The Last-Kid Barometer: Of Mammon, Moral Formation, and Family Life

Saint Katharine Drexel (photograph c. 1915)
Saint Katharine Drexel (photograph c. 1915) (photo: Screenshot)

“The family is a kind of school of deeper humanity.”
Gaudium et Spes (52)

We were chatting around the dinner table recently, and Katharine, my ten-year-old, remarked that she “still hasn’t learned to cook.”

“No worries, Kath,” I teased. “You can just hire somebody to do your cooking after you marry some rich guy someday.”

“But if I marry a rich guy, then I’ll have to give away all my money,” she shot back, “because I’m Catholic!”

Though debatable, Kath’s reaction was praiseworthy for its assumption of obligatory altruism, and, frankly, I’m very pleased that her conception of how Catholics ought to handle wealth was both so generous and so immediate – no hesitation on her part: “Riches? Give it away – boom!” It put in mind Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Mr. Bennet’s intuition regarding his eldest daughter and her wealthy beau: “You are each of you…so generous, that you will always exceed your income.” My Kath clearly perceives such extravagant giving as a moral absolute –the way it would just have to be. What a marvelous indicator of the kind of values she has internalized in the course of her relatively brief span of years.

And where did my Kath encounter such radical sentiments? The Gospel, of course – “He who has two coats,” Jesus insisted, “let him share with him who has none and he who has food must do likewise” (Lk 3.11). Radical, yes, and terribly impractical, but nonetheless a fundamental Christian disposition that the Catechism, quoting Gaudium et Spes, summarizes this way: “In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also… (CCC 2404).”

Notions such as these that have formed the backdrop of Kath’s life from infancy on – like a slow intravenous drip that gradually, imperceptibly alters one’s body chemistry over the course of time. Regular Mass attendance was the core of that drip for Kath, along with sound religious instruction and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd – not to mention devotion to her namesake, St. Katharine Drexel, who herself dispersed a massive fortune willy-nilly. Plus, she has a dad who happens to be obsessed with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, and so reckless talk of voluntary reallocation of resources is something Kath has been hearing about her whole life.

Yet, that’s not all. Kath happens to be seventh of seven, which means that she has six older siblings who had already been absorbing the same lessons years before she arrived on the scene. Thus, she not only bumped into countercultural ideas about charity and sacrifice from school, church, and our Catholic Worker friends, she also witnessed her older brothers and sisters wrestling with those ideas themselves, arguing with each other (as well as mom and dad), and finding their own way forward with regards to an integrated life of selfless giving. Kath benefited, that is, from her constant proximity to their moral maturation, and hence she has a leg up on working through the relevant questions for herself.

This is a perk of Catholic family culture – at least insofar as parents and children are in some minimal way attempting to follow Jesus. “Education in the faith…already happens when family members help one another to grow in faith by the witness of a Christian life in keeping with the Gospel,” the Catechism teaches us. “Family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith” (CCC 2226). In other words, a lived faith at home, however imperfect, is a prerequisite for optimal faith formation outside of the home.

The wonder of this domestic catechetical phenomenon is that it happens organically – pretty much automatically. “The fact of having brothers and sisters is good for you,” is how Pope Francis put it a couple years back, pure and simple. He went on to explain:

The sons and daughters of large families are more inclined to fraternal communion from early childhood. In a world that is frequently marred by selfishness, a large family is a school of solidarity and sharing; and these attitudes are of benefit to all society.

My wife and I have always said that the best gift we could give our children is another sibling, and here’s the Holy Father both endorsing that idea and explaining it. What’s more, Kath’s spontaneous expression of altruistic intent was evidence that maybe, just maybe, the whole set-up was working as it ought.

Many years ago, I had the bright idea of putting up two signs over the door into our garage – our most often used exit point. It was inspired by hearing a Gospel reading at Mass from St. Matthew in which Jesus declares, “No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and mammon.” I came home from church all jazzed to grab a couple 3x5 cards and a Sharpie: GOD would read the first card over the left door jamb, and MAMMON would read the card over the right. My idea was that all of us – dad, mom, kids – would whack one or the other card each time we went out the door as a physical manifestation of our ultimate allegiance and a sign of our determination to live it out that day. I thought it could be like a moral formation equivalent to Notre Dame football players smacking their PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY sign as they’re exiting their locker room onto the field.

Great idea, right?

“No way, dad,” came the response of my older kids as they scrunched up their faces – and my bright idea went down in flames. Still, maybe it’s just as well – at least if Katharine’s charitable default is any indication. Her lifelong immersion in a family struggling to daily choose God has left its mark, and she’s well on her way to appreciating Gospel values as actual imperatives, not abstract ideals.

Who knows? Maybe she’ll even catch the Catholic Worker bug and wind up throwing away some fortune or other before too long. How grand! St. Katharine will be so proud!