Thursday, March 31, 2011

The ghetto or the Benedict Option?

Well, I'm back!

I read today this blogger's denunciation of the Catholic ghetto mentality, and her rejection of the same. Her post got me thinking about to what extent I disagree with her assessment, and why.

In the first place, I'd like to make it clear that I don't entirely disagree. I've met Catholics who play the "my ghetto is purer and holier and more authentically Catholic than your ghetto" game, and that quickly gets tiresome and obnoxious. Naming no names, I will simply mention a time when a bright, sweet young Catholic homeschooling girl I know was rejected as a friend by another such girl because the first Catholic girl wears slacks and couldn't name a specific family devotion her family always enjoys, and the second girl was skirts-only and praised the daily family rosary as a sort of high point of her life. Of course, that second girl would be quickly put in her place and rejected in her turn by another such girl whose family made daily Mass and the daily rosary indispensable habits and abhorred short-sleeved shirts; but you see what I mean. There is nothing charitable or kind or good about that sort of conduct, and to the extent such Catholics withdraw to their particular ghettos--well, I won't be chasing after any of them and begging to be admitted.

But this begins to be complicated when we start seeing, as the alternative, a full immersion into a completely secular life. The question of whether one's children should play with the neighbor children, for instance, gets brought up a lot in these conversations--and my answer is: it depends on the neighbor children! Most of our neighborhood kids in our girls' age ranges are boys, and while I used to let the girls play with them on occasion I got rather tired of the potty-mouth, disrespectful, name-calling behavior--and so, frankly, did my girls, who knowing other children their ages (yes, home-schooled children) who are polite and friendly and will take it seriously when an adult says something like "I'd really rather you didn't ride back and forth across the street without checking for traffic," (and even say, "Gosh, sorry, Mrs. M!") were not much inclined to want to keep playing with the neighbor boys. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to force my children to play with kids whose bratty bad behavior alternately embarrasses and puzzles them--and if that's a ghetto mentality, then so be it.

On the other hand, I've known people who live in neighborhoods where the children all come from intact homes with happily married parents who are as much sticklers for discipline and good behavior as any home-schooling mom, who can let their kids run free to their hearts' content without any worries. That's great--but is that a reason to judge the parents who won't let their children play over at the house where the divorced dad and his current girlfriend have no qualms about getting into noisy fights in front of their own children/stepchildren and any friends that might be over to play? I think we're all inclined to presume that all neighborhoods are the same, that all neighbor kids are the same, and that any parents who won't let their children play with anybody who happens to live in the general vicinity must be those "ghetto Catholics" who think nobody is good enough, or who judge other families by the size of the Sacred Heart or Padre Pio picture in the living room.

But in some neighborhoods you'll find kids like these:

A federal lawsuit filed Monday in Dallas accuses the Joshua school district and several school officials of violating the civil rights of 13-year-old Jon Carmichael by ignoring repeated acts of bullying against him along with his pleas for help in the days leading up to his suicide.

The suit was filed by Carmichael's parents on the first anniversary of his death and seeks damages and compensation for his estate and heirs.

Carmichael was a student at Joshua's Loflin Middle School, where the suit states that he was repeatedly bullied.

School employees failed to intervene when he was bullied in physical education class and when he was thrown into a Dumpster, the lawsuit alleges. In another incident, students saw -- but did not report -- that his head was placed upside down in a toilet and "flushed several times," it says.

Perhaps the most serious allegation involves one bullying incident that was posted on the Internet.

"Just prior to his death, he was stripped nude, tied up and again placed into a trashcan," the lawsuit says. "The event was videotaped, put on YouTube but was later taken down, at the direction of an unknown staff member, who also failed to report the incident."

On the day he died, the lawsuit states, Carmichael told another student that he was prepared to commit suicide and the girl told him to "do it, that no one cared."

I don' t know if it makes me an evil Catholic ghetto parent or not, but there's no way my girls are ever going to play with that girl.

Here's the problem: we have such a fractured, broken, dysfunctional culture. Public schools produce absolute gems like our choir's young pianist, who is now in college, and who couldn't possibly be a nicer young man; they also produce the kids who egged on young Mr. Carmichael to take his own life. Catholic schools are no different. And even among home schooling families you may find secret dysfunctions--or, simply, obnoxious or spoiled children who've never been taught to behave.

