Raised on Faith: My adult children are kind, smart and justice-oriented. But they are not practicing Catholics.

Catholic parents may well imagine that raising the child Jesus was a picnic compared to parenting today’s children. How hard can it be to turn an infant who is fully divine into a decent adult? Yet Jesus was also fully human and so, one can assume, a challenge and a riddle to his mother and foster father. Like modern mothers and fathers, Jesus’ parents were given the task of modeling compassion and wisdom—the prerequisites of social justice—as they brought their child up in their Jewish faith.

Some of our work as contemporary Catholic parents is uncomplicated: baptize our children, teach them traditional prayers, take them to Mass. As our children grow, we involve them in parish activities, teach them about social justice, engage them in liturgy. We soon grasp that bringing up our children in the faith is both a daily task and a lifelong commitment. As parents we can instill in our children the values that are important to us without necessarily being aware of it, just by the way we live. As Joseph and Mary must have done, we also teach without words by the way we respect and love each other, the way we handle crises and conflict, the way we show compassion and mercy. But as our children grow, we may begin to think more consciously about the values we want to teach them.


As Catholics raising our children at the end of the last century, my husband and I believed that teaching them the Catholic concept of social justice was as important as embodying a love for the Eucharist and a devotion to it. We tried to cultivate in their fertile hearts the church’s core principles of justice: to work for the common good, to insist that political authorities behave justly, to uphold human dignity and human solidarity and to exhibit a preferential option for the poor. To that end, we took active roles in the parish religious education program and made choices in our family’s lifestyle that honored those beliefs.

But when our children begin to flex their minds and pose theological and existential questions, the black-and-white of rules and dogma swirled into the nuanced gray of spirituality and faith. While my husband and I encouraged our daughters to be independent thinkers and ask questions, we, like other honest parents, did not have every answer. Who has not doubted his or her own wisdom when responding to a young and developing conscience? What sinful Catholic parent has not wanted to tell the children to “do as I say, not as I do”? The complexities of parenting grow alongside the miraculous growth of the skeletons, brains and muscles of our children. Theological parenting, like following any sacred call, is enlivening, humbling, confusing and best done with the most selfless love parents can muster.

An online search yields a treasure trove of teaching aids on the topic of social justice. But the corporal works of mercy—to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger and bury the dead—are best learned hands-on and by example. The surest way to teach social justice is to act justly. Like the public ministry of Jesus, teaching children to practice mindful social justice is a radical departure from the path of mainstream society.

Good, But Not Christian

The best, most practical advice on this usually comes from those working in the trenches: other Catholic parents. I consulted with experts by e-mail. I was curious about the experiences of other Catholic parents who had endeavored to raise their children—now adults—to embrace the teachings of social justice. As replies arrived, I discovered an unexpected common thread running through their responses. As one succinctly put it: “I believe I failed at raising an adult Catholic.”

While others did not phrase that feeling so baldly, the sentiment was the same. Coming from the loving and grace-filled parents of some pretty great children, I found this conclusion dismaying, even shocking. Yet it exactly expressed my own deep-down self-evaluation as a Catholic parent. Somewhere along the way, these parents and I feel that we must have gone wrong, because although our children are good people, many of them do not go to church regularly. We feel we have fallen down on the job of raising the next generation of Catholics. I include myself among the Catholic parenting failures, because of my four daughters one goes to church sporadically, one is thinking about returning to practicing the faith and two are emphatically not Catholic.

And yet all the parents in my decidedly nonscientific survey raised children who are kind, compassionate, generous and mindful of others and who exhibit a strong sense of justice. “He is not overly religious,” one friend wrote of his son, “but does seemingly have a sound set of moral principles. Of course he makes his mistakes, just like I do, but overall he is a good son.”

“We may not see the influence of our guidance in their everyday lives, outside of the fact that they are responsible, socially and politically involved and caring people,” wrote another about her three grown children. She concluded with my own private hope: “I suspect that as life happens, they will each find they do need the experience of, and commitment to, a larger community.”

Despite good intentions, success in their endeavors to raise children steeped in the Catholic faith can elude many parents. “He questioned the existence of God from fourth grade on,” wrote a friend about her son, who is now in college. A single mom, she was active with him in the parish, in the choir and in ministry to the homeless in Los Angeles. “He fought going to church and being confirmed, and the pastor told me not to force him, which I was shocked to hear.... I know I rebelled in high school and even somewhat in college, so I don’t know if he’ll come around as I came around. I think he’s a good person, caring and loving, so maybe church attendance is not the right measure. Who knows?”

