It is very hard to write about the history of Catholicism in the United States without writing about the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. Baltimore is, of course, the senior see in the United States and was established as a diocese on April 6, 1789. Thus, it's hard to write about the big-button moral and cultural issues of civic life in this city without some kind of reference to or request for input from someone in the Church of Rome. However, it must be said that, even though this task is a hard one, The Baltimore Sun consistently gives it that good old college try.
Consider, for example, the following report on a subject of the utmost urgency in the Charm City and many other urban areas in the American Northeast (and elsewhere, such as the Midwest) that are struggling with basic demographic issues. Are many schools closing their doors? Even Catholic schools? Do school teachers report that many of their students have little support at home