One day, as I was listening to the radio, a mother called in to a Catholic talk show with a concern. She said that although her family prays the rosary on a regular basis, her high school daughter was being “lost” to some very important issues such as same-sex marriage. In other words, her daughter had begun to drift to a more secular understanding of marriage. Her little girl just could not bring herself to accept the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. It also happened that the high school the caller’s daughter attended was a public school. Moreover, by the sound of the call, it seemed as though the family did not have the support of a Catholic social life. Like many Catholics, the caller’s family was without that much-needed social reinforcement.
Over the last fifty years or so there has been developing, ever so slowly, a Catholic subculture amid the larger secular society we live in. Catholics are becoming increasingly aware that simply attending Mass on Sundays or even being enrolled in a Catholic school is insufficient in transmitting the Faith from one generation to the next. This awareness has been brought about, in part, through some imbalances that have yielded unfavorable results in the life of the Church.
For instance, in the first half of the 20th century the prevailing attitude was that children were to be seen and not heard. There were some advantages to this, especially when it came to discipline and order. However, this kind of authoritarianism was unable to withstand the cultural upsurge of Rock & Roll in the 1950’s coupled with the Sexual Revolution that followed a decade later. These two pop-culture movements- very much intertwined –appealed to the imagination of the youth. In many respects, the young Baby Boom generation at the time- shaped by the entertainment industry -became a rival subculture of Christianity with its own beliefs and language. Unlike today, the Catholic Church did not have an answer for it. She could not offer an alternative culture for youth. None existed.
Although Catholic education was good in terms of doctrinal memorization, religious practice had become perfunctory in some quarters of the Church. For many families, Catholicism has been an institutional affair; a commitment of one hour a week, if that. It is no wonder, then, that when the children came of age and went away to college, they lost their faith. It was as if the youth had rebelled against a religion which demanded so much of them in terms of morality but required so little of their time in terms of prayer, worship and social support. The incentive and strength simply wasn’t there to live out the life of Christ. Indeed, when Catholicism is reduced to a once a week ritual and thus ceases to be a 24/7 lifestyle, it ends up being displaced by something that is more complete and comprehensive.
What the Church is relearning is that the Faith is best transmitted from one generation to the next, not only through education and the initiation into the Sacraments, but through a Catholic social life as well. This latter component is vital. Indeed, friends that are rooted in a mutual love for Christ are one of the greatest gifts the Lord can bestow upon us. They run deep and can last forever. The more Christian friends we have, the more likely we are to remain firmly rooted in the Faith.
In his book, The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Starks studied the growth of early Christianity. Although there is certainly more to it than what he says here, he concludes that conversions are multiplied through the channels of social ties.
To this end, Starks said, “[C]onversion is primarily an act of conformity. But then, so is nonconversion. In the end it is a matter of the relative strength of social ties pulling the individual toward or away from a group.” And then he adds, “People tend to convert to a religious group when their social ties to members outweigh their ties to outsiders who might oppose the conversion, and this often occurs before a convert knows much about what the group believes.”
What Rodney Starks calls to our attention is a great challenge for the Catholic Church in the 21st century; at least in the West. When a Catholic culture, subculture or social environment is weak, transmission of the Faith is weak and is likely to flounder. A Catholic subculture or a Catholic social life helps us to see that God is involved in every aspect of life.
A Catholic social life can include, but is not limited to, going to movies, listening to songs, reading literature, attending social events and engaging in discussions that have Christian themes.
With this, St. Paul’s exhortation can truly have a practical effect in our lives: “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)
A Catholic social life, in turn, is best reinforced by a Catholic family life. The latter can be carried out by simply saying grace before meals (even in restaurants), praying the rosary before bedtime, discussing Sunday’s Scripture readings and just as important, watching the news and other secular television programs with a Christian eye, discussing what is consistent with Gospel values.
All of this, if taken out of context, can seem overwhelming to a Catholic who is used to relegating his Catholicism to Sundays. Some consider that any religious commitment involving more than nightly prayers and Sunday Mass is too much or even “cultish.” But the bottom line is this: The transmission of the Catholic Faith is very difficult without a Catholic social life.
No doubt, the best reason to be Catholic is to know, to love and to follow Jesus Christ. After all, a personal relationship with our Lord is the most important relationship to have. But when this relationship is surrounded by other social relationships that are Christ-centered, so much the better!
Chances are good that a child who inherits the Faith from his parents will make it his own!
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.