St. Joseph’s feast on March 19 is a kind of “Catholic Father’s Day,” an opportunity for Catholic men — and the women who love them — to reflect on the critical role dads play in their children’s faith and character development.
“Going, Going, Gone,” a recent study by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and St. Mary’s Press, found that of the majority of millennials who leave the Church, 74 percent abandon Catholicism between the ages of 10 and 20. The study found that this group of young people break down into three categories: injured, drifters and dissenters. The injured group is made up of young people who leave the Church because of conflict experienced within the family or Church caused by divorce, illness, trauma or death. The drifters consist of those who experienced the Church as filled with meaningless rules and rituals that have little bearing on real life. The final group, dissenters, are those who struggle to reconcile specific Church teaching — especially on sex and gender issues — with the world in which they live.
In light of previous research, the case could be made that all three of these groups of young people have been raised in households where Church was more a curious habit than a way of life. Psychologist Ken Pargament argues that, in such households, parents can present an image of God and faith that is “too small” to encompass the challenges of life and provide guidance on how to manage those challenges. As the authors of this present study note, “Young people will unconsciously absorb parents’ attitudes” regarding the relevance of Catholic faith in the real world.
Which brings us back to the importance of Catholic fathers. A 2013 study by the Institute for American Values found that as children grow, their fathers’ religious characteristics become more important than their mothers’. This research builds on the findings of a Swiss study from 1994 that found that as few as 4 percent of children can be expected to carry their faith into adulthood when fathers are uninvolved in faith formation.
But it isn’t enough for dads simply to quote the Catechism at their kids and drag them to church. Three separate studies conducted since 2011 found that in addition to fathers being seen by their children as faith leaders in the home, children needed to have a close, loving attachment with a faithful father in order for religious lessons to stick. While research tends to show that strong maternal attachment plants the early seeds of faith in children, a child’s strong relationship with a faithful father is the best predictor of adult faith. In the words of sociologist Vern Bengtson, “for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with the mother.”
Why is dad so important? As I observe in “The BeDADitudes: 8 Ways to Be An Awesome Dad” (Ave Maria Press, $15.95), dad’s unique power to help kids own their faith into adulthood may come from the father’s position as “first other” in the child’s life.
For almost the first two years of life, the child thinks of his mother as an extension of his own body. It takes the child a while to realize he is a distinct person.
But if mom is essential to the development of a child’s internal sense of self, the father is essential for helping the child determine his relationship with the world. Where mom and child are both seen by the child as “me,” the father is the first “not me” the child experiences. For the child, the father’s behavior represents how “the world” (anything that is “not me”) works. A mother can give a child religious feeling, but she is not in as good a position to model how to live that religious sentiment in a meaningful way outside the home. The more you see young adults living their faith “out loud,” the more likely it is that they had a strong attachment to a faithful father growing up; a father who modelled the idea that “the world” expected them to live their faith overtly. By contrast, the more a young adult has spiritual leanings but struggles to apply his faith in his life, the more likely it is that the child had a religious mother but a father who either failed to model how to practice the Faith in meaningful ways or who failed to form a strong relationship with his children.
None of this is to make single moms feel guilty or hopeless. Research by Christian Smith at the University of Notre Dame found that there are many pathways young adults who fell away from the Church may use to find their way back. God will not be thwarted in his efforts to call his children to him. But there is no question that fathers play a critical role in the normal, ideal pathway that God created to allow his children to come to know, love and serve him throughout their lives.
This feast of St. Joseph, let’s pray that more Catholic dads follow their patron’s example by living their faith boldly and sharing that faith by means of a strong, heart-to-heart connection with their children.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including The Be-DADitudes: 8 Ways to Be An Awesome Dad (Ave Maria Press). Learn more at CatholicCounselors.com.