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Faith lives and dies within families; when families fall apart or fall away, so does religious belief

We need a new mission for families, so that parents and would-be parents learn what the Christian vision of family life is all about

By on Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A boy is baptised as his family watches (CNS)

A boy is baptised as his family watches (CNS)

LifeSiteNews of 23 August publishes a thought-provoking article by Julia Shaw on a new book by American author, Mary Eberstadt. The book is entitled How the West Really Lost God – a challenging enough thesis.

We all have different answers to this question: it came about because of the Enlightenment, material progress, world wars, technological advances and so on. Doubtless they have all played their part.

Eberstadt’s thesis is that the key to the extraordinary decline that we have seen, especially in recent decades, is because of the decline of the family. In other words, families did not fall apart because of a loss of religious faith; religious faith was eroded because of the decline of strong, traditional families. There are chicken and egg elements to this discussion but Eberstadt’s argument is persuasive. Indeed, if she is right, there is hope for the future: as Julia Shaw writes, “Once this audience understands the relationship between faith and family, perhaps Western society can find God again.”

Eberstadt sees family life as a conduit to religious faith, the way that individuals “think and behave about things religious – not one by one and all on their own, but rather mediated through the elemental connections of husband, wife, child, aunt, great-grandfather and the rest.” Her point is powerfully made and I have not read it elsewhere, viz. “Something about children might make parents more inclined towards belief in the infinite – to a supernatural realm that is somehow higher and less well-understood than this one.” She goes on to explain that childbirth is the miracle of life and that parents experience it as a “moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant.” According to the article, “this may explain why…caring for an ailing parent or just staying married for seventy years seem almost supernatural.” I think it also explains why parents often search for faith, or go back to faith after they have lapsed, when they have children.

Reading this made me think of the young Dorothy Day, an atheist and co-habiting with her lover on Staten Island in the 1930s; deep down she was unhappy and it was when she became pregnant with her daughter Tamar that her longings crystallised in the desire for her daughter to be baptised into the Catholic Church. Having once had an abortion which she deeply regretted, she saw her pregnancy for the miracle of life that it was. I am sure her story could be multiplied many times.

Eberstadt argues that strong family formation means more God – and weak family formation e.g. illegitimacy, cohabitation and divorce, means less God. As Shaw relates in her article, “The countries that have experienced religious decline have seen the natural family at its weakest…Countries that stop marrying and giving birth also stop attending church.” Eberstadt raises the question, “If one is raised without a father, how can one contemplate the unconditional love of God the Father or understand Joseph’s adoption of Jesus? If children are a choice, how can a person consider accepting them, as Mary did, as a matter of obedience to God?”

She also discusses the position of the Catholic Church; if the Church as an institution resisted doctrinal changes on divorce, contraception and homosexual activity and stuck to its theological guns on the true nature of marriage and family life, why has there been a “significant fall-off in practice” (with the exception of the most orthodox believers)? This is a large question and, speaking of the UK, I would answer it with reference to Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith’s provocative recent blog about Blessed Dominic Barberi: the local Church in this country has for too long been concerned with “maintenance” rather than with “mission”, with keeping its outward structures – its parishes, church buildings, schools and so on – “maintained”, rather than grasping the importance of on-going evangelisation or “mission”. Catholic families in this country have been struggling in mission territory for years without the hierarchy seeming to notice it. The faith lives and dies within families; when families fall apart or fall away, so does religious belief.

We need a new mission for families, so that parents and would-be parents learn what the Christian vision of family life is all about.