A thought about what might be behind the household problem

by Martha L. Blandford

The article, “How not to help households” really hit home; I couldn’t agree more with it’s analysis of the whole situation. Like Mrs. van Schaijik, I have maintained beautiful, long-lasting friendships with members of my household and will cherish the many joyful memories from our college days together. Still, I removed myself from campus after only three semesters, because household life was literally too draining—for all the reasons mentioned in the article. Since graduating in 1989, I have often wondered how student life on campus has evolved. (I had hoped the SLO had eased up on its stringent household requirements.) Old habits die hard, it seems. With this in mind, I would like to offer a personal insight into this issue.

Katie van Schaijik, Matt McGuiness, and Chris Wright all did an excellent job explaining the relationship between the Student Life Office (SLO) and the quality of household life on campus. My question is why would the SLO persist in such heavy-handedness? What makes their mode of operation—one that often results in placing unnecessary and burdensome demands on students&emdash;seem to them like the appropriate course of action? I suggest that the problem might be in an underlying set of pastoral concepts (inherited from the covenant communities) that are lacking a Catholic fullness, specifically in their depreciation of human nature and their over-emphasis on sin and weakness.

I believe this was the case when I attended the University; it was inherent in much of the “formation” I received outside the classroom. From teachings that discouraged dating (so we wouldn’t “fall into sin”) to the intense stress on household commitments—the underlying thinking seemed to be: do not trust yourself; you are weak; put your trust in others (the community on campus, your household, advisors or spiritual directors.)

Just the fact that SLO thought it necessary to provide so many extra-sacramental formation programs seems to me to indicate an imbalance. It points to a notion that students need to be protected from themselves (because, with their essentially sinful nature, they are apt to give in to every kind of depravity known or unknown) by bombarding them with a deluge of teachings, retreats, and household meetings.

As I understand it, the SLO’s goal is to help students become strong, moral, Catholic people. This is unequivocally a great and noble goal. But will these means accomplish it? It seems to me the very opposite is more likely to happen. Students will mistrust themselves and become dependent on support structures that won’t be there for them when they graduate.

By quashing students’ self-confidence another negative consequence is set in motion: neurotic introspection and false guilt syndromes. This type of introspection was rampant on campus while I attended, and it tempted students to focus mainly on their weaknesses with regard to “spiritual” matters, with those weaknesses being used as a way of relating to others.

One example of this was the growing “inner healing” movement on campus. While I attended FUS, it seemed everyone needed inner healing for some reason. I knew several people whose “woundedness” became their basic identity. More and more students were encouraged to see professional counselors. It was almost as if seeing a counselor gave students a higher status among their peers. My thoughts are that these students had given so much power to their weaknesses they had learned to fear sin rather than to hate it.

I realize that I am touching on a sensitive area , but I mean no disrespect to those who genuinely needed God’s healing touch. What I criticize is not the quiet workings of the Holy Spirit toward wholeness within the person, but rather a campus culture that emphasizes human weakness, instead of intellectual interests, personal accomplishments or shared Christian values.

I can’t stress enough how destructive this fixation on human frailty was. While household members were staunchly supportive of one another, the amount of emotional baggage shared at regular meetings was overwhelming. The household was meant to provide a supportive, nurturing environment in which to grow in Christian virtue and character, instead it began to resemble an amateur twelve-step program! As coordinator of a household for one year, I often felt anxious and ill equipped to help those in need. And I know our household was not unusual in this respect.

By making these criticisms, however, I do not want to devalue the importance of one’s community. The warm Christian community that surrounds FUS makes evident the fact that no man is an island. I was blessed many times over to have friends close by when going through difficulties, large or small. I am simply pointing out that one also needs to learn how to deal with life’s daily struggles, to certain extent, on one’s own. We need to make our own decisions and grow in the confidence of being able to do so—without demanding the constant affirmation of others. Most importantly, each of us needs to know that, because of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, we are essentially good, and that we operate in this world through this goodness to grow more in His likeness.

While I am very grateful that I was able to attend FUS, I believe I, like many others, struggled unnecessarily for the reasons already mentioned.

Fortunately, during my final semester, I took a course on the life and philosophy of Pope John Paul II. The understanding I gained in this course dramatically changed my view of myself and of Catholicism—making my faith more human, more real and more joyful than ever before. Suddenly, I felt free from the over-emphasized “flesh-is-weak” teachings that I had slavishly tried to understand and follow in my earlier years at FUS. Reading John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility and the encyclical The Redeemer of Man, I began to realize that my human nature, though at times weak and sinful, was redeemed by Christ.

Truly, I can’t begin to explain all the ways the teachings of our Holy Father have impacted my life for the good. It all seemed so revolutionary at the time, perhaps because I had followed some not-so-Catholic teachings while on campus—teachings that underestimated the gift humanity is. Certainly, it is right that we confess our sins and do penance; our life in Christ is a pilgrimage, often an uphill battle, and slip-ups are inevitable. Nevertheless, the SLO could help the “journey” by respecting, and therefore calling-out, the intrinsic goodness students and all persons freely possess in Christ. In doing so, students will surely become the morally strong Catholic people the world thirsts for.

Martha (Cotton) Blandford, Class of ‘89

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