Parents and the Law of Love

A rules-first approach to Faith can lead to rebellion as children mature

Article from Catholic Answers Online Magazine by Michael and Alicia Hernon

This summer we had the great pleasure of speaking to hundreds of Catholic families at five different Catholic family camps. During our Q&A sessions, the most common questions we received were from parents concerned about their children’s faith. How can we be sure that we are passing on our Catholic Faith to our children? How can we prevent our kids from leaving the Faith? What do I do if my child starts to question the Faith?

Really there are two issues at hand in these questions. First, parents want to know the best way to give witness to the Gospel to their children. Second, they want to know how to motivate their child to choose what is right.

Should we just focus on making sure our children know the Catholic faith? Should we let our preteen or teen children know that we won’t attend their wedding if they marry outside the Church, or that we will never visit them if they choose to cohabitate? Should we tell them they will have to leave the home if they no longer want to go to Mass? Will it “prove” to our children that we love the Faith if we threaten them with these future actions?

The problem with this approach is not that it expects too much of parents—it’s that it expects too little.

Though adhering to the truth is necessary to give witness to the Faith, parents need to go beyond that. Christ taught that witnessing to the Gospel does not merely mean explaining the law. That is how the Pharisees thought! They followed the law, but they did not have love. St. Paul warns us the law alone is insufficient. “if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.” (I Cor 13:2). Without love, truth is impeded.

A 2014 study entitled “Understanding Former Young Catholics” found that emotional closeness with parents, especially fathers, is a powerful indicator of whether or not a child will remain in the faith. Bonding with your child goes a long way in sharing the truth with them.

Our children should know instinctively that we would never support their sin because we love them. We want them to be holy. How do we follow the path to holiness? By following the law that Christ has given us through His Church. But rules without relationship breed rebellion. Children do need to know the truth, but if a parent lives the law without love, it is worthless and may actually do more harm than good.

By loving our children, we are preparing their hearts and nurturing their longing for a relationship with God. It is this relationship that will help them follow the moral law. The love we have for our children is only a shadow of the love that God, their heavenly Father, has for them. Ultimately, it is their relationship with him that will motivate them to choose the good and that should be the goal of every Catholic parent.

Here’s another way to think of it: “Your law is my delight,” says King David in Psalm 119:24. David didn’t love the law because it made him right: he delighted in the law because it brought him to God. The Catholic faith should be our delight because it brings us to Christ, our joy! If you aren’t enjoying being Catholic, how will it be attractive to your children?

I asked my thirteen-year-old son why he goes to Mass. He didn’t say, “Because it’s a mortal sin to miss Mass,” though he knows it is. He didn’t say, “Because you want me to go,” though I do. He said, “Because I want to be with Jesus.” That is the answer faithful parents want to hear, and we won’t get that answer by simply telling our kids that living with us is contingent upon their attendance at Mass. We need to show them Jesus. We need to help them develop a relationship with the God who is truly present to them under the appearance of bread and wine, and from whom they will never want to be separated.

Some day we will leave this earth, and our children will not have a parent who will be there to be absent from their non-Catholic wedding, or keep them at arm’s length if they don’t attend Mass, or disapprove of their sinful lifestyle. What will they do then? What is their motivation to do the right thing at the end of the day? It certainly can’t be us.

Even when no one is watching, they need to know that their relationship with Christ is the most precious relationship they have. Nourishing that relationship through prayer and example will go much farther than instilling in children fear of our displeasure. If there is any fear in their soul, we want it to be a fear of separating themselves from Christ. We want the cry of their heart to be, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of everlasting life. (John 6:68)”

And if you have a child who has left the faith, make sure you communicate clearly and consistently that you will not only always love them, but that you will do all you can to stay in relationship with them.  Resist giving unsolicited advice. It will fall on deaf ears. By the time your children are adults, they should know what you believe. If an adult child is following the laws of the Church only to please you, that is not a winning strategy. Very often parents need to step back and allow others to speak truth to your children. Pray that others come into their lives to speak truth to them. If the adult children get to a point where they want to know the truth, they will know where to find you. And if they feel loved and unjudged by you, and if your relationship is intact, they will come to you for help when they need it.

If you are a young parent who is in the midst of forming relationships with your children and teaching them the faith, we would dissuade you from making your first line of defense “Do the right thing or here are the consequences!” Lead with love. First, love God personally and passionately—make him your delight. Next, show your children by your example how much you love Christ. Then, do your best to love them as God loves them—individually and intimately. Create a space in their heart for Him. As you do this, you will be showing them that the path to God has been articulated by Mother Church. She shows us how to please God, how to live in harmony with others, and how to live for eternity with Him.