Detachment Parenting

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My family didn’t decide to become Christmas-and-Easter Catholics. Like any transformation of regular habits, it was slow enough that there was no noticeable rupture—no moment when it felt like our lives had substantially changed. In every present moment, everything felt normal; only in retrospect was it clear how different “normal” had become.

It began with the simple notion that we could skip Mass if we were throwing a party on Saturday evening. Party preparations occupied our normal Mass time, and then clean-up and recovery occupied (so we said) Sunday. Surely God would understand.

Of course, once we had abandoned the principle that weekly Mass was obligatory it took less and less pressure on our weekend schedule to overwrite religious concerns. Soon enough the default option had shifted and the weekend had to be particularly free for us to accommodate Mass. And by the time I went off to college we had retreated all the way to biannual Mass-going.

I returned to the sacraments in college—how that came to pass is a story for another time—and since then I have been blessed to go continually deeper into the intellectual, liturgical, and experiential tradition of the Catholic Church. This journey hasn’t been without detours and there have been moments of uncertainty, but I know that I understand what it means to be Catholic, in a comprehensive way, more than I did in those honeymoon months—and I have a lifetime of journeying to go.

It is in this context that I have also undergone a political transformation—or, I prefer to think, an awakening to ways of thinking about our common life that are more conducive to what I’ve always valued most: family, tradition, virtue. This has meant a reevaluation of the ideology and practice of capitalism and of political liberalism more generally; it has meant stepping away from the prevailing orthodoxies of American politics; and it has therefore meant getting accustomed to experimenting with ideas, especially about the proper role of the Church in civil affairs, that are considered radical and even contemptible by mainstream Americans.

Needless to say, this political exploration has been informed by the treasury that is the Catholic tradition of political and social thought. But it has also been informed—and here is what I would like to stress—by the experience of family life. My wife and I have been blessed with three children, aged four years to ten months, and I’ve found that considering their futures has only confirmed my interest in abandoning mainstream political thinking.

The popular expectation, of course, is that fatherhood reorients men away from the abstract and toward the concrete. The gauzy ideals of youth fade into the hard realities of managing family life—earning paychecks (we are to fixate on this), paying taxes (we are to hate this), saving for college (we are to be frightened by this), and so on. Heretofore underappreciated social values—stability, order, opportunity—rise to prominence in fatherhood as dads regard with apprehension the roles their children will play in society.

In short, dads are supposed to become more conservative, at least in the American sense of that word: more committed to sustaining the enlightened liberalism of the Founders, more invested in the efficient functioning of capitalism, and more suspicious of immoderation, instability, and extra-procedural political agitation of any kind. All of this is said to be the inevitable result of the natural concern a father has for his children’s future; it is, we are told, the mature political disposition.

Let’s briefly observe here that fatherhood is not a mystical force that gives one special insights into political economy. There is no “Dad Gnosis” that reveals the supremacy of Burkeanism. All the ideas mentioned above should rise and fall on their own reasonableness, not paternal authority; attempts to marshal that authority in discourse are merely attempts to obscure one’s substantive claims about politics, economics, and the common good.

Now, it would be foolish to claim that fatherhood changes nothing about how a man views the world. But that experience is just as likely to obscure certain truths about political economy as it is to reveal them. For instance, having a family of one’s own likely makes it harder to internalize the Thomistic view, articulated most famously by Charles de Koninck, that the common good of more universal communities is a more perfect good than that of less universal communities, including the family. Beautifully, however, these goods do not conflict, but rather build each other up. Contrast this with the prevailing notion, among not just political conservatives but most moderns, that the good of the family is both superior to and in conflict with the good of the larger community. While this stance is certainly connected with the experience of responsibility for little souls, it is also deeply ideological, not to mention wrong.

But I hadn’t yet read de Koninck when it became clear that fatherhood was radicalizing me rather than moderating me. The reason for that goes back to my memories of losing the habit of weekly Mass, of spending years away, of then slowly reacquiring the habit, of receiving the Eucharist improperly because I was too embarrassed not to but also too embarrassed to go to Confession, and then of finally being reinstated in the friendship of God. I now reevaluate my own biography in terms of that long detour: For instance, my warm memories of high school, which are surprisingly numerous, are now darkened by the knowledge that those years marked the nadir of my faith.

