The Catholic Thing
The Decline of Working-Class Catholic Families Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Millions of Catholics survived the Great Depression of the 1930s thanks to parishes and parochial schools. These institutions helped to prevent the emergence of a rebellious underclass by serving as social and educational centers. Priests and nuns instilled the moral direction necessary to maintain civility. Children learned that family, discipline, loyalty, and hard work mattered regardless of financial circumstances. Despite the hardships of monetary poverty, Catholic families remained intact. They did not become victims of behavioral poverty.

By the 1960s, however, social upheaval and dubious Great Society programs caused many American families to unravel. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his groundbreaking 1965 report, The Negro Family:  The Case for National Action, revealed that many poor African-Americans were caught in a “tangle of pathology” because of a U.S. welfare system that destroyed families by encouraging black men to abandon them in order to maximize relief benefits.

This disintegration of families has not been confined to African-Americans. The Washington research group Child Trends has found that “after steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold:  more than half of births to American women under thirty occur outside of marriage.” 

The biggest increase was among white women. The percentage of births outside of marriage for white women under thirty was 21 percent in 1990 and is now 51 percent.

In his insightful new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, political scientist Charles Murray explains why families of blue-collar white Americans have been dissolving. Interestingly, he argues that the root cause of the problem is not income inequality or lack of jobs, but the erosion of the  nation’s founding virtues, which were based on industriousness, honesty, religiosity, and marriage.

During the past half century, rights have become a weapon for asserting self-interest; demanding responsibility based on moral hierarchy has become anathema.  As a result, noxious notions infiltrated the lifestyle of working-class people:

  • Poverty programs promoted victimism, “its not your fault.”
  • In sex-ed programs, the family was defined as a group of people living together. Illegitimate births, single-parent families were portrayed as normal “alternative” lifestyles.
  • In judicial systems, punitive sanctions were rejected and in place of guilt and punishment, tolerance and understanding were espoused.
These novel views have marginalized the founding virtues, caused the weakening of the work ethic, and created an underclass of men.

Starting in the 1970s, white males with no more than a high-school education started to drop out of the work force for no apparent reason. Today, about 12 percent of white working-class Americans just don’t want to work. Some live at home with their folks and grab odd jobs from time to time to make pocket money. Others turn to crime or run up bills and declare bankruptcy. 

And many won’t marry their sweethearts, even if they are pregnant, because they do not want to be responsible adults. This change in the American male’s domestic habits is, in Murray’s judgment, directly related to the decline in religious devotion.   



Men in Catholic neighborhoods have not been immune from the anti-marriage syndrome Murray describes. Let’s face it, post-Vatican II craziness contributed to the decline in religious devotion. Inner-city Catholics who were committed to rock-solid doctrines of the faith were bombarded by zealous innovators who, in the name of Vatican II, discarded, tampered, revised, or eliminated beliefs, moral principles, and ceremonies that had been cherished for generations.

Vacillating bishops, rebellious priests and nuns, and revisionist theologians caused confusion in parishes and Church grammar schools. By 1980, researchers found that among Catholics:  three out of four approved sexual intercourse outside of marriage; eight out of ten approved contraception; and seven out of ten approved of legalized abortions.

Murray analyzes a neighborhood in Philadelphia, Fishtown, which was 99 percent white in 1960, is 91 percent white today, and had been intensely Catholic: “It is hard to exaggerate the centrality of the Catholic Church in Fishtown’s past. . . .The Catholic worldview pervaded the worldview of Fishtown’s parishioners.  The Church’s teachings – among others, that the home is a domestic church – gave validation to the core values of Fishtown.”

Sadly, due to the declining influence of the Church and the triumph of the counter-culture, Fishtown is no longer a “tightly knit, family-oriented, hardworking, hard-fighting, blue collar neighborhood.”

  • In 1960, 9 percent of Fishtown men were not in the work force; today it’s 30 percent and the increase is not due to a lack of jobs.
  • In 1970, 81 percent of Fishtown families with children were under eighteen were headed by married couples. It stood at 67 percent in 1990 and has continued to decline.
  • Neighborhood crime, which was non-existent in 1960, has risen dramatically due to changes in the family structure. Large numbers of unsupervised teenagers, who live in fatherless homes, roam the streets committing crime to support drinking and drug habits.
  • Church attendance is down, illegitimate births and welfare dependency are up.

Murray does a great service in sounding the alarm that the epidemic breakdown of working class families is collectively destroying the kind of civil society that American requires in order to function. 

To stem the tide and to make headway against these problems, he insists, “The people who are trying to do the right thing [must] get the reinforcement they need – not in the form of government assistance – but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold.”

He’s right. And in the Catholic Fishtowns of America, the Church’s top priority must be to reach out to the bewildered faithful. In the words of Pope John Paul, the Church must “endeavor to save and foster values and requirements of families. . .[by] proclaiming with joy and conviction the good news of the family and the importance of its mission in the City of God and in that of man.”

