My ten-year-old son is growing a moustache but is very diffident in a school-boyish kind of way when I occasionally suggest he try shaving.
I’ll leave it alone. Who am I to tell him to shave?
Most of my adult life I’ve been bearded or moustachioed, fancying myself in the image of a devil-may-care, likeable scoundrel possessed of some kind of panache or a certain savoir faire.
Alternatively, once or twice I have tried the tab-collared, stubble-faced look to try and cultivate the image of a Euro intellectual or a writer with far deeper emotions and insight than the rest of the human race.
Astute readers may detect what role, if any, fantasy plays in my life.
Lately, I have been noticing changes in him.
One evening recently, we found ourselves both watching an episode of a documentary about prohibition on SBS.
Until then I don’t think he had ever heard the word ‘prohibition,’ certainly not in connection with the banning of alcohol in the US in the 1920s and 30s.
At the end of one episode, however, he had a good idea of the basic facts.
Possessed of a good sense of humour, he was particularly amused by the fact that, at the height of prohibition, Chicago’s Police Commissioner estimated that about 60 per cent of his officers were involved, one way or another, in bootlegging.
He also understood quickly that, whatever the reason prohibition was introduced, the effort to ban something many knew was causing serious social harm had resulted in one unanticipated effect: offering reasonably intelligent, small-time crooks an unprecedented opportunity to make a lot of money, leading eventually to widespread corruption and the creation of previously unseen criminal empires of enormous power and influence.
My son also has the blood of the Han Chinese flowing through his veins and what seems like a very Chinese appreciation of strategy, so he seems to have an intuitive Chinese grasp of the importance of money and the ways to make it.
Part of what held his interest was undoubtedly the gangland shootings and assassinations.
Boys love that sort of thing. But at the end of the program he was interested enough to turn to me and ask a question.
“Papa,” he said after reflecting for a moment, “What prohibition shows is that, basically, it’s impossible to ban something that’s small, easily concealable and popular, isn’t it?”
For a second I was stopped in my tracks.
For me, it was the moment when I understood that my son is changing.
This simple and quite logical question was the first experience I could ever recall of his own independent serious ethical reflection or speculation.
Of course, I have been bombarded over the years with his ‘what,’ ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, sometimes driving me to near-annoyance that have come from a child who is a precocious reader.
However, those were questions driven by a seemingly voracious appetite for data; for facts, figures and pure information.
But this was the first moment – a sign, really – when I knew I was seeing his growing independence in thought.
It was slightly unsettling, but it was good. He is growing up.
The change I am noticing is connected to another recent event in my own life, but one that will affect his.
In late September, The Record hosted an evening offered principally to parents and school teachers, especially teachers of religious education, presenting Melbourne academic Dr Gerard O’Shea which attracted exactly 40 people to St Mary’s Cathedral Parish Centre.
I was particularly interested in Dr O’Shea’s talk, although I had expected no interest from teachers of religious education and, probably, a total audience of no more than 15 – or thereabouts. Instead, at least three teachers of RE in Perth Catholic schools showed up and, pleasingly, the audience was overwhelmingly made up of parents of school-aged children and young Catholic adults. After all, it was an evening about sex.
The elapsed time between being unexpectedly offered an opportunity to present Dr O’Shea to a Perth audience and my own fiat might have been measured in milliseconds.
Dr O’Shea, a former Catholic school principal and a lecturer at Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family, is one of those few individuals in Australia who really does work at the cutting edge of theology.
In the last year, he has published a new and unprecedented resource for parents entitled As I Have Loved You – Christian formation of the young in human sexuality.
The prosaic title belies his book’s innovative, even revolutionary nature; nor should this be surprising. In fact, Dr O’Shea and his colleagues work at an institute globally associated with some of the widely-regarded stellar minds in theology.
There are a growing number of John Paul II Institutes around the world but all share a theological focus on the family, marriage, gender and what it means to say that we are all created male and female in the image and likeness of God.
