Duties to family members include love, but with wisdom

| Father Michael Schmitz | May 1, 2017 | 0 Comments

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Q. There is a family member who keeps intruding in my life. I want to love this person well, and I don’t want to go against God’s teaching about the duty we owe to family, but this person’s constant interruptions and negative attitude are affecting my family and me. What can I do?

A. This is an important question, both for those who need a reminder that we have an obligation to the people around us and for those who need to remember that our families do not have an absolute claim on our time, energy or resources.

We have experienced an unprecedented fracturing of the family in our society and in our age. This is the cause of many of our problems. If you experience great loneliness or overwhelming detachment from the people around you, from your home or from your place in this world, it is likely a partial result of the breaking apart of the family. For the first time in history, we exist in a society that has reduced human life to the individual. While this movement has a grain of truth and goodness to it (the human person truly does have great intrinsic dignity and goodness), it has also resulted in exalting the individual to an absolute level.

We need to return to the full biblical truth regarding our responsibility to our own families. This includes the relationship that we have with our extended family members and our adult children, siblings and parents. God is very clear (in the Bible and through the Church) about the responsibilities children have to their parents. In his Letter to the Colossians, St. Paul writes, “Children, obey your parents in everything” (Col 3:20). This is a command from the Lord.

As children grow and gain more independence from their parents, this command changes in practice but not in essence. Further, once parents reach the place where they need the assistance of their grown children, they are owed a certain level of care.

All of this reminds us of God’s commands to be involved, to the degree that we are able, in the lives of family members. Please note, however, that the exact manner of this care is not specified. There are times when a grown child cannot care for the exact needs of siblings or parents. There are times when someone in need will require the help of those outside of the immediate family. There are times when professional care is required.

And there are times when one will have to set boundaries on the level of involvement one’s family has in one’s life. Jesus makes it clear that we are called to love him above father or mother, spouse, sibling and child (cf. Mt 10:37, Lk 9:59). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it in this way: “Family ties are important but not absolute. Just as the child grows to maturity and human and spiritual autonomy, so his unique vocation, which comes from God, asserts itself more clearly and forcefully. Parents should respect this call and encourage their children to follow it. They must be convinced that the first vocation of the Christian is to follow Jesus” (2232).

Therefore, we are left with the need for love and wisdom. We are commanded to love those people to whom we are related. Yet, we also need to be wise in the manner of that love. This “wise love” will necessarily involve creating boundaries.

We don’t often think of boundaries when it comes to love, but they are essential. Consider the following example. Imagine that a man’s mother is an addict. He consistently offers to be a part of her life, but she consistently avoids him — until she needs money for rent. One evening, she calls him and tells him that she needs a few thousand dollars for rent. If she can’t pay, she might be homeless. Now, her son has no obligation to enable his mother’s destructive behavior. He could, weighing out the options and the need for his mom to reach a “rock bottom,” allow her to fall.

This would not be done recklessly or without due consideration. It would also not be a final rejection of his mom. It would be temporarily withholding help so as to help her when she is ready to change. He could draw a boundary.

I have found that we typically continue the kinds of behaviors that others allow us to get away with. The same is true for others: They usually continue the behaviors we allow them to get away with.

Keep this in mind, however. Once you draw a boundary, they might get upset with you. That’s fine. If someone had become used to poisoning your drinking water and you responded by placing a seal around your water, and they became angry with you for that, you wouldn’t remove the seal so that they could keep on poisoning you. The same is true for poisonous behavior. If you place a boundary around yourself that keeps out the behavior, they might become upset that you are not allowing them to poison your mood. That is no reason to allow the poisonous words and behavior to continue.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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