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Columns | Friday, September 22, 2023

Family decline fuels faith decline

Archbishop Wenski's column for the September 2023 edition of the Florida Catholic

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It is no secret that there is a decline in religious belief and practice in the United States. Some point to the COVID pandemic as an immediate cause, others blame the sex abuse crises, or the changes brought about by Vatican II. None of these explanations fully explain the decline which is happening across all faith traditions. The trend is downward with more Americans, especially younger Americans, identifying themselves as “nones” — with no religious affiliation.

A recent survey, the National Study on Faith and Relationships, was conducted by Communio. (This is a U.S.-based non-profit that advises churches on evangelization strategies — not the international Catholic review, Communio.) The results of the survey suggest that “the collapse of marriage and the resultant decline in resident fatherhood offers the best explanation of the decline of Christianity in the United States.”

In other words, family decline fuels faith decline.

The survey (which can be accessed on the web) indicates that 80% of all church attendees grew up in a continuously married home with both biological parents present. The family is the “domestic church,” the basic or first cell of the Church. That’s where children should first learn their prayers, that’s where husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters should both give and experience unconditional love. The collapse of marriage as the result of the sexual revolution, the explosion in divorce rates and single parenthood transformed the structure of families — and, in doing so, emptied our pews.

Living out one’s Christian vocation to marriage and family is certainly challenging today when economic forces and cultural pressures undermine family cohesion and discourage people from getting married and forming families. Less than half of the households in the United States today are made up of married couples. For the first time in history, there are more people who are not married — we put in this category those never married, not yet married, and not married anymore — there are more in this category than those who are married.

This is a serious problem that begets a litany of woes. Today with all sorts of technology — phones, tablets, and other devices — people are “more connected” than ever before. Yet never have people felt so lonely and “set adrift.” Loneliness in America today is a public health issue.

The family founded on the marriage of a man and a woman is the path where children best can encounter and know God; where the mutual self-giving and faithfulness of husband and wife provides a secure and protected home for children to best grow in virtue and to assume their own responsibilities as members of society and as citizens of a country.

The family founded on the marriage of a man and a woman is indispensable — even for God, because when God chose to reveal himself, he did so within a family. And, in a real way, the family is an icon of God, the God who is love. Jesus grew up in a family. He grew up in Nazareth where he lived under the authority of Mary and Joseph, where he lived and learned and loved. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’s holy way of life serves as a model for all Christian families.

As we know, not every family can count on both parents in the home for any number of reasons. Life can be messy. Whatever the circumstances of our families, whether headed by a single parent or even in some cases by a grandparent, whether an extended family, nuclear family, blended family, or a broken family, the Church invites all families to find in the Holy Family of Nazareth comfort and strength. Mary is a mother for us all — but she can be in a special way a mother to the motherless; and Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, can also be a protector and guide to those who are fatherless or separated from their fathers.

But the path to reversing declines in church attendance and to effective evangelization has to pass through the family and to the recovery of marriage as a permanent commitment between one man and one woman for the sake of children.

Comments from readers

Michael M. - 09/28/2023 06:20 PM
Your Excellency, That’s quite interesting. I could’ve sworn it was the sex abuse and coverups emptying the pews. But what do I know, I only have the conscience of a father faithful to the church despite the hierarchy and its presumption in pelvic policy. As for the sexual revolution, consider how, despite its detriments, women have gained much needed liberties as a result. God can draw good from anything.
Gina G. - 09/22/2023 04:26 PM
The decline of family is a major part, but correlation doesn’t equal causation. When a business fails it is often because they lacked vision and relevancy in the present and future. The Church must evaluate how much of either they truly possess. Blame begins by looking inward, before pointing the finger at external factors.

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