At or near the top of almost any Catholic parent’s list of things they want for their children is for them to continue practicing their Catholic faith into adulthood. But recent statistics paint a sobering picture: In the United States today, only about 15% of children raised in Catholic households grow up to be faithful Catholic adults.
But in the face of this diminutive percentage, one group of researchers sought to focus on the positive with a new study aiming to study the practices of parents who successfully raise children to be practicing Catholic adults.
The study titled “Raised Catholic: Who Stays and Who Goes?” was done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in conjunction with the Peyton Institute for Domestic Church Life. The researchers used existing data from the General Social Survey (GSS) — a widely-used and respected resource — as well as more than two dozen original half-hour interviews with Catholics with adult children who remain active in the faith.
Dr. Gregory Popcak, a widely cited Catholic counselor and co-executive director of the Peyton Institute, told CNA that the overall conclusion of the study was that children who grow up in a warm and affectionate home — spending time with their family in fun, prayer, and service to others — are more likely to remain Catholic as adults.
“Families are effective in passing on the faith to the next generation to the degree that the children felt that the faith was a source of warmth in their homes,” Popcak told CNA.
Among households that were successful in fostering lasting faith, children understood their parents to be open to hearing and talking about the children’s doubts and struggles when it came to faith — an environment where kids “didn’t feel like they would be lectured or scolded for having questions or struggles or doubts.” If a question arose that the parents didn’t have the answer to, they would pursue the answer together — “authoritative without being authoritarian,” Popcak noted.
Popcak, who with his wife, Lisa, led the creation of an app called CatholicHOM, told CNA that the study shows that faith formation efforts such as Catholic schools, youth groups, and other ministries — while very important — are “secondary and supportive” to a strong faith life within families. The Church has long taught and emphasized that a parent’s role in fostering the faith of their children is “original and irreplaceable” (Familiaris Consortio), he noted.
Popcak said he hears often from parents on his EWTN radio show that their children have left the faith and they want to know what happened. He said he usually asks the parents what they did to live the faith inside the home, and many parents express confusion, saying they gave their children numerous faith-related opportunities outside the home.
“We’ve sent the message to parents that it’s everybody ELSE’s job to evangelize their kids,” he commented.
“I think this study reveals something that’s hidden in plain sight … it completely challenges our entire approach to evangelization as a Church, because we invest all our time and resources into adult evangelization and youth ministry. And they’re all good — I’m not knocking any of that. But unless families are [living the faith at home], the other stuff doesn’t stick,” he explained.
“Everything else the Church does to evangelize outside of the family is really secondary and remedial.”
‘Intentional and conscientious’
Data cited by the researchers show that the number of people who remain practicing Catholics after being raised Catholic in the United States has been steadily declining for decades.
In the 1970s, an average of 36% of those who were raised Catholic remained Catholic as adults and attended Mass weekly, peaking at 40% in 1977. By the 2010s, that figure was just 15%. (The researchers pointed out that this figure does not include those who were not raised Catholic and converted to Catholicism. In addition, Catholic immigration helps to maintain the overall Catholic population despite declining retention rates among native-born Catholics.)
Among those raised Catholic who leave the faith, about half become religiously unaffiliated and the other half adopts a new religious affiliation. The median age at which these former Catholics said they made the decision to leave the faith was 13, the researchers said.
Dr. Mark Gray, a senior researcher with CARA who worked on the study, told CNA that the research does not aim to provide parents a “checklist,” and parents shouldn’t treat it as such. He said that while every family is different, their study did find “patterns of association” that seem to be common to families that successfully raise Catholic children.
So what else did they find?
Some of the common threads the researchers found are perhaps unsurprising. Most often those who remain Catholic and weekly Mass attenders attended Mass every Sunday with their parents as children. Many were raised in Catholic schools or parish religious education. Their prayer life with their family was active before dinner, at bedtime, and with additional prayer time such as family rosaries when possible.
Another key through line in the data was the importance of families spending time together in charitable service to others. Some families, Popcak said, hosted immigrants in their homes, did community service projects together, and even had family discussions about their household budget to decide how they could sacrifice so that they could give to others in need.
Yet another common factor that came up again and again? Families that prioritized gathering daily for family dinners were more likely to raise Catholic children into adulthood.
“Family dinners are an opportunity to create communion through communication,” Popcak commented.
“That is where families create a space to reflect on the day together, to make plans together, to communicate values … all the research really points to the importance of strong rituals for family resilience and also in passing on values.”
Demographically, practicing Catholic adults were more likely to have parents who were still married. The data also suggested that children who grew up with one stay-at-home parent were more likely to practice their faith into adulthood, and that they themselves are subsequently more likely to believe that one parent should stay at home, rather than both parents working. While highlighting this data point, Popcak nevertheless pointed out that any household, regardless of their situation, can be “intentional and conscientious” about passing on the faith to the next generation.
He reiterated that every family is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to passing on the Catholic faith to children.
But he said he believes that through this study, “we’ve identified those practices that enable families everywhere, regardless of their socioeconomic status or their makeup or their culture, their nationality and ethnicity … they can develop their own mission and charism using this framework.”
“Whatever the shape of your home is, whether you’re a traditional family with a stay-at-home parent, or you’re a two-career family, or you’re a blended family or a single-parent family, all families have their own struggles. But the more each household can live out these practices in their home, the more likely it is they’ll be able to raise their children to a faithful adulthood,” he said.