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Kids In The Collapse Of Catholic Culture

The Catholic writer and journalist Phil Lawler grieves the collapse of Catholic culture in this country, and what it means to future generations. Excerpt: A legacy can be lost. The capital accumulated through generations of diligence and sacrifice can be frittered away in a generation. If our children do not learn to appreciate the value […]

The Catholic writer and journalist Phil Lawler grieves the collapse of Catholic culture in this country, and what it means to future generations. Excerpt:

A legacy can be lost. The capital accumulated through generations of diligence and sacrifice can be frittered away in a generation. If our children do not learn to appreciate the value of the Catholic tradition, they will not be able to teach their own children—even if they are inclined to do so.

Years ago, when our children were young, my family moved into the same town where I had lived as a grammar-school child. Introducing myself to the pastor, I mentioned that I hoped the parochial school, which had been shuttered for years, could someday be reopened. I cannot forget his reply: “We need to keep it closed for this generation, so that we’re ready to re-open it for the next.” At the time I was too stunned to reply, but if I had had my wits about me, I would have made two points. First, I am responsible for the education of my children, now; I cannot wait for another generation. Second, if my children and their contemporaries do not know the benefits of a Catholic education, they will have no incentive to revive the old parish school. Sure enough, in that town—which now has a larger and more affluent Catholic population than in my early years there—the school buildings have been razed and replaced by a parking lot.

Many of my grammar-school classmates still live in that town, and have raised their own children there. Some still attend Mass at the parish church where I was baptized and confirmed. But few of their adult children can be found in the pews. It is no longer safe to assume that the children of practicing Catholics will themselves be practicing Catholics—nor even that they will know what they are missing as they drift away from the faith. Writing in Commonweal in November 2013, the psychologist Sidney Callahan reflected:

Looking back I see that there was no structured way in our parish for my children to get what I had gotten in my intellectual journey to the Catholic faith. I always had access to the sophisticated historical, intellectual, and theological dimensions of the faith.

Something precious has been stolen: from my children, from my neighbors, even from me. This is a grave injustice. I will not tolerate it. Will you?

I read this, then looked for the Sidney Callahan essay. It’s good. Here’s how it opens:

Today alienated Catholics do not gently “lapse” or nostalgically “fall away,” they decisively and definitively leave for good. Forget “once a Catholic, always a Catholic” or a “Come Home for Easter” campaign. Every poll shows the nonreligiously affiliated—now called “nones”—increasing in number. That number includes all my grown children. But it wasn’t always this way.

In 1967, my husband Dan and I, along with our five sons and one daughter (all born between 1955 and ’65), could be found each Sunday at Mass. Everyone was baptized, the three oldest confirmed. I had been teaching in the CCD program for seven years. We were a full-court-press Catholic family, members of the Christian Family Movement (observe, judge, act), Catholic Worker enthusiasts, and eager advocates of Vatican II reforms. Dan was an editor of Commonweal and we both wrote for and participated in exciting Catholic intellectual circles. Forty-six years later, I sit alone in the same pew on Sundays, and have been doing so for decades. I remain a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.


In hindsight, I can now see how crucially important Catholic peer groups are for faith development. In our town the educated professionals were mostly secular or Jewish, the Catholics mostly working-class people. Going through the excellent public schools, none of my children had a close Catholic friend or peer group that could support his or her faith. Did we choose the wrong town, the wrong parish, and the wrong schools?

The whole Commonweal series on raising Catholic kids is worth your while, even if you’re not Catholic. The problems Catholic parents face are not so different from those all of us religiously observant parents face in this culture.

There was a time in my life as a Catholic Christian when I would have written off Sidney Callahan as one of those Catholics who didn’t push back hard enough against the 1960s on behalf of her kids. That was before I had kids, and had to contend with how hard it is to raise Christian children in this culture. I have older Christian friends who did everything right, or so it seems to me, but whose adult children have left the faith. There is no formula. Seems that the best we can hope to do is to better our odds. I remember walking through Philly one day with a faithful, highly engaged Catholic friend of my generation. He has kids as I do, and is raising them in the faith. But I remember him being fairly shell-shocked in advance by what’s coming. He knew a lot more than most about the situation in the archdiocese, and said something haunting to me on that walk. I can’t remember exactly how he phrased it, but it was something to the effect of, “I don’t know what’s going to be left for them.” His kids, he meant. He knew, my friend, that the patrimony of generations was falling apart.

I cannot imagine that I would have done better than Sidney Callahan when confronted by the tempest that swept over the culture back then, and swept up her children too. I hope to learn from her painful experience, though.

Perhaps the most necessary lesson is never to take anything for granted. The institutions, the practices, the customs that you think will be there forever will not necessarily be, not without concerted effort. If you don’t give your kids a strong countercultural grounding, there’s a much stronger culture out there ready to fill the void.

UPDATE: I’m adding this comment from the thread below because I think it is so profoundly sad, and important to recognize:

All four of my grandparents were religious loyal Catholics, as were all their children. All four of my wife’s grandparents were also Catholic as were all their children. All my and my wife’s cousins and brothers and sisters Catholic (about 30 of us). Our sons were active in Catholic Boy Scouts, attended Catholic grade and high schools (and even colleges) and we were very active in the parish.

Next generation of children, nieces and nephews, numbering in excess of 100–zero practicing Catholics.

My personal eperience is similar to Gretchen’s. The clergy sex abuse is institutionalized. The entire institution is essentially an organized crime ring.

The bishops was well aware of the pedophiles in our parish and at the catholic high school–they were on restricted ministry, not to be around children. That restriction was observed entirely in the breach. The priests who baptized my children, heard their confessions, gave them first communion, married me and my wife, buried my wife, married me and my second wife and who served as high school principals—all child abusers. I have since apologized to my sons for encouraging them to serve as altar servers to pedophiles.

The lies are so fundamental that anything the church says about any subject is very likely to be infected.

I don’t trust the church with my children’s physical safety. Why would I trust it with my children’s souls?



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