Monday, February 20, 2012

Engaging the Culture: A Catholic Homeschool Perspective

Note: These are my notes from the talk I gave at the Kolbe Academy Homeschool Conference in July 2011. I am giving a webinar on a related topic with Homeschool Connections on February 28, 2012 (Please note the date change. We postponed the webinar from tonight to next Tuesday as I am down with a bad cold.) It will have some material in common with the following notes, but contain a lot of new material as well as having a bit of a different emphasis. I'm really looking forward to it!

Engaging the Culture: A Catholic Homeschool Perspective

This talk is from my own perspective as a Catholic homeschooler - most applies to non-homeschoolers too.

It is important for us to try to live Christianity and to think as Christians in such a way that it incorporates what is good and right about modernity - and at the same time separates and distinguishes itself from what is becoming a counter-religion. (Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World)

Engaging the culture is a two-way street. We affect and are affected by the culture. We shouldn't just set up our own world and let the culture be what it is.

Example: The environment

To a large extent the environmental movement is flawed. Many people are concerned about the environment (which is good), but see people as a threat to the environment (which is problematic and even dangerous in numerous ways). Instead of rejecting the idea of concern for the environment because of these flaws, we really need people who recognize what is good there and are willing to bring our pro-people message to that movement.

Overview of Talk:

Special Topic: Witnessing

I. Indirect Formation of our children (what we model and pass along to them - examine our own attitudes)
A. Love Comes First
B. Balance is Key
C. Rejoice in the Good
D. Humility and Trust

II. Direct Formation (how we can deliberately prepare our children to encounter the world without losing their faith)
A. Foundation - Grace, Knowledge, Support
B. Application

Special Topics: Imagination, Service, Socialization

(How You Think, What You Model)

How this affects our children

Live what you believe. Our faith should encompass our whole being, not just what we do in church. I find this example from The Winged Watchman by Hilda Van Stockum to be particularly powerful (the context is a family living in Holland during World War II - the neighbor's son is helping the Nazis):

Mother was shocked when Father told her that Leendert Schenderhans had become a landwatcher. "And the parents such Good Catholics!" she cried.

"Hmph!" grunted Father. "You women always judge people by what they do in church. I judge them by what they do outside. Farmer Schenderhans is getting rich in the black market."

(This is a GREAT book - make sure you read it!!!)

Special Topic: The Idea of Witness

To have Christian hope means to know about evil and yet to go to meet the future with confidence. The core of faith rests upon accepting being loved by God, and therefore to believe is to say Yes, not only to him, but to creation, to creatures, above all, to men, to try to see the image of God in each person and thereby to become a lover. That's not easy, but the basic Yes, the conviction that God has created men, that he stands behind them, that they aren't simply negative, gives love a reference point that enables it to ground hope on the basis of faith. (Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth)

Mary is the supreme example of living that yes to God because with her fiat, the Word became flesh.

 Witnesses (the word martyr means witness) keep hope alive by testifying to the truth in love with their very lives.

Testifying can mean dying for the faith like St. Maximilian Kolbe or it can mean giving everything completely during your life, like Mother Teresa. Both ways are extremely powerful (but not easy)!

Witness vs. Example

Something I find helpful in better understanding the concept of witness is to contrast it with how we commonly think of it in contrast with the concept of being an example to others.


directed to God (trusts in God) - reflected to others
"we allow ourselves to be a witness"
of the heart
works with our limitations
very powerful in a crisis


relies on ourselves - directed to others
"we make ourselves an example"
often causes anxiety because it's easy to set unreasonable expectations of ourselves
often crumbles in tough times

Be true. No agendas.

We don't want to trick our way into doing good in the world. Find the good that others are ready for.

No fa├žades!
If we're paving the way for others it would be very wrong to put them on the wrong track or give them an inflated concept of what we are doing (and thus an unreasonable sense of what they should expect of themselves).


The Greatest Commandment according to Jesus (love God, love your neighbor)

Church teaching confirms this in every age:

The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that  never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #25, quoting the Catechism of the Council of Trent).

Love comes first both because God is love and because everyone is ready to be treated with love, even if they're not ready for something deeper or more complex - like philosophical proofs for the existence of God.

We need to manifest God's love especially to our children. It is the simplest and most powerful way to help them choose to be Catholic even after they're off on their own.

Love authenticates our beliefs in the eyes of others - which makes it the most powerful weapon against relativism. Certainly more powerful than intellectual arguments. Just think of Mother Teresa!

The Gospel says: Hate the sin, love the sinner!

We are fallen and fight a common enemy (evil). Sympathy and love don't require agreement. Love is essential!

