Family Life Month
Foster a Christian family
Study points to a strategy to assist moral development
spirituality at home
By Carl A. Anderson
Parents trying to inculcate Catholic moral values in their children in the midst of a popular culture that promotes violence and casual sex may be tempted to throw up their hands. Our culture entices young people by characterizing moral behavior as Puritanism, unrestrained sexual conduct as normative, and violence as fantasy.
The rapidly deteriorating standards of network TV sitcoms and talk shows, the explicit lyrics of heavy metal and rap music, the equally explicit depictions in music videos and feature movies, and the misuse of the Internet are all part of the dulling of the moral conscience that is the prerequisite of the growing culture of death in our society.
In his Letter to Families, our Holy Father reminds us that "raising children can be considered a genuine apostolate" (no. 16), an educational process in which parents are the child's primary educator. Things may be tough but we must not lose faith that God's grace is sufficient to see us through the present cultural crisis.
The first step in protecting children from the growing anti-life tendencies in the greater society is to foster within the home a Christian family spirituality that is really present to the child as a way of living. Through faith, the Christian family becomes a special communion of persons on a journey that is both moral and personal.
A recent study of young Catholics by Richard Featherstone of Purdue University found three significant characteristics among young Catholics who accepted Church teaching on sexual ethics.
The first finding related to church attendance. Young Catholics who attend church with their mothers on a weekly basis were more likely to follow the teaching of the Church on sexual and procreative matters. Religious activity by the mother was a very important factor in their moral development.
Second, the study found that it was very important for these young people to have their beliefs about sexual morality reinforced by their peer group. Close friends play an important role in the development of a person's religious beliefs and moral values. Young Catholics are no different in this regard.
Finally, the study found that young Catholics with a strong sense of Catholic identity tend to follow Church teaching more closely. They understood that being a "good Catholic" means living a life consistent with the teaching of the Church. This correlates with the findings of an earlier study by the National Opinion Research Center commissioned by the Knights of Columbus which found that Catholic schools had a significant impact on what young people read, believe, practice and value in their lives.
These findings point to an effective "strategy" for a child's moral development. Fundamental is family worship -- attendance at Mass is an important dimension of the family's life and the mother's role is significant, especially in teaching her children to pray. Also important is a social environment outside the home in which the child is afforded the opportunity to interact with children from similar families, whether through Catholic schools, scouting or other programs. Finally, a home environment in which a strong sense of Catholic identity is present -- traditionally organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, Holy Name Society and Legion of Mary have assisted in the formation of such a strong sense of Catholic identity. The home itself should have a religious character to it -- there should be crucifixes in the home and especially in the children's rooms as well as art depicting their patron saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Family.
Parents must also be involved in their children's religious education, whether in a parochial school or in a CCD program. And we need to get over the notion that once a child has been confirmed he has no more need of instruction and can make up his own mind about practicing religion.
Parents must be able to expose fallacies in the popular culture which attempt to obscure a child's moral sense and be willing to teach their children what is right and what is wrong even when the temptation is strong to allow almost any activity so as to avoid confrontation. Otherwise, not wanting to "alienate" their children, family members end up, often, as "ships passing in the night."
This is not the scenario envisioned by the Letter to Families (no. 36) which says "the family is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs."
(Carl Anderson is Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus, and professor and vice president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C.)