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen. His newest book is Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Dave, February 22, 2012
Murray's book calls for a careful reading, and thank you, Mr. Marlin, for writing about it. A factor that must be considered is the relentless war against the notions of responsible fatherhood and the respectability of working class men that the general culture has waged almost incessantly since the late 60s. Recall All in the Family: Archie Bunker, presented as the prototypical blue-collar father, was a laughingstock, who tolerated his daughter's live-in boyfriend, who ridiculed his wife, and who was constantly being "enlightened" to progressive viewpoints or exposed as a rube for opposing them. Three's Company added insult to injury. And those are just the 70s. Add to the media assault the break in the social compact and the open contempt of the upper classes for working class people, especially working class men, as non-competitive in the great race for fantastic wealth, which came to be seen as the purpose of the economic system. We all remember Gordon Gecko and "greed is good," and the excesses of the 80s. The stripping away of values and the stripping away of dignity worked their pernicious effects; and as the Church had gone off the rails with respect to moral theology, and as the devotional life of the immense majority of parishes shifted to favor the kinds of affective piety women love, where were the men to turn for guidance and support? The culture was against them, the economic paradigm shifts no longer supported notions of dignified working-class labor, and the Church had abandoned them. That demoralization ensued is no wonder. Treat people as dysfunctional, and that's what they become in the absence of real alternatives. That the situation is not more dire than it is speaks to the resilience of the American working class. But the message here is clear: save the neighborhood by saving fatherhood; save fatherhood by valuing the man for what he is, instead of reviling him for what he cannot become. We have much work to do.
written by James Danielson, February 22, 2012
I suspect the author is saying more than it appears regarding the resuscitation of the Church in America. Encouraging words from the hierarchy are useful, I guess, but I don't see how any amount of talk can overcome the drag of a lifeless mass, lacking in mystery and beauty.
written by Sue, February 22, 2012
When women went to work starting in the 60s, men dropped out of work and the family crumbled. The latest Obama/Bush recession has been particularly hard on male workers. Let women drop out of the work force, nurturing their kids at home (homeschool them, yes you can!), taking care of Grandma better than Medicare or Social Security can, and let the man take his place in the workforce where he then has a respected role as provider.
written by Achilles, February 22, 2012
Mr. Marlin, really good essay, a portrayal of true tragedy. I am not a huge fan of Charles Murry, but where truth is spoken……

Sue, I love your comments, everyone I have seen! I also admire your Catholic heart.
Dave, I must say the same for you. I thank all 3 of you today.

Please pray for me, Achilles
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., February 22, 2012
Thank you, Mr. Marlin, for citing the influence of those purporting to be acting and teaching in the spirit of Vatican II. Even those self-identified Catholics who do go to Mass are likely to hear heresy and error from the pulpit. They might be told that "in the bad old days before the council" people actually went to confession and believed in Hell and Purgatory. Many adult Catholics do not even know how to say the Rosary. I actually heard a priest proclaim from the pulpit the Council of Jeruslem released Christian from not only Hebrew dietary laws but also laws regarding sexual purety. For priests and even bishops of that sort everything is fine as long as their flocks are voting for the Abortion Party. No moral or social order can survive where people are told that the higest moral maxim is that we must not make mroal judgements. And yes, this can all be traced to infltration of the Church by Marxists decades before the Council, but the Council gave them the cover for thier subversion. BTW, Dave, in All in the Family the young couple was married; I agree with your overall take on it, but I always try to avoid giving the enemy ammo.
written by Stephanie, February 22, 2012
Although I am not against women working (what if something happens to her man and she needs to support her family? an honorable man wouldn't abandon his family, but not all men are honorable, and some men die in wars or die of cancer), I do think Sue has a good point. I don't think men should stay at home. Men want to be respected, and it is hard to respect a man who does not work. The woman usually does not respect him, and often views him as another child she has to take care of, especially if they're not married (one of the reasons cited for not getting married is that the woman doesn't feel that her guy is mature enough). Women are by nature nurturers, and I think they should stay home at least until their kids are old enough to start school, and then only work during school hours.

I think a lot of the teen crime and pregnancy rates would decline if middle and high school kids were being supervised. It would also bring families closer together. I know they have after school programs for elementary school kids and preschools that last all day, but what happens when the kid turns 11/12? I think we need to either extend the school day to 5PM or have mandatory after-school programs for tweens and teens who don't have a parent home to watch them.

