A crisis among Catholic families

If your child came home from school with a test grade of 22 percent would you be concerned? How about 17 percent or 13 percent?

Sadly, new research by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown found that similar numbers reflect the spiritual health "grades" of Catholic families. The first-of-its-kind study was sponsored by Holy Cross Family Ministries, an organization promoting family prayer and family well-being around the world and continuing the legacy of its founder, Father Patrick Peyton, CSC (of "the family that prays together ... stays together" fame). The project examined the degree to which Catholic families are living out their faith in three areas: Mass and sacramental participation, prayer life at home and approach to media consumption. The new data describe a challenge that is greater than many could have imagined.

Mass attendance, prayer

The study's finding that only 22 percent of Catholic parents attend Mass weekly is not inconsistent with other research showing about a quarter of Catholics attend Mass faithfully. But what is more concerning is how few weekly Mass-attending families either pray together or engage in any kind of religious formation in the parish or the home.

According to the HCFM/CARA data, 36 percent of Catholic parents pray daily, but only 17 percent ever pray as a family. Perhaps most disheartening on the family prayer front is that while 50 percent of Catholic families do eat dinner together daily, only 13 percent of Catholic families regularly say grace before meals.

Teach the children

Equally troubling are the low rates of family involvement in religious education. Considering the low Mass attendance rates among the general population of Catholic parents, it may be unsurprising that 68 percent of all Catholic parents do not have their children enrolled in any type of formal religious education. More shockingly, however, only 42 percent of weekly Mass attending families have their children enrolled in religious education. For 58 percent of families who attend weekly Mass, the roughly one hour a week they spend in church is the extent of their ongoing faith formation.

Myths exposed

Some have wondered if the low rate of enrollment in religious education was misleading because of the number of Catholic homeschoolers. This number is negligible. According to both the U.S. Department of Education and the National Home Education Research Institute, only 12 percent of the 3.4 percent of all school-age children who are homeschooled are Roman Catholic. Factoring them into the data would add about half a percentage point to the numbers reported in the HCFM/CARA study.

Similarly, many believe the low rate of Catholic elementary and high school enrollment (8 percent and 3 percent respectively, according to HCFM/CARA) is due to high tuition costs, but the HCFM/CARA study suggests this is not the case. Only 14 percent of those families in the upper-middle-class bracket (households earning $85,000+/yr) have their children enrolled in Catholic schools. These numbers suggest that the low rate of enrollment in Catholic schools may not be a financial crisis, but a spiritual one. Regular Mass attending Catholic families simply do not appear to value Catholic religious education (either Catholic schools or CCD), do not engage in faith formation activities in their home, and do not pray together.

Every family 'irregular'

At the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family, much of the discussion revolved around how to better minister to "irregular families" (i.e., cohabiting, divorced, blended and single-parent households). These families do indeed require special concern and deserve all the help we can give them, but the HCFM/CARA study shows that this almost exclusive focus on irregular families may be misguided, implying, as it does, that erstwhile "regular families" who sit in the pews week after week are doing just fine. We have a serious and, until now, profoundly under-appreciated crisis on our hands. The data suggest the vast majority of Catholic families, even those attending Mass each week, are living in functionally, spiritually bankrupt, households.

Equipping families

The HCFM/CARA study supports the assertion that most Catholics have been sacramentalized, some have been catechized, but only a tiny minority have been evangelized. It may not be that Catholic parents do not want to live their faith more fully in their homes, but it is clear that they at least don't know how and it may not even occur to many that they should or could.

Both the Church and the world need godly families who are prepared to witness to the Catholic vision of life and love. Families that do not know how to consistently say grace at meals, much less have a more meaningful family prayer life, cannot possibly be expected to live in a manner that claims the world for Christ. We must stop assuming that the families sitting in the pews on Sunday are the harvest that has been gathered in, requiring no further cultivation. We must do everything we can to equip every family with the spiritual tools necessary to, in the words of St John Paul the Great, "become what they are" — that is, courageous witnesses to the gospel of life and love, the very people whom God intends to use to bring the world to him.

Dr. Greg Popcak, who serves on the board of Holy Cross Family Ministries, and his wife, Lisa, are speakers at the 2015 World Meeting of Families. To learn more about their books and telephone counseling practice, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.