The marriage of Joseph and Mary

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By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion;
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It is a standing lesson to Christian souls that the amount and endurance of their work depends far more upon the character which they have previously formed than on the years of labour that they put into life.  Patiently, quietly should a man fashion and temper that sole real tool with which all that he does is finally achieved.  The only thing or person on which he can always depend is himself; on himself then, above all, must he concentrate.  The preacher, the organiser, the administrator, is such in virtue of his own soul; because he has learnt to control himself, he can hope to control others; because he can set in order the household of his heart, he may dream of arranging in due and precise relation the affairs and work of others; only if he has found the way to God can he dare venture to lead others in the same pathway since only he knows whither it leads.  Only a man who has built carefully his character may hope one day to build the world 'nearer to the heart's desire'.

Fr Bede Jarrett O.P., Life of St Dominic, Doubleday, New York, 1964, pp. 23-4

Our grandparents understood the principles of discipline and their application in the family better than we do.  The philosophy of the age--materialist and subjectivist--has infiltrated our minds via radio, television and the newspapers and confused our thinking.  The very word discipline is treated pejoratively by the media.  It is only in families where there has been insistence on rectitude that the true spirit of discipline has not been lost.  And even in these families it is rarely found unmoderated.

True discipline is only correctly understood and applied in the teaching of the Catholic Church because the Church is the only human institution of which God, from whom all authority comes, is the head.  It is the only human institution which is also Divine.  Regrettably, the heresy of Modernism, according to which the Church must conform to the mores of the world, has affected the thinking and beliefs of many within the Church, including bishops and priests, and this has corrupted their understanding of the principles of discipline, of its need and its application.

Discipline is rooted in the virtues and in the need for each of us to grow in virtue every day.  Domestic prudence is concerned with the appropriate means to be applied to achieve the domestic ends--harmony in the family and the growth of the character and the development of the talents of each of its members.  Discipline is the means which prudence applies to achieve its ends.

How a man disciplines his child is largely learnt from the way his own father exercised discipline.  If his father was a poor disciplinarian, it is likely that he will be too.  But the principles can be learnt and the errors in their application corrected.  The paradox is that in order to be free, we must have limits.  For this reason the child wants[1] limits placed on his behaviour.  It is part of the providence of God that he will constantly seek to test those limits.  The parent must ensure, then, that they are drawn clearly and enforced firmly.

All discipline in the family is rooted in the authority of the father who derives his authority from God[2].  Even the directions of the mother are ultimately rooted in the father's authority.  If the child disobeys his mother, it is the father's authority he is flouting.  Therefore the father must always support the mother's exercise of authority as she must support his.

This analysis will consider discipline through each of its four causes, but not rigorously lest there be fragmentation of argument.  For it is inevitable that an argument will move between the causes.  They will be considered in this order of causality--final, formal, material and efficient.

What is the reason for it (final cause)

*       We start with the end to be attained[3] otherwise we won't know where we are going.  Discipline is aimed at the growth of virtue and the repression of any inclination to vice in the child.  Virtue is increased by the repetition of good acts as vice is increased by the repetition of evil acts.

*       Discipline is for the good, not for the harm, of the child.

*       What discipline aims at particularly in the child is docility--literally teachability.  That is not achieved until the child's natural inclination to please itself is controlled.  This defect derives from the effects of Original Sin which remain after baptism[4].  Control of this defect must first be achieved from without.  Ultimately it must be achieved by the child himself, from within.  The imposition of a regime of discipline on the child has as its end, then, that the child will eventually discipline himself.

*       Discipline is for the good not only of the individual but of society.  The order in any society is a function of the discipline preserved in each of its constituent families.

What it is (formal cause)

*       Discipline is the ability of the person to control himself in the face of temptations to distraction, to dissipation or indulgence to which he is inclined by virtue of his wounded nature.

*       The need for discipline arises from the effects of original sin which incline us to do what we should not do and not to do what we should do [cf Romans 7:21].

*       All discipline must be accompanied by love.  Indeed, properly speaking, every act of discipline is an act of love.  The parent must see that the child who has been appropriately chastised is spoken to quietly soon afterwards that the child may see the reason behind the parent's act.  The hand which has been used to discipline the child must be laid on him lovingly at least as frequently.  A child who only experiences the touch of his parent in the form of chastisement will grow up lacking a true sense of physical affection. This can have profoundly harmful effects in the later life of the child, especially the sensitive child.

*       Every child has his own temperament and dispositions.  It follows that each child must be disciplined in a way appropriate to that child, a way which will tend to address his weaknesses and enhance his strengths.  The parent must, then, as early as possible--

-exercise control over the headstrong child;

-encourage the diffident child;

-rightly direct the wilful child;

-channel the stubbornness of the stubborn child to good ends;

-lead in the right direction the child who is easily led;

-treat with sensitivity the sensitive child but encourage him to face the harshness of life's reality;

-curb the dominance of the dominating child and direct him lest this talent descend into oppression over his fellows.

*       The parent's intention should be that the child will obey responsibly--that is, that he will adopt as reasonable the parent's directions--not slavishly (out of fear).  So there should not be too little exertion of authority, nor must there be too much.  (The mean of virtue is between excess and defect.)