Remember that "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect" comes up in the Bible in the context of "Love your enemies!"

Here's a great illustration of manifesting God's love from the classic novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe:

It was the first time that ever George had sat down on equal terms at any white man's table; and he sat down, at first, with some constraint, and awkwardness; but they all exhaled and went off like fog, in the genial morning rays of this simple overflowing kindness.

This indeed, was a home, - home - a word that George had never yet known a meaning for; and a belief in God, and trust in His providence, began to encircle his heart, as, with a golden cloud of protection and confidence, dark, misanthropic, pining, atheistic doubts, and fierce despair, melted away before the light of a living Gospel, breathed in living faces, preached by a thousand unconscious acts of love and good-will, which, like the cup of cold water given in the name of a disciple, shall never lose their reward.


Don't live as a reaction to the culture, but as a reaction to Christ! Don't let evil define who you are! Reacing to the culture poses the grave danger to the very common problem of starting a pendulum problem in motion.

For example: If you find a problem with parents in your neighborhood who are too lax in their discipline, it doesn't help to react by becoming an extreme disciplinarian. It is possible that you may  reasonably be the most strict parent on the block, but you don't want to base your parenting methods on your frustrations with how other parents are acting.

Two important concepts to keep in mind:

Virtue lies in the mean (e.g hope is in the balancing point between presumption and despair)
Beware of false dichotomies (like faith vs. science)

We need to recognize our own weaknesses and be open to learning and to correction.
Evil is tricky - it knows how to get at ME in particular.
What are our danger areas? Usually it's the opposite extreme of what bothers us the most.

The problem of clinging to one truth at the expense of others: This can lead to great distortions (including heresies). e.g. focusing on "God is just" and ignoring "God is love".

Do make distinctions, such as dealbreakers vs. less-than-ideals.


Gratitude is a much neglected and much needed virtue in our world today.

1. All good things come from God. We owe it to God to recognize His gifts and be thankful.

2. His plan includes us all working together for the good. We're not all starting individually from square one but continue the good others have done. The good things we find (if we have eyes to see them) are the starting point for all kinds of other goods - like building bridges and relating to others.

3. Wee are happier and more content and more hopeful when we appreciate what is good. Gratitude leads to joy!

4. Don't just be a critic. Work on perspective (history, saint stories, prayer, sacraments)

This is a story from my own life that illustrated this concept well (albeit in the negative):

Once, a number of years ago, a man from out of town asked for directions to our local church in order to make a visit. He came back later and noted that the church didn't look at all like a church and spent a few minutes complaining about what it looked like. What he said was quite true. It looked like a conference room. But, almost as an afterthought, he mentioned that they were having Eucharistic adoration when he was there. 

This was a great illustration to me of how we can be technically correct and "way off base" at the same time.

5. Don't assume the worst about people (I know faithful Catholics struggling with infertility who have been lectured by well-meaning fellow Catholics on the evils of birth control - what a massive breach of charity!!!).


The true meaning of humility: We are the creature. God is the creator. We are not God!!!

This means two things especially:

1. It's not all up to us. Small things are not small. Do the good you are able to do. Expect to plant many small seeds and generally not to know how they turn out in the end.

It's a very dangerous thing to think it's all up to us. It leads to all kinds of problems and disconnects us from God.

2. The gifts we have are gifts from God. We can't take credit for them nor deny that we have them. We have a responsibility to develop and share them. Nothing wrong with confidence. Beware of arrogance!!!

I distribute the virtues quite diversely; I do not give all of them to each person, but some to one, some to others... I shall give principally charity to one; justice to another; humility to this one, a living faith to that one... And so I have given many gifts and graces, both spiritual and temporal, with such diversity that I have not given everything to one single person, so that you may be constrained to practice charity towards one another... I have willed that one should need another and that all should be my ministers in distributing the graces and gifts they have received from me. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1937, quoting the Dialogue of Jesus to St. Catherine of Siena)

3. We need each other and we need God. There's a huge spiritual component here. Prioritize yoru relationship with God. Try to find good spiritual direction! Don't be ashamed to need help. We're supposed to need help!!!

Openness to God makes us open towards our brothers and sisters and towards an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity. (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate)


We need and want to prepare our children for this:

To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are... exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, "rejoices in the truth". (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate)


1. Grace and the Sacraments - Including opportunities to choose good and experience that joy.

2. Learning - This is a big one! It doesn't need to be complicated. It's not all about formal book-learning. Keep challenging your kids and moving them forward. Particularly take advantage of questions they have - they learn most effectively when they study something they're already interested in. Find solid foundational materials that are free of sensationalism, condescension and bad thinking. Beautiful Catholic materials and classics (like fairy tales) are great here! Study church teaching (the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a great gift!).

