The Family Fell First then Faith Followed

The clearest example of the thesis on how family nurtures faith is in vocations. In the olden days larger intact families produced priests. That’s one reason the seminaries bulged back in the baby boom, also why there was something of a religious revival after the Second World War.

But today’s two-child, one-child, no-child, broken-up, broken-down, single-mother, absent-father disasters pretending to be families simply do not produce priests. Today’s disaster families don’t even produce many Church-goers to speak of let alone vocations to religious life.

In her new book How the West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt advances the novel idea that the rise of secularism and the decline of religion started with a disruption in the family, that it is the larger intact family that creates religious folk and not the other way around. I gave her central argument short shrift a few weeks ago, so I am back with a closer look.

Traditional secular theory explains that among other things industrialization and urbanization killed religious faith. Eberstadt explains there is an intermediate step between them and the decline of faith.

A fellow moving from the village green to the big city finds many things upon his arrival. Unlike the village, the big city is really expensive and there is not as much room for a large family. But he also discovers the enticements of city life that do not exist in the village, enticements that are inimical to family life—drinking, gambling, prostitution, and the prospect of living a double life. It was not industrialization and urbanization that directly killed the faith. They were the intermediate steps away from the family that killed the faith.

Eberstadt does not offer an ironclad rule about faith only coming within the traditional family. She suggests it is more like a double-helix, that the destiny of faith and family are intimately intertwined. Eberstadt takes us through history to prove her point.

Most people believe the decline in birthrates is a fairly modern phenomenon and they would be wrong. The first country to reach what demographers call the “demographic transition” to dramatically lower fertility was France and this occurred in the 18th century. At the same time in France illegitimacy rose dramatically “from just over 1 percent in the early 18th century to between 10 and 20 percent by the 1780s—and 30% in Paris.”

The French revolution turbocharged family-decline by liberalizing marriage laws and also saw the increased use of contraceptives. Eberstadt writes that religious practice declined precipitously. “Confraternities … saw their membership drop dramatically across the century. Religious bequests in wills declined sharply. Religious symbols became markedly less important in public life; by 1777, the city of Paris could decide that voters would no longer have to swear on the crucifix in electing city councilmen.”

First the French family fell then the faith followed. And France was not alone.

The decline in British fertility began a century later than the French, at “the very height of Victorian England.” What also followed was “fewer births, more divorces, more out-of-wedlock births” such that “by our own time, over half of all children born in Britain are born to unmarried people, and the fertility rate stands at 1.91 children per woman.” And what of the faith in Britain? “Only 15% of the population in the United Kingdom now shows up for church monthly (not weekly).”

Take a look at Ireland. Their demographic transition did not happen until much later. In the 1970s the Irish fertility rate stood at more than 4.0 children per woman. And then it fell off a cliff. Thirty years later Irish fertility had fallen to 1.89. And what about the faith? Mass attendance fell from 91 percent in 1973 to 34% in 2005. In the year 2005 Dublin did not ordain a single priest. Linger over that fact for just a moment.

Eberstadt looks at her thesis from the other direction, too. Are there places and times where a religious revival has followed a baby-boom? She points to an “outbreak of postwar religiosity” in Great Britain (1945-1958), Australia (1955-1963) and West Germany (1952-1962), all of which coincide “almost perfectly” with the postwar baby boom.

The same thing happened in the United States. Gallup polls from the interwar years showed a slight dip in American religiosity but then after the Second World War came the baby-boom and a matching revival of religious faith that only abated with the emergence of the contraceptive pill.

What about America and this thing called American exceptionalism? How is it that this largely secular country has nonetheless kept religious fervor on the boil while the faith in Europe is dying? Though numbers are dropping in the U.S., still figures for Church attendance, orthodox practice, and religious vocations are much higher than in Europe.

Eberstadt points out that as far back as Tocqueville, social scientists and historians have pointed out that American attitudes toward marriage have been different that in Europe. For instance, we never had a tradition of arranged marriages like they did in Europe. And even today, Americans are more marriage minded than Europeans.

Could this change? Eberstadt thinks so. While the U.S. performs better than Europeans in family formation, we are quickly following their lead. A year ago, it was reported that more Americans now live alone than within a family.

Still, there are signs of hope. While the poor and less educated are following the disaster-family model, moderately educated and more affluent Americans are seeing their divorce rates drop, their marriage rates increase and even now it is kind of hip in Hollywood to have more than two children.