Because our whole culture is broken, you aren't going to find towns or communities untouched by violence, drug use, sexual misconduct among adults and abuse among children; you aren't going to know families left unscarred by the ravages of divorce and the numerous dysfunctional arrangements in which children are raised, many of them rather haphazardly; you aren't going to be secure, as a parent, in the knowledge that this church group or that school activity or the other community opportunity is really going to be a positive and safe experience for your child; you aren't going to escape the brokenness. I think, as a parent, that parents have two choices in the face of this reality: we can gradually prepare our children for our culture's sheer mind-boggling level of total dysfunction, while grounding them firmly in the positive culture of our ancient faith--or we can throw them into the dysfunction while they're still young and hope they keep their heads above the muddied waters long enough not to drown in them.

The would-be-third option, the "Catholic ghetto" option, isn't really workable. But what Rod Dreher used to call the Benedict Option may be: we may be able to form intentional communities centered around our faith where as parents we share the goal of forming our children and arming them against the culture, instead of surrendering them to it.

I'm not convinced that the Benedict Option communities Rod talked about have to be physical places, either. I think that the Catholic blogosphere has started to become something of an intentional community in its own right, in that people choose to belong to it, seek those aspects of it which strengthen their faith and help them in their vocations, and prepare them for secular attitudes and challenges that might once have caught them off guard (because forewarned is forearmed, as they say). I'm sure that other religious groups have found virtual community on the Web as well, and I see that as a good thing.

The point is that seeking a community of like-minded people is not necessarily the same thing as withdrawing to a ghetto, just as refusing certain kinds of social interactions which take us too much into the mess that is our culture (such as believing that all neighbor kids are equally appropriate playmates for all of our children) is not necessarily withdrawing into a ghetto. We're all called to be in the world, but not of it; how we figure this out may differ widely from family to family, but no one option (probably, alas, not even the Benedict Option) is going to be the best option for all.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

I didn't know Catholics still lived in ghettoes any more. I grew up surrounded by them. There was a time, in this neck of the woods, when German Catholic parents warned their children not to play with German Lutheran students, and vice versa, but that's pretty much over too. And Catholics are doing this to each other?

The incidents described are not "bullying." They are assault, battery, and mayhem, and, albeit under juvenile law, should be prosecuted as such. I didn't see any reference to the girl who said "nobody cares" being Catholic.

Teresa said...

"We may be able to form intentional communities centered around our faith where as parents we share the goal of forming our children and arming them against the culture, instead of surrendering them to it."

Are you familiar with the Apostolate for Family Consecration, Erin? It's exactly what you're talking about, with a huge emphasis on continuing adult formation as well (which sets an example of lifelong formation for the children in these families).

Erin said...

Where are you guys even finding these Catholic ghettoes? I WISH I had this problem...100% of my close friends are secular/liberal. The nominally Catholic folks in my neighborhood don't seem to really take their faith seriously, and when I go to Faith Formation events at my parish, it's always me and two dozen little old ladies.

I am starving for Catholic community. I wish I could find a Catholic ghetto to join! :(

Anonymous said...

Siarlys, decades ago in my home state, German Lutherans and Norwegian Lutherans were suspicious of each other - as Garrison Keillor regularly documents.

I'm really not sure I get the point of this point, Red.

"The point is that seeking a community of like-minded people.."

Some people just call a community of like-minded people "friends." It's no big deal. Even secular liberal humanists prefer to hang out with people they feel comfortable with.

"... (such as believing that all neighbor kids are equally appropriate playmates for all of our children)"

Okay, I'm stumped. What responsible parent has ever believed that? I grew up in the allegedly-family-friendly 50s and early 60s, and our parents were careful about who we played with. We all knew which people, yards and houses to stay away from.

Society has always been broken. There is no Eden in our past.


Red Cardigan said...

Elizabeth, the point is that when your parents were careful about whom you played with, nobody pretended they were being "holier-than-thou" or wrong to do so (at least, that's my parents' experience of those times).

Today, there's a divide in the Catholic community between those who still think that sort of caution is appropriate, and those who rail against it. If you read the blog I linked to, the blogger is saying that restricting your kids from playing with the neighbor kids or taking part in certain secular activities is a "Catholic ghetto" mindset, presumably driven by Catholic homeschoolers who don't want to "mix" with others.

I make no pretense: I picked homeschooling because I see our culture as horrifically dysfunctional and didn't want my kids immersed in it until after they'd had time to assimilate our family's values. But that doesn't mean I shun every social interaction that doesn't involve like-minded homeschoolers, either. I'm arguing, here, for a middle ground between total cultural immersion and "ghetto" separation.

Does that help?

Anonymous said...

It does, thanks.

JMB said...

I don't think anyone is arguing for total immersion in one way or another. Most of us walk a middle ground and I'm sure all of us understand that our children are born with Original Sin and they will sin, make mistakes and screw up in this life whether we protect them or not.

