Cardinal Pell: No Parent Should Fail to Teach Christ's Core Teachings

Here below is the full text of a keynote speech given by Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, to the Rome Life Forum on 9th Mary.

The annual meeting was this year co-sponsored by Associazione Famiglia Domani, Family Life International New Zealand, Human Life International, LifeSiteNews, and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.


Parents as the best teachers of their children

by H.E. Cardinal George Pell


The story is told of a rich American family who decided that their family history should be written. One problem was that Uncle Charlie had been executed in the electric chair. When this difficulty was explained to the historian, he replied that he could cope with this. So he wrote:

“Uncle Charlie was quite well known to the public as he held a Chair in applied electronics. Through his activities, he was closely attached to the post and his sudden death came as quite a shock.”

Words can weave spells, distort perceptions, remove the grit from the oyster, sentimentalize and therefore diminish fundamental institutions.

My aim is not to reshape the narrative on Uncle Charles, but to reveal something of the reality of the family today: husband, wife and children; to identify some of the radical changes that are continuing, diagnose some problems and outline the basic remedies, new and old.

By coincidence I know that I gave my first talk on the family about 47 years ago, in 1968, when I was a young priest at the US air base at Upper Heyford in England. I have returned to the topic many times over the years.

We have seen wonderful developments during the last 50 years; the spread of education, increased longevity, better health facilities, wider travel opportunities which accompany the improved living standards evident, not in every class, but in every country in the Western world.

On the other hand, according to nearly all available measures the state of the family has deteriorated. Fewer people are getting married. In many countries more than half all marriages end in divorce. A parish priest from a middle-class Australian parish in a capital city told me that in his parish about seventy per cent of the parents presenting children for baptism are not validly married.

Our task is not to lament our situation together, but to identify the way ahead, the practical steps that can be taken. We are also called to live out the Christian virtues in a way that outsiders can admire and to speak a language sympathetic outsiders can understand.

At this early stage I need to acknowledge that no family is perfect. Family life can approach the depths of hell as well as the highest human delights. Most families for most of the time fluctuate between these extremes, and great results can be achieved in radically imperfect situations; no pearl is produced in an oyster without grit!

The Church has high expectations for the family, which she calls the “ecclesia domestica”, the domestic church. In the catechism of the Catholic Church, we read “It is in the bosom of the family that parents are, by word and example, the first heralds of the faith for their children. The home is the first school of Christian life and a school for human enrichment” (ccc pars 1656 – 57).

Neither Christianity, nor the Jews invented marriage and family. It was the Creator himself, who founded the family as a communion of life and love and endowed it with its own special laws (ccc 1660).

Marriage is primarily a social institution as was recognized by the pre-Christian Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who explained that “the family is something that precedes and is more necessary than the state.” Human rights (e.g. the right to marry) are recognised by the state but are not conferred by any state.

We realise better than we did two hundred years ago that if the laws of hygiene are violated (e.g. through open sewers, or unclean wounds), disease is increased. We realise better than we did fifty years ago that if we do violate the laws of physical nature, of the environment (by, for example, pollution or overplanting or the destruction of trees), harmful consequences follow. But we find almost no public acknowledgment that when we violate the natural moral order, in the area of sexuality, marriage and family life, harmful human consequences follow.

We know that liars are eventually not trusted, that those who live by the sword often die by the sword. We all have anecdotal evidence of the unfortunate consequences of marriage breakdown upon the children involved. But most Western societies are steadily removing the laws (and therefore changing public opinion) which defend the ideal of exclusive life-long marriage. Are we digging our own graves?

The title of my talk differs from the teaching of the Catholic Catechism, which speaks of parents as the “first” teachers of their children. Parents can be good, bad, indifferent and only sometimes are the best of teachers, the most effective agents in the transmission of virtues and values to their children.


A Changed Context 

A few years ago a particularly insightful article explained how the culture of modernization, efficiency and short–term satisfaction has reduced “the idea and reality of marriage to little more than an affectionate sexual relationship of tentative commitment and uncertain duration”.

Why has the work of parents with their children become much more difficult? We should begin to look first for the reasons in the immense sociological changes which are still continuing.

News and views are brought regularly into the heart of the family home, not just by book, newspapers and journals, but by radios, television and now the internet.

