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Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (Part 1 of 3)

May 14, 2014


A recent major study concluded that Catholics don’t do as well as other religious groups—Mormons and Evangelicals especially—at transmitting their faith to young people. Only about 40% of Catholic children stay Catholic into young adulthood. Why is this and how can we turn it around? Peggy Pandaleon explains in this first installment of a three-part series on families and faith. 

Many religious adults, especially if they’re parents, feel that the faith of the younger generation just isn’t as strong as it was “in the day.” Well, Vern L. Bengston, the Research Professor of Social Work at the University of Southern California, took the tools of his trade and launched a 35-year longitudinal study (1970-2005) of more than 350 families to find a more scientific answer.

In his book, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (Oxford University Press, 2013), Dr. Bengston concludes that it isn’t as bad as most of us think because the “majority” of children share the religious preferences of their parents. “Six out of ten parents in the study have young adult children who report they have the same religious tradition as their parents – or share their parents’ preference for no affiliation at all,” reports Dr. Bengston about the study’s results.

One interesting part of this statistic is how it varies among religions, ranging from Mormons with 80% congruity to Mainline Protestants with only 30%. Evangelicals came out equal to the average at 60%, while Catholics were below average at 40%.

The “high boundary religious groups” have the highest levels of faith transmission – Mormons, Jews, and Evangelicals. These groups share characteristics that differentiate them from secular society more than the highly assimilated Mainline Protestants and Catholics. The families of “boundary religions” that successfully transmitted their faith through generations shared three traits that Bengtson concluded led to higher levels of transmission. The first trait is a high degree of religious involvement that is integrated with daily family life, especially in the area of religious education. The second is strong and consistent role modeling by the parents “evidenced in their investment in the tradition and their articulation of its beliefs.” Also, they practice what they preach, and not only on Sunday. Finally, there was an emphasis on family support, unity, and even insularity from the outside culture, such as the clear expectation that children will marry within the faith and requirements to prioritize religious events.

When Dr. Bengtson presented his findings in private interviews to various clergy and religious leaders, he found a some surprising reactions. Evangelicals, one of the more successful groups in the study with a transmission rate of 60%, were very dismayed and focused their comments on approaches to better to reach the 40%. On the other hand, the Mainline Protestant ministers did not seem too troubled by their 30% rate, and explained it away saying that each young person needed to search and find an authentic faith of their own.

There’s not much about Catholics in this book (to my dismay as a mother of three young adults who invokes St. Monica’s intercession more often than she’d like), but it got me thinking. First of all, why is the conclusion of this research seen so positively? Sixty-percent overall is a “majority,” but barely. Plus that includes the transmission of “no religious affiliation.” And only 40% transmission among Catholics? What a disaster.

Why aren’t Catholics a “boundary religion” anymore? According to this study, if our Catholic identity was nurtured, cherished, and manifested with more ardor in our families, our transmission rate would be above average, not second from last. We used to be a more tightly-knit group, hanging together as many minorities and immigrant groups did and centering family life around parish activities. Catholics were used to being treated as outcasts, but religious solidarity was strong at home and among close friends. Yes, the social environment has changed and the melting pot has been boiling and producing many other good outcomes for society. Why not for the transmission of our Faith?

If there is one ritual or unique experience of being Catholic, it has to be the Eucharist. I often tell friends who are Protestant that we have many things in common, but I could never leave Catholicism because I could not leave Christ in the Eucharist. Now if consuming the real body, blood, soul, and divinity of the only fully divine/fully human person to ever live is not enough to be the basis for being a “boundary religion,” I don’t understand the definition. Most of Christ’s disciples left him after he proclaimed this teaching (cf. John 6), but overall contemporary Catholics seem so lukewarm about this very peculiar, but very powerful, gift.

Please be assured that I am not advocating becoming an exclusive and elitist club when I long for being a “boundary religion,” but I do think we should act more distinct, centered on Christ and holding fast to the precious way he feeds us. If we do not truly accept and cherish the Real Presence in the Eucharist, we will not be able to explain the Faith or invite others into the most intimate friendship with the Lord.

Our family dinner tables need to be more united with the altar at Mass, so our children and grandchildren will realize that we value their spiritual nourishment as much as their physical.

Next: More from Families and Faith in the transmission of faith.