Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Safe Place to Raise Our Children

One of the most compelling arguments against city living, I think, is the argument about protecting our children. A couple neighborhoods ago, we literally watched drug deals out our front window, right next to where our children play. The language was foul. Our immediate neighborhood was relatively safe, but shootings were frequent a few blocks away (anyone unfamiliar with the intense localism of city living would have said the shootings were in our neighborhood).

We live in a much better neighborhood now, but still there is pornographic graffiti all over the park. A very nice, but not very solid, neighbor gave our kids a bunch of comic books that were, ahem, not up to our standards of purity for our children's eyes. They weren't especially bad -- but it wasn't what I want my children to read. And if they get that stuff when they're four, it certainly makes me wonder what they will encounter when they're teenagers.

City life subjects us to all sorts of bad influences. It's no surprise that many people flee to the suburbs and the country, to protect their children.

But a recent discussion highlights the fallacy of that solution. My wife participates in an on-line community of homeschooling Catholic mothers -- diverse in many ways, but all solid Catholic moms, serious about doing what's best for their children. Recently a conversation came up that has come up many times before.

A mom writes in to say, hey, our closest parish is forty-five minutes away, but the priest is terrible; I'm getting to where I really can't subject my children to his bad preaching (or worse). And then they discuss their two or three options. In the many iterations of this conversation, there is typically an okay parish, but it's two hours away, and they're not sure they can make it to Mass every week (let alone every day). And lots of moms write in to say how they deal with similar situations.

We sit in our dense urban community, where we presently have (I do not exaggerate) eight parishes within a one-mile walk of us, and think, what an odd situation. Sometimes we try to think through the options, but end up shrugging our shoulders: it's hard to imagine having so few. At more lucid (or aggressive) moments, we think, if you really care about your children, maybe you shouldn't be putting your family in that situation. A thought, I suppose, parallel to what our peers in the country would say about us, if we complained about drug dealers and inappropriate magazines and graffiti: why don't you just move.

It is very uncommon for a family in the country to be bound there by a job -- jobs usually aren't any closer than parishes. Typically, they have moved to the middle of nowhere because they think it's a healthier environment for their children. But is it?

Perhaps they should live somewhere else. But where? Of course the immediate standard aspiration is, if only we could live in a tiny community where everyone is perfect. We know people who have tried to form such communities, in various situations: a suburban sub-development of only solid Catholics; a small town with one great parish; even, on occasion, attempts at building a farming community.

My first, and most natural, objection to those plans is on grounds of fideism. It is good to have Catholic friends and neighbors, to be sure -- but it's also good to have a soccer team, music teachers, theater, bookstores. It's good to have a decent hospital nearby (and I know people in these situations who have had major hospital problems, because their little utopia can't provide its own health care).

Dare I say it? It's even good just to have pagan neighbors, both to witness to and to learn from. In my experience, faith means more especially for children when they can see the depravity of their neighbors, the weakness of secular arguments, and even the frustration of the world around them -- when they care about people who don't have faith. A completely sheltered faith is not always the strongest faith. Some sheltering is necessary, of course -- but total sheltering from the outside world?

To put the same objection differently, lay people are not monks. There is an important place for those who flee the world and live only for prayer. But the Church is very explicit that such is not the vocation of the laity. We live to sanctify the world, to engage in politics, and culture, and labor, to witness to those who do not already have the faith. Abandoning that secular vocation of the laity is not good for grown-ups, and I do not see how it is a good way to teach children. The monastic vocation is itself corrupted (at least according to the teaching of the Catholic Church) if the world is treated as entirely evil. The laity are not monks, and monks need the witness of the laity.

But a second objection to the head-for-the-hills school of Christianity rests on the actual experience of monks. One cannot read far in monastic literature before one finds that even monasteries are not full of perfect people. St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, was asked to lead more than one community that subsequently tried to kill him. That seems odd -- but it is the universal experience of monasticism. That has something to do with why monks are called monks -- from monos, alone: the monk submits to a rule, not because he thinks it will surround him with perfect people, but in order to seek God, as it were, on a single path. There are no communities of perfect people.

The experience of various Catholic communes makes this very concrete for the laity. I know quite well a small-town super-parish built almost entirely on the charisma of one man, a Ph.D. in theology. But that man is now senile, and dying. Now what? Is it good for a family to be in such need to one charismatic leader? And is that Catholic? To make things worse, the man's theology is not especially sound. He propounds many things as Church teaching which are not Church teaching, and which are sometimes directly contrary to Church teaching. My friends who are in this situation are not theologians; what can they do but submit to their hero's opinion? They are in good will: but they have put themselves in a situation where one man's error becomes their Gospel, because he is the only show in town.

Similarly, if we move to a perfect parish: what if the priest falls ill? What if he's weak on some points? Do these people realize that everyone has weaknesses, that the Church has never recommended that you submit yourself wholly to any mere mortal? (Even a monastic abbot is elected by the community, and hedged by many external authorities; and the classic understanding of monastic obedience is external not internal -- one always has the right to question the abbot's judgment, and so ultimately to leave, in extreme cases.)

A perfect suburban Catholic sub-development always runs the risk that one of the six families you've built your entire world around might turn out bad. There are no communities of perfect people.

That's not to say we shouldn't have friends. We should. We must. But friendship should lead us outward, into society. We should seek a place where we can make friends, not a place where we are left alone, whether to our own devices (in perfect rural isolation), or to fallible human pastors, charismatic leaders, and friends.

Living in the city subjects my family to certain risks, against which I must protect them. I might stay away from some graffiti, and from certain neighbors. I certainly need to train my children to discern right from wrong (though I submit that the drug dealers and playground graffiti really aren't all that tantalizing, especially to someone who has any life at all).

But in the city, I have resources. In the city, I don't have to be friends with everyone I see. In the city we can turn away from certain bad influences and towards others. In any form of commune, one can only flee from one bad influence by fleeing one's entire life. I just don't see how that makes for a safe place to raise our children.