As for the elderly, I do think it would be nicer for them to live in a home with their family rather than live alone on a social program or in a nursing home. Some people like living in the homes for the elderly, but I think children could benefit from having their grandparents or great-grandparents living with them. They are from another generation and have wisdom they have gained from living their long lives.
written by Tony Esolen, February 22, 2012
I wish I could hunt down the quote, but Lord Acton said that the vices that addle the rich devastate the poor. The libertinism of our elites (a carefully managed libertinism in their case) has polluted the waters that everybody else has to drink. It explains the frenzied and irrational attacks on Rick Santorum, whose beliefs about sex and marriage and the family were ho-hum normal as late as 1970 in Pennsylvania, and respectable if a little old-fashioned as late as 1990. He hasn't moved; it's everyone else who has moved. He's called a "totalitarian" because he believes that strong families obviate the need for bloated government -- amazing. Who profits from the sexual revolution? The rich -- and rich women particularly. THEY don't care if they pollute the river; they live upstream. THEY don't care if cities are eviscerated; they live in the posh zipcodes.
written by Ruth Joy, February 22, 2012
And the closing of so many Catholic schools and the loss of Catholic identity of so many of the remaining ones does not help either.
written by Tom, February 23, 2012

It was all part of a plan to ethnically cleanse the Catholics.

written by Micha Elyi, February 24, 2012
When women went to work draw welfare as divorced or unwed mothers starting in the 60s, men dropped out of work and the family crumbled.

Fixed it for you, Sue.

One of the many errors of the Welfare State is that it undermines the role of husbands and fathers as providers. If instead of funding mothers (make a baby, win a prize!), any family welfare money had been paid to husbands then the provider role (that most women, even most feminist women, insist that men shoulder) would have been preserved.
written by Jeannon Kralj, February 24, 2012
"“The people who are trying to do the right thing [must] get the reinforcement they need – not in the form of government assistance – but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold.”

I think "reinforcment" or support by the clergy and the Chancery and Bishop are extremely important to couples and parents who are quietly doing the right thing and living the right way no matter what they see all around them. Unfortanately the local Church leadership has sent mixed signals.

It has not spoken out clearly that artificial contraception is an intrinsic evil and is a mortal sin, but have, wink wink nod nod, have let couples decide for themselves what is right for them. In its divorce tribunal they have granted the "Pauline privelege" for absurd reasons. (I read recently that Newt Gingrich and Edward Kennedy had been granted annulments!)

"Vacillating bishops, rebellious priests and nuns, and revisionist theologians caused confusion in parishes and Church grammar schools."

Rebelliousness is as the sin of witchcraft. In all my years, I have never heard any priest preach a sermon on rebelliousness.

The infiltration of the Church over the years, the undermining, the destruction, does indeed look like the work of the Evil One.
written by Sue, February 24, 2012
Actually I did mean to include mothers of intact, two-parent families who should "come home". These are the ones, after all, who are most situated to homeschool and help beat down the welfare/entitlement complex that is known as government schooling, which is programmed to undermine the family while imploding our economy. Many concede that the primary added value of public schools is as a babysitter/daycare for children of working mothers. In its dumbing down, sexualizing and other manipulation of children, the public school has been abetted by parents parking their kids there, who had the wherewithal to opt out.

Government School is an item we cannot afford materially or spiritually, except for those who have no other option. Let's treat it like a soup kitchen for those of last resort.

Let the Churches and private charities fund the poor families, as de Tocqueville says, rather than rely on Big Government which has its own atheistic agenda. They will then be empowered to impart their values as they feel led. Tithes, not taxes.

As for two-worker couples, we now have a hugely unjust matter of two-unemployment check households, or the hubby draws an unemployment check while wife goes to work for a double dip. This aspect of unemployment insurance undermines the family. If the "living wage" is ever going to be respected by employers, they will need to be able to assume just one salary, and one job, per household.
written by Wanda, February 24, 2012
Very insightful article. Having received 12 years of real Catholic education, graduating HS in 1966, I can attest to the destruction clearly aimed at Catholic families and Catholic men, in particular. The assaults against my generation were prolific: a "man-made" Mass, trashing of Catholic Tradition and churches, "social justice" replacing the salvation of souls, revolt and/or abandonment of the Faith by religious,the pill, the Vietnam War, legalization of abortion, the feminist spirit from Hell, destruction of blue-collar industries, gov't social programs designed to destroy the family, the "sex, drugs, rock and roll" culture -- did I leave anything out? I can see the devastating effects amongst my contemporaries. Most have abandoned the Faith. Back in 1960, when the Holy Father refused to reveal the Third Secret as instructed by Our Blessed Mother, many older Catholics considered this a bad omen. They were right.
written by Jas. McHale, February 25, 2012
Albeit a small slice/sampling from one particular Philly, PA enclave, along with one author's inferences, there is no denying the emblematic nature of the heretofore known but uncodified findings.
These days, one only look at the legislative idiosincracies to be found within (if you will excuse the expressions) the so-called RED vs. BLUE vs BLUE-RED State political manifestations of democracy.
While those dwelling within the BLUE-RED &/or RED-BLUE States may at least have the most balanced dialog, living within a given BLUE State provides the most painful existence for those living on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum within these monolithic & recalcitrant purveyors of state-run social engineering.
To wit, it does not have to be that way; inasmuch as a return to a socially conservative, pro-life Democratic Party would mean that Catholic voters would truly have a choice within the voting booth each election day (vs. being compelled to vote for GOP by default).
Such an arguably pie-in-the-sky (for now @ least) scenario would summarily eliminate this current, toxic divide within our United States of Blue State vs. Red State mentality forthwith!.........peace/jmch.

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