I recently made a post on Facebook complaining about the evil-looking toys that are included in some of the so-called “kids meals” at fast food restaurants. I had seen others in the past, such as creepy teenage vampires and skull faces, but the latest one that raised my eyebrows was a small round blob of a “monster” called Diablo or something like that. Not only did it have a little forked devil tail and horns, but wings and an ugly face that changes expressions as the position of the toy is moved. This particular little guy comes in the standard red color and a glow-in-the-dark “special edition.”
There’s something about toys like this that give me the creeps, and of course my wife and I do all we can to preemptively request more wholesome toys at the drive-thru speaker. This one slipped through the radar and was confiscated and discretely discarded later. Making the best out of a bad situation, this seemed like great material for an article, with the Christmas shopping season upon us.
Devil Toys, Really?
I got a few responses to my Facebook post, mostly supportive of my online whining. But the response that got my attention was from a lady who disagreed, and in a series of posts she berated me for a variety of reasons. The main thrust of the argument was that I was 1) seeing a devil behind every rock; 2) not realizing that Jesus had redeemed the world, and that creation was good; 3) novel toys with bright colors are great for kids; and 4) things from other cultures (Japan) aren’t automatically bad.
So obviously, the charge was that I was a) over reacting, b) a fundamentalist with little true understanding of my faith, c) a Grinch who wanted to deprive children of brightly colored comical characters, and d) a bigot, not appreciating the finer points of pagan pantheism. (Obviously, I am adding a slight flair of hyperbole and sarcasm to my description of this argument, but sadly, that was the major thrust.)
Clearly, short of some kind of cursed object, plastic toys are not intrinsically evil. They aren’t a substance which if touched will corrupt children and cause them to be demonically possessed. Of course, that was never my point. Let’s break this down in terms of the several Catholic principles in play here.
Applying Catholic Principles
First, as Pope St. John Paul II reminded us in Familiaris consortio in 1981, parents are the primary educators of their children and have a moral obligation to raise them in the faith. It is not the job of a school, other relatives, and especially the world to educate our children. And for a short time, parents are in charge of the materials to which their children are exposed and the circumstances in which that happens. So, in my domestic church, my wife and I have the moral responsibility and the authority to make prudential choices for our children, especially in terms of their faithful catechesis.
Secondly, we are called to be in this world, but certainly not of this world. We are called to have a Catholic Christian world-view, not a secular pagan world-view. This means that from a very early age, we need to teach our children the principles by which to operate in this world, and remain in Christ and of Christ without succumbing to the temptations of this world. The operating principle here is that evil, regardless of how colorfully and entertainingly presented, isn’t something we should consume or enjoy. As Scripture tells us, the Devil often presents himself as an angel of light. How about as brightly colored children’s toys? Evil never shows its true self until later.
Thirdly, Jesus died to redeem us and the world. However, as we can surmise from observation, the world remains full of suffering and evil – and we are most certainly vulnerable to temptation and can lose salvation. The heretical viewpoint of “once saved, always saved” seems to sometimes creep into our point of view. We do not have an absolute assurance of salvation; rather, we have a moral assurance of salvation, or the theological virtue of Hope. If we stay on the path by leading a sacramental life, we have a moral assurance of being saved. Until that time, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and things of this world can interfere with that journey. Jesus’ death and resurrection gives us the means of salvation, and we will see a fully redeemed physical world at the resurrection, at the end of time. Along the way, people and things can work to mess that up.
Fourthly, it follows therefore that choices matter. We have a free will, and our free will can be led by grace to salvation or by sin to disaster. We have a universe of choices that face us daily, as individuals and as parents. Which choice will be the tipping point? Remember, the fall of mankind was initiated with a single choice, to disobey God and eat the apple, just as the salvation of the world was initiated by one single “yes” to God. What kind of choices do we make?
Lastly, closely related to the third and fourth points is the reality that the Devil is the prince of this world. Prominent catechist Servant of God Fr. John Hardon, S.J. expounds on this thoroughly in his treatment of the subject, but suffice it to say that in the Gospel of John Jesus calls the Devil the prince of this world three times. This is a reference to a world of sin, a world which came about through the fall of Adam, which killed Jesus, and which is redeemed only through Jesus. The Devil operates day and night, sometimes working through other people, to mess us up, and get us off the path.
The Council of Trent’s decree on justification sums it up succinctly:
Nevertheless, let those who think themselves to stand, take heed lest they fall, and, with fear and trembling work out their salvation, in labours, in watchings, in almsdeeds, in prayers and oblations, in fastings and chastity: for, knowing that they are born again unto a hope of glory, but not as yet unto glory, they ought to fear for the combat which yet remains with the flesh, with the world, with the devil, wherein they cannot be victorious, unless they be with God’s grace, obedient to the Apostle, who says; We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh; for if you live according to the flesh, you shall die; but if by the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. (Sixth Session)
Rome Was Not Built in A Day
So, now that we’ve established Church teaching on the spiritual warfare in which we are engaged, just what does a little plastic toy in a kids meal have to do with all of this? It’s one little toy, right? To answer that question, let’s pull back the lens a bit, and ask another question: is a child raised in a day?
