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Empowering Parents: Symposium Day 1

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Last night, our annual Symposium on Liturgy and the New Evangelization kicked off at Notre Dame (after we were first pummeled with heat, humidity, and an apocalyptic storm in which two inches of rain fell in 20 minutes).

Christian Smith and Justin Bartkus gave the public an early view into research on parenting and the transmission of faith. Parenting, as Smith has noted in his work on the National Study of Youth and Religion, matters. Not just a bit. Parents are the most important causal factor for the transmission of faith (or non-transmission) to their children.

Here are five insights from their talk at our Symposium, “From Generation to Generation: How American Catholic Parents Today Approach Passing on the Faith to their Children.”

  1. The Household is a Culture, and It Can Be Highly Effective: In the midst of various discussions about the need to disengage from culture (often improperly called the Benedict Option), Justin Bartkus noted that actually you can’t disengage from culture. Rather, every household is a culture in miniature making possible a worldview for parents and children alike. The goal is not to disengage from culture but rather to create a particular culture in which religion is often talked about in the home–in which religious practice permeates domestic life. If such a household is created, there is a high possibility that religious transmission will be successful.
  2. Religious Practice, Yes. Religious Reflection, Definitely Yes. Bartkus introduced a distinction between households of faith in which parents are plate-gazers or table-setters. Plate-gazers are active in the Church but aren’t quite able to articulate a vision of what they’re doing. Table-setters are also active in the Church and have a coherent vision of what they’re doing religiously in the home. This vision is not simply implicit but is often articulated to children, who pick it up. Religious transmission is most effective when parents are table-setters not just plate-gazers.
  3. The Four Factors for Successful Transmission: Bartkus described four factors that led to successful transmission of a religious culture to children in the household. First, parents are able to articulate why they are transmitting Catholicism. They have a vision of what Catholicism is, what it means, and why it is important for the family. Second, parents are consciously intentional about this formation. That is, they perform practices, create a household culture of faith, in a strategic way. They perform specific practices, have certain conversations around the dinner table, for definite reasons. Third, parents naturally give their children religious content. Here, they may partner with religious education programs, youth ministry, Catholic schools, and other programs as a whole. The content matters, but it matters in the context of particular relationships built in “passing on” the faith. Fourth, parents are able to interpret the tradition on the spot. They don’t need degrees in theology, but they have to be able to talk about the Church’s approach to suffering, the way that the Church grasps the meaning of life. Parents are hermeneutes whether they want to be or not.
  4. Programs Matter…A Bit: Once upon the time, parents could depend upon the institutional Church to pass on religious faith to their children. Parents didn’t need to talk about religious faith. It just kind of happened through Catholic schooling. That’s not the case any more. The four factors mentioned above mean that parents will have to take on a vocation that they haven’t had to in American culture thus far. If parents send their kids to a Catholic school or CCD program, their job isn’t done. If one sends kids to Catholic schools, without creating this household culture, it is likely that the student will simply reject the religious tradition.
  5. Adult Faith Formation Matters: Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, a presenter at our Symposium, asked Christian Smith and Justin Bartkus about adult faith formation. While Smith and Bartkus both emphasized that theological education is not the most important dimension to religious transmission, it does seem the case that adult evangelization and faith formation will be essential if parents are to be empowered to develop the four markers of effectiveness that Smith mentioned above. Children, of course, can elicit conversions in parents. But, the dearth of adult faith formation (and formation into parenting as a whole) is a serious problem for a Church, who wants to carry out a new evangelization.

Today, at the Symposium, we’ll continue examining what is the present culture for religious transmission in our own age. And what are the consequences for liturgical prayer and household ritual in particular? And we’ll get to asking some tougher questions, such as the one asked by Michael Bayer last night on Twitter. Yes, parents matter. But, why is it that so many adult parents are so deeply disengaged from faith at all?

 Follow along today at #NDLiturgy16 or #NDLit16

Timothy P. O’Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and founding editor for Church Life.