From the East Coast came the thoughts of a friend in New York. He and his wife, long active in the church, “believe strongly in the seamless garment.” They have raised a doctor, a teacher and a lawyer, all of whose work serves underprivileged populations. “Our children are very well adjusted, emotionally mature and have a depth of care and spiritual presence to them,” he wrote. Nevertheless, they too have drifted. “As they grew into their college years, the church simply did not respond to what they were looking for.... [It offered] nothing about the lives they were leading.” Of his daughter, “who is a smart and capable and competent and professional woman...the church simply insults her for being a woman...a woman who is a leader in every right except in her faith community.” He ended by saying: “The sexual abuse scandal has probably been the nail in the coffin.”

An Unaffiliated Generation?

A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life bears out the anecdotes: Among young adults aged 18 to 29, one in four has no religious affiliation, although one in three was raised as a Catholic. In fact, 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. The survey tracks a constant movement among faiths as opposed to constancy. Catholicism has experienced the greatest net loss from people of faith having changed their religious affiliation. For American Catholics these are sobering statistics.

Last Christmas season, I found myself driving with several of the young adults about whom their parents worry. Tentatively explaining my journalistic interest, I asked for their thoughts about their own Catholicism and their understanding of social justice. They talked fondly about their earlier years, about serving meals at a soup kitchen, helping at a thrift store, walking in peace marches, visiting seniors in nursing homes. “We may not go to church, but we do some of the things our parents taught us,” said one. “Even something silly, like donating the hotel soaps and shampoos to the homeless shelter. My mom always did that.”

“I tried going to my boyfriend’s Christian church,” said another. “It was lame. They talked down about other people, especially gays. That’s when I knew I was Catholic or nothing. So I guess right now I’m nothing.”

I just listened. I tried to imitate the mother of God: “His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51). But my heart was heavy.

“I don’t think we have let the church down,” added a young adult, addressing my unspoken question. “I think the church has let us down.” A busload of issues then stopped at my door: a church that too often seems to care more about a person’s sexual orientation than whether people are being bullied to death in school, a church that seems to care more about the unborn child than about the one who is abused or hungry or in his seventh foster home placement in two years, a church that seems to care more about the trappings of liturgy than the destruction of God’s green earth, a church that seems to care more about the gender of a priest than about a homily that changes hearts, a church that seems to care more about protecting its clergy from lawsuits than protecting its young from predators, above all a church that too often demands blind devotion but does not itself consistently walk the talk of the Eucharist.

As I listened, it occurred to me that by educating our children so well in social justice, we may have unwittingly made it infinitely more difficult for them to go along with a church they see as hypocritical or as concerned with image over substance. The more passionate our children’s belief in social justice, the less tolerant they are of institutional posturing and inaction. Their lived experiences in their neighborhood parishes do not easily match up with the social teachings of Jesus.

I thought of Mary and Joseph, finding their young son in the temple, far from where he was supposed to be. Mary says: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety” (Lk 2:48). Certainly parents do not always understand or agree with the paths their children take. In intimate acquaintance with Mary and Joseph’s “great anxiety” over a lost child, today’s parents may not always trust that they can keep their children connected to the church. As a friend gently reminded me, “We need to remember and trust that God is working in their lives, and though they seem to have abandoned him, he does not abandon them.”

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Mona Villarrubia
7 years ago

“it occurred to me that by educating our children so well in social justice, we may have unwittingly made it infinitely more difficult for them to go along with a church they see as hypocritical or as concerned with image over substance.”

Valerie, you hit the proverbial nail! My husband and I both have degrees in theology and have worked all our lives in Catholic education. We raised our sons to be literate, independent, critical-thinkers, and the Catholic Church has made it impossible for them to reconcile their views with the principles and practices of the US Catholic Bishops and of Rome.  But me, I could not be more proud of them, and I have no doubts about their standing with God.  As I always told them: God isn’t Catholic and the Catholic Church doesn’t have a monopoly on God’s grace.

