The Catholic Thing
Prayer: The Impact on Blacks, Hispanics, and the Irish Print E-mail
By Patrick Fagan   
Wednesday, 01 September 2010

August Comte must be rolling in his grave – he invented sociology to give the French an alternate way of conceiving the world other than the one the Church had presented to mankind. In research results released last month, Brad Wilcox, a leading sociologist from the University of Virginia and his colleagues illustrate not only the power of Sunday worship in helping couples have happy and satisfying marriages. They also found that those who pray together at home are helped even more. These findings are even more important for Blacks and Hispanics who tend to worship and pray more. 

The findings: 

  • The more individuals worship the more satisfying their marriages;
  • The more couples worship together the more satisfying their marriages;
  • The more religiously homogenous couples are (having the same denominational beliefs) the more satisfying their marriages;
  • The more couples share core beliefs (important in these days when denominational membership does not denote what one believes as much as it used to) the more satisfying their marriages;
  • The more couples pray at home or use scripture together the more satisfying their marriages.
  • These findings hold as much for men as for women.

Their research also confirmed what is well known about happy marriages: those who are employed, more educated, and earning more tend to have happier marriages. These conditions apply less, however, to Blacks and Hispanics. Were it not for their more intense practice of religion, they would show an even greater gap compared to whites in their levels of marital stability and satisfaction.

Not only are worship and prayer helpful but they are especially so for the poor and those discriminated against. It seems that God – and not only certain Catholic bishops – has a preferential option for the poor and, in this country, in particular for Black and Hispanic minorities. They are helped most because they turn more frequently to Him. It is a satisfying phenomenon to see the hand of God made a wee bit clearer in the dry numbers of sociology. Not bad for a bunch of bean-counters (as the erudite philosopher-psychologist Dan Robinson calls sociologists). 

Couples who share the same denominational and core beliefs tend to have the same beliefs about marriage, sexuality, gender roles, household organization, child rearing, and a host of other issues. Thus they are less likely to clash as they negotiate the myriad choices that married life entails. Conflict is less frequent. Abuse is much, much less.

In a now famous TV appearance, the Rev. Jesse Jackson once said that his fear of being mugged by three husky teenagers coming out of a building on a dark street suddenly dropped when he saw they had Bibles under their arms. He knew they were not part of the street culture but the decent culture. Today, despite decades of the Great Society programs the street culture is stronger than ever. That solution did not work.  

Last Sunday in the Washington Post, George Will lamented the breakup of the Black family (70 percent out-of-wedlock births) and virtually threw his hands up in the air in frustration as to what can be done. But the Black family is not the first one to be in such trouble. The Irish family was in similar bad shape back in the mid 1800s in New York. Then along came Dagger John (so named because of the cross before his signature), Archbishop John Joseph Hughes, an immigrant gardener from Donegal, Ireland, who rose to lead the Church in New York (after being talent-spotted in an Emmitsburg, Maryland garden by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton). 

As William Stern recounted in a great article in City Journal:

When [Hughes] arrived in office Manhattan’s tens of thousands of Irish seemed a lost community, mired in poverty and ignorance, destroying themselves through drink, idleness, violence, criminality, and illegitimacy. What made the Irish such miscreants? Their neighbors weren’t sure: perhaps because they were an inferior race, many suggested; you could see it in the shape of their heads, writers and cartoonists often emphasized. In any event, they were surely incorrigible.

But within a generation, New York’s Irish flooded into the American mainstream. The sons of criminals were now the policemen; the daughters of illiterates had become the city’s schoolteachers; those who’d been the outcasts of society now ran its political machinery. No job training program or welfare system brought about so sweeping a change. What accomplished it, instead, was a moral transformation, a revolution in values.

Hughes wrought this change by promoting confessions, Mass, devotion to the Sacred Heart and Blessed Mother; by  preaching purity, abstinence, hard work, and thrift; and by building lots of new institutions. From being the criminal class the Irish became – within a generation – the judges, police, and jailers. Though an “estimated 50,000 Irish prostitutes, known in flash talk as ‘nymphs of the pave’, worked the city in 1850,” by the 1880s the Irish were being chided by the New York press for being “puritanical” and were known for their close-knit family life. It is amazing what God can do when He has a courageous willing instrument. 

