Is there such a thing as Catholic culture in America anymore? And if there is, is it capable of producing religiously committed Catholics across generations? Or would we have to consider it simply a fading vestige of ethnic or familial identity? From John Paul II to Benedict XVI to Francis, the renewal of Catholic culture in Western societies has been considered an intrinsic dimension of the New Evangelization. With regard to a so-called “Catholic culture,” however, the movement from ideal to real—from exhortations to concrete renewal—is sobering and presents many practical questions. Are there any social mechanisms by which new generations of Catholics can acquire a strong sense of Catholic identity, an entire worldview animated by Christian intuitions regarding humanity and society, and the will to remain committed to these principles over the long term? Can such reinvigoration occur anywhere at an appreciable scale?
If Dr. Christian Smith, a prominent sociologist of religion at Notre Dame, is correct, any reply to these questions must take special account of one institution: the household, with its deep interpersonal bonds, its wealth of practices, and its highly compelling power to impart identity. In his landmark National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), Smith studied the specific religiosity and spirituality of millennials, observing the widespread drift of these young people from any substantial notion of religious identity or practice. However, he also realized that the religious outcomes of these young people were not at all a generational anomaly. Rather, the single greatest predictor of emerging adults’ eventual level of religious commitment was the religiosity of their parents.
Consider that, of the most religious quartile of NSYR young adults ages 24-29 (individuals whose religious attitudes Smith had been tracking since high school) an impressive 82% had parents who reported each of the following: that their family regularly talked about religious topics in the home, that faith was “very important” to them, and that they themselves regularly were involved in religious activities. By comparison, only 1% of the least religious quartile of Smith’s young adults had parents who reported this combination of religious attitudes and practices. Thus, according to the NSYR, the single most decisive difference between Millennials who remained religiously committed into adulthood and those who didn’t was the degree of religiousness exhibited by their parents.