James Collins
7 years ago
I don't necessarily think the fault lies with the children but with the institutional church. The leaders seem more preocupied with their robes, fancy titles, power and authority. About a year ago in an America article about why people leave the church the author cited a letter from a former priest. He wrote that the church taught me to think and then punished me every time I did. What a searing condemnation. They are not in the church or come only occasionaly for many reasons. Some inclde Humanae Vitae, divorce, church attitude toward gays, the sex abuse scandal and coverup by bishops, Poor homilys, insipid music and on and on. The great majority of these kids are good people. When I hear church leaders condemn them as "intrinsically evil", I don't believe it.
Mike Evans
7 years ago
Just ask the kids themselves. Church has become so boring for them that it is irrelevant. The clergy shortage exacerbates this problem when they are most likely to be served by someone whose accent they cannot understand and whose pious but empty homilies are uninspiring. The current implementation of the new Roman Missal will certainly not warm their hearts or inspire them to eagerly pray and sing in obscure and difficult words. The church is visibly negative in its public pronouncements and lame in its leadership on today's social justice issues. We are in danger of converting our local parishes to museums, curiosities from a former era but no longer compelling as the center of our lives. Even as we continue to attend ourselves, we are dismayed to see mostly very gray hair and balding pates, and ever yearn to just hear a baby cry. Our grandchildren will likely not ask to have their own children baptized and the church will be much the poorer for their absence. Whatever the new evangelism is about, it is a complete failure. America will soon be like Europe - Catholic perhaps but mostly in name only.
7 years ago

A youngster once asked me, “How old are you?” Jokingly I replied, “I’m the guy at the Last Supper who threw out the water from the basin Jesus used to wash his Apostles feet!” Well at 80, the kid seemed to kinda believe me, but  for sure at 80 I am old enough to remember what it was like to be raised on Faith. It wasn’t easy then and its not easy now. But how I love it! In the mid-twentieth century a French Cardinal made a remark that I’ve made my own. He said, “With great ease I am pagan and with great difficulty I am Christian!” Truth sets you free.

It  all began at home learning how to make the Sign of the Cross, prayers at meals, prayers at bedtime, Mass every Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation, Confession every Saturday numbering each sin and oh yes, fasting from all food and drink from midnight to Communion time, no matter the length of time, also no meat on Fridays, a much stricter Lent during which foods at breakfast and lunch must not equal in weight dinner!  And we did it! There was much more including the understanding at home that what Father or Sister said,  could not be challenged!

The Sisters, Brothers and priests in classroom or pulpit did their best to teach the Faith and we knew for sure that “God made us to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world so as to be happy with Him forever in the next.” Our Faith-foundation was solid, but there were “cracks” in the structure in that too much emphasis was placed on fear and on sin. Now in many ways the opposite exists.

I do appreciate the past but prefer the present way of teaching the Faith. My Faith is no stronger than when I was a child, - it is the same Faith,  - either you believe or you don’t. But I understand Faith  much better now  and am able to defend what I believe. And I thank all my teachers past and present, including my Mom, my first teacher in the Faith!


7 years ago
Thank you so much for having the courage to write and print this article.  It is SO true.  I am a 66 year old mother with two married sons, who have chosen wonderfully Christian wives, but no longer go to church, regularly.  However, some of the positive things they do in the name of social justice puts me to shame.  When they were in high school, I worried as to what was I doing wrong, when I could see all their questioning of the church and not being able to wait to get out of CCD classes. When I talked these concerns over with a non traditional, but VERY Catholic priest, he said to me, "Ann, who do you think you are?  God?"  You do your best and He will take over from there.  As the author noted, "We need to remember and trust that God is working in their lives..."
7 years ago
As a DRE-newly called a Director of Faith Formation-and father of a 5 year old awaiting sacraments of initiation, I appreciated your article. It often reminds me of the many I work with in the RCIA or Confirmation Preparation, the great exodus after the respective celebrations...and the unique joy I experience when I see confirmandi a few years later, or bump into a neophyte later at another Easter Triduum, or at their wedding or baptism of their child.

It is easy to point to the institutional church as falling short, or for dreary liturgies as a let down. But sometimes I feel a great loss when the younger generation, even with a strong, social justice orientation, can be so dismissive of a tradition, practice, and community that ought to also have instilled in them an incarnational, mystically sacramental faith practice and way of life.

Simply put, it's easy for me to fathom the reasons why people no longer go to church or consider themselves catholic if the reasons are boring/bad liturgy and a hypocritical, out of touch hieararchy. But I am less inclined to be sympathetic, and in fact am more despairing, if those self-same X-catholics no longer believe in God-are no longer in a relationship with a God who is incarnational and who is present and asks us to be present pastorally and sacramentally to each other within the world,even if we no longer "go to church."
7 years ago

While I acknowledge that each generation is different and that lessons learned from one generation may not apply to another, there are some eternal truths about God , human nature and the relationship between them.


The critical question for all of us, young and old, is not "Who do people say I am?" but rather, "Who do you say I am?" 