It is time to pray for an African-American Dagger John. Imagine the blessings to America that will come should that prayer be answered.  Wilcox and his colleagues will have a sociological field day, and Auguste Comte – well, the great founder of sociology will spin in his grave even faster.

Patrick Fagan is director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) at Family Research Council whose project, Mapping America, charts these outcomes regularly.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Ryan, September 02, 2010
Thank you for focusing on the positive about the potential for change in the black community. The only thing I would alter about your article is that the next Dagger John doesn't have to be black - anyone can take up the DJ mantle. One does not have to be black to be able to help the black community.
written by Ray Hunkins, September 02, 2010
What an inspiring, forward looking, hopeful, thought provoking column. God bless.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., September 02, 2010
Another factor that helped the Irish out of the underworld and underclass was the large number of priests exported to our shores. Among other things, the priests told the young women, largely employed as domestics, not to date the bad guys. And even when a woman chose a spouse poorly, she saw that the children lived as Catholics. It should also be remembered that when a priest was walking a man to the gallows or just visiting him in prison, the priest did enourage him to think of himself as a helpless victim of an oppressive Protestant system that forced him into a life of crime. Irish youth were not told that there was no point in stuying or working hard since even if he did The Man wouldn't let get ahead. America should thank God for the Irish priests!
written by TeaPot562, September 02, 2010
On your wedding day, invite God to be a part of your marriage. And always remember that He is.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., September 02, 2010
Oops! I mean Major Oops! Of course in by earlier post I meant to say that priests did NOT--repeat NOT--tell criminals to think of themselves as victims of an oppressive Protestant system. A thousand apologies for clouding up the issue by typing too fast.
written by Tom Brennan, September 02, 2010
Super column, and thank you so much for pointing out William Stern's article on Bishop Hughes - reading that was (for me) one of the transformative moments when you find yourself explained to yourself. How could I not have known all that history - my history?
And your connecting of George Will's points to Bishop Hughes' answer to the same problems - dare we call it "audacity and hope"?
written by Graham Combs, September 03, 2010
What the above does not say is that out of wedlock childbirths are now 28% for "whites." Recall that in Sen. Moynihan's famous study in the 1960s, he fretted over a 25% rate for Black Americans (and rightly so). A while back Sen. James Webb wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal, "The Myth of White Privilege." As someone who grew up among the white, Southern, working poor, it was a voice long due and much needed. I am also a recent Catholic convert and benefitted -- if only in part -- from what we used to call the working class prep school, that is a Catholic high school education. It does bother me that bishops, priests, and nuns express vocal concern for Black and Hispanic Americans but rarely talk about economic and cultural struggle as such. In the British Church and Britain in general, similar trends exist. One can only speculate what America and Britain would look like today if we had spent the last forty years focussing on need -- economic and educational -- rather than tribalizing suffering and struggle. The Church -- in the English-speaking world at least -- doesn't need leadership in Holy Orders focussed specifically on this or that group, but on the needs of all of those whose lives and futures should be central to our compassion and accordance with Christ's Second Commandment. It is time to pray for an AMERICAN Dagger John. I'm disappointed that The Catholic Thing, on this issue at least, seems to echo the drooping rhetoric and discredited policies of Catholic liberalism. Unless you have known the deprivation and domestic chaos of being poor, perhaps you cannot understand that this obsession with racial and ethnic demographics is a distraction and an indulgence no longer in the budget. But then 54% of Catholic voters -- including priests and religious -- helped put into the Oval Office a man who shares almost none of the moral values and cultural concerns of many Catholics. Overall Blacks and Hispanics continue to support this president no matter what he does or doesn't do, believes or doesn't believe. In the Archdiocese of Detroit another Catholic school closes this fall and more parishes are due to consolidate. I don't understand what Catholics are thinking and doing. And to make matters worse, Call to Action and the whole alphabet of Catholic leftism will meet in the archdiocese next year. To what purpose? To accomplish what? Why would so orthodox and devout a priest as our archbishop even allow this? There's tolearnce and then there's losing the way...

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