Being A Bishop Also Requires Being A Parent

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Catholic bishops are gathering in Rome this month for the Synod on Young People, and I don’t know what to expect.

It is no secret that fewer young people are attending church. But how will the bishops respond? By all means, find ways to welcome the youth. But do not dilute the message. 

Ask any good parent. You use different ways to reach your kids. But your expectations of their behavior are still high. Right is still right. Wrong is still wrong. Truth remains.

During the Synod, I worry about touchy-feely sentiments winning out over rock solid truth. That may be over-simplification but when a rational voice like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia expresses concern, I’m concerned. 

Chaput, in a First Things article, allows another theologian to outline the concerns. As Chaput states, the intent of the Synod is applaudable. It’s the content that brings angst. Church teaching may not be popular among many youths, but clarity is needed, not dilution.

Do we hold the bar high, expressing the immense joy of living an honest life well?

Or do we even bother with the bar, instead emphasizing emotions and ill-formed consciences?

I know the easy way is to use terms like listening, dialogue, and what young people want. That’s wonderful, but is that all?

As Chaput’s theologian friend states:

“There is much discussion about what young people want; little about how these wants must be transformed by grace in a life that conforms to God’s will for their lives.”

While the bishops listen to the youth, may I offer one request for Holy Mother Church:

Can you be the parent in the room?

Because someone must be, you know, in charge.

From where I sit – as a father of nine, a high school teacher, and worker in parish youth ministry – I’m all about listening to the kids.

But they need to be taught. They need the truth. They need the real Catholic Church – the one built on the faith and sacrifice of the martyrs, perpetuated with both instruction and compassion from its leaders, and safeguarded by the Holy Spirit.

I listen to my children and my students. But I also teach them. It would be so easy to wash my hands of discipline and say, “do what you feel is right” (The working document for the Synod makes a reference to one’s “personal form of holiness”; a vague notion that borders on relativism.)

Relativism is easy for parents. Discipline requires work.

May I suggest one more bit of reading for the bishops. It’s the book The Epidemic by child and family psychiatrist Robert Shaw.

Actually, the whole title is:

“The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children.”

Did you catch those two words:  joyless and selfish? Of course, you’d expect a complaint about the selfish kids of today.

But joyless?

Dr. Shaw’s contention is that parents are no longer parenting, establishing standards for their children … and they are miserable because of it.

Imagine that, Holy Mother Church. Our youth actually want discipline. They just may not express that directly.

Certainly, there are youth that believe they know better than 2,000 years of Church teaching based on divine revelation, apostolic tradition, and natural reason. They have been enabled by faulty adults – who listen and dialogue, but do not teach a lasting truth. They fear making judgments – and, indeed, no one can judge an individual’s dignity – but offer complete nonjudgmentalism, which leads to ignorance of right and wrong.

Polls will show that youth disagree with the Church about several issues:  premarital sex, contraception, and same-sex marriage, to name a few. The media is dominant on these issues and the Church cannot compete with an adversarial media. It can improve its teaching methods, finding better ways to evangelize (see Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire movement), especially with our youth.

By all means, Holy Mother Church, listen, dialogue, and accompany.

But, in the end, teach. Ignore the polls and the feelings, and be the parent in the room.

The Church brings a message that is disciplined, but also one of everlasting joy. Why offer anything less?


Kevin Thomas is a writer and teacher living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.