To answer, like Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God will produce a fundamental change in how we live our lives, a change that, in its contemplation, may be unnerving.  Discipleship, while a joyful path, is not always easy.  It may be more comfortable to follow some of the external actions associated wiith belief than to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to discipleship.


When my son was in his early teens he told me that it was hypocritical for him to receive communion because he no longer believed in God, his years in Catholic schools not withstanding.  My wife and I, devote Catholics, were convinced that we had failed our son in some way and comments from several priest that our son was "seeking and testing" was not altogether reassuring.   In his college years he did not go to Mass and when he enrolled as a transfer student to highly secularized college in California, we wondered if he was lost forever to the faith.  God, however, did not abandon him. Our son began to inch back to the faith and one day he had to answer that critical question "who do you say I am".  While sitting in his apartment with a load of work for his graduate school courses he had an interior locution: "If you don't serve me you will have wasted your life". 


He came back to the Mass and the Eucharist, found his vocation as a Jesuit priest, and although he could rail against poor homilies, insensitive bishops, the Vatican rigidity and more, he progressively deepened his relationship with Jesus and did served Him faithfully in Central America, East St. Louis, Nigeria and Rwanda.


It was in Africa that the first symptoms of an esophageal cancer surfaced, a cancer that was far advanced before he was able to get adequate diagnostic testing in the United States.  He did not have an easy dying but he said when asked by his sister what he prayed for he said: "I pray that somehow through my illness the love of God may be manifest".  A day or two before he died he raised his withered right hand over my wife and me, gave us his blessing and then thanked us for giving him, not his education, not a sensitivity to social issues but his most fundamental gift, "the gift of faith".


His faith as expressed through his life was not lost on his brother and two sisters.  All are responsible, professionals who have a deep Catholic faith in Jesus Christ.


And so to this article.  We ask ourselves, why do our friends, life-long Catholics as faithful to the Mass and sacraments as we, see their children stray from the Mass and the Eucharist, just as Valerie Schultz describes. 


We are not able to explain why.


St. Paul affirms that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature" is able to separate us from the love of the Lord.  And to that list he might have added the issue of women priests, pedophile priests, poor homilies, bishops who failed in their duty and issues of gender identity.  Not that these are inconsequential issues; they are simply not sufficient reasons to keep one from the feast of God's love. 


We are all invited to that feast.  If some of the servers at the table are unworthy, God's chagrin is surely greater than our.  Yet He does not abandon them, nor does he abandon our children who wander from the faith.  He is faithful even if we are not. He earnestly desires that we accept His invitation and be there with Him at the table of His son.


7 years ago
Dear Mr. Luchi  WOW! What an inspired and inspiring story! Anyone who reads your post has got to be renewed in Faith, Hope, Love. Pray for my family and for me.
Bill Collier
7 years ago
I agree with Mr. Snowden. Mr. Luchi's story was both "inspired and inspiring," and I also thank Valerie Schultz for her willingness to discuss this topic, one that is exceedingly painful to write about but which is necessary to hear. While it is true that God continues to work in the lives of our children, we also have to rememebr that the Holy Spirit continues to work in the life of the Church, which, in time, will be transformed in who knows what way to generate a great awakening of faith. It's happened before on many occasions in the two-millenia lifespan of the Church, and it surely will happen again.  
Chris Thomas
7 years ago
Thank you, Mr. Luchi, for sharing the story of your family.  You have expressed far more eloquently my thoughts as I read this article. 
Surely my responsibility as a Christian mother finds its foundation in my personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  It is nurtured with time, prayer and then actions, all of which are shared with my children on a daily basis.  Each of their personal relationships with the Son have been their foundations to question, to learn and to grow.  Ultimately it has led to their decision as young adults to be part of the community of faith found in our home and in our church. 
To be honest, I never thought to raise my children to be "justice-oriented".  To feed the hungry at our outreach center, to visit the sick in the hospital, to clothe the naked with donations of time, goods & money...these were done in response to loving Christ and following his teachings. 
Faith has been nurtured through our community.  Beauty is found in the simplest of liturgies.  We went and still go to daily mass.  Somewhere in finding beauty there, we have each answered the call to participate in a fuller way by developing our skills in serving as lectors and musicians. 
Sometimes I grow weary of reading over and over the list of problems our church has at the moment.  It is often used as reason "why not".  Yet, where do we read, over and over, the list of marvelous, miraculous descriptions of this huge, human community?  Surely my relationship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - as well as with my brothers & sisters - leads to rejoicing.  Perhaps others will be attracted by this Good News.   pax et bonum,
Jim McCrea
7 years ago

There are many people who the church has but God does not have; and there are

many people who God has which the church does not have.”

