American Journal of Sociology

Date: 1951

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JohnL.Thomas, S.J.n/an/an/a

Religious Training in the Roman Catholic Family1

Persons professionally concerned in the promotion of organized religion agree that one of the most important functions of the family is the inculcation of Christian ideals and practices in the rising generation. In the Final Report of the White House Conference on Children in a Democracy, it is stated that "the primary responsibility in the religious development of the child rests upon parents in the family. It is in this intimate and personal group that the attitudes of the child are first formed attitudes that in the view of many psychologists profoundly affect the adult life of the growing person." On the other hand, it is generally assumed that the contemporary family is declining as a religious institution. Since the religious functioning of the family is affected by trends in religion as well as by trends in the family, this decline is considered an urban, rather than a rural, phenomenon and one which affects the various religious sects differently.

The factual basis for these hypotheses is somewhat meager. The source most frequently cited is an investigation of the declining religious function of the family conducted in 1930 under the auspices of the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. Family participation in four religious practices was studied. Samples were taken of school children in rural areas, in villages, and in cities of various sizes. It was found that about one in eight white American-born school children of the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades participated in family prayers. Little difference in the practice of this custom was noted between the city and the country. Church attendance was the only activity participated in by more than half the families (85 per cent of the rural and 40 per cent of the urban). The percentage of rural and urban families reading the Bible together was 22 and 10, respectively; the percentage saying grace before meals was 38 and 30, respectively. Acting on the assumption that decreases in a function can be measured by comparing the prevalence of an activity in the city with its prevalence in the country, since the country preceded the city in point of time, some writers, on the basis of the White House study, advanced the hypothesis that there has been a decided decline in at least three religious practices. These data are for families rather than for individuals.

It is not an easy task to ascertain the nature or the extent of the religious training which American families now give their children. Religious training implies a knowledge of a set of dogmas and practices. It is the basic orientation of life toward the supernatural. In practice, it is the interpretation and ordering of actions in terms of an absolute set of moral values. Obviously, it is difficult to measure child training in such a subject. However, it seems that some valid conclusions can be drawn from a study of the dogmas and practices which the child is taught at home. Granting that knowledge of dogma and prayer is not the whole of religious training, nevertheless, in a highly institutionalized religion such as the Roman Catholic, understanding of dogma and practice in prayer generally constitute a considerable part of this training.

The present study is an investigation of some aspects of the religious training which Roman Catholic children receive at home. Since the Roman Catholic church in the United States has established an extensive system of parochial schools, where children are formally instructed and trained in religion, it is difficult to distinguish the role of the family in the religious training from that of the school. The writer attempted to avoid this difficulty by confining his study to an investigation of the religious training which the child receives before he enters the parochial school. This, however, reveals much more than the role which the family plays in the religious training of the preschool child; it throws considerable light on the religious function of the family throughout the child’s entire life. It should be remembered that Roman Catholic parents are urged to start religious training and instruction "from the cradle." It is unlikely that a family which has neglected its obligations to the child before school will assume them after he has been put into the very efficient hands of the parochial schoolteacher. Hence the study of the religious training of the preschool child throws considerable light on religious home training.

Full investigation of this highly important problem involves the following questions: (1) What formal religious instruction and training do parents give their preschool children? Judged on the basis of traditional expectation, what items are stressed or neglected in this training? (2) Are there regional differences in the preschool religious training of children? (3) Do rural and urban families differ in the amount of religious instruction and training given the child in the home?

Taking up the first set of questions, our problem was to formulate a list of items which would enable us to measure the religious training of the preschool child. After considerable discussion, experienced and competent first-grade teachers, representing six different religious teaching congregations, chose ten items. Their selection was based on the following considerations: (1) the items were such that the child could learn them rather easily if given some assistance by the parent; (2) this knowledge was in conformity with traditional expectations, that is, it was generally assumed that the child was so instructed by parents. Ten items were selected and were grouped under two headings: knowledge of prayers and knowledge of dogmas.

