Reality is messy for US Catholic families

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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American Catholic family life, increasingly influenced by broader secular culture, is experiencing a growing rift between observant parents and their children who feel far less attached to the institutional church. That detachment crosses economic and cultural lines and poses difficult questions for the future, according to sociologists who study American Catholicism.

If the American Catholic family is accurately portrayed, say the experts, then the picture that the U.S. bishops should bring to Rome when the second round of the Synod of Bishops on the family kicks off in October will be far from the ideal that most of them encourage."

American Catholics, just like any other group -- Protestants of various denominational affiliations, Muslims, Hindus, Baha'i, Jews, 'nones,' atheists, Wiccans -- do not live in a religio-cultural vacuum, but in an increasingly pluralistic, multifaith milieu," University of Iowa sociologist Kristy Nabhan-Warren told NCR in an email.

They draw on their Catholic heritage and its moral teachings, she said, "but are also looking deep into their consciences and are deciding what the moral, right thing to do is -- even when that may seem to contradict teachings of the Church."

A prime example of this can be found in how Catholics feel about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

American Catholics are shifting toward "greater acceptance and understanding" of LGBT realities, Nabhan-Warren wrote, partly because of the pope's "empathetic statements on acceptance and understanding," but ultimately because broader U.S. culture sets the tone: Being gay is becoming less and less of an issue in America today.

Recent reports from Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and the Pew Research Center back these observations up. They suggest that Catholic families are both more diverse and more accepting of diversity than ever.

The CARA report, released in June, surveyed Catholic parents and concludes, "Catholics in the United States today are likely among the most diverse religious groups the country has ever known."

Eight in 10 Catholic mothers and fathers are married, it states. Seventy-six percent of married Catholic parents have a Catholic spouse.

However, "only 66 percent of parents say that it is 'very' important to them that their children celebrate their first communion. Even fewer, 61 percent, indicate the same importance for their children being confirmed."

A more recent Pew study says that the U.S. Catholic public is "remarkably accepting of a variety of non-traditional families."

"Nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics say a household headed by a married mother and father is an ideal situation for bringing up children," it states. "But the survey shows that large majorities think other kinds of families -- those headed by parents who are single, divorced, unmarried or gay -- are OK for raising children, too.

"This may be in part because Francis' American flock is experiencing life in all its modern complexity," the report states. "According to the survey, one-in-four Catholics have gone through a divorce. One-in-ten have not only divorced but also remarried. One-in-ten are living with a romantic partner, sans wedding, and more than four-in-ten have done so at some point in their lives."

How does the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops handle this messy new reality?

On the bishops' website, a section titled "Marriage and Family" can be found. Many of the entries lead to Web pages filled with arcane language about abstract theological concepts. In general, the reality of nontraditional family life does not seem to be acknowledged.

However, an extended search of the site eventually redirected a user to a sleek new website called The site comes by way of the bishops' conference and features articles on a variety of topics, including ministry to divorced and remarried Catholics, remarrying with children, and interfaith marriages. In general, the articles present an open tone while clearly stating the church's stances on the issues.

For families dealing with LGBT issues, a spokesman told NCR that the conference recommends the bishops' 1997 document "Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers."

The push and pull of the larger culture has taken a hold over less practicing families, leading to increased Catholic erosion, said Mary Ellen Konieczny, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame. Conversely, secularism's cultural influence may not bother "highly practicing Catholics," she said, because "they find support" in their parish community.

On the other hand, devout Catholic parents may be deeply shaken if a son or daughter disaffiliates from the church.

"But then I also see a lot of people who also take it in stride and say, 'This isn't uncommon,' " she said.

What isn't uncommon is the rise of "nones," or people who answer "none" when asked, "What's your religion?"

"Generally speaking, nones are about 20 percent of the population right now, and they're more heavily young people," she said.

Some American Catholics look at this trend and assume that immigrants from Central and South America will help save the American church from demographic decline.

But they're dreaming, says Hosffman Ospino, a Boston College theology professor and expert on Hispanic ministry.

What affects Anglo Catholic families also affects Latino Catholic families, he said: "The intergenerational dynamic -- children and grandchildren going to church, not going to church. Some of them changing churches; some of them ideologically different from their parents and their grandparents; poorly catechized, not practicing their faith, and so forth."

A vast majority of U.S. Latinos are children or young adults who were born in the U.S. and are increasingly appropriating broader U.S. cultural norms, he said.

"Foreign-born Latinos are largely opposed to any conversation on same-sex unions, and are pro-life in the sense of saying no to abortion and no to euthanasia," he said. "But U.S.-born Latinos tend to be more flexible."

In a similar vein, "marriage continues to be very important for foreign-born Latinos, [but] we see that a lot of second-generation Latinos are not getting married, either civilly or in the church. Cohabitation is kind of rampant in the Latino community."

Meanwhile, many Latino migrant parents are thrown by the cultural dissonance.

"The cultural milieu in which [many Anglo-American Catholic grandmothers] lived, say 60, 80 years ago," gradually shifted from a more religiously saturated into a more secular culture, Ospino said. But that's not the case for many Latino migrants.

"Imagine growing up in this more conservative, more traditional, more Catholic environment" in Latin America, he said. "Then you migrate for whatever reason, and five years later you're raising children in an entirely different cultural matrix. There is no room for you to understand and discern what's going on, and, boy, a lot of crisis."

No one knows what will happen with Catholic young people who are disaffiliating from the church. Will they swing back to the faith after getting married and having kids? Maybe, maybe not.

There is no way of knowing. But both Konieczny and Nabhan-Warren say that "none" does not necessarily mean "nonbelieving."

"Most of them may not affiliate with a denomination," said Konieczny, "but most of them still believe in God."

Nabhan-Warren wrote: "They believe in God and a higher power but not in the ultimate top-down authority of a church. Most 'nones' are disenchanted with denominational politics, hierarchy, and the lack of empathy they see in institutional churches and structures."

But they aren't disenchanted with Francis.

"There are a lot of reports about Pope Francis being really attractive to young people," Konieczny said.

Nabhan-Warren spoke of the pope's "energizing effect."

"His message so far has been one of love, empathy, and seeing ourselves as a global community with moral responsibilities to each other," she wrote.

"And if the [Roman Catholic] Church can incorporate the Pope's messages and enact policies with teeth -- then we just may see a decline in the rise of nones among Catholics and non-Catholics alike."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 25-Oct 8, 2015 print issue under the headline: Reality is messy for US Catholic families.

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