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.

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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.


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