Pope Dad

Call me the Pope of Home.

Lest readers accuse me of nurturing an outsized ego, let me quickly add that I do not claim succession from St. Peter and am far from infallible on even simple issues, never mind matters of faith and morals. If I am a successor of anyone, I would like it to be St. Joseph, whose strong and humble headship of the Holy Family I seek to model in serving my own family.

Yet, as a husband and father, I do exercise a degree of authority for the sake of my loved ones. And I have noticed some parallels between the penitential structure and discipline employed by the Church and the proper ordering of a Catholic household.

All fatherhood, after all, comes from God the Father (see Ephesians 3:14-15). And lay Catholics are encouraged to develop a “domestic Church” within their families.

In regard to my two young sons, I set norms, enforce laws, determine disciplinary measures, hear confessions, accept penitence, mete out penances, and even grant indulgences.

My wife, of course, working with me as a united authority, does the same.

Sound far-fetched? Chances are that, if you have young children, you operate under a similar system without associating it with Church practice.

If so, you're probably on the right track.

Dispensing Discipline

There came a time recently with my 4-year-old son when the usual time-out routine was not having the desired effect. After some out-of-bounds behavior, we would send him to his room for the prescribed time, and he would emerge with a somewhat heartfelt “sorry” and proceed a short time later to another offense.

He was testing boundaries and authority, and I decided a stiffer dose of discipline was needed.

Even after he expressed remorse for a serious offense, I began taking away privileges, such as watching videos (we don't have a working television connection) or playing with his favorite Pooh Bear and Tigger figures. “One more time and there's no Tigger and Pooh for the rest of the day,” I would announce.

Well, one week my son ran up a debt of four whole days without Tigger and Pooh. Halfway through the punishment period, feeling deeply the loss of his faithful friends, he came to me with a long face and asked for one day to be taken off the list. I was struck not just with the sincerity of his sorrow but also with the nature of his request. He didn't ask to play with his toys right then — he seemed to have a sense that some degree of punishment was still just.

He asked only for time to be taken from his personal “purgatory.” Yes, I said, I'll reduce the punishment by a day if he would be extra good the rest of the afternoon and evening.

On reflection, I realized what transpired was related to the Catholic faith. One of the beloved faithful had transgressed and incurred a penalty. Even after saying “sorry” and receiving forgiveness from me and my wife — a process paralleling sacramental reconciliation — there was a price to be paid, what the Church calls “temporal punishment,” for wrongs already forgiven. Yet the temporal punishment was reduced through the performance of pious acts and devotion to the good. This accords with an indulgence, which the Church grants for specified prayers or religious observances.

The Church also offers a plenary indulgence, which is the remission of all temporal punishment due to sin, so that the person receiving the indulgence would go straight to heaven if he died immediately after it was granted.

There is such an indulgence in effect for the current Year of the Eucharist. Yet I realize that a plenary indulgence in my domestic Church should be a rare occurrence, since rarely do I perceive in my son the proper disposition needed for the fruitful reception of such a gift.

So call me the Pope of Home, though I am in many ways an imperfect and “unholy father.”

Love and Limits

Wondering if these assessments on discipline in the home were sound, I asked an expert.

“You've tapped into a truth of modern parenting,” said Dr. Ray Guarendi, father of 10 and the Register's “Family Matters” columnist on childrearing. “What has been called discipline is really a watered-down version that is presented for popular consumption. Time out is not the whole story. Consistently bad behavior merits consistently strong discipline.”

The wisdom of the Church's penitential system, developed over centuries, suggests that “what we need to do as parents is take a much stronger approach to discipline,” Guarendi pointed out.

Two other “experts,” a Catholic couple with four children, have a similar view.

“I think the key is consistency in discipline,” says Erik Syversen, who lives in Stanfordville, N.Y. “The husband and wife also have to be on the same page so the same message is given.”

His wife, Regina, adds, “Your word has to mean something, so you can't give in after you say No. If your children start ignoring your spoken word, you start losing control.”

Scott Hahn, in his book Scripture Matters (Emmaus Road, 2003), writes: “One of the marvels of God's plan is that he has given fathers a priesthood and priests a fatherhood. Within the family, the father stands before God as a priest and mediator. Within the Church, the priest stands before his parish as a father.

“This is a powerful truth. And it is more than a metaphor. It is something profoundly sacramental, and built into the fabric of God's plan — from the very beginning.”

Perhaps I'm on the right track, as long as I remember that he who disciplines must be open to the discipline of the Father of all. As St. Paul says, “My sons, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord, nor lose heart when he reproves you. For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he receives” (Hebrews 12:6).

These can sound like hard words in a culture that views bad behavior in purely psychological terms and treats troublesome kids with various prescription drugs. But I think many parents would be more willing to impose discipline if they were given more positive models.

For Catholic families, the Pope of Home idiom might be a start. At least it would call attention to the need for forming a domestic Church, in which the family is a sanctuary where values are taught and the universal call to holiness is heard.

Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.