I could name any number of vices that proliferated in my self-imposed exile from the Church, but the most important corruption of character that wedged me away from the Church and inhibited my return was attachment—to worldly goods, to worldly success, and, most poignantly, to worldly respect. We first stopped practicing the faith in order to accommodate worldly concerns; in high school I harangued an Evangelical friend for his unashamed belief in Christ knowing I would benefit socially from distinguishing myself from him; and even as I returned to Mass I couldn’t bear simply to pray silently during Communion for fear of being seen as a Public Sinner.

While we focus—and rightly so—on the challenges posed by our sexual culture, attachment may be the distinctive antagonist of faithfulness in the modern world. Its corrosion is quiet and subtle, but if left alone it will eventually leave behind nothing but a worldly void; it always reminds us of the costs of holiness, and in so doing raises them. Further, attachment often underlies the more spectacular vices with which we do battle.

And so when I think about my children’s future, I can’t be made to care very much whether the economic and political situation will be conducive to their material thriving. I say this first of all because there is next to nothing meaningful I can do to arrange the future of political economy, but more importantly because, in the order of salvation, their worldly success is really quite low on my list of responsibilities. I have seen how quickly and diabolically even a moderate attachment to worldly concerns erodes the deposit of faith in the formative years, and I know how lucky and blessed I was to find myself in a situation, ordained by God, that pulled me home. It very well might have been otherwise.

My fatherly duty isn’t to get my children into good colleges or to prepare them for the “modern economy,” but to get them into heaven. In a civilization more devoted every day to Moloch and mammon, those aims are increasingly at odds with one another. But even when they do not conflict, I remember the way attachment works; I remember how it begins with pursuing worldly goods that are often truly good, or at least not in direct conflict with sanctification; and I remember how this apparently benign attempt to accommodate our worldly reality metastasizes beyond our designs or control.

And so my view is that I will prepare my children best for an increasingly corrupted culture by focusing on passing down the Faith without compromise. I will do what I can to set them up to succeed in a society and an economy that change every day and increasingly disdain the needs and dignity of actual human beings, but my aim is to leave absolutely no doubt about the hierarchy of goods in the order of salvation. I would rather see them poor and powerless than successful and damned, and they should never for a moment think otherwise.

Therefore I see no reason to accommodate the Faith to liberalism—to mute the Church’s claims to universal authority, to downplay the most inconvenient aspects of Her social teaching, to form compromising alliances for the sake of power in the present order. Even if this could all be accomplished shrewdly through emphases and implications without sacrificing an iota of the substance of the Faith, it would still be doubtlessly an accommodation that contains the seed of attachment. It teaches those being formed in the Faith, especially young people, that part of being Catholic is not getting too crosswise with the prevailing order; but whatever goods may emerge from that disposition in liberty and power, they are not worth the cost in faithfulness. The forbearance of a hostile order is of little value if the price is the authenticity of our witness.

I don’t blame my parents for the loss of faithfulness that marked my teenage years. I don’t just say this out of filial piety; American Catholicism, both institutionally and among the laity, has downplayed or outright denied dissonance between the Church and the world for at least the past few generations. To the extent this was ever tenable, it certainly is not any longer. Once we become accustomed to a degree of worldly attachment—often with at least implied official sanction—we naturally follow the world when its wisdom departs from the Church’s. My story is, therefore, not just a personal one, but the story of the Church across the West, and especially in America.

The way out is to embrace the radicalism of Christ wherever it leads. Nothing has convinced me of this more than the weight of the responsibility of fatherhood.

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]

Brandon McGinley

Brandon McGinley is a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in print in National Review, The Human Life Review, the Catholic Herald, the Scottish Catholic Observer, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and online at First Things, Public Discourse, and The Week, among other venues. He has also contributed to and edited books for Our Sunday Visitor Catholic publishers. Brandon and his wife, Katie, have three young children.