Eberstadt’s thesis should make perfect sense to Catholics. Catholics understand that our faith grew from a family, the Holy Family. We revere the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph because it was from their home that Our Savior and therefore our faith came. Christ could have sprung fully formed without mother or father, but he didn’t and neither does our faith grow that way either. We likely learned our faith from our mother. Moreover, as Eberstadt makes clear in this book, our very presence as children likely made our mother’s and our father’s faith grow, too.

Family and faith is the double helix that saves souls and civilizations.

Editor’s note: The image above of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, entitled “The Royal Family in 1846,” was painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1846.

Austin Ruse


Austin Ruse is president of C-FAM (Center for Family & Human Rights), a New York and Washington DC-based research institute. He is the author of Fake Science: Exposing the Left’s Skewed Statistics, Fuzzy Facts, and Dodgy Data published by Regnery. He is also the author of the new book Little Suffering Souls: Children Whose Short Lives Point Us to Christ published by Tan Books. The views expressed here are solely his own.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    A remarkable instance of the link between family and vocations can be found in the history of the Church in the Catholic West Highlands, in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, when the Church in Scotland was at its lowest ebb.

    The priests were almost all of them members of one extended family. Bishop Hugh Macdonald of Morar, the Apostolic Visitor was succeeded by his nephew, Alexander, who was succeeded by his cousin, Ranald MacDonald of Clanranald. The priests included Alexander MacDonald of the Scotus family living in Knoydart; Austen MacDonald of Glenaladale in Moidart; Allan MacDonald of Morar living in the Morar area; James MacDonald, son of John MacDonald of Guidall in the Rough Bounds, James Allan MacDonald on Barra, Alex MacDonald on Uist and so on. The mother of Rev Angus Gilles of Lochaber was a MacDonald of Clanranald.

    They were all ordained “ad titulum patrimonii sui,” meaning they supported themselves with family money, taking not a penny for themselves from their flocks.

    I have heard stories of them still told in the Highlands and Islands, where it remains common at funerals for the deceased’s lineage of six or seven generations to be recited.

  • msmischief

    “Sin makes you stupid.” First you engage in the behavior, then you justify it by leaving the faith that teaches you otherwise.

  • Steven Jonathan

    Excellent article Mr. Ruse! The faithful intact family is truly the gold standard- contemplate the avalanche of lies out there to the contrary

  • Gregory Rolla

    I’ll do one better. I believe that the destruction of the family began with the destruction of motherhood. And the destruction of motherhood began when the Protestant churches rejected the Blessed Mother.

    • HigherCalling

      The most sinister error in Protestantism is its attack on Mary. Any innocent anger or justified reasons for the Reformation were flattened when the effort to reform the Church quickly morphed into an effort to destroy the Church. Not much has changed on that front in 500 years, as Protestants seem content to attack all things Catholic, rather than honestly examining dogmatic theology or studying the Church Fathers, which would expose the entire farce of Protestantism. Anyway, Chesterton says in ‘The Queen of Seven Swords’ (a wonderful, tiny book of poetry honoring The Blessed Mother), that it was unavoidable that Protestantism ‘progress’ to attack the Mother of God. Catholics recognized the sound of this attack immediately: it was a “hiss that only comes from hell.”

  • Malachy

    Western Civilization has itself to blame in its own demise. The culprit, as noted, is the refusal of women to have babies, anymore. The statists encourage this barren situation. The sex scandals here and in Ireland have also decimated potential vocations, too. It’s been a 30 year bleeding wound.

  • opal

    We are also witnessing a refusal to allow our children to serve in the military because of small families. Would the pink ladies really have reacted in the same manner if they had had more than one child? I am an only child. Had I chosen to serve in teh military and then died I am quite certain that my parents would have found a reason to make a big stink. All of their eggs were in one basket-I was not allowed to consider a vocation either, becasue then they would have no grandchildren and that was unkind. I will have 8 children in a few months. I would be proud for them to have a vocation or to serve their country. I know that death is a part of life and expect that it is reasonable that I will outlive a child or 2. I don’t see my former schoolmates who had only 1 child in their early forties with the same attitude. They treat that single child as my parents treated me. I feel terribly sorry for those onlies….

    • patricia m.

      Me too. Have a lot of single child friends and the parents pressure on them is terrible! They feel all the time responsible for their parents and cannot share that burden with anybody else since they don’t have siblings. Congrats for your brood of 8, at least your parents must be happy as well with this number of grandchildren!

