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Do you care if your kids stay Catholic?

Do you care if your kids stay Catholic?

Back home, at last, from Ireland. What a trip! I’m going to be thinking about this for a while. The holy wells, the medieval hermit’s cave, the ruins of ancient monasteries. There wasn’t enough time. Being there in such a “thin” place only magnifies the tragedy of Christianity’s collapse in the Emerald Isle.

But look at this sign of time times in America, from Pew Research:


Pew goes on to say that

About a third (35%) of U.S. parents with children under 18 say it’s extremely or very important to them that their kids have similar religious beliefs to their own as adults, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. But attitudes on this question vary by the religious affiliation of the parents.

A bar chart showing that White evangelical parents in the U.S. are most likely to say it’s important that their kids share their religious views when they’re adults

The story that this graphic accompanies clarifies that:


Views on this question also differ by how frequently parents attend religious services. Parents who attend religious services weekly or more often are more than three times as likely as those who attend less often to say it’s important to raise children who will share their religious views (76% vs. 21%).

That’s an important caveat. It is well established in social science that parents who don’t practice the faith regularly are more likely to raise kids who are unbelievers, or at least who don’t care much about religion. It stands to reason, then, that if you aren’t going to services faithfully, you are probably not going to care overmuch what kind of religious beliefs your kids have.

On the other hand, some do. I have known Evangelical converts out of Catholicism who report that their parents only went to mass on Christmas and Easter, but were hurt and offended when their kid became serious about Christianity, and joined an Evangelical church. Something similar happened to me with my dad when I left Methodism for Catholicism in my twenties. Our family only intermittently went to church. My finding Jesus as a Catholic upset my dad, not for theological reasons at all (he had nothing against Catholics, and couldn’t have told you the differences between Methodists and Mormons), but because to him, it felt like betraying family tradition.

Still, it is telling that so few Catholic and Mainline Protestant parents are indifferent to their children’s religious beliefs. By now, you kind of expect that from Mainline Protestants; the theological indifference of so many Mainline parents to the faith of their children tracks with the decline of those denominations. Besides, as denominational distinctives have faded among Protestants of all kinds, it is not hard to understand why it may not concern a regular-churchgoing Presbyterian parent all that much if her child ends up worshiping at a non-denominational Bible church — as long as the kid goes to church somewhere.

But Catholicism makes very strong claims about its uniqueness. It’s startling to see how low those numbers are for Catholics. True, it’s almost certainly the case that the mere 35 percent of Catholic parents who are extremely/very concerned that their children share their faith are also those who attend mass weekly. Even so, that low number is a bad sign for American Catholicism’s future.

Did you know that most US Hispanics are not Catholic? TIt happened over only a single decade. Almost all of the decline away from Catholicism is due not to conversion, but to Hispanic Catholics losing their faith. Hispanic Protestants, by contrast, gained slightly:

Here’s another startling fact about US Catholics from Pew:

Catholicism has experienced a greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S. Overall, 13% of all U.S. adults are former Catholics – people who say they were raised in the faith, but now identify as religious “nones,” as Protestants, or with another religion. By contrast, 2% of U.S. adults are converts to Catholicism – people who now identify as Catholic after having been raised in another religion (or no religion). This means that there are 6.5 former Catholics in the U.S. for every convert to the faith.  No other religious group analyzed in the 2014 Religious Landscape Study has experienced anything close to this ratio of losses to gains via religious switching.

What to make of all this? I’ve said before that when I became Catholic, I was surprised to discover that despite what the Church says officially, Catholic parish life in the United States is pretty much Mainline Protestantism. There are reasons for that; one important one is that many bishops and priests are trying to be all things to all people, and keep everybody happy by being as generic as possible. (A good book to read about how this kind of thing went down in one important archdiocese is the Catholic journalist Phil Lawler’s rich explanation of the collapse of Catholicism in Boston, The Faithful Departed. It started there long before the abuse scandal, and, says Lawler, is mostly down to the hierarchy deciding that assimilation to American norms was the most important thing.)

The collapse of Catholicism in Ireland was much swifter and harsher than in the US, for reasons particular to Ireland and its relationship to the Church. But its steadily happening in the United States too, as the entire country rapidly de-Christianizes. The Pew numbers are yet more evidence that though the decline is affecting all churches, it’s especially hard on Catholics and Mainline Protestants. The churches that will survive this Great Falling Away are those who are crowded with people who believe that that form of Christianity offers something nobody else has, and is worth passing on to their kids. That 70 percent of white Evangelicals believe it’s extremely/very important that their kids believe as they do is no guarantee that their kids actually will, but it’s a much better start than Catholics or Mainline Protestants have.

If you can’t comment below but have something you’d like me to consider for publication as an update, write to me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com, and put the word CATHOLIC in the subject line.

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