An outsider’s perspective on the household problem

by Matt McGuiness

Kathleen van Schaijik’s recent article provides a veritable litany of alleged problems in the household system as it now stands. She writes from the perspective of someone with experience in a household. I approach the question of households as an outsider: I have never belonged to one; my closest association with them has been through cleaning residence halls.

She relates in a footnote the experience of having her household adviser tell the group that failing to attend dorm teachings required “repentance.” This is an extreme case of the common problem of absolutizing one’s own experience, devotion, or style of prayer. For those who have had a profound conversion this can be especially tempting; we wish others to share in the good we have received from God, and mistakenly suppose that if they simply have the same experience we’ve had “they’ll get it.” The end result of this can be to turn something “good” into something ugly by mandating its use. For example, praying the rosary daily can be beneficial. But if you tell me that it is the only way to pray, you have suggested that your preferred means of encountering the living God is normative. In a word, you have made a “counsel” into a “commandment.”

Peer pressure has a way of inculcating dispositions, both healthy and harmful. Excessive peer pressure can lead a person to adopt behaviors and even spiritual disciplines in an inauthentic way—because someone I respect is doing it, not because I have discovered for myself that it is good. I’m doing the practice, but it’s really Frank’s or Jane’s. So, what happens when I leave the City on the Hill and find myself alone among the pagans? If I have not personally appropriated the gospel of Jesus Christ and found a way of following Him that is my own, I will fall like lightning from the sky. All the pious “habits” I’ve acquired won’t do a damn thing to help me (because these habits belong to Frank and Jane, not me); if I have not personally verified the goodness of the event of Jesus Christ, it might as well not exist.

Mrs. van Schaijik’s discussion of the term “covenant” is instructive and provides at least one clue toward solving the riddle of the household question. She notes that “covenant,” properly speaking, applies to (a) Christ and the Church and (b) to Christian marriage. If households are adopting improper terminology to speak of themselves, it is possible that their self-understanding is likewise erroneous. That is, they may be attempting to be something they cannot and should not be. Add to this the phenomenon that occurs when something good is institutionalized: The bureaucracy finds a way of justifying itself through expansion, and you have the defeat of the Relational by the Organizational. I don’t know whether this has in fact occurred within the household system. I am, as I said, an outsider. But I have been involved in vibrant ministries which have literally died from over-organization and well-intentioned pressure “from on high” to conform to this or that admirable goal.

The alternative to this course would seem to be a recognition of what the household system legitimately can and cannot be. Something that households are not and cannot be are apostolic associations. The Catholic Church has given generous approval to a variety of movements, associations and apostolates (often international in scope) which allow the faithful to follow a rule or way of life inspired by a particular charism. My experience with movements in the Church has been with Regnum Christi and Communion and Liberation. These two movements are poles apart in their respective “styles.” Regnum Christi is very structured, while CL is organized in a decidedly un-organizational way. Despite their dissimilarities, both respect the interior freedom of the person in deciding whether or not “this particular way” of following Christ is a genuine call from God addressed to a particular person. One is not coerced, but invited to a discovery of others, Christ and one’s own self. This is the authentically Christian approach because it is the method of Christ Himself as we find Him in the Gospels.

Households are not movements, but they can learn from these movements. In fact, there’s probably nothing impossible about a household affiliating itself with a given movement in the Church. If Mrs. van Schaijik’s facts and assertions are correct, the necessary change in households and the University’s attitude toward them will come when greater freedom is given to those involved in households. Freedom is the pre-requisite for love and friendship. In addition, perhaps greater attention could be paid to discerning the motives and needs of students who wish to join households. I assume that the majority of households are not merely fraternities and sororities with a cross tacked-on. Joining with others in following Christ, even if the form of this following is transitory, is serious and should be approached in a serious way. Like any Catholic university, the household system should have as its goal preparing the total person for the challenges and pressures of the present age in service to the Church. To do so, both University and household system must serve the person, not rule over him or her.

Postscript. Space does not permit a discussion of the following questions which should be addressed in reference to the household system and the University itself. I place these questions on the table in the hope that they might be addressed in a future issue of the Concourse: From where have we as Christians drawn our models for organization? Is the household system (as it presently stands) a natural outgrowth of living faith (and hence ecclesial) or does it rely upon structures which have been borrowed from the dominant (secular) culture? That is, in organizing our life together do we look to Christ and Church or corporate America?

The Church is not destroyed by this dynamic because she is protected by the Holy Spirit. Neither households nor universities are guaranteed such protection.

Matt McGuiness, MA theology program