Is the church out of touch and out of time?

Fewer working class people are living their lives according to "family values" -- and the search is on to figure out why.

The issue is addressed in a column by Ross Douthat in The New York Times. He notes that for years the "culture wars" were fought along a neat dichotomy: better educated, better paid people strove for freedom from religion and restrictions, while less-educated blue collar workers formed a "Moral Majority" that pushed for "values" in areas such as sexuality and marriage.

But now, Douthat notes, a new study by The National Marriage Project shows the sides have flipped: college graduates have fewer divorces and children out of wedlock, while for the rest of the country, unwed parenthood and broken families are becoming the new normal.

Douthat says that American churches have clearly connected with the better-educated, but have trouble reaching out to the people "left behind." He could definitely be talking about the Catholic Church. The study Douthat cites is a clear indication of what happens when the church paints in one dimension the crises often confronting working class couples.

In a world where contraception is a given, and divorce an easy option, the church has one answer: don't. Less educated young people, struggling financially and perhaps spiritually, are given little guidance about how to navigate the world as it is, not as some feel it should be.

Yes, the church has consistent arguments against contraception and divorce -- but it offers no "plan B." What if these things are impossible to follow for someone? Or if someone falls and slips? How does a person live a good life in this very real world? The church does not give an alternate road map.

Douthat tips his hat to the church and its history in the U.S. but also notes what is missing now:

The reinforcing bonds of strong families and strong religious communities have been crucial to working-class prosperity in America. Yet today, no religious body seems equipped to play the kind of stabilizing role in the lives of the “moderately educated middle” (let alone among high school dropouts) that the early-20th-century Catholic Church played among the ethnic working class.

That working class, from Ireland and Italy, Germany and Latin America, was given more than doctrines from Rome: Catholic parishes in America were a halfway house of sorts, a transition ground from the old world to the new; churches offered essential help and practical advice, rules of the road for making it in a new country. They were embracing places that made stability possible in the sea of change that immigration represents.

We see some of this today.

In Los Angeles, several parishes provide services and succor for Latino migrants -- legal or not -- and are jammed with believers. I stumbled into the massive plaza of one parish near downtown a couple of months ago: it was overflowing with young couples and infants, waiting for marriages and baptisms. Waiting, too, for advice about green cards, English lessons, a food bank, and child care. The stuff that made life as it is -- not just as it should be -- better.

But as Douthat and the marriage study imply, too little of what the church says from on high deals with the world on the ground, where life is lived.

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