Recently, a sharp Catholic woman of our acquaintance inquired whether St. Alphonsus Liguori had held that a parent with the care of children was dispensed from the obligation to hear Mass. Others noted that the great Doctor Zelantissimus addresses the subject in Theologia Moralis III.3.3.5 where he holds, essentially, that mothers who do not have a safe place to leave their infants or who cannot bring their children to church without causing a notable disturbance, are excused from attending Mass. Of course, if there’s a parent with whom the children may safely be left while the other attends Mass, one imagines that the relaxation tightens back up pretty quickly.
This subject has been on our mind over the past few days, given the exchange between Tommy Tighe at Aleteia and Steve Skojec at One Peter Five. Tighe makes the points, not wholly novel, that (1) he knows his kids are messy and distracting and (2) the woman who rebuked him was being un-Christian and thereby missed an opportunity to improve the state of her own soul by rising above the distraction. Or something. He also suggested that, well, he didn’t know what was in that woman’s life that led her to rebuke him. (Maybe she’s infertile! Maybe they’re each other’s crosses to bear! Or something.) Skojec, perhaps predictably, was having none of this, and responded point by point to Tighe. He also updated his post, moderating the snark a little bit, but standing by the substance of his argument. But the thrust of the discussion is this: how do parents deal with potentially loud, usually messy children at Church? (Especially in Forma Extraordinaria parishes, where there are certain norms of conduct that are usually a little more stringent than what’s going on at the “contemporary choir” Mass.)
This is not the first go-round on this debate, either, though this may be the first time that Tighe and Skojec have been the disputants. (We don’t know, though. We are more familiar with Skojec’s commentary on other issues in the Church and we had not heard of Tighe before now. Perhaps we ought to pay more attention.)
And the easy answer, of course, would be to point to St. Alphonsus and say, well, if you can’t leave the children at home safely and if you’re pretty sure that they’re going to cause a major disturbance, then you are excused from hearing Mass. Of course, parents who can watch children in shifts can surely safely leave their children at home. But, as the Holy Father and the Synod of Bishops have reminded us repeatedly in recent months, there are all manner of families that have suffered injuries and no longer have both parents living under the same roof. And, even then, the inquiry is not as straightforward as one might first imagine. That is, whether one can more safely leave children at home than in Alphonsus’s time and whether children are less likely to raise a ruckus than in Alphonsus’s time are open questions—though we suspect, with respect to the latter question, that toddlers’ ruckuses are probably pretty comparable across the years.
But, we wonder to what extent do we owe it to each other to help out? (Cf. Gal. 5:14.) When our acquaintance raised the issue, our first thought was that it would be nice if suitable men and women without children offered to help out. (Suitability is obviously an important criterion in all this, and that cannot be understated.) For example, if a couple without children at home habitually attended the vigil Mass on Saturday night, it would be awfully nice of them to offer to watch their neighbor’s toddler while he heard Mass on Sunday morning. Or vice versa, if an unmarried woman without children habitually heard Mass on Sunday mornings but rarely made plans for Saturday evenings that would conflict with the vigil Mass, she might offer to watch the neighbor’s children while their mother heard the vigil Mass. There are any number of permutations to the arrangement. Such an offer may well obtain graces for the men and women who help out or serve as penitential offerings, in addition to potentially obtaining the Jubilee Indulgence attached by the Holy Father to all the physical and corporal works of mercy during the Year of Mercy.
But more than that, it seems to us that this sort of cooperative childcare arrangement, which, for all we know, happens in almost every parish in Christendom (except, seemingly, our own), is exactly the sort of thing that helps build the sort of community that Rod Dreher has talked about at staggering length in recent years. You know, the so-called Benedict Option. While we disagree with Dreher about some of the particulars of his idea, not the least of which is the fact that you need a priest willing to play along, we certainly do not dispute the basic contention that Christians need to form tighter-knit communities to deal effectively with an increasingly hostile culture. This goes double for traditionally minded Catholics who are usually, to quote Magazine’s 1978 single, shot by both sides. But it seems to us that a sense that the world has moved into another, more aggressive phase in its doomed campaign against Christ and Christ’s Church is probably not the sort of thing that really knits a community together. But a tradition of charity, especially when it takes the form of looking after each other’s children, seems like the sort of thing that just might do the trick.
Of course, justice, whether it’s distributive or commutative, consists of giving each person his due. (E.g., ST IIa IIae q.58 a.1 obj. 1 & co.; q.61 a.2 co.) By those lights, maybe the arrangement we have discussed above isn’t justice—that is, maybe we don’t owe each other this sort of cooperation, though certainly one could find precedents for it throughout the life of the Church and the life of Christendom before things went off the rails—but if it’s charity, it seems like the sort of charity that seems like it would serve the common good of the community tremendously. And, even if one isn’t interested in forming a tight-knit community of Christians in any given setting, it’s the sort of charity that may well make common life a little smoother. Instead of getting shirty with the parent of a rambunctious brood or making comments in a stage whisper about those ill-bred children, it may well be good for the life of the parish to offer politely to sit with the children at home next week while the parent hears Mass. (And to provide one’s references!)