Christ and Culture: First Communion Stories

My head was encased in fog. I sat in my sister's living room the Pacific Northwest with a cup of homemade Starbucks coffee, and it wasn't doing the trick. I had to get on a plane back to the Midwest in a few hours, after attending my niece's first communion ceremony the day before.This was a Sunday morning last May --and my fog head was understandable, if not justified. First communion season comes in the middle of final exam season. I was trying to remember what was waiting for me when I got back to work.But the first communicant wandered out of the kitchen to talk to me. No small talk for her--she was wide awake and ready to discuss complicated things. "Aunt Cathy," she said, "why do some people not go to church any more?" By this she meant people we both know--family members--who moved heaven and earth to get to her first communion, but who don't go to church every week.

What to say? How do you describe disappointment, loss of heart, due to recent troubles in the church, yet some enduring sense of connection to the institution to an eight-year-old? My brain still wasn't processing very well--I am completely convinced (without any evidence) that Starbucks puts the real caffeine in the store-brewed coffee--not in the bags they sell you to take home.So I took a stab--not the best answer, but I wasn't prepared for the pop quiz: "Well, you know how when someone you care about does something that hurts you--or that you really think isn't right--you stay away from them for a while? Well, they feel that way about church. They're staying away for a while. But they'll be back. Everyone will make up.""What did the church do that they don't like?"Darn. A logical follow-up question. Maybe she'll be a lawyer.What should I say? Sex abuse, of course, immediately came to mind. But I didn't want to talk to her about that. In fact, I hoped she didn't know anything about it. I thought I'd stay with something obvious and age appropriate. "Well, some people think the church is wrong in saying women can't be priests. . ."I was totally unprepared for the wave of righteous indignation that hit me. The restriction of the Roman Catholic priesthood to the male sex was news to her--and it wasn't good news."WHAT. . . . WOMEN CAN'T BE PRIESTS? Really? . . . . Why CAN'T women be priests? . . . That's NOT FAIR. . .WHY? "I stumbled around my fog head. What to say, where to start? How do you communicate the stated reasons, the critique, the response, etc. --how do you explain the issue-- to a little girl who just made her first communion the previous day--and who was shocked that women can't be priests?I'm not proud of what I did next. But maybe it was a divine reprieve.I heard the front door opening. I said, "Ooh, there's your uncle. . . . he's back with Starbucks. . . . go see if he brought you some vanilla milk. And maybe he got you a scone, too. And tell him Aunt Cathy needs her venti NOW."She was off. Thank God for vanilla milk.Reflecting on this incident now, what strikes me isn't the arguments--it's the assumptions. It's what the default option is in the middle of the silences. I am positive that no one told my niece that women could be priests. She certainly didn't see a woman priest at her parish. My guess is that she just assumed there was one, in the next parish, down the road.It's not that this child has been raised in a gender-neutral fashion, mind you. I happen to believe that the Duchess of Cambridge had to postpone the royal wedding because my niece has a monopoly on all the really good princess gear. It's just that she doesn't see the incompatibility between liking princess gear now and doing what she wants to do later. She knows women and men lawyers, women and men doctors, women and men social workers, women and men who take primary responsibility for caring for children, women and men Montessori teachers--it would be a logical inference that there were women and men priests too.When I was growing up, the accomplishments of women were milestones. Sally Ride--the first woman astronaut. Sandra Day O'Connor--the first woman on the Supreme Court. I did not know a woman doctor, or a woman lawyer. Women were just starting to join the workforce in great numbers. The assumption in the silences was that women might not be allowed to do certain jobs. Now, those barriers are broken. The head of the IMF is a woman. The Secretary of State is a woman. The chancellor of Germany is a woman. A woman candidate on the Supreme Court isn't news any more.The Church has said that Catholics ought not to discuss the issue of women priests, thinking that will make it go away. I think it's more complicated than that. I think that maintaining the intelligibility of the prohibition will, in fact, require, a lot of discussion, a lot of inculcation, and a lot of social reinforcement, precisely because the default options in the culture have progressed so far the other way.I was reminded of this incident when I read Valerie Schultz's article in America, "Raised on Faith: My Adult Children, are Kind, Smart, and Justice-Oriented. But They Are Not Practicing Catholics."

Two key quotations, to encourage you all (1) to renew your subscription to Commonweal, and (2) to get a subscription to America:I was curious about the experiences of other Catholic parents who had endeavored to raise their childrennow adultsto embrace the teachings of social justice. As replies arrived, I discovered an unexpected common thread running through their responses. As one succinctly put it: I believe I failed at raising an adult Catholic.As I listened, it occurred to me that by educating our children so well in social justice, we may have unwittingly made it infinitely more difficult for them to go along with a church they see as hypocritical or as concerned with image over substance. The more passionate our childrens belief in social justice, the less tolerant they are of institutional posturing and inaction. Their lived experiences in their neighborhood parishes do not easily match up with the social teachings of Jesus.So here's the hard question: Is it possible to raise a "peace and justice" oriented Catholic any more? Or do some of the so-called "conservatives" have it right? Is the only way to keep kids Catholic to keep them in a "distinctively Catholic" bubble, reshaping from the beginning their default sensibilities about what is just and not just?What do you all think? In the meantime, I'm going to get another Starbucks.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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