meaning easily turn into weapons. Wisdom is the ability to use knowledge in the right way, to the right ends. Wisdom is the greater gift. Therefore, we should seek wisdom first, so that the knowledge we learn serves, rather than abuses, human dignity.
Learn to see clearly and think critically.
A mark of our times is the loss of critical thinking. Too often we’re willing to believe news media, to name just one example, without questioning their accuracy or bias. We accept being treated as targets of clever marketing. We need to reclaim the art of critical thinking, and we need to ingrain it in our children.
Thinking critically and seeing clearly involve developing the tools to discern good from bad, beauty from ugliness. Families need to use those tools to engage the culture and renew it from within.
Teach and live the virtues.
The Christian faith is not a collection of “thou shalt nots.” It’s an invitation to arete or virtue; the excellence of a fully human life as God intended it. In the Catholic tradition, virtues divide into two basic groups; moral and theological. Moral virtues are firm, habitual dispositions to do the good. We acquire moral virtues through human effort aided by God’s grace. The theological virtues, faith, hope, and love, are free gifts from God.
Just as a muscle weakens without exercise, so too virtues go soft without constant practice. Moreover, each child is uniquely prone to certain virtues and more alien to others. This is why the daily, intimate presence of parents in their children’s lives is so vital.
Revere the sanctity of life.
An openness to new life, and a reverence for all life, from conception to natural death: These are the glue of the human community; sources of hope and expressions of faith in the future. By contrast, in the words of John Paul, “a civilization inspired by [an] anti-birth mentality is not, and cannot ever be, a civilization of love.” Yet that’s exactly what we’ve created. And we needn’t look far for proof. Most of the nation shut down during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Most abortion clinics stayed open.
Teach the habit of gratitude.
Despite all of our modern material advantages, we live in a joyless world; a world soaked in the message that we don’t have enough things; that we need more things; that we deserve more things, and that we should get the things we want, right now.
We need to refocus our hearts on gratitude, on being joyful with what we have; or more precisely, with what God has given to us. Gratitude, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, is the beginning of joy.
Romano Guardini, one of the great Catholic theologians of the last century, described the value of silence this way:
Only he who is able to be silent can speak meaningfully; otherwise he talks nonsense. Only he who speaks can properly keep silence; otherwise he is dumb. Man lives in these two mysteries; their unity expresses his nature. To be capable of silence is a virtue. He who does not know how to keep silence does the same thing with his life as a man who would only wish to exhale and not inhale. We need only to imagine this to feel terrified. The man who is never silent dissipates his humanity.
The devil Screwtape described noise as the music of hell. Parents might profitably check the levels in their homes, and in their own lives.
Finally: Pray together.
“The family that prays together, stays together.” It’s an old adage, but also a true one. Prayer needs to be a central activity of family life. Prayer binds the family together in a common project of praise and thanksgiving; and the time it involves, seals the bond. It’s in prayer that a family’s hopes can be expressed, shared, and made fruitful by the grace of God. Nothing can take its place.
Where does this leave us?
“The family” John Paul II wrote nearly 30 years ago, “has always been considered as the first and basic expression of man’s social nature . . . A truly sovereign and spiritually vigorous nation is always made up of strong families who are aware of their vocation and mission in history.” It’s precisely because the ties of blood, and kinship, and family bind so tightly that humans will live, and work, and when needed die, to have their families flourish. This explains why “the history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family.”
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.