St. Augustine (paraphrased) ca 4th century

7 years ago
Mr. Cuasay :  you say you despair and are not inclined to be sympathetic to  "

those self-same X-catholics (who) no longer believe in God-are no longer in a relationship with a God who is incarnational and who is present and asks us to be present pastorally and sacramentally to each other within the world"  

What do you mean?  "God is incarnational"  "who is present and asks us to be present pastorally and sacramentally to each other"?  In all the years of Catholic school education,16, I never heard those words; nor do I hear them now from the pulpit; a regular reader of America I learn some things; but this new languague makes me feel like an outsider; "God is incarnational"  Where does that come from and what does it mean? 
6 years 12 months ago
THank you for the article and for as many comments.  I have just an outline of thoughts:  What will happen to the next generation that will not have the early structures that provided for the sound social concerns and the inner sense of God and Church?  Then there is the unchurched and at risk youth of today, they utter a cry for pastoral concern that when attended to becomes a source of church renewal. But it seems this is takes place only in certain places where a Greg Boyle or the like is able to bring personal charisma to bear. 

The consolation, the Lord cares for us all and will have the last word, a word of compassion for all - young or old.

6 years 12 months ago

"Raised on Faith" captures the experience of too many American Catholic parents who feel guilty about something over which they have little or no control. We can facilitate faith formation, but in the end, faith is the action and gift of God in our lives. The question; How do we get this generation to imitate our faith behaviors? implies too many unchallenged presuppositions. 

If we believe that this generation must imitate the behaviors whereby we expressed our faith, then we will continue the "control" mode in which we were raised. Though it worked for us; it is apparent it does not work for this generation.

It is the challenge of this generation of parents to believe that God is not asleep at the switch, and that grace is alive and active in our young people. Their discipleship is in its formation stage, and if God is at work in them, then we ought to be a little permission giving so that we will be able to see the work of the Spirit in this generation.  

Joanne Davids
6 years 12 months ago
A thoughtful, courageous ariticle, Valerie. Thanks!
Eileen Sadasiv
6 years 12 months ago
Amen!  Thank you, Valerie and America.
ed gleason
6 years 11 months ago
Thank you Valerie.. we too took the social justice track in their religious upbringing. and have seen some partial results in both adult children and grandchildren. None have left for another religion, 'for social justice where would we go?'
We make do with their occasional participation and we are proud of their social justice actions and notions.
Faith is a family canoe and we will do the paddling for now.
6 years 11 months ago
I was glad to read about the experience of other Catholic parents whose children no longer participate actively in the Church. How many times have I sat in groups of like-minded women whose childdren are good, generous, justice-minded, civic-oriented people who, nonetheless, find no formal time for God! My own three children, now in their thirties, fit this description.
As D.R.E. for my parish, I raised them in the lap of the Church. We shared a life of prayer together and joined in the social life of the parish. Heady as we adult Catholics were in those days with the theology and practice of Vatican II, I expected to see my excitement catch on with my children. Instead, as this writer points out, they became only too aware of the inconsistencies in this church. Those parents I knew who succeeded best in passing on their faith were those who retreated to old-church teaching and took refuge in home-schooling.  I could not, in conscience, take that route.
As a one ever-involved in faith formation, I would like to think we now have a better feel for the mystique of Vatican II-the Church grounded in Scripture and the Fathers, open to Social Justice, joyful in worship, centered in Christ, identified as People of God. Could we yet instill that conviction in our young?
For now I just love my children and hope that, in the words of Ronald Rolheiser, they will touch Christ's presence in touching the hem of my garment.
6 years 11 months ago
All hope is not lost. For those young Catholics raised with a solid sense of action in issues of justice and charity, their faith can be renewed by a mature focus on contemplation. One way would be to challenge them to look at Catholic role models in charity: Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Charles de Foucald, Therese of Lisieux, etc, These individuals knew that the Church wasn't perfect, but they loved it. When I explored their writings and life stories was I able to mature in my own faith and look past the annoyances that are part of any institution populated by humans. 

Sometimes this involves giving up a day at the soup kitchen and replacing it with an afternoon of spiritual reading. Unfortunately, there is little encouragement for this in both our secular and church culture. Yet I am hopeful that young adults who are seeking the truth of the faith will break out beyond social work and will discover the richness of Catholicism.


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