Parents are flooded with advice about how to raise their kids, but Theology of the Body scholar Bill Donaghy says what they really need is a spirituality rooted in the fundamental reality of what it means to be a human family.
by Jerry Windley-Daoust
Parenting advice has never been more readily available than now, thanks to the Internet and its army of click-hungry content creators. But what parents really need, says Bill Donaghy, is not more parenting strategies, but a new spirituality—one grounded in the fundamental reality of what it means to be human, and what it means to be a family.
Donaghy will be making the case for such a spirituality at the International Theology of the Body Congress coming up in Ontario, California, at the end of September. The Congress has chosen as its theme “Love, Mercy, and the Gift of the Family,” and Donaghy, who is a curriculum specialist with the Theology of the Body Institute, will be one of the presenters.
“The curious thing is, when I teach Theology of the Body to parents, they don’t go away saying, ‘I got this great content that I can use with my kids,’” Donaghy says. “They actually take it in and allow it to penetrate their person. They come away with a real sense that they are a gift; that God’s love is the first gift they must receive; and that all creation, and particularly their family and their child, are a gift, and that what they are fundamentally called to do is to give back.”
In an interview with Peanut Butter & Grace in advance of the Congress, Donaghy talked about what the Theology of the Body has to offer parents and families. Rather than proposing a new set of rules for families to follow, Donaghy says the Theology of the Body proposes a way of living in harmony with the natural dynamic that God has woven into the family—one that’s liberating for parents and children alike.
Theology of the Body is the name that has been applied to a series of 129 papal addresses delivered by Pope John Paul II between 1979 and 1984. The addresses reflected on what it means for human beings to be created male and female, as complementary beings. Underlying the reflections is the assumption that all of creation, and particularly the human body, serves as a sort of “first revelation” of God, a sort of “book” that can be “read,” much as we read and interpret Sacred Scripture.
Students of Theology of the Body have largely focused on its implications for human sexuality and marriage, since that was the focus of the pope’s addresses. But John Paul II never intended to limit its scope to human sexuality, and the latest work in the field has begun to apply it to other areas of human life, including the family.
And what do Theology of the Body scholars see when they look at the family? An icon of the Trinitarian God, according to Donaghy. A man and a woman become one flesh in marriage, much like the three persons of the Trinity are united by love in one God. The marital love of a man and a woman is oriented to generating new life, and similarly, the love of the Trinity is not contained but overflows, the source of all creation.
This is what Pope John Paul II meant when he said, “God is not a solitude; God is a family,” Donaghy says. And if the natural dynamic of the family is patterned on the Trinity, it makes sense to live family life in harmony with that dynamic.
“When we look at the family, we see this paradigm of giving and receiving love,” Donaghy says. “And when we surrender to this exchange of love, we lose ourselves. We need to be selfless and to think of others—and paradoxically, that’s where we discover ourselves. That’s where we discover the difference between man and woman. And that’s where we discover fatherhood and motherhood, which St. John Paul II says is the full flowering of the human person. Every man is called in some way to fatherhood, every woman is called in some way to motherhood. That’s single, celibate, married—every vocation is called to fatherhood or motherhood in some way.”
Theology of the Body scholars call this the Law of the Gift—the principle that human beings become most fully themselves through the dynamic of giving and receiving in covenanted relationships.
And this is the fundamental insight that the Theology of the Body brings to family life: that the family is an icon of the Trinity, and that all the members of the family are meant to become most fully themselves by living according to the Law of the Gift.
Here are four lessons that parents can take away from that central insight.
1. Receive the gift of your family in reverent wonder
Your spouse and children are not possessions, entitlements, or problems to be solved. Rather, they are gifts given to you by God for your growth in holiness, so that you can become fully who you were made to be.
The first step for parents who want to live in harmony with God’s vision for the family, then, is to open their hearts to God’s gift in their spouse and children. Once parents have opened their hearts to the gift, it calls forth in them a response of gratitude and reverent wonder.
“It’s all about receptivity, I think,” Donaghy says. “When parents have open hearts like that, then kids can learn that, too.”
2. Approach parenting as an act of stewardship
Related to the insight that children are a gift rather than a possession is the corollary that parents are the stewards of their children.
“I am not the owner of my child, so to speak, but a steward, a custodian,” Donaghy says.
A favorite phrase of Pope John Paul II gets at the essence of this stewardship: “A person should never be used, but a person can only be loved.”
And that is the primary role of parent-stewards: to love their children in a way that helps them become fully themselves. “Parents initiate the gift, children receive it, and in receiving it, they learn how to give,” Donaghy says.
3. Let go of the illusion of control
If the family is patterned after the dynamic of the Holy Trinity’s exchange of love, then freedom is essential to that dynamic, because as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, there can be no love without freedom.
“God is not a controlling father, so God forbid that we become controlling parents,” Donaghy says. “This is the freedom of the gift, to use the language of John Paul II: If there is no freedom, the family is going to fail.”
Respecting the principle of freedom also acknowledges the reality that parents can’t “control” their kids anyway, Donaghy says. Acquiescing to that reality is “purifying” for parents who think they need to be (or can be) “in charge” of their children’s lives—at least not in a way that objectifies them. The only one truly “in control” of your kids is God, and God opts to provide them with the freedom to choose love.
On the other hand, when parents act out their stewardship from a starting place of reverent wonder, the emphasis of their parenting shifts to love and mercy. As Donaghy puts it, “You have to have that listening heart, that love that allows others to breathe.”
He is not suggesting that kids do not need structure within the family. But the focus of a family that operates out of the law of the gift will be on structure rather than stricture, he says.
4. The family is a school for you, too
As the Church has been saying for centuries, the family is a school of love. But not all of the lessons are for the children.
“Many of them you’re receiving from your children,” Donaghy says. “Parents become students of life themselves in the school of the family.”
And one of the primary lessons for parents in the school of the family is the “purification of our own selfishness.”
As the father of four kids, Donaghy knows all about the sort of purification that comes from messy kids, tight finances, and sleepless nights. “I’m in the middle of that right now,” he says with a laugh. “It hurts like heck, but it also brings me joy to cooperate with God in shaping a person’s life.”
And that joy? That is at the heart of the gift that is the family, if we choose to be open to it.
Look for Peanut Butter & Grace at this year’s Theology of the Body Congress (booth 31), where Bill Donaghy will be speaking on “The Beautiful Mess of the Family.” For more information regarding program schedule, cost, and travel details, visit http://www.tobcongress.com/program/.
Bill Donaghy is an instructor, international speaker, and curriculum specialist for the Theology of the Body Institute Certification Program. He and his wife, Rebecca, live just outside of Philadelphia with their four children.