The impossibility of transmitting faith

Yes, there are things parents can do to set their children on the right path. But the rest of a child’s journey of faith must take place in the free will of the child.

Someone asked me to give a talk about the family’s role in transmitting faith, and I agreed. Claiming no special expertise on the subject, I simply sat down and thought it through in a common-sense way. The results, possibly surprising in some respects, were along the following lines.

The first thing to be said about transmitting faith is that it can’t be done.

For one thing, it isn’t just passing along a body of doctrines and rules and pious practices. These things can and should be transmitted. But faith, rightly understood, is something else. Faith is a personal commitment to Jesus Christ.

Without that, you might perhaps be successful in transmitting doctrines, rules, and practices. And having done that, it’s at least hypothetically you’d have a child who knew the catechism by heart and went to Mass every Sunday without complaining. But you wouldn’t really have formed a person of faith.

The act of faith is a commitment—a very large, personal, free choice—and people can only make free choices for themselves. When it comes to forming children, the most we can do—and it’s very much—is create circumstances in which they are more (or, if we botch the job, less) disposed to make a commitment to Christ for themselves.

This helps explain the seemingly mysterious fact that children of good Catholic parents sometimes abandon the Church while children from dysfunctional homes sometimes grow up devout. How can that happen? Easy: it’s free will at work.

Anyone claiming to have a surefire, never-fail system for transmitting faith can safely be ignored. Where freedom is in play, there is and can be no certainty how a person will choose. If there were certainty, it could only be because the choice wasn’t free. And in that case there would be no real commitment, even if the individual were to go participate in some sort of public commitment ceremony meant to seal and herald his or her choice.

Now, at this point someone may be asking: does all this matter? Isn’t all this talk about freedom and choice and commitment just quibbling over words, with no relevance to anything in the real world?

I don’t think so. For one thing, the notion that faith itself can be transmitted, when in fact it can’t, appears to have been behind the kind of formation whose consequences became alarmingly visible in the great wave of departures from the priesthood and religious life around the time of Vatican Council II.

Many of these men and women, I believe, were formed in a more or less superficial manner suited to the formation of cultural Catholics (doctrines, rules, and pious practices again) but inadequate for forming committed Christians for whom faith is grounded in a personal relationship with Christ.

These people generally were faithful to the system in which they’d been formed. But with the collapse of the old Catholic culture that started in the 1960s they were thrown back on their own faith resources, with unhappy results. The best description of what happened is in Company Man: My Jesuit Life, 1950-1968, a memoir by ex-Jesuit and longtime Chicago journalist Jim Bowman (available online at and and by asking booksellers to order it).

I don’t question the sincerity of these former priests and nuns. My point is simply that the inadequacy of their formation set them up to quit the priesthood and religious life when the system that had sustained them in these ecclesial roles abruptly began to collapse. Mutatis mutandis, much the same could be said of the many lay people who have quit the Church during these years.

But what about the formation of children?

My wife and I did our child-rearing from 1960 into the early 1990s. During that time we witnessed a cultural revolution in society and something very like a cultural revolution in the Church. Those thirty-odd years were especially difficult ones for raising kids.

Still, I don’t think things have gotten any easier for parents since then. Some things no doubt are better than they used to be, but many other things are just as bad if not worse.

One thing that’s clearly worse is the situation created by the rise of new media—the social media, as they’re called. Recently I read a piece urging parents in no uncertain terms not to give kids iPhones. The writer explained that these technologically remarkable hand-held devices give children immediate, unsupervised access to the world of pornography.

Imagine what that means for a 13- or 14-year-old boy attempting to adjust to the changes in himself that 13- and 14-year-olds naturally experience: unlimited access to pornography whenever he wants it. I can hear that boy now: “All my friends have iPhones. Why can’t I?”

I asked a Catholic man who together with his wife works hard at the religious formation of their kids what he considers the key elements. He mentioned two things.

First, daily family prayer. I was a bit surprised by how much emphasis he placed on it. He also offered an interesting practical example: read and discuss the Sunday gospel with the kids on Saturday evening so that they’ll be familiar with it before hearing it in church the next day. Good idea, I’d say.

The second thing was harder to put in a few words, but it comes down to helping children grasp that the whole of the faith is far greater than the minuscule parts present in their ordinary everyday experience. Good movies and videos can be useful in doing that, he said.

Another thing of utmost importance, we agreed, is socializing with other couples and families who share the same religious values and outlook on life. Social isolation is frequently a major problem today for conscientious Catholic couples who want to raise their children Catholic in the face of the many obstacles to doing that which they confront. Frequent, supportive interaction with like-minded families is imperative—and serious parents may have to go out of their way to find it.

Finally, there’s a point made by St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei: “Listen to your children. Give them your time, even the time that you have reserved for yourselves. Show them your confidence; believe what they tell you, even if sometimes they try to deceive you. Don’t be afraid when they rebel, because at their age you yourselves were more or less rebellious. Go to meet them half-way and pray for them.”

If they do that consistently, parents are already halfway there. But remember: the rest of a child’s journey of faith must take place in the free will of the child.         

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About Russell Shaw 286 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).