Carrie said...

Bravo, Red! I'm so glad you brought this up. This is something dear to my heart; I would give anything to find like-minded Catholics in the new state we have recently moved to so I can raise my son and, God-willing, any future children we have in that atmosphere, with those sorts of people. I don't advocate "living in a bubble," which I suppose is what the blogger in the link you gave calls the "Catholic ghetto," but I sure as Heaven am going to raise my kids in a devoutly Catholic home, and encourage friendships with devoutly Catholic kids. And yes, while all their friends certainly don't have to be Catholic, there are certain behaviors I will expect in their friends, and there will be kids I won't let them play with. That's not "Catholic ghetto," that's responsible parenting.

As Catholics, we're called to be "counter-cultural," most ESPECIALLY in today's world where we live in the culture of death. If that means I have to retreat to a "Catholic ghetto," fine. I'm willing to do that in order to ensure the salvation of my family. But I don't think I have to resort to that; I think the viable option here is the "Benedict Option," like you mentioned: "forming our children and arming them against the culture, instead of surrendering them to it." This, I would hope, is the goal of every Catholic parent, and I'm definitely going to do all I can to raise my kids alongside people who feel the same way.

Now if only I could FIND those people ... !

Charlotte said...

Thanks for linking and further discussion.

1. "But this begins to be complicated when we start seeing, as the alternative, a full immersion into a completely secular life."

No where, at any place in my blog post, did I advocate for a full head-dive into secularism.

2. "...but I'm not going to force my children to play with kids whose bratty bad behavior alternately embarrasses and puzzles them--and if that's a ghetto mentality, then so be it."

I didn't advocate for forcing kids to play with anyone. (Even though that DOES happen in the "Catholic Ghetto" when some Catholic kids are restricted from playing with anyone but other approved Catholic kids, even if they can't stand each other.) I was rather explaining in a roundabout way that Christian witness is needed and can be provided (within reason) by children to other children, especially within the wider context of Christian children AND their families taken together as a whole. For example, not just the Christian and non-Christian kids in the neighborhood playing with one another, but also the non-Christian kid being invited over for dinner by the Christian family once in awhile.

3. I find it interesting that you focus so much attention here on children and parenting issues. Not that I didn't bring these issues up in my blog post - I did. But what I was speaking of is much, much bigger than protection of our children. The "Catholic Ghetto" is a "place" where people of all ages "live."

Overall, I believe the "Catholic Ghetto" is, specifically, a MINDSET. I'm slightly entertained that some of the commenters here are asking for/wishing for the real thing - trying to find PEOPLE and PLACES that are overtly Catholic, while my main concern is the thinking, beliefs, and behaviors that indicate a "Catholic Ghetto" worldview. Maybe I didn't do a good job of communicating that, but I can assure everyone that my issue is about the thoughts/actions - not a real place or real community of Catholics. I am 100% convinced that many Catholics who "live" in the "Catholic Ghetto" live there all by themselves.

Laurinda said...

I know it is a mindset, but that doesn't take from the idea that many people would like to have a real-life Catholic ghetto available to join! (In the best sense of the phrase, of course)

I think you have to create your own! I don't know how hard it is in all places but in liberal, crazy Austin, Texas there are great groups of Catholic families who homeschool or send kids to Catholic or public schools but they socialize together and have parties based on the liturgical year (Like a celebration on Pentecost and feast days, etc.) and teach their kids about the Catholic faith and have other families who's kids also know these things. It is amazing! Although my husband and I are not blessed with children, yet, these families embrace us and look forward to helping us when we do add to our family.

And as "young adults" we are bridging the gap between our single/engaged/newly married friends and these families so they know they have resources available to them as their lives unfold.

My husband and I understand the Catholic ghetto mindset and we come from very secular backgrounds and still are friends with non-Catholics as long as they are tolerant of our faith and of our home and seeing all of our religious objects that we decorate with and don't mind saying grace before meals. But, with the free time that we have, we have the most fun and feel like we are living our faiths by spending that time with Catholics so we can discuss issues like this "ghetto", and pro-life news, diocesan news, news of the pope, great Catholic books to read, NFP, etc.

And half the time, we just play games, watch movies and grill out together without necessarily discussing anything Catholic. But we know that if someone said, "hey, after we finish this, anyone want to stay and pray the Rosary?" No one would find that odd or surprising in the least. It is a great comfort to me and I thank God every day for this life that I am blessed with and that I do the best I can to follow His will with the gifts He has given me.

God bless you all and thank you for these great blog articles!