In a recent washingtonpost.com article titled “Catholic Girls Gone Wild?” (March 1, 2010) Patrick J. Reilly, president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, reported a disturbing trend among women attending Catholic colleges. It seems that statistics on the casual “hook up” – sex without any expectation of a relationship – are rising among women at Catholic campuses.
Reilly wrote, “Researchers from Mississippi State University considered a survey of 1,000 college students nationwide and were surprised to find that ‘women attending colleges and universities affiliated with the Catholic Church are almost four times as likely to have participated in ‘hooking up’ compared to women at secular schools.'”
Why should this be the case? Broadening the question, why is it that so many young people raised in Catholic homes end up throwing their morals away when they reach college? I’m sure there are many factors. One major one, I believe, is the way many of these young people have been raised to think of the Catholic faith, especially concerning the topics of human freedom and human sexuality.
The Church has a glorious and incredibly joyful song to sing to the world about freedom and love (it is known as the Song of Songs!). But, in my experience with Catholic audiences around the world, it is easy to observe that few Catholics are “in tune” with this joyful song. Understandably. As anyone who attempts to sing with the Church can attest, it ain’t easy. In our attempts to hit the right notes, we often go sharp or flat.
On the “flat” side, we have countless adult Catholics who were not raised with correct Catholic teaching at all, other than perhaps to scorn it. They usually grow up embracing a “do what you will” moral relativism. On the “sharp” side, however, we have a great many Catholics who may have received “technically correct” teaching, but in a very dry, sterile and imposing way. The “flat” way promotes freedom without respect for truth. But the “sharp” way promotes truth without respect for freedom.
Respect for the freedom of the person in religious and moral matters – by this we mean not imposing the good by force, but proposing it in its full beauty and inviting others to embrace it – is a key teaching of the Catholic Church (see “Freedom” in the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
As I wrote in my book “Theology of the Body Explained” (Pauline): “How often have children educated in the faith rejected it as adults because their teachers – whether parents, pastors, or others – tended to impose religion upon them without respect for and education in authentic human freedom? Freedom must be challenged to submit itself to truth, but no one can be forced to accept the truth without doing violence to the dignity of the person.”
In the case of raising children in the faith, it is certainly proper for parents to provide structures and rules for their children in helping them make moral decisions. However, as Pope Benedict XVI makes clear in his encyclical “Spe Salvi” (“Saved in Hope”) moral decisions “can never simply be made for us in advance by others – if that were the case, we would no longer be free.” Moral well-being “can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are. Such structures are not only important, but necessary; yet they cannot and must not marginalize human freedom” (24).
Parents have the delicate task, especially in the teen years, of learning how to honor their children’s freedom – even when they choose wrongly. As John Paul II stated, “[P]eople have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them” (cited by George Weigel in “Witness to Hope,” p. 533).
When we impose the good without respect for and education in authentic freedom, we actually contribute to the dynamic of rebellion in our children that often leads to college “wildness.” This is why the Pontifical Council for the Family calls parents to “recognize the fragment of truth that may be present in some forms of [their children’s] rebellion” (“Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality.'”
Educating our children in the moral vision of the Church is not about imposing rules upon them. If this is our approach, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that when the cat’s away, the mice will play. Rather, we should be teaching our children the full splendor of the Church’s love song. When we do this, the Church’s teaching doesn’t need to be imposed. We naturally long to join in the glorious music.
Christopher West is a Catholic author and speaker. He is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in Exton.