Commonweal is running a great series of essays addressing the topic of raising children in the Catholic faith. It’s something that all of us religious believers, Catholic or not, should read, given the high rate of falling-away from faith among younger Americans.
In the introductory piece, J. Peter Nixon writes about how he came to embrace the Catholic faith, despite having fallen-away Catholic parents. His story is interesting because it’s impossible to discern cause-and-effect. He’s the kind of person who wouldn’t reasonably end up Catholic … but he did. He’s doing his best to give his children the Catholic formation that he didn’t have growing up. But:
Most of the time, though, I feel that I am failing. I am writing these words shortly after yet another argument with my precocious twelve-year-old daughter about why she has to come to Mass with us, an argument that usually ends with me frustrated and her in tears. She claims that she is an atheist and hates going to Mass. Of course, she says she hates going to Mass in the same tone that she uses to say she hates showers or cleaning her room. My fourteen-year-old son is not particularly passionate on these questions, but has made clear that he has no intention of going to Mass when he is no longer under our supervision.
No doubt many readers will think I am being unduly pessimistic. This sort of adolescent rebellion is very common, even healthy, they will argue. Children who leave the church in their high-school and college years have often returned when they marry or have children.
Alas, that pattern seems to be breaking down. The fastest-growing religious community in the United States is those who claim no religious identity. These “nones” account for almost one-third of adults under thirty, and their number is growing. There was a time when the “thickness” of Catholic culture exerted a strong pull on those who had left. That culture, however, no longer has the power it once did, and efforts to restore its exterior trappings are too often tinged with a peculiarly Catholic form of fundamentalism.
I am not worried that my children will be bad people. They are too much like their dutiful parents for that. I am sure they will be gainfully employed, take jury service seriously, and yield to drivers attempting to merge ahead of them on the highway. Both of them are kind, and sensitive to injustice, and will no doubt volunteer some of their time to help the less fortunate as they pursue their chosen careers. In that way, their lives will mirror our own.
Shouldn’t that be enough? Perhaps it should. But if one believes, as I do, that the point of Christianity is not primarily to make people well behaved but rather to proclaim what Reinhold Niebuhr once called “the nature and destiny of man,” then it seems to lack something essential. I don’t think I would do my children any favors by pretending otherwise.
Yes. This is something I worry about with my own kids. My story is not too far from Nixon’s. My parents didn’t reject their childhood religion, but they didn’t really embrace it either (e.g., irregular church attendance, no theological discussions in the home). We got our doses of religion in the same way kids might get their measles vaccine. And yet, despite a period of teenage rebellion, I ended up quite religious. Why? Aside from the workings of divine grace, I would say that the most important reason is that I was born with a strong religious sense. I have always been the sort of person who is looking for the deeper meaning in things, and who has been drawn to things of the spirit. If I were an atheist, I would still be a cultural Christian, or at least a cultural religious believer, in that I love the things of religion, and how they awaken in us awareness of the realm of the numinous, the transcendent. My imagination is profoundly Platonic.
What does this mean for the way I’m raising my kids in the faith? Well, they go to liturgy, and they see their parents taking the faith seriously. I have conversations with them about the faith, geared to their level. I can already tell that these children are wired so differently that they’re going to have different paths to God. I am encouraged to hear my two younger kids knocking around the house sometimes, singing Psalms or liturgical prayers they’ve heard in church. Aesthetically, these things have been planted in their hearts and minds, and may bear good fruit in the future. I don’t really know what else to do, though. For my oldest son, I think the best I can do is help him keep his eyes on the fact that Christian faith is intellectually plausible; his greatest temptation will be on that front. Because he doesn’t talk about religion much, but rather science, I often assume he’s detached from it. But then he’ll surprise me with a statement showing that he really does think about the things of the spirit, at a deeper level than I realized.
The point is that there is no formula, especially in our free-for-all culture. We do the best we can to live out the faith as a family, to talk about it with our kids, to set good examples for them, and so forth. In our post-Christian culture, if they are going to hold on to their faith as adults, it will have to be because it will have been shown to them to be not only reasonable, but desirable.
I really loved theologian (and personal friend) Chris Roberts’s essay, especially his description of how he and his wife conceive of their household as a “domestic church,” and how they, as parents, are consciously combatting the counterfeit religion of our time: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Excerpt:
The MTD God is the God of whatever, the God who wants you to be a “good person,” making “healthy choices,” happy and nice. The MTD rhetoric has a grain of truth to it, but its emphasis on getting along and smiling can make spiritual life banal. The MTD faith emphasizes inclusiveness at the expense of reverence and quiet awe. MTD catechesis is so cozy that it skates lightly over awkward subjects like sin or chastity. You might pray to this God in a crisis, but this is not the God we’re talking about if we really mean what we say in the Eucharistic prayers. The MTD faith, by definition, cannot yield a vocation. A God without a name in a community without a history will not speak your name or ask you to do anything challenging. He certainly will not love you with the flaming passion of the Song of Songs. He has no Old Testament prophets who might question your affluence and gentility. He has no sacraments to enchant the created order, no Ephesians 5 to shape a marriage into a covenant of self-gift. If you happen to have the inner resources to suffer for the truth—perhaps when a disabled family member needs your care, or perhaps when something at work requires you to take a courageous stand—then it’s despite, not because of, the MTD God. Spiritual mush has no horizon, no forge for forming a character.
So as Catholic parents, we play offense, and promote the faith. We also play defense, trying to be savvy about the culture. I expect it to get harder as the girls get older. We are praying that a good community of peers will be in place when they become teens. And we are trying, gently for now, to prepare our girls for being different from the surrounding culture in sometimes uncomfortable ways. I hope for the moment that we’re laying in the spiritual and psychological resources to see us through whatever’s coming.
Christian Smith says parental presence is the number one factor in the background of youth who resist MTD, the ones who develop a hunger for Truth and a thick religious identity. I find that encouraging, because although there are profound limits on what we can control, showing up and being present is something we can do. We can’t control outcomes, but we’re hoping our domestic church tilts the odds.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Tilting the odds is the most we can hope for, and the very least my wife and I should expect from ourselves as the first educators of our children.
Let’s hear your thoughts on raising your children to be faithful to your religion. What has worked for you? What has not?