Thirty years ago I remember hearing laments that good Catholic parents probably would not allow into their houses a goodly number of people who appeared on their television screens very evening. We now have the more recent scourge of internet pornography, which tempts every young adult male, including those from religious families. Most are not permanently scarred, but some become addicts, e.g. captured by “sexting”. These habits can continue well into adult life and are destroying marriages.

The invention of the contraceptive pill in 1962, largely removing the fear of unwanted pregnancies, provoked the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The call to impersonal recreational sex, especially for males, was spread throughout the world by the songs of groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Sexual activity was separated from personal commitment, from child bearing. Mary Eberstadt in her book “Adam and Eve after the Pill” claims that the revolutionary changes produced by the pill have brought about changes in society like those produced by the Russian Communist Revolution. This is a large claim, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Pope Paul VI in his prophetic instruction in 1968 “Humanae Vitae”, which denied the legitimacy of artificial contraception, foretold the radical and unfortunate consequences which would spring from the contraceptive mentality. We now have no country in the Western world producing enough children to maintain the population naturally. As I watch the tens of thousands of good people, pilgrims on their way to hear Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square, very few of the couples have more than two children. The pilgrims would represent many of the best in our societies.

These changes in daily living have been accompanied by, in part provoked by, and been caused by changes in moral thinking, a set of ideas and practices Pope Benedict described as the “dictatorship of relativism”. The secular drive is for personal autonomy where every person is able to decide the criteria for right and wrong himself. Because enormous differences in moral thinking persist, tolerance is exalted and is certainly needed and is one of the better characteristics of advanced Western society. But when tolerance is founded on the conviction that there are no objective truths, that each unprovable moral conviction is as good as the next, we deprive ourselves of any legitimation of human rights, of the foundations of much of our social legislation (which becomes merely an expression of consensus, which in turn can be short lived or more enduring).

The Catholic variant of this appeal to moral autonomy is called the primacy of personal conscience. Some more careful apologists for the new ways speak of the “primacy of informed conscience”, which pays at least a partial tribute to the moral truths announced in the Scriptures and in the constant teaching of the magisterium.

One astute observer (years ago) pointed out that the enthusiasm of many for a moral relativism, for freedom of choice, is confined to the areas of human life, sexuality, marriage and family. Often as a matter of day-to-day practice very little freedom for discussion or dissent is tolerated in areas such as social justice or ecology or feminism. Often these advocates for pluralism are also quite understated on the importance of faith, of monotheism, of believing in the one Supreme Creator and Father, who loves us.

To the extent that parents are moral relativists they deprive themselves of any adequate foundation to argue for their religious and moral traditions with their children.

Incidentally good parents teach their children of the importance of knowing, loving and maintaining their traditions. Loyalty to our Church, nation, tribe and family does not imply an opposition to, or rejection of change but recognizes that we build on the lives and work of our ancestors, of myriad of generations of good people, of witnesses, some of whom were saints, martyrs and heroes. In Australia, at least, an explicit appeal to tradition is rare, although many children are proud to belong, happy where they are.

In the past husband and wife lived in one district for most or all their life, with most of their relatives within travelling distance. This has disappeared as young people and families follow employment opportunities. The nuclear family has replaced the patterns of extended family living. This mobility and consequent isolation bring many bad consequences, although employment is an enormous advantage, essential for the bulk of the population. Nuclear families often feel they do not belong to a community and children know few adults other than their parents and school teachers. Good parents encourage their children, even across distances, to know their grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. In a new environment, women at home, with or without their children are often lonely, longing for support which often is not available.

I am the child of a “mixed marriage” e.g. between a Catholic and non-Catholic. My mother was a fervent Irish-Australian Catholic and my father, from English and Protestant Irish stock, was a non-practising Anglican. Obviously I have no in-principle objection to such a union, but it does make it harder for the Catholic party to live out her religion and harder, because of mixed witness, to pass on Catholic faith and practice to the children. In Australia, I believe that about 70 per cent of marriages are mixed.


The Way Forward

As a preliminary point it is useful for parents to understand and then explain to their children the advantages of living according to Christian principles and to realise the costs and consequences of certain behaviour. Even when sins have been defined out of existence, the wages of sin are real, even when there is no subjective guilt on the part of those making mistaken decisions.

Divorce is not good for spouses (nearly always) and not good for children. Until twenty years ago many believed that quarreling parents did more damage to children than when they divorced (c.f. 1958 U.K. survey). This has changed.