    • CRS

      Marriage – and consequently parenting – is a vocation. So you were allowed a vocation, but it was the one your parents [may have] chose[n] for you. Congrats on those babies! 😉

    • tedseeber

      After what I’ve read in the last 48 hours, I don’t want my son in either the boy scouts or the military. They have become primarily homosexual organizations.

    • Msanto

      Although we had high hopes for more children, it looks like one is all that God is going to send us. What advice can you offer to parents like us? FYI, I would love it my son became a priest . . .

    • standtall909

      Yes, we have an “only” as well, although not by choice. I am quite certain that she feels the same way. 🙁 She has although given us three beautiful
      grandchildren to date and tells us she’s making up for what we couldn’t do. 🙂

  • patricia m.

    “Still, there are signs of hope. While the poor and less educated are following the disaster-family model, moderately educated and more affluent Americans are seeing their divorce rates drop, their marriage rates increase and even now it is kind of hip in Hollywood to have more than two children.”

    Totally agree. There’s a big class divide on such issues as marriage rates and fertility rates right now in the US. The poor don’t get married anymore, while the rich do. There was a great article about that on the WSJ the other day. All my American friends (I’m not American, mind you) have 3 children. I came to learn that 3 is the norm for middle class, affluent people here.

    • Bono95

      Yeah, 3 kids seems to be the norm for families in TV shows, comic strips, and stuff like that too, though I suspect the number there is partly due to 3 being a big enough number to provide a humorous variety of ages and personalities while not having too many characters to keep track of.

  • poetcomic1 .

    There is always a danger when a young man from a large traditionalist family becomes a priest to please his mother. Modern traditionalist families are by their nature ‘counter-cultural’ and can be emotionally claustrophobic especially if home-schooled by one’s mother. If you are not very athletic, have difficulty in the dating department – becoming a priest is one way to compete with your siblings for parental approval. In the old days, directors of souls were perhaps more savvy and sophisticated than now and could test a vocation properly.

    • patricia m.

      What you’re saying reminds me of the times when the noble or sire of the castle had his children, and only the older male would inherit the lands. The girls would be married to other nobles, and the younger males would have to fend for themselves. Many became priests… I agree with you that true vocation is *absolutely* necessary in order for someone to become a religious person.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        There are still noble Families in France that retain an aristocratic disdain for commerce and regard the army, the church and medicine as the only professions for a gentleman. The Auxiliary Bishop of Paris, Bishop Éric Marie de Moulins d’Amieu de Beaufort (son of the General) is a typical example, as was. Cardinal Henri-Marie de Lubac. The eminent psychologist and priest, Nicolas de Brémond d’Ars is another. I have known a number, all men of piety and learning.

    • opal

      I have yet to find a boy in any homeschooling family who is becoming a priest just to make his mother happy? What kind of anti large family garbage are you trying to spew. competing for your parents approval? Please. I see children in the standard 2 child only model competing for parental affection, because mommy is out working all the time. Since most of the homeschoolers that I know are at Church a lot, they are far more versed in what a priest actually does and how miserable the whiny parishioners make their poor priests. I think those homeschooled boys are far more likely to make a wise choice.

    • Bono95

      I don’t know. St. Thomas More seriously considered becoming a Carthusian Monk (The Carthusians are one of the most intense religious orders; lots of fasting, penance, prayer, and chant, very little leisure or sleep, and they’re one of the few, if not the only, religious orders to never need reform at any time in their history). For about a year, he lived in the Carthusian monastery and followed what would have been his routine if he’d joined the order. He slept on a board on the floor with a log for a pillow, got up around 2 for an hour adoration and chanting, went back to bed for 4 more hours, then got up with the sun to pray and fast. Eventually, he found that God was calling him to the married life, but he continued to fast and pray often, and to practice the penances of flagellation and wore constantly a shirt of hair until just before his martyrdom. St. Thomas was not particularly athletic to my knowledge, but he was certainly not emotionally claustrophobic and had no difficulty courting (Don’t worry, he was as chaste as, well, a monk)

      And he didn’t want to become a monk just to please his parents. In fact, it was more pleasing to them, or at least to his father, that he married and became a lawyer like his dad. I don’t doubt St. Thomas More would have made a great priest, but God knew he would make an even better father, husband, and lawyer, which is why he is now one of the few people in history who went both to law school and to Heaven. 😀

      • poetcomic1 .

