Touchstone Mag., Jan/Feb. 2006
The Family Factors
Lessons from History About the Future of Marriage & Family in the United States
by Allan Carlson
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Lesson Four: Even Christians have followed the cultural trends to small families. Take the example of American Catholics. From 1900 to 1940, they had behaved increasingly like their Protestant neighbors, at least relative to family formation and fertility. The Protestant and Catholic birthrates in America converged, perhaps a sign of the victory of social and economic pressures over the influence of belief.
At the doctrinal level, though, Protestants and Catholics grew apart. While some Protestant groups—the Anglicans, the old Federal Council of Churches—approved contraception, the Catholic hierarchy labored to shore up orthodoxy on family-related questions. Pius XI issued Casti Connubii in 1930, which reaffirmed historic Catholic teachings: procreation and the rearing of children as the primary purposes of marriage; marriage as an indissoluble sacrament; limitation of family size only for licit reasons; periodic abstinence as the only licit means of birth control; total abstinence from sexual activity as the rule for the unmarried; and the married woman serving in the home as wife and mother.
The large Catholic family received explicit theological affirmation somewhat later. As Pius XII declared: “Large families are most blest by God and specially loved and prized by the Church as its most precious treasures.”
Witnessing, it seems, to this steadfastness in doctrine, the 1945–1964 era produced a “heroic” flowering of Catholic family life in America. Although fertility rose for all American religious groups, it rose far more rapidly and stayed high longer among Catholics. Indeed, there are signs that the American Baby Boom was largely “a Catholic thing.” The total marital fertility rate for non-Catholics averaged 3.15 children born per woman in the early 1950s and 3.14 in the early 1960s. For Catholics, the respective figures were 3.54 and 4.25.
More dramatic was the return of the large Catholic family: In a survey conducted in the early 1950s, only 10 percent of Catholics under age 40 reported having four or more children, a figure very close to the 9 percent for Protestants. By the late 1950s, the Protestant figure was unchanged, but the proportion of Catholics with four or more children had more than doubled, to 22 percent.
Still more surprising was the nature of this postwar resurgence in Catholic fertility. Violating a law of sociology that the more education a woman receives, the fewer children she has, Catholic women who had attended college were bearing more children than Catholic women without a high-school degree. Large families flourished among the best educated. We also find increased fertility primarily among younger parents: Through 1965, each new cohort of parents was more pro-natalist in its attitudes than the group before.
And it had a clear religious focus: More frequent attendance at Mass was related to more births. Indeed, the Catholic family ethic resting on devotion to church teachings seemed to be reaching new highs in the mid-1960s. Among the American laity, at least, there was no apparent crisis of faith.
Within ten years, though, all this had reversed. There seems little doubt that the currents of ideas affecting Catholicism in the mid-1960s—challenges to traditional practices and hierarchical authority during Vatican II, debate on the contraceptive question followed by the stunning reaffirmation of orthodoxy in Humanae Vitae, and the impact of feminist and neo-Malthusian ideas on key Catholic elites—lay behind the collapse. Dissent gained some legitimacy. It appears that the laity may simply have followed the easiest of several disputed paths of obedience.
Indeed, changes in lay Catholic attitudes and behavior can be traced to the specific years 1967–1971.
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This fall in expected fertility was sharpest for the better educated: from 3.7 to 2.7 children among Catholic women with some college education.
Frequency of attendance at Mass no longer proved to be related to fertility. Even the large-family ideal vanished: In 1967, 28 percent of “devout” Catholics planned to have five or more children, but by 1971, only 6 percent did.
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Alas, outside of recent Hispanic immigrants, overall Catholic numbers today are not impressive, but “white fundamentalist Protestants” who attend church weekly show a fertility rate 27 percent above the national average, and the fertility rate of active American Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, is about double the national average.
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