What it requires (material cause)

*       Discipline in the child demands hard work on the part of parents.  Yet once established it is relatively easy to maintain, provided there is never any lapse from its principles.  Poor discipline brings in its train a constant drain on the resources of the family which makes its functioning relatively inefficient and prevents the child achieving the ends he is capable of achieving.  It may also serve to distort the child's character.

*       Discipline demands good example.  Indeed, it is mainly taught by example.  If the parent says one thing and then does the opposite, the child will emulate the parent's example rather than his direction.  Hence the force of the aphorism--actions speak louder than words.

*       It requires the establishment and maintenance of a family regime, both daily and weekly.  There must be a set time for going to bed and for rising, for meals, for prayers.  The regime must be the norm.  This does not mean that there may not be departures, but they must be exceptional.  It goes without saying that the regime must ensure that each member of the family gets adequate sleep.

*       It almost always requires physical chastisement, at least in the early stages.  The philosophy of the age is immersed in materialism and modern social scientists have lost all sense of distinction according to formal objects.  They do not understand that the same action (the matter) may have two different and contrary formalities (the form).  Smacking a child may be done as abuse--and then it is for the harm of the child, and is evil.  Or it may be done as an act of discipline--and then it is for the good of the child, and is good.  In other words, what matters is not what is done, but why it is done.  For this reason, too, the parent must judge carefully the measure of chastisement to be applied, so that discipline does not descend into abuse.

*       Chastisement must be carried out in such a way as to respect the dignity of the child.  This means that in the case of serious chastisement he must not be demeaned and humiliated in front of his fellows but taken apart from them for the purpose.

How it is achieved (efficient cause)

*        Discipline first requires training which involves the application of pain and pleasure.  So a wise man has said that when they are very young, children must be treated like young animals.  It should be noted that training is not education.  Training chiefly involves the body.  Education chiefly involves the mind.

*       Discipline is not properly imposed by words but by deeds.  The parent should aim to achieve the position where he does not have to speak to his child more than once.  If the child disobeys, the parent should then act, and act again, and again, if necessary, until the stage is reached where the child does as he is told when first asked.  It is easy to speak: it requires much more effort to act.  Insofar as the parent acts rather than speaks, so will discipline be better imposed.

*       Discipline is not assisted by raising the voice, by shouting or yelling at the child.  Indeed, this brings harm in its train for it encourages the child to emulate the parent by shouting or yelling himself.

*       It is not necessary for the parent to become angry to impose discipline.  Indeed it is best if he does not.  A dispassionate imposition of discipline removes the suggestion that it is a product of choler or irritation.

*       Children are, of course, more than animals, they are persons--rational beings--and as they grow, regard for their rights and duties as persons must loom larger and larger.  They must be directed as they grow older, as Aristotle said, 'by clever political management'.  From as early an age as possible, they must be urged, by appeal, to will the good and fitting and to reject the contrary.  The older the child grows the more must this aspect of discipline be used until eventually the stage is reached when there can no longer be resort to physical chastisement.

Disobedience and defiance should be dealt with immediately so that the connection between misconduct and sanction is clear.  This is especially the case with the very young where the connection between cause and effect might not otherwise be understood.  The sanction must be not put off.  A good illustration of the immediacy of action necessary is to be found in chapter 14 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird[5] where the young heroine, Scout, speaks rudely to her aunt in front of her father.

The child is extremely conscious of his entitlement to be treated justly.  But that entitlement must be subjected to the demands of authority which is for the ultimate good of the family.  Moreover, it does no harm to the child to suffer injustice from time to time.

If discipline is not achieved in the child by a certain age (within the family) it will prove difficult to achieve.  The child will have developed habits harmful both to himself and to society.  Discipline can only now be achieved through extrinsic and accidental forces, as when he breaches the civil law and suffers punishment imposed by the civil authorities.  Such a one finds that his will is constantly controverted; that he makes foolish decisions; that misfortune frequently afflicts him; that his plans go awry; that he makes nothing of himself and he achieves little of any consequence.  This is in accordance with the Divine admonition that God resists the proud.  Moreover, the bad habits more deeply ingrained through repetition will prove more and more difficult to alter than had they been conquered in his youth.

The man who has not learnt the lessons of discipline when he was young and malleable, must learn them through hardship and suffering.

[1]   In the sense desires.  He also needs limits.  Cf Hebrews 12:5 et seq.; Proverbs 3:11-12; Revelations 3:19.

[2]  Cf. Ephesians 3:15--from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.  Most modern translations of the passage are defective in that they replace fatherhood with family.

[3]   That which is first in intention is last in execution.

[4]  It is this theological truth which divides Catholics (and, depending on the degree of their adherence to Catholic doctrine, other Christians) from worldly educational theorists.  The view of Jean Jaques Rousseau, which consciously or unconsciously they adopt, is the naïve one that the child is born in a state of native goodness.

[5]   Once described to the author by Sydney philosopher, Dr Geoffrey Deegan, as a marvellous study in domestic prudence.