Under the first heading information was sought on the child’s knowledge of the following prayers: (1) the Sign of the Cross, (2) the Lord’s Prayer, (3) the "Hail Mary"—the traditional prayer of the Roman Catholic church to the Blessed Mother, (4) the prayer for grace at meals, (5) the prayer to the Guardian Angel—this is a traditional childhood devotion in the church. Under the heading of dogma, the child’s knowledge of the following items was tested: (1) the story of the Creation, (2) the story of Adam and Eve, (3) the story of Christmas—the birthday of Christ as distinguished from Santa Claus and the giving of gifts, (4) the presence of Christ in the church—the belief of the real presence of Christ in the Host preserved on the altar, (5) the story of the Crucifix. No profound theological explanation of these dogmas was expected of the child, but he was supposed to be generally acquainted with them.

Over five hundred sisters, teaching the first grade and representing a large number of religious teaching congregations, agreed to co-operate in the study. The majority of them were contacted by a letter in which the purpose of the study was explained, and they were asked to secure the information on the ten items in the questionnaire at the opening of the fall term of 1950. Although this entailed considerable additional work, many of them had informed us that they made a rough check of the religious training of their new students anyway, so that the securing of the additional detailed information we were seeking did not represent too great a burden. The present study is based on the returns from 446 schools located in 33 different states. The number of children examined was a little over sixteen thousand. Actually, we received returns on several thousand more, but these were either in kindergartens or in mixed classes, that is, classes in which part of the children had attended some type of kindergarten and, consequently, had been subjected to a certain amount of religious training away from home.

Table 1 gives the results for the group as a whole. The data found in this table

will be most meaningful if considered as presenting a pattern. One may quibble about this or that particular item employed in the study, but the over-all picture presents a fairly uniform pattern. With the exception of the item dealing with the Sign of the Cross, one-third or less of the children showed the expected amount of home training. In other words, the formal religious instruction and training which the majority of Roman Catholic families give their preschool children seems very inadequate when judged by traditional expectations. Unfortunately, we do not possess adequate information on the religious home training of children in the past: very possibly, a considerable gap has always existed between traditional expectations and actual practice. Consequently, the data presented in Table 1 should be considered as a fairly adequate picture of the difference between expectation and practice today; whether conditions were different a generation or two ago can only be surmised. However, it is of some interest to indicate a few of the more surprising deviations from the expected, as revealed by our data. For example, the customary childhood prayer to the Guardian Angel is evidently not taught in most of the homes. The small percentage of those who knew the prayer for grace at meals indicates that this traditional practice is most honored in the breach, although an alternate explanation may be that grace is recited by one of the parents while the child remains at attention. The lack of knowledge displayed by two-thirds of the children in regard to items 3, 4, and 5, listed under dogma, was also unexpected. The story of Christmas is one which children grasp very readily, and the ritual of the church on this feast is so elaborate that it is difficult to understand how they could forget the story, provided that the parents had made some effort to explain it. However, as one teacher remarked, "No matter how I put the question, the same answer came back: Christmas meant only Santa and gifts!" The realization of the real presence of Christ on the altar seems rather easy for the child: the reason he is expected to be on his good behavior in church is because it is the "house of God," and the reverent behavior of the faithful during Mass could hardly escape his attention. But it seems that parents do not take their young children to church, or, if they do, they do not explain their actions. The Crucifix is the most universal of Roman Catholic symbols. The failure of over two-thirds of the children to know its meaning suggests that it is not a prominent symbol in the modern Catholic home.

Obviously, one cannot conclude on the basis of our data that two-thirds of the Catholic families in this country are giving their children no religious training. One may conclude, however, that they are not training and instructing them according to traditional expectations. Further, given the nature of Catholic belief and practice, it is difficult to understand how parents can give their children very extensive religious training if they neglect the basic items specified in our questionnaire. As one first-grade teacher remarked, "In regard to religious training, we have to start right from the beginning. It seems that modern parents are too busy to instruct their little ones!"

