Over 500 respondents took part in our informal survey on Catholic motherhood, conducted via America’s email newsletter and social media platforms.
Twenty-five percent told America that one or more of their children had left the church, and only 1 percent said that one of their children had entered the priesthood or a religious order.
The quarter of respondents whose children left the church provided some clear reasons for their departure. The sexual abuse crisis, instances of bullying at Catholic schools, disagreement with church teaching and objections to the treatment of L.G.B.T. people by Catholics were all cited by mothers as factors in their children’s decision to leave.
Many respondents expressed confusion and a sense of powerlessness in response to their children leaving the church and spoke about the pain of not seeing their grandchildren baptized. “I wish I knew why they left the church,” wrote Maria O’Neill of Edgerton, Kan. “But all things changed when they left home, went to college and in some ways the people they married—even though three out of four spouses are Catholic.” Cathy Gwynn of Falmouth, Mass., speculated, “I think they did not find the church relevant.“
Read more results of the survey here.
When you have children, everyone tells you that your life is going to change. They mean this in both the best and the worst possible ways: There are the predictable losses (lost sleep, lost money, lost time) as well as the wholly unexpected gains of loving a child beyond reason, beyond yourself.
What people do not tell you is that your children are bound to make unexpected and sometimes bewildering choices—and those choices have the power to change you. Children will shake your sense of identity, challenge your beliefs and fundamentally alter who you are.
Anyone who has tried to pass on their religious faith to their children knows this to be true: You can be a good Catholic and raise a passel of atheists. You can be a strident ex-Catholic and raise a priest—like I did.
My son would tell you that I have had a big influence on him. He dives into the world in the same way I do, with the firm intention of changing it. He works out his thoughts by writing them down. He believes in the healing properties of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on a rainy day. But when it came to making the biggest choice of his life—to convert to Catholicism and become a Jesuit priest—I was left to wonder what influence I had had on him or whether I had wielded any influence at all.
Many of the good Catholic mothers I have talked to are just as bewildered. They did everything in their power to raise children in their faith only to see them adopt other religions or reject God altogether. Some say they were defeated by a culture that increasingly values the material over the spiritual, or they point to the rigidity of doctrine, failures of individual priests, sexual abuse scandals, boring services and bad music. Many blame themselves, although they struggle to say where exactly they went wrong.