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Why Catholic parents are struggling to pass the faith on to their children

Héloïse de Neuville | France - Mon, Aug 28th 2023

Recent study shows that Catholics in France are less successful in passing on their faith to the next generation than the country's Jews and Muslims

Families leaving after celebrating Mass at a Catholic church in Rennes, March 2019. (Photo by THIERRY PASQUET/ SIGNATURES)

La Croix International takes a summer break during the month of August. And during this month we bring you the best and most relevant articles published during the year that you may have missed or would like to read again.   First published on May 5, 2023.

Catholics in France are probably best described by Gad Elmaleh, a popular French-Moroccan comedian who is Jewish, but has become closer to Christianity over the years. 

During a recent show, Elmaleh gently poked fun at Catholics for their lack of religious pride. French Jews and Muslims, he pointed out, are a lot more public about demonstrating their religious identity. 

But if you ask a Catholic about their affiliation, he said, you're likely to get a more evasive response like this: "So... it's a bit complicated. How should I say it? Umm... Mom's a Catholic. Sis is an atheist... And Dad.. Dad, where are you on this?"

Religious indifference

That skit humorously illustrates the crisis Catholics face in transmitting their faith. And it is further supported by a study that the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) published in March, which showed that the Catholic population in France continues to fall. While Catholics represented 29% of the people aged 18 to 59 who were polled in 2020, that is a significant drop from the 43% of the same age group that was polled ten years ago.

The authors say the decline is due to the low rate of handing down the Catholic faith from one generation to the next. While family transmission is strong in Islam and Judaism –  91% of those raised in Muslim families and 84% in Jewish families continue to claim their parents' religion – Christian families are less likely to pass their beliefs on to their children.

Only 67% of those raised by Catholic parents kept their religion. Regular religious practice – prayer, pilgrimages, Mass attendance – appears to be a key element for passing down the faith.  

"If nothing has been done in families to pass on the value of religious practice, particularly going to Mass, within three generations practicing Catholics will produce non-practicing children who will, in turn, have non-Christian children," observes Yann Raison du Cleuziou, a sociologist who studies trends in Catholicism.

Families that actively pass on their faith 

Leaving the Church is all the more simple because, unlike Islam or Judaism, Catholicism has only a minimal influence on social life.

"Dropping out of religion then occurs undramatically, almost in indifference, when children leave their parents' home," says Pierre Bréchon, professor emeritus of political science at Sciences Po Grenoble.

But the researcher, who conducted a study on the values of the French, observes an effective transmission of faith "in families that adopt a form of impermeability with regard to other surrounding cultures". These practicing and rather conservative Catholic families successfully manage to pass on the faith by carefully selecting the religious socialization of their children (through Catholic schools, youth movements, friendship circles, and so on).

Is this the winning formula? Raison du Cleuziou says the successful transmission of the faith from one generation to the next is actually  the result of the combination of two dimensions: the valuing of rituals and the "totalizing" dimension of the faith that a child receives and that permeates all aspects of his or her life.

On the other hand, "Catholic families who delegate the transmission of the faith structures (catechism class, youth group, etc.) –  as an aspect of education – have a much lower rate of religious transmission".

Becoming a minority religion could actually help

In fact, La Croix spoke to a number of Catholics with adult children in their thirties who admitted, with regret, that they did not succeed in passing on their faith. Some questioned whether it was a good idea "to let children decide whether or not to be interested in religion once they become adults".

"We haven't given them enough for them to make an informed choice," said one of them. "To reject the religion of one's parents, one must still have received it," noted this person, who is involved in catechesis at the national level.

The figures leave little room for doubt: only 2% of adults who grew up in a non-practicing Catholic family experienced a religious conversion as adults. The fact that Catholicism is becoming a minority religion in France could paradoxically change the situation.

"When it is in the minority, a religion tends to restructure itself in order not to disappear. This reconfiguration leads to an intensification of the 'entre-soi' around significant practices," notes the sociologist Raison du Cleuziou.

But in matters of religion, the law of large numbers always coexists with the mystery of intimate experiences. Even for those who have placed faith at the heart of their family life, transmission often remains an enigma. This is what Catherine, mother of seven children, describes through her experience. "The first four have a deep faith and the last three can take or leave religion," says this stay-at-home mom from Dijon. "I don't know why some of them believe and the others don't, because we didn't do anything differently."

"Lack of authenticity"

But she points out two things that seem essential to her. The first is having a family prayer after supper. "To be honest, there were no great mystical flights of fancy during these prayer times, but they had the merit of being there," Catherine says. "Looking back, I realize that we were able to cultivate gratitude  as a family for all that's beautiful and good."

The second key point is the importance of taking ownership. For this to happen, she says, the ritual must be able to open up to the message of love inscribed in the Catholic faith and find its way to the heart. The figure of the parent, a transmitter of faith but also a figure of authority, can be ambivalent.

"There can be difficulties in the parent-child relationship that prevent passing on the faith if the relationship with the parents is conflicted, or if the children think they see a lack of authenticity in us," says Frédéric, a 67-year-old retired stock trader.

Only two of his children now feel close enough to the Church to talk to their children about Jesus.

"I think the first two were lucky enough to meet Catholics around them who really lived a relationship with Christ, while the last two were more subjected to Catholic education as a place of social replication for economic success," he says.

This example shows that the destiny of a religion certainly depends on its logic of social transmission, but also on the personal experience of coherence and authentically following the Gospel.

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