Twenty to thirty years ago the first wave of young orthodox Catholics formed not only by Vatican II but in reaction to the errors that followed upon it, formed perhaps above all by the exciting early days of the papacy of John Paul II, began marrying and raising families. Many of them were converts or reverts. They were filled with good intentions and high expectations, determined to live out their vocations as Catholic parents in a way that could hardly avoid being in opposition at least some of the time to the prevailing secular culture. My wife and I were among them, and we’ve met many others along the way.
Most of these have been reasonably successful, but I know of some fairly spectacular crashes: divorces, children going seriously astray, and in general all the ills that beset society at large, to which no family is completely immune and from which no family is completely isolated. Daniel Nichols relates, on the Caelum et Terra blog, a particularly sad story of a woman abandoning her husband and children. Daniel’s point is not so much the particulars of that situation as the scandal of easy annulments in the Church today, but I found myself brooding over the situation itself. How does a couple come to such a pass when, unless one of the spouses was deliberately deceitful, both had begun with the best of intentions to live a Catholic marriage?
And beyond such highly visible tragedies, I know—I expect everyone knows—of Catholic families which appear from the outside to be fine and faithful, but which have serious internal fractures. Or parents who have become perhaps too well-adjusted to the culture, and whose children are fallen-away or nominal Catholics.
I think one reason these things trouble me is that somewhere in some sub-rational part of my mind there is a stubborn belief that if parents try to do the right thing God will see to it that their marriages work out and that their children remain in the Church. I emphasize that this is not rational, and I don’t need to be reminded that the effects of original sin persist in spite of the sacraments, and that personal sin is a stubborn thing, never entirely or perhaps even mostly eradicated. I know, I know. And yet the question keeps presenting itself to my mind: how can things go so wrong? There is no definite answer to that, but, doctrine aside, every sensible person knows that things will go wrong in this world, no matter how hard we try. That’s why they call it a vale of tears.
It helps to alleviate the melancholy of contemplating these situations to remember that in none of them do we know the end of the story. Many years ago, in the mid-1970s, I made the decision, for purely pragmatic reasons, to give up my plans for an academic career in literature and to take up a practical trade, studying computer science. Some time after that I ran into an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen for five or six years. We were standing in line for something or other and briefly catching up on what each of us had been doing. I told him I was learning to be a computer programmer and added, perhaps a bit defensively, that this was an odd place for me to end up. He replied, “Well, maybe you ain’t finished ending up yet.”
That remark comes back to me often. Those disasters that I mentioned are stories still in progress. I sometimes hear people who read The Chronicles of Narnia complain of or lament what seems to be the loss of Susan, one of the four siblings who enter Narnia. In one of the late books in the series she is no longer present, and the other three are given to understand that her interest in worldly things has taken her away. It’s a heartbreaking moment, but I’ve never taken it to be the final word on Susan’s eternal destiny. She is on the wrong road, clearly, but as far as I remember it is not stated that she will never regain the right one and that she will not, by some other and harder route, eventually enter Aslan’s country. No one still on this earth has finished ending up yet. And it’s worth remembering that this is no less true of those who seem to be doing fine as of those who are in desperate straits.