By FR. JOHN FLYNN, LC
(Editor’s Note: Fr. John Flynn, LC, is a regular contributor to ZENIT News Agency, which provided this essay. All rights reserved.)
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Religious practice in terms of attending formal ceremonies has declined significantly in past decades. That brings up the problem as to how religious faith and participation is transmitted between generations.
A number of children brought up in families that regularly practice their faith go on to leave their churches. Yet other children do continue to be religiously active.
Why is it that some families successfully pass on the faith, while others do not? This is the subject of a recently published book, Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations (Oxford University Press) by Vern L. Bengtson, with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris.
Over a period of almost four decades, Bengtson and his colleagues followed 350 families composed of more than 3,500 individuals spanning several generations to find out how religion is passed from one generation to the next.
In his preface Bengtson outlined that this project became the central point of his academic career, leading to some 250 research articles and 16 books.
Church attendance in the United States hit a peak in the period 1950-1959. Following that there was a gradual decline in the 1960s and a sharp decrease in the following decade.
Immigration from Hispanic countries has offset the numbers of Catholics leaving the Church, but what Bengtson singled out was the growth in the number of “nones,” that is, those who say they have no religious affiliation. By 2012 they represented almost 20 percent of the adult population.
This is significant as children tend to follow in the same path as their parents as nones.
In looking at the changes over generations, Bengtson noted that there was a transition from considering God as an all-powerful Heavenly Father in the older generations, to a more personal God “that resides in the human spirit.”
Another trend is the growing separation of religious practice from participation in an institutional context. This is associated with the trend to differentiate religion from spirituality.
One of the major influences on how religious faith is transmitted from one generation to the next is family life. Past decades have witnessed major changes in families: an increase in the age at which marriage occurs; higher divorce rates, mainly for those with lower levels of education; a much higher rate of births outside of marriage and the percentage of children living in single-parent households.
Families and religion, the book observed, “have been functionally connected as long as we have record of families or religion.” Bengtson expected that the changes in family life would have weakened the transmission of faith more than has actually happened.
Their research shows there still continues to be a significant family influence on the religiosity of the younger generation. Even so, it is not always so much in terms of loyalty to a particular denomination. Today there is a much higher number of people who change churches or religious affiliation.
Even so, as recently as 2005 there was significant parent-child similarity in religious affiliation, participation, religious intensity, and biblical beliefs.
“The extent to which religious families are successful in passing on their faith to younger generations appears to have remained stable over time,” was one of the conclusions outlined in the book’s final chapter.
The researchers coined a term to describe this continuity: “Intergenerational religious momentum.”
Nevertheless, the type of family life does influence the degree to which religious faith is passed on. Warm, affectionate parenting is most likely to result in the successful transmission of religion, Bengtson noted. This was particularly true for relations with fathers, he added.
Cold or authoritative parenting and households in which parents are distracted by marital, health, or financial problems are less successful.
He also commented that grandparents can have considerable influence and are often more important regarding the religiosity of their grandchildren than is recognized.
Apart from the type of parenting, there are other family situations that have an important impact on the transmission of religion.
Parents in a same-faith marriage are more likely to achieve religious continuity across generations. This is particularly true when both parents are actively religious and religion plays an important role in their lives.
Divorce often, but not always, is a disruptive force in the transmission of religious traditions.
The conclusions of the study carried out by Bengtson and his colleagues confirm what the Catholic Church has long taught about the importance of family life.
“The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them,” said the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (n. 11).
It is no surprise then that the Church is at the forefront of defending the family in so many countries around the world.