How do we ensure our Catholic faith is successfully embraced by the next generation? That is one of the most crucial and vexing questions facing American Catholics in a time of declining church membership and attendance. A poll from last year found that more than a third of young Catholics planned to attend Mass less regularly after the pandemic (whenever that is)
Much of the answer lies in how we parent. That’s the argument made by Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, who noted in a recent article that “passing on the faith is one of the most important challenges we face in the Church today.” This is the same Archbishop Gomez who, as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a controversial statement regarding abortion on the inauguration President Joe Biden—a statement that elicited the ire of Cardinal Blase Cupich. Archbishop Gomez has also stridently sought to defend the integrity of the Eucharist, in an age when politicians (like Mr. Biden) present themselves for Holy Communion while publicly flaunting Church teaching on abortion. Perhaps in part by looking at the moral example of Archbishop José Gomez—as well as his own comments in his recent article—we can discern some solutions to this crisis of passing on the Faith.
Archbishop Gomez is himself relying on the research of Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, whose book Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation discusses the detrimental effects of secularism, individualism, consumerism, and relativism on our nation and its youth. As Gomez rightly observes, the more that our own way of life embraces these trends, the more that it erodes our children’s “religious identities and their ability to make moral judgments.” Let’s take each of these four in turn and consider how they erode our ability to pass on our faith to the next generation.
Secularism: Certainly the threat of secular education looms large for today’s youth, given the increasingly aggressive and intolerant promotion of the tenets of the sexual revolution. The school board of Loudoun County, the wealthiest county in the United States, recently voted to allow biological males to compete in girls’ sports. (The Diocese of Arlington shortly thereafter indirectly rebuked this embrace of “transgender ideology” with its own document explaining Church teaching on the subject.) But it is not only about sex in schools—many secular institutions (even public libraries) are increasingly hostile towards the Catholic faith.
Individualism: One of the most visible manifestations of the damage of individualism is the heightened reliance on technological devices, which, while promising digital connection and community, actually make us more lonely and disconnected. Many American children are incapable of entertaining themselves with the kinds of games and activities that once defined urban and suburban neighborhoods, and instead are constantly strapped to their devices. Moreover, these digital communities fail to foster real, flesh-and-blood relationships with other kids, and instead encourage a narcissistic celebration of the (carefully curated) self.
Consumerism: Our digital age also exacerbates America’s consumerist tendencies, because we are constantly being fed lies that we need more and better possessions. As a parent of four young children, I’m amazed at how even under my watchful eyes we seem to accumulate more and more stuff that holds my children’s attention for only the briefest moments. Yet not only things, but even people are increasingly commodified. The proliferation of pornography via smartphones teaches children that sex (and people) can be bought and sold.
Relativism: It is a common refrain to hear that all religious traditions are more or less the same, since they all teach about a higher power, the need for prayer or meditation, and the importance of being nice to others. This also then gets extended to ethics: as long as you are not hurting another person, all behaviors are acceptable. Of course, there is also a certain incoherence in relativistic thinking, given that many of its proponents now assert that this doesn’t apply to one’s ideological enemies (who simply need to be canceled, delisted, and shoved to the margins).
It is not difficult to identify how these four trends undermine the passing on of the Catholic faith. Secularism encourages young Catholics to view their inherited beliefs as antiquated and out of step with broader society. Individualism teaches them that fulfilling their own desires and celebrating the self is what’s most important in life. Consumerism engenders selfishness and viewing relationships as solely transactional. And relativism vitiates belief in absolute truth.
So, as Archbishop Gomez notes,
Young people today tend not to think in terms of ancient creeds or unchanging truths. Instead, they regard God as a kindly creator who does not judge but just wants people to be happy and feel good about themselves; their ‘God’ asks only that we not be mean to other people.
If that’s the kind of God preached to our Catholic youth in our churches and youth groups, should we be surprised if they don’t bother to return to the Church to be married or to baptize their children? Jesus and the Eucharist are not the Way, the Truth, but only one possible truth or way among many
What, then, are we to do?
First, says Archbishop Gomez, we must recognize that “parents are the single greatest influence on their children’s religious identities, beliefs, and practices—far more important than peers, teachers, youth groups, or even religious education.” Thus everything we do with and for our children serves as a catechesis, whether we intend it or not. If we are constantly on our devices or indulging in the consumerist lifestyle, we should not be surprised if our children view such activities as the way to happiness and fulfillment.
Alternatively, if we conscientiously determine to be our children’s “first teachers in the faith,” they will understand this is invaluable to our self-identity. If we incorporate prayer into our daily family activities, our children will understand it as “normal habits of healthy people.” And if we ourselves are striving to be saints, acknowledging our failures and faults and pursuing righteousness, our children will be more inclined to do the same.
I know I have a long way to go in this regard. In more than eight years of parenting, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, and continue to. But I also know that my children have gotten used to dad apologizing to them—perhaps for losing his temper or being too harsh—and I hope that they see his contrition and amends as evidence that their father is trying, however imperfectly, to love and serve them. And they know that he prays for them (and with them) every day. My dad’s daily witness of Christian faith certainly inspired me to preserve that priceless gift. We must beg our Lord that He will give us (and our children) the grace to do the same.
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