        Ah, but St. Thomas More was a ‘dad’. God knew what He was doing. St. Thomas told his family, “Even if we have nothing we can still be together and be merry. We can go door to door begging together and sing Salve Regina for our bread!” I had a dad like that… (“It will be an adventure! We’ll have fun!”)

        • Bono95

          More reminds me a lot of my dad too. He’s not a lawyer, doesn’t wear a hair shirt (unless he’s managed to keep it a secret. The only people who knew about More’s during his lifetime were his oldest daughter who washed it for him, his one daughter-in-law who laughed at it, his wife who tried to get his confessor to forbid him to wear it, and his confessor, who would not forbid it), and has never been in serious danger of being beheaded, but he has a very similar faith and sense of humor.

        • Bono95

          Going door to door singing with St. Thomas More would be quite an adventure. He was a great orator and impeccable conversationalist, but he couldn’t sing too well. 😀

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  • Micha_Elyi

    “…single-mother, absent-father disasters pretending to be families…”

    Most often these fathers didn’t jump, they were pushed.

    Also, a widowed mother is a single mother. Let’s stop loaning their prestige to unwed mothers. Say “unwed mother” when you mean “unwed mother”. Prettifying fornication, out-of-wedlock birth, and females who fail to do the right thing by their children by placing their familyless child into a stable, heterosexual married adoptive home is a major part of how our culture came to this pretty pass.

    • hombre111

      Many of the single moms I know are single because of a divorce, like my sister, who finally divorced a brutal and unstable man. She went on to raise seven kids by herself. Her kids thank her for saving their lives.

  • tamsin

    Catholics understand that our faith grew from a family, the Holy Family. We revere the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph because it was from their home that Our Savior and therefore our faith came.

    Mary said “yes”. And Joseph said “well, okay, yes”.

    The Church: protecting the right of a child to a mother and a father, since 0 AD.

    • Just to be pedantic, 0 AD never existed. It jumped from 1BC to 1AD.

  • Carl Albert

    we in the U.S. have also subsidized the decline of the family with increased government disbursements not enjoyed by the traditional family, and with an ever-growing prevalence of birth control and abortion. we collectively no longer value the family – or hold it to be a sacred institution. consider the total percentage of children born into single-parent households in just the last 50 years, especially in minority communities.
    we ultimately become what we value – or don’t value, in this case.

    • slainte

      Are you therefore willing to stand and pray outside abortion clinics to make a difference. Turning this situation around starts with each individual getting proactive. Most Catholics just will not even discuss contraception and abortion.

      • Carl Albert

        indeed. the Kermit Gosnell trial showed us an awful lot about the “pro-choice” movement in the U.S., didn’t it? where was the MSM? it’s as if the nation turned-away its heads and said “there’s nothing to see here”. to your point, we also need to find ways to financially support the church-affiliated crisis pregnancy centers – who offer the love and support struggling unwed mothers to-be deserve.

  • hombre111

    Mmmm. Some valid points, I think. But lack of priestly vocations result of small families? I was a campus minister for years and talked about this a lot with students who seemed deeply religious. Most of them rejected the priesthood because of celibacy.

    • opal

      I think that what most people do not understand about large families is the children learn to grow up with 1) self-denial and 2) an ability to share. We are well off and our children have more than most of the world. But we do not live the life of an average American. And what we do get they must share. Making the choice to celibacy is just responding to God’s call with self-denial and generosity. Honestly, I have never met an only child whose parents were successful in teaching those virtues to. Not all large families teach those values, please do not believe I am suggesting that. But I think it almost becomes imperative to teach them once you have 5 or more kids, or else family life is a nightmare of arguing. It really isn’t necessary for the average family of 2 to actually teach those values to have a successful and happy family, because 2 kids can usually be molifed. When I hear men complain about celibacy I know that they were not taught to sacrifice as a child. When my children complain to me about the lack of space or quiet or stuff; I tell them to look at Jesus on the cross and then try to complain again. Usually, they can not look at Jesus and whine at the same time. So I know they know what is a real complaint and what is self-serving whining. I hope that as young adults they will be able to view all of their problems in the same manner.

      • Bono95

        “When thou in the flame of temptation fryest,
        Think on the very lamentable pain,
        Think on the piteous Cross of woeful Christ,
        Think on His Blood beat out at every vein,
        Think on His Precious Heart carved in twain,
        Think how for thy redemption all was wrought,
        Let Him not lose thee, whom He so dear has bought.”

