Don’t focus on the family

Here’s part one of U.S. Catholic magazine’s February 2010 interview with St. Louis University ethicist—and suburban mom—Julie Hanlon Rubio. Look for part two next week.

Julie Hanlon Rubio’s work as an ethicist at Saint Louis University has drawn directly from her real-life experience of trying to make the works of mercy and justice as central to her family as homework and sports. She felt oddly like a pioneer. Even while studying for her Ph.D., she says, “my professors were visibly not happy with me when I turned up pregnant once and then twice. It’s not what theologians do.” Hanlon Rubio begs to differ.

“I don’t know that we have many models—which is fine, really,” she says. Drawing from the marriage liturgy, sacramental theology, lay movements such as the Christian Family Movement, and adding Catholic social teaching on the family, Rubio stitched together her family ethics. “If I really believe that I am trying to form my kids as disciples,” she says, “then I have to ask: How does each activity contribute to that?”  Rubio is the author of Family Ethics: Practices for Christians (Georgetown, 2010) and A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family (Paulist, 2003)

You’ve said that typical suburban Catholic parents feel a certain emptiness in their lives. Why?

It comes out of my own experience of hearing that everyone is busy, which means that so many interactions are on the surface.

Many of my moments with other families are as we run past each other at games, at picnics, at all these different activities. So often people say that they lack the time to be with each other, to be at home with their kids or their spouse.

I hear, “We have these great friends, but we so rarely get a chance to see them.” Many married couples rarely have a date night: There’s no money for a baby-sitter, and after driving the kids everywhere all week, they’re tired.

It’s not that people are doing things that are bad or useless or selfish—they’re doing lots of really good things, but there’s a depth that seems to be lacking. A lot of people speak of something missing.

So where do we find resources in the Christian tradition to help guide the family? And what do we do with the parts of our tradition that say, go to the desert, sell all your possessions, leave your family?

I think we should listen to that stuff, actually. When students come to my class and they hear that Jesus says hate your family (Luke 14:26), they’re sure I’m making this up. It’s really important to wrestle with these sayings, to ponder how family can become an idol if it’s lived in a certain way.

How can family be an idol?

There is a real danger in putting all of your focus on the family, of putting all your energy there, especially for middle class families. We talk about helicopter parents and wanting your kids to have the best: These are highly prized cultural values. While I’m not so sure that we really put marriage first, as we sometimes claim, we certainly do put the kids and the house and the resources first.

That can really be a form of idolatry, and I think that’s what Jesus and the early Christians worried about. Can you get too caught up in family, so that you don’t have to think about what it actually means to be a disciple? Should I translate discipleship so fast into just doing everything for my family?

In Pope John Paul II’s theology, what’s really striking is the emphasis on marriage as a communion of love between two people which then moves outward. The same thing happens when we’re at Eucharist: There’s something that happens internally to us as a church community but then we’re supposed to go forth from that.

John Paul II is very explicit in his writing that it starts with love and usually children. But even if couples don’t have children, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a fruitful marriage. You can be spiritually fruitful if you’re not physically so. But he says you can’t stop there, because in a Christian marriage you go outward to serve society and serve the church. That’s our theology of marriage, but I don’t think we ever get past the first two parts, marriage and children.

So what should be the place of family?

We can think about our families as small Christian communities. We’re not just about getting the best house, education, jobs, but moving out into the world to do something about Matthew 25, “Lord, when did we see you hungry?”

How do we bring the works of mercy and justice to family life? For most people I think those are very disconnected. Some have that commitment, but maybe it’s just in how they vote or where they give their money. But in terms of how they actually live their family life, it’s not so much there.

My Italian immigrant grandparents had to put virtually all of their energy into family and had to sacrifice for that. In that context I realize what I’ve said sounds really odd. But two generations later many of us have more than enough, and now we can begin to think about how to expand beyond the family.

How can families pull this off?

There are some real choices to be made. In St. Louis, a big sports town, kids’ games are scheduled from Friday night until Sunday night, so if you have three or four kids, you could be going to games all weekend.

We started our kids a little bit later, even though everyone told us we had to start them on a sport by the time they were 4. We were very hesitant to do Sunday games, and we limited it to two teams total for the family at one time. That gave us some sanity over the weekends.

One of our family traditions is that we get a pizza and watch a movie together every Friday night. And we’ve been able to do some service, make it to church, and have dinner together. Those things were able to happen because we gave up on some of the other things that would have kept us too busy.

If I really believe that I am trying to form my kids as disciples, then I have to ask: How does each activity contribute to that? If so much energy is going to things that really aren’t forming us into being certain kinds of persons, then I’m not sure what we’re doing. Let’s really ask: What do I want to be? What do I want our marriage to be? What do I want my kids to be?

I notice that among my students, the ones who are really extraordinary in their faith as well as in their social justice commitments often come from families who have stepped off that busyness track. These kids have something in them that says, “I don’t really need to do all those things.” But there are no guarantees, right? There’s also the possibility your kids might totally rebel from that.

One of my sons has said to me, “I don’t like this whole simple lifestyle stuff. I really can’t stand it.” I say to him, “But you live the absolute simple life.” He’s worn the same pair of pants almost every single day to school because he likes them. He does not care about clothes.

I ask him, “Don’t you think it’s a good idea to have less stuff so you can give money away?” “Well yeah,” he says, “but I don’t like the simple lifestyle.”

What he really doesn’t like is the aesthetic: wood and candles and all that stuff that I love. He likes computers. But he doesn’t care about money or things. So I have to provide a way for him to think about living simply that doesn’t bring to mind candles or hippies with beards, but something that will work for him.

Can the parish help families with these questions?

If you ask people, “Do you have a lot of friends in your parish?” they’ll say no, not really. And people aren’t really dissatisfied with their parishes because they don’t want that much from the parish. We’ve got so many different communities we’re trying to be part of, with extended families who live far away, and your work, and his work, and kids’ schools. There are so many different groups that it’s hard to invest.            …continued next week. Used with permission from U.S. Catholic magazine, published by Claretian Publications.

At Home with Our Faith is Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home, winner of the 2010 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.

We offer very low rates for parish use, as well as our free Moms’ Night Out monthly discussion guides.

And don’t miss our popular single-page parish handouts on handing on the faith, helping kids understand the Mass, Lent, and Advent.

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