A 1993 study from Exeter University was among the first to outline the enduring unhappiness of children in reordered families. Such children were more than twice as likely to think badly of themselves, to have problems at school, to describe themselves as miserable.

Years ago a piece of graffiti scrawled on a Brazilian train read: “Those who petition for divorce use the ink of their children’s tears”.

These and similar finding have been corroborated by research over the last twenty years. A 2009 study showed that children from divorced families are two to three times more likely to suffer from serious social or psychological pathologies and drop out from school. Teen mothers are found among the children of the divorced at three times the rate of girls from intact families (33% to 11%). A single female parent with a child or children is more than five times as likely to be in poverty than a two parent family.

Children of the divorced have a higher rate of cohabitation and divorce themselves than children from intact homes.

Children from divorced families are usually less religious and children of religious couples are more likely to leave their religious tradition if their parents divorce.

A 2009 survey from the U.K. found that cohabitating couples are less happy than married couples. Obviously a healthy relationship between parents is helpful. When the mother is unhappy in her partnership, her children are also less happy.

More positive results come from traditional habits and practising religion. A family which has the evening meal together are at least three times more likely to claim they are completely happy than those eating together a couple of times a week, or not at all.

One piece of European evidence (2014) might be surprising to secularists. While the statistics varied from country to country married couples with three or more children had a divorce rate at least half the divorce rate of those with one child. In Italy 1% of people with three or more children divorced, while 37% of those with only one child divorced.

I also believe that having more children makes it more likely good Catholic parents will be able to hand on their faith to their children. I used to take this message regularly to the young Catholic university students in Sydney, explaining that children train their parents in unselfishness and that this and peer influences within the family are likely to produce better religious outcomes.

China’s one child policy will be shown more and more to be a disaster. Newspapers there already speak of the “little princes”. This is an extreme example from a non-democratic nation, but children in small nuclear families, especially single children, can become too isolated from the hurly burly of life in the wider community.

Not all the changes I have listed are positive, improvements. But we should remember our Christian beginnings in the pagan Roman Empire, which was much more violent, promiscuous, unjust and disordered than any Western country today. Christianity spread steadily in these hostile climes without public churches, schools, hospitals, charitable agencies. Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” explains sociologically, gives the human explanation, of how Christianity spread then and (perhaps) how and why it is spreading in China now.

Christian women had rights, were the equal to their husband in dignity. Babies were not aborted or exposed to death. Life long marriage was endorsed. There was no Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried and idolatory, murder and adultery brought expulsion from the community (at least for some years, even after repentance).

If our families are centres of Christian faith and virtue, people outside will be attracted by our love, regular service, ability to forgive, example of prayer.

The Romans were not atheists; rather they were polytheists and the pagan and Christians then did not have access to today’s media, today’s world of advertising. We need at least as much protection as the early Christians provided and more.

Our sociological defences in many cases, even when they make a five human contribution, are often unable or unwilling to strengthen the faith. I am thinking primarily of our schools and universities. They can even be used to weaken the faith of students.

Perfunctory religious practice by parents does not impress their children. Many parents whose Mass attendance is perfunctory, whose daily prayer is almost non existent, whose faith rests lightly upon them, find that their children have drifted further away, sometimes into agnosticism. In a pansexual individualist society, it is easier to reject or avoid Christ’s harder teachings and take refuge in the occasional piece of social work or advocacy. Many have taken this path through disaffiliating.

No parent should forget to show and teach his children that the way to growth, personal and communal, is through fidelity to the core teachings of Christ and the Church. Those who play down the demands of faith, forgiveness and family, which Christ enjoined, are increasing and hastening the exodus.

Many times today our sociological defences are no longer adequate. Parents need allies and parents and children need community support.

The so called “new movements” in the Church are spreading and achieving religious practice for their children because of their faith, then acceptance of a call to conversion. But they all offer strong community support in a way some of our parishes no longer manage to provide.

I remember a young American intellectual with a good wife, young children and a burning desire to protect his children so they retained their faith. He was explicit in his determination to exclude them from bad influences.

I said to him that his attempt at isolating them and being the only teacher, with his wife, would not work. As teenagers and young adults they would want to test their convictions, turn to other adults, to their peers. In other words if he wanted to hand on the faith, he had to find them (and for themselves as parents) a vibrant community of faith and service.

The best parent teachers are (as always) insufficient and the Church today needs to re-evaluate and improve her sociological defences.

George Card. PELL

Rome Life Forum - 9 May 2015