3. Home and Family Environment - Cultivate a love of true, good and beautiful.

4. Support network - homeschool group, Catholic friends and family

Remember: Knowledge is not equal to virtue! Because of our fallen  nature, knowing what the good is doesn't automatically mean that we will do it. This is important to education because it means that it won't be successful if it is just about knowing stuff. We need to cultivate a love of the good.


Test everything. Hold fast to what is good. - St. Paul

1. Get to know interesting people and mentors. It's okay taht they're human. With homeschooling, everyone becomes a teacher: the pastor, the elderly neighbor, the museum volunteer, etc. Don't worry about perfection. Talking about these experiences are an important part of education. It's good for children to learn that they don't need rush to have an answer to everything. They can take an idea, play with it, explore its ramifications, etc. Studying history is great for this too because there are some contentious topics about which we may never have a complete and accurate understanding.

It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. - Aristotle

2. Make a distinction between what is offensive and what is dangerous.

3. Practice Cultural Discernment

Experience age-appropriate modern culture together.

Chat and make distinctions:

  • TV commercial critique is a fun place to start with little ones (You can simply ask, "What are they trying to sell here?)
  • Movies are an easy and interesting place to work with teens.

Note: You don't need to crush the joy of discovery by lecturing them.

A few examples: Percy Jackson (books, middle school), The Mission (movie, older teens)


Today much imagination is needed if we are to learn how to speak about the faith and about life's most important questions. It requires people who know how to love and how to think. (Pope John Paul II, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way)

Why is the Imagination Important:

  • Be able to picture something better
  • Meet people where they are - try to look at them through God's eyes
  • Imagine what we can do to help
  • Witness and "translate" the truth for the modern age (both literally, through language, and through the way we live and love)

Note: Don't let things be a substitute for affection and interaction with you. Materialism stifles growth and imagination.

Strive to keep a balance of freedom and limits in working with your children.

There are many ways to develop the imagination. We're focusing here on the role of stories (especially books and movies). These are important not just for role models or uplifting moral lessons, but also...

  • Getting inside someone else's head and understanding how they got where they did.
  • The consequences of sin - surprisingly powerful when it shows up in a non-religious context.
  • The consequences of grace - ditto
  • Some truths become more clear to us when we see an example of the opposite (e.g my experience with the Jurassic Park books)
  • Common experience with others - including cultural literacy and a place to connect and relate with others
  • Learn to look at things from a variety of viewpoints (Reformation study example)


Pope Benedict had this to say about works of service:

I wish here to offer a special word of gratitude and appreciation to all those who take part in these activities... For young people, this widespread involvement constitutes a school of life which offers them a formation in solidarity and in readiness to offer others not simply material aid but their very selves. The anti-culture of deaht... is thus countered by unselfish love which shows itself to be a culture of life by the very willingness to "lose itself" for others. (Deus Caritas Est)

Why is service important?

  • Great place for challenge and growth in kids - encounter some of the difficulties while being part of the solution.

  • Kids need a chance to experience the fact that the world does not revolve around them.

  • Can circle back to the humility and trust thing - learn to ask for help when they do need it (and we all do)

  • Can be done as a family - good for challenge and witness!


Homeschooling allows for a strong family influence and increased opportunities to see adults pray, work, study, solve, suffer challenges and setbacks, learn, apologize and forgive.

"Homeschooling magnifies the effect of the family on the children." (which can be both a benefit and a danger)

Homeschooling allows for a wide and diverse social network. Different circles of people, personalities, ages, etc. for homeschool group, sports, parish, neighborhood, etc.

Embrace challenges - Some protection is necessary, but so is learning from failures, challenges, competition and the experience of evil. We want our children to meet some of these challenges with our help.

What you should do:

  • help keep the doses reasonable
  • model appropriate responses in your own life
  • help them learn and grow from each situation
  • discover antidotes together

The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides him is a St. George to kill the dragon. (G.K. Chesterton)


Note: There are two books I strongly recommend for those interested in this particular topic. 

The first is The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander which is a beautiful and very accessible elucidation on becoming a Christ-Bearer and cooperating with God's will in our lives.

The second is a brand new book I discovered only last week (thanks to first issue of the newly re-launched Catholic Digest - three cheers for Danielle Bean!) and so I'm still in the process of reading it - but it is GOOD (and also very accessible)! It touches upon a lot of what I've been working on in the subject of culture. It is called: Seek First the Kingdom: Challenging the Culture by Living Our Faith by Cardinal Wuerl (Our Sunday Visitor).

No comments: