Do We Need Sacramental Preparation for Parenthood?

COMMENTARY: Catholic parents need to understand clearly what it means to be a Catholic parent.

(photo: Pixabay)

As we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, I’d like to suggest a ministry for parishes or, preferably, dioceses to consider: spiritual preparation for parenthood.

The Archdiocese of Paris (whose new archbishop, Michel Aupetit, is a medical doctor and bioethicist) organizes one evening per week for four weeks on “Spiritual Preparation for Birth.”

While I have not had a chance to see the course outline, the idea strikes me that the Church in the United States is lacking in this area. Some parishes perhaps have an organized course of preparation for baptism, but I suggest the picture needs to be bigger: We need to talk about preparation for parenthood.

In a perfect world, Catholic couples who have been adequately prepared for marriage now recognize a new stage in their lives and want to respond to it with due attention. Their marital lives have been open to the transmission of life and now recognize that God, the “Lord and Giver of Life,” has blessed them with a new amplification of their vocation: to be a parent.

Wanting to broaden their love from each other to the child whom they will now receive, they seek to be fit for the change in their lives as they introduce their children to the community of the Church.

In reality, in many cases, their marriage preparation was a “checking of the box,” perhaps long on psychology and short on theology. Their marital lives may or may not have embodied openness to life. In some cases, their last encounter with the Church was getting ready for marriage and now — again, to please their parents — they have to reckon with baptizing their little bambino. When even Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, who is studying canon law in Rome, put forth the wild proposition that infant baptism creates “infant conscripts who are held to lifelong obligations of obedience,” it’s clearly not a perfect world.

And it’s clearly a world in which Catholic parents need to understand what it means to be a Catholic parent.

We say that parents are the “first and best teachers” of a child in the ways of faith. Yet can we really say that when religious illiteracy is high and many young Catholics of childbearing age have attenuated relationships with the Church? When the dropout rate from the Church into the “none” category is highest among millennials?

I have no illusion that we can repair multiple years of catechetical neglect, but I think we do need to address a few more issues than just having a baptismal rehearsal.

The Catholic vision of marriage as a vocation open further to parenthood competes with a secularized notion of marriage as a discovery of (not necessarily sexually differentiated) “soulmates” that may or may not grow into parenthood. Just plumbing that very comparison is a seminar in itself.

Social-science researchers (e.g., in the National Marriage Project) recognize that the “soulmate” model of marriage is becoming increasingly dominant in American culture.

The age of marriage has already gone up, as educational and vocational demands compete with the decision to marry. Those same factors further delay childbearing. With deferred parenthood and greater longevity, the amount of time during which contemporary couples live without children in their environment is growing. Marriage as practiced in America today makes children “intruders.”

“Soulmate” marriage exacerbates the problem. If the goal of marriage is to find the “other” who so fully “completes me,” then parenthood throws a curveball into that relationship, whose focus must turn from mutual gaze to a child. Traditionally, marriages have always experienced a growth challenge when focus had to shift to the third person of the child, but today’s “soulmate” model of marriage — with its treatment of parenthood as merely an optional and subordinate extra to the centrality of the spousal relationship — seems particularly challenged to reorient the couple beyond themselves.

Spiritual preparation for parenthood thus requires helping the couple to understand that becoming a parent is an outgrowth of marital love. Yes, marriage and parenthood are distinct institutions, but they are also in practice closely commingled. And marriage is not just about “you” and “me,” but draws its deeper sense from being a vocation — it is, after all, a sacrament that gives two people a lifelong position in the Church. Becoming a parent is, therefore, a further specification of that vocation.

It is a vocation to be a teacher of a new life in the ways of the faith. That’s what the Rite of Baptism tries to emphasize, but we need to draw some practicality from it.

A child will not learn the ways of faith if the next parental visit to the priest is at first Communion time. Spiritual preparation for parenthood thus requires the mother and father to take a critical look at the place of religion in their lives and to make the appropriate adjustments.

Special attention belongs to the wife because — without being sexist — social-science research also shows that it is the mother who plays a critical role in defining the religious atmosphere of a home — or its lack.

Yes, this is an opportunity to talk about preparation for baptism, but not just in the sense of what the rite involves and how you should receive the baptismal candle and provide a white garment. It is an opportunity to address the spiritual perspectives that the Rite of Baptism seeks to underscore and to invite the new parents to convert and recommit themselves to that spiritual life.

Finally, in our modern world, spiritual preparation for parenthood involves recognizing the distinctive dignity of the child.

With the prevalence of contraception and especially the increasing use of artificial reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization, the notion that a child is somehow a product or part of a “parental project” is strong, even if sometimes unspoken.

A parent’s task is to lead this new human being to a responsible, self-directed life before God and his fellow human beings. That means, first and foremost, that this child is “on loan” to you from God, a talent you must multiply. It means recognizing the need to help a child become independent, always a challenge for parents (especially first parents) and perhaps especially so in an age of “helicopter” parenting.

If we want holy Catholic families in our world today, we need to prepare those parents to be Catholics in our world today. “Spiritual preparation for parenthood”? The time for the idea has come.

John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia. All views herein are exclusively his.