No! In the span of years, hundreds if not thousands of interactions and impressions form the character of a young person. Some interactions, such as forms of abuse or trauma, can undo years of parenting in an instant. But typically, small experiences over years add up to form the basic principles and world-view of a person. Parents, as the primary educators of their child, know that some experiences can be chosen, and some are forced upon us by the world.
So should we eliminate any reference to the “bad guys” in the toys to which we expose our children? After all, even the Bible mentions the Devil. I grew up playing “army men” and some of those little plastic figures were Nazi soldiers. I even played Dungeons and Dragons, which had many evil figures. I read Hardy Boys novels and watched Scooby Doo cartoons which had evil antagonists. In these examples, there is a clear-cut distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” The action of play, or the story, was always sympathetic to the cause of the “good guys” and the defeat of evil. You knew who the good guys were and wanted them to win. In these more recent examples, the evil figures have become the protagonists. The lines get blurred between what’s good and what’s evil when all the characters are vampires or werewolves. Even modern cartoons are sympathetic to the villains, and in the case of one new TV show, the Devil himself. This is where we must draw the line – where the concept of the toy departs the Christian allegory into a neo-pagan world view.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to observe that the world is not on our side. Turn on network television, look at billboards, turn on the radio, and browse the Internet — within a short time you will encounter the seven deadly sins on parade and shoved in your face, marketed in brightly colored, enticing packaging. It’s the anti-Christ preaching an anti-Bible and an anti-Catechism. So, living in a world like this, which is clearly under the influence of evil, how do we ensure that our children will be placed on the path to holiness, and walk with Christ throughout their lives?
Building a Foundation of Holiness
That question is answered in each and every deliberate choice we make for our children. Like bricks laid in a foundation, the behaviors we model and the choices we make for our family establish principles which facilitate virtue in a person’s life. Good bricks build up solid walls that withstand the storm. Bad bricks laid on sand will end in moral disaster. As Jesus said,
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? (Luke 11:11-12)
So, is a little devil toy an objective moral evil that will cause imminent moral disaster? No. But neither is turning a blind eye to the garbage that the world wants to feed our children a sign of moral assurance of salvation, or the theological virtue of hope. It’s irresponsible and it can be easily avoided. It’s allowing the world to lay another small brick in the wall between our child and God, something that this culture of death loves to do. Devil-faced toys don’t glorify God, or spread the Gospel. Devil figurines are still devil figurines, even if they are a “special edition” glow-in-the-dark version. It’s not funny, and it’s not cute. It’s chilling. And what’s even more chilling is that some Christians fail to realize that they are in the midst of a fight with the flesh, the world, and the Devil for their souls and the souls of their children. Passive Catholicism, watered down with moral equivalency, has created a generation of “nice people” that leave the Church, endangering their own salvation. By “nice people,” I mean inoffensive people that don’t take a moral stand, or who are simply unaware that these things matter. It is an axiom that there is no neutral in the spiritual life: you either are moving forward to holiness or in reverse towards worldliness.
So, am I a fundamentalist nut? An extremist? Not quite. I’m deadly serious about raising a saint, and I’ll take my queue on how to apply these principles from the saints. Here are two. St. Josemaria Escriva said, “Anything that does not lead to God is a hindrance. Root it out and throw it far from you.” This was probably an echo of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it” (from Principle and Foundation of The Spiritual Exercises).
And these drive-through toys aren’t the only trash you will see on the shelves this Christmas. You’ll no doubt see a wide variety of teenage vampires and werewolves, skulls with pretty pink hair bows on kid’s clothing, Ouija boards, and collectible monster game cards that teach children that might makes right and personal power is all that matters. Much of this merchandise comes from books and movies, which are another complex maze to navigate for parents. We’ll leave that to another article. Beware of toys that don’t build up the principles that underlie lasting moral character, don’t uphold the virtues, and aren’t helping us to raise future saints. Poison kills in small doses.
So, no thanks to the devil toy. We choose better things for our daughter that lay a great foundation for heroic virtue and holiness. We jettison the rest. Is it comfortable to go against the grain and ask for something better? No. Will children understand these choices? No. Nobody said carrying our cross in opposition to this world would be easy. Sometimes that’s going to be manifested in weird looks at the drive-through or screaming kids in the back seat. So be it.
Christ warned us that if the world hated him, it would hate us, too. The world does not hate us for agreeing with it.