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The Decline of Working-Class Catholic Families

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:

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.”

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, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. Parts of this essay are excerpted from his forthcoming book to be published on October 23, Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.