Lessons from History About the Future of Marriage & Family in the United States



Touchstone Mag., Jan/Feb. 2006

The Family Factors
Lessons from History About the Future of Marriage & Family in the United States

by Allan Carlson

. . . .

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.

Reversed Fertility

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.

. . .

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.

Unnatural Sterility

. . .

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.

. . .


hmm…does this mean I am different? I have had 4 children (maybe on my 5th) and I am educated…I don’t have a degree but I have over 120 credits…go figure, me different!!! Wow, I need some article to tell me how blest I am…not!


Crunchy Cons are into big families. And all that entails…responsible parents who home school, give religious education, attend worship etc…and most of them are well educated.
Social sciences are based on possibilities. And of course there are three kinds of lies…lies, damned lies and STATISTICS. :smiley:


I heard a Legionary priest once say that the gender confusions in our society has its roots in the Great Depression. The men that grew up in the depression became workaholics because of the trauma of near starvation. Their children (baby boomers) didn’t have good role models and didn’t spend enough time with their dads. That scenario kind of fits in with this article.

I imagine the increased materialism had a big impact.

Several times I have met adults who have grown up in large families. They talk about how much fun it was. They almost seem to radiate happiness talking about their childhood. Then, I ask how many kids they have–usually, it is three or less. It makes me so sad. I know some people have fertility problems, but I’m guessing that is probably not the case for most.

I grew up with three siblings. I remember throughout my childhood wishing for a larger family. My mom (b. 1943) purposely limited the size of her family because she was afraid of poverty. She wanted to work. She wanted us to have things that she couldn’t–braces, college education, etc. I know that she regrets the decision to limit the family size and be a working mom. She was very much the product of her time.

I guess we are all doing the best we can.


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.