CHURCH ATTENDANCE: The family, feminism and the declining role of fatherhood

CHURCH ATTENDANCE: The family, feminism and the declining role of fatherhood

Richard Egan

Brother Marcellin Flynn's recent book Catholic Schools 2000 (see AD2000, August 2002) reports that 71 percent of Catholic school students surveyed cited "the example and lives of parents" as an important influence on their religious development. However, only 34 percent of students responded affirmatively to the statement "My parents expect me to go to Mass on Sundays".

According to the 1996 Catholic Church Life Survey less than 5 percent of young Catholics aged 16-25 attend Mass regularly. The drop-off in young people attending Mass has now persisted for some decades resulting in a "greying" of the Mass attending population. As of 1996, Mass attenders in their twenties and thirties were substantially under-represented, making up just 20 per cent of all attenders, although they constitute 39 per cent of the Catholic population.

In the light of these distressing figures a statistical report from Switzerland ("The demographic characteristics of the linguistic and religious groups in Switzerland" by Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner) provides a vital clue as to how to reverse the trend. A 1994 survey of Swiss religious practice asked key questions about the impact of parents' church attendance on the subsequent church attendance of their adult children.

The results show a dramatic differential between the relative impact of a father's church attendance and a mother's church attendance.

* If both father and mother attended church regularly then 33 per cent of their children became regular churchgoers, a further 41 per cent irregular attenders and about a quarter not practising at all.

* If the mother was a regular church attender but the father irregular then only 3 per cent of their children became regular church attenders, 59 per cent irregular attenders and 38 per cent non-attenders.

* If the father was non-practising and the mother regular only 2 per cent of children were regular and 37 per cent irregular church attenders. 61 per cent did not attend church at all.

* Surprisingly, if the father is a regular church attender the children's religious practice varied in an inverse relationship to their mothers' practice. If the mother was regular 33 per cent of children were regular. If she was an irregular attender then 38 per cent of children were regular. If the mother was non-practising then 44 per cent of children became regular attenders.

* Even when the father is an irregular attender and the mother non- practising 25 per cent of the children were regular attenders and 23 per cent irregular attenders.

In summary, if a father does not go to church, no matter how regular the mother is in her religious practice, only one child in 50 becomes a regular church attender. But if a father attends regularly then regardless of the practice of the mother at least one child in three will become a regular church attender.

Writing in New Directions magazine (April 2000), Anglican Vicar Robbie Low, reflecting on the Swiss survey, suggests that "when a child begins to move into that period of differentiation from home and engagement with the world 'out there', he (and she) looks increasingly to the father for that role model. Where the father is indifferent, inadequate or just plain absent, that task is much harder and the consequences more profound."

Flight of men

Low goes on to criticise certain approaches taken by the Church of England as contributing to the flight of men from the Church with the ratio rapidly changing from 45 men to 55 women in the pre-1990s to 37 men to 63 women today. (This ratio of almost two women to one man also applies to Mass attendance in the Catholic Church in Australia today, with several of the causal factors highlighted by Low also applying.)

"Emasculated liturgy, gender-free Bibles and a fatherless flock are increasingly on offer. In response to this, decline has, unsurprisingly, accelerated. To minister to a fatherless society the Church of England, in its unwisdom, has produced its own single-parent family parish model in the woman priest. The idea of this politically-contrived iconic destruction and biblically disobedient initiative was that it would make the Church relevant to the society in which it ministered.

"One does not need to be very far through the post-war selection procedures of the Church of England or its theological training to realise that there is little place for genuine masculinity. The constant pressure for 'flexibility', 'sensitivity', 'inclusivity' and 'collaborative ministry' is telling. There is nothing wrong with these concepts in themselves but as they are taught and insisted upon they bear no relation to a man's understanding of these terms.

"Men are perfectly capable of being all these things without being wet, spineless, feeble-minded or compromised, which is how these terms translate in the teaching. They will not produce men of faith or fathers of the faith communities. They will certainly not produce icons of Christ and charismatic apostles. They are very successful at producing malleable creatures of the institution, unburdened by authenticity or conviction, but incapable of producing leadership. Men, in short, who would not stand up in a draught.

"Curiously enough, this new feminised man does not seem to be quite as attractive to the feminists as they had led us to believe. He is frankly repellent to ordinary blokes. A priest who is comfortable with his masculinity and maturing in his fatherhood (domestic and/or pastoral) will be a natural magnet in a confused and disordered society and Church.

"A Church that is conspiring against the blessings of patriarchy not only disfigures the icon of the first person of the Trinity, effects disobedience to the example and teaching of the second person of the Trinity and rejects the Pentecostal action of the Third Person of the Trinity but, more significantly for our society, flies in the face of the sociological evidence! No father - no family - no faith. Winning and keeping men is essential to the community of faith and vital to the work of all mothers and the future salvation of our children."

In the light of these realities isn't it time for our Bishops to abolish the Commission for Australian Catholic Women with its focus on increasing women's participation at every level of church life and give urgent attention to de-feminising Church culture and developing evangelistic plans to win men's hearts and souls? This is the single most important thing they could do to improve the chances of keeping young people in the Church.

Richard Egan is the WA State President of the NCC.

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