        St. Thomas More

      • hombre111

        This is days late, Opal, but I want to thank you for a great reply. I do think of two things. 1) Most priests I know start out generously. But life gets really, really long and lonely. 2) How would you react if having six or seven or more kids was not your choice. What if you were told from the beginning of your marriage that you WILL have that many children or you can’t get married. Priests are in that position in a strange way. They are in love with the priesthood. But it comes with a mandatory, created by man, obligation to be celibate, or they can’t do what they think God has commanded them to do.

    • Facile1

      How does one VERIFY INDEPENDENTLY a claim to ecclesiastical authority when the person of interest blogs under an assumed name? Claiming ecclesiastical authority is at best a disservice to the reader and at worst demonic.

  • Thomas Gallagher

    We can perceive intuitively that the crisis of vocations is a consequence of the crisis of families. But the notion that urbanization and industrialization heavily influenced family decline is absurd. Firstly, urban/industrial life, all over Europe, was perfectly compatible with a healthy Catholic family life–and far more vocations than we’re producing today–for centuries. We can identify an “industrial revolution” in the eighteenth century to be sure, but there were heavily industrialized areas, with big cities, all over Italy and the German Rhineland and in particular areas in England and the Low Countries, for centuries before the eighteenth. If you think industrial life is incompatible with a healthy Catholic family life, just look at heavily industrialized regions of Italy today, where the churches are still relatively well attended and fresh flowers are put out daily in the niche-shrines of saints in the narrow urban streets and alleyways. Secondly, the vocational crisis, even if it had been influenced by urban/industrial life in earlier centuries, has become peculiarly more critical in the past 50 or 60 years, long after the industrial/French/urban revolutions. Why so? The issue here is not some sort of quasi-Marxist causal relationship between economic change and religious practice, but rather the decline of the Domestic Church. This is a very recent decline. Do families still pray together, and not merely around the dinner table? Do mothers tenderly hold their toddlers and three-year-olds in their arms and read them children’s religious stories, alongside secular fairy tales? Do moms and dads kneel with their children at bedtime and recite an evening prayer, even with very little kids? Do parents take personal responsibility for preparing their six-year-olds for First Holy Communion, not leaving the preparation solely to religious ed teachers in school or parish? Do parents suggest religious vocations to their kids in the pre-teenage and teenage years, or do they show by their attitudes and even by their words that a vocation to religious life is nerdy or something for homosexuals only? Let’s ask ourselves–have we done these things with our children? Have our friends and acquaintances done them? Do we bother to pause and say Grace with the kids before a restaurant meal–or are we afraid to embarrass ourselves and our children in front of a secular world? The re-evangelization of the world must begin with the reformation and restoration of the Domestic Church. Until this reformation is begun, things will only get worse.

    • SL

      Very true! I and a few others have been trying to figure out a means to encourage a restoration on the domestic church in our region. It is taking time and there seems to be many ideas on what must be done.

      • Thomas Gallagher

        Thanks for the comment, SL. The small faith communities in your area that are concerned with the revival and reform of the Domestic Church need leaders, as these movements always do. But where are the charismatic founders of Institutes, the charismatic priests? Our bishops ought to be taking the lead or at least giving full support to those who do wish to lead. Where are our bishops ?!?!?!

  • In the name of the family

    Please support Croatia! We want to protect the family as the community of one man and one woman by the Constitution. We are collecting signatures for a referendum. So far we have collected 380 000 signatures in 13 days. The amount required by the law is 10 % of all the voters (3 750 000). Our social democratic government now changes the number and they require 450 000 signatures. Tomorrow is the last day of collecting. The media do not support the initiative, they write lies and they stigmatize the initiative as bigotry, discrimination etc. Our volunteers are victims of random and organized violent verbal and physical attacks. Male attackers attack female volunteers when they are alone. They tear apart our posters and signature books. They have even set on fire one of the signature stand points. The media ignore the attacks, or when they write about them they show it like the volunteers have deserved it because they work against LGBT community.

  • guest

    This is only true if you believe that the most important way to obtain the faith is by birth, and that membership in a human family is the pre-eminent road to holiness. But the New Testament does not say this. Catholic history doesn’t even say this. Our greatest saints were not born into the faith.– Sts. Paul & Augustine for starters.

    Jesus himself said, “37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matt 10:37-39, NRSV-CE

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