Our second problem was to investigate regional differences. In a country as large and religiously diversified as our own, sectional differences were to be expected. The country was divided into regions according to the sixfold division advocated by Odum. Since we are not interested in comparing knowledge of individual items, we have used a twofold classification, combining the five items dealing with knowledge of prayers under one heading and the five dealing with understanding of dogma under a second. Table 2 gives the percentages by region. The Northwest and the Southeast differ significantly from the general average for the five items combined under the heading "Knows Prayers." Considering our present scant knowledge of the Roman Catholic populations of these regions, it would be hazardous to venture an explanation. However, we might point out that a relatively high percentage of the Roman Catholic population in the Northwest is rural, and, as we shall see,


rural families tend to give their children more religious instruction than do urban. This probably accounts for the difference. A tentative explanation for the relatively poor showing of the Southeast is that the Roman Catholic population there is only a small percentage of the total a circumstance leading to a very high rate of mixed marriage. Studies of mixed marriage lead us to expect less religious training of offspring. For the five items combined under the heading, "Understands Dogma," the Southwest and Far West also differed significantly from the general average. We do know something about the Roman Catholic population in the Southwest: a good percentage of the schools studied had a considerable number of Spanish or Mexican children. Their teachers pointed out that these bilingual children are retarded to some extent in their knowledge of prayers but show better than average understanding of fundamental religious dogmas.

The third problem was whether urban and rural families differ in the amount of religious training given the child at home. The children in our sample were fairly representative of the Roman Catholic population as a whole, since 17.5 per cent were rural and 82.5 per cent were urban. According to the best available data, the Roman Catholic population in this country is 19.4 per cent rural and 80.6 per cent urban. Table 3 gives the percentages for the rural and urban children for the

country as a whole. Considered as a group, the rural children differ significantly from the urban in their knowledge of prayers. In their understanding of dogma the rural children also display superior home training, with the exception of items 2 and 3, where the differences are not significant. However, this over-all picture of urban and rural differences is deceptive. If we break down the data into regions, it becomes apparent at once that the urban-rural relation is not uniform throughout the country. Table 4 gives the percentages for urban and rural children by region. It appears that the religious training received at home by urban children in the Southwest, Northeast, and Southeast is equal to, or superior to, that received by rural children in these same areas. It would be interesting to speculate on the reasons for these regional differences, but our present inadequate knowledge of their religious characteristics would render any explanation dubious. However, Table 4 does show that generalizations about urban-rural differences in the religious training of children cannot be made without taking regional differences into consideration.


Returning to the questions posed earlier in the paper, we may summarize our findings as follows:

1. The religious training of the preschool child at home as measured by the ten items employed in the present study falls far short of traditional expectations.

2. Regional differences in religious home training are apparent. It is probable that diverse ethnic backgrounds and the relative scarcity of the Roman Catholic population account for a considerable amount of the deviation from the general average.

3. There is evidence that urban and rural families differ in the amount of religious training given the preschool child. Nevertheless, the pattern is not uniform throughout the country: regional differences must be considered if any meaningful comparisons are to be made.

In conclusion, therefore, it can be stated that this project has made some small beginning in studying the important function of the family in the religious training of the child. There is room for a great deal more research. Our study is open to the criticism that we have stressed formal knowledge at the expense of motivation and religious "outlook." On the other hand, given the organized character of Roman Catholic belief and practice, it seems legitimate to conclude that where there is no formal knowledge there is little religious training.

1 From , 1951, 57:178–183. By permission of The University of Chicago Press.


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Chicago: "Religious Training in the Roman Catholic Family1," American Journal of Sociology in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W. (New York: American Book Company, 1962), Original Sources, accessed December 4, 2023,

MLA: . "Religious Training in the Roman Catholic Family1." American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 57, in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, edited by Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W., New York, American Book Company, 1962, Original Sources. 4 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Religious Training in the Roman Catholic Family1' in American Journal of Sociology. cited in 1962, Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. , American Book Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 4 December 2023, from