Although it is likely that there are few Catholic parents or teachers who would understand this, the subject of human sexuality and its intrinsic meaning, for want of a better way of describing it, is at the very heart of where our culture and our society are going.
Why? Firstly, a personal experience. Ever since I first encountered the theology of the body in the late 1990s I had a deep intuition that it was the answer to many things which I had barely glimpsed until then.
Until then, I had sensed intellectually – and believed – that the Church was right. But to most of my contemporaries and I, it felt as if the Church’s approach to matters of morality, especially difficult ethics pertaining to love, sex and intimacy in human relationships, was rule-focused or impossibly idealistic, yet, paradoxically, occasionally puritanical.
And yet, it was the global abandonment of objective, personal, moral responsibility flowing like a powerful cultural torrent out of the decade of 1965-75, most especially in relation to matters of sex, marriage and the value of human life, which transformed our culture and our society into a wasteland of meaninglessness and destruction, especially for the young.
Obscuring this is the fact that we are basically affluent. As global societies have largely rejected the patrimony of what the Incarnation means, we have embraced affluence, materialism, scientism and what Josef Ratzinger famously described in theological shorthand as the dictatorship of moral relativism – which basically means that nothing or no-one can be allowed to stand in the way of what we want, either individually or socially.
If one thinks of abortion, euthanasia, the human flotsam and jetsam created by the widespread destruction of family life through divorce, the burgeoning rates of sexually transmitted infections among the very young, the breakdown in the idea that every human life is sacrosanct, the dissolution of concepts such as marriage to the point where the term has basically little or no meaning, the massive phenomenon of drug usage and addiction and, last but by no means least, the now-pandemic scale of sexual abuse of children and the young, it is not that hard to argue that most of the increasing personal and social dissolution we see daily is traceable to a loss of the sense of who the human person is.
Alone among any institution in the world, I have found, the Church has the answers, for the Church’s answer to the proposition that we should do anything our urges tell us is that every boy, every girl, every man and every woman is actually made in the image and likeness of God.
The implications of this, once understood, are truly cosmological. Our society, including most families in Catholic schools, assume the Church is an institution of limited relevance.
For them, Catholicism is merely a tribal identification, – like being Irish or Peruvian. But the truth is that it is the Church alone that has a vision of man and woman that can truly be described as realistic but noble, inspiring and ever hope-filled.
The, in some senses, radical innovation of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body certainly caused raised eyebrows in some sections of the Church when the late Pope began his catecheses now known as the Theology of the Body but it is an innovation that, more than anything else I can think of, will powerfully help build a new kind of world which I know I will not live to see.
Dr O’Shea’s book guides parents to lead their children sensitively and in appropriate ways towards the revelation of what the Church understands (and the editors of Playboy and Cosmopolitan are blind as bats to) about the human person, what we are destined for and what God is like.
That’s because the Church sees everyone as a person while our society sees persons as means. In the process of employing Dr O’Shea’s book in their own family settings, many parents will find themselves journeying more deeply into the meaning of the Sacrament of Marriage and therefore understanding the nuptial nature of God’s relationship with us.
One of the truly heartening messages from Dr O’Shea was his reassurance to single parents who feel overwhelmed or more alone in their responsibility to lead their children to the truth.
They are, he said, the very ones who have been chosen by God to do this job. So, somewhat in parentheses, I take the opportunity to pass the message along here in a secondhand kind of way.
During his talk, Dr O’Shea also reassured parents that they would know the moment when it was right to begin leading their children to the next stages of their lives. There is always, he said, a sign.
The beginning of independent ethical reflection in my son after watching a documentary on prohibition turned out to be, strangely, the moment that made me see him in a new light, as a boy who is beginning to become a man.
I do not want my son to be like the average outcome of a current State or non-government school education, which is largely the same as the average outcome our society expects in the young.
I am a husband and I am a father. I want my son to be a son of the Church. I want him to be a son of his country. I want him to be different. I want him to be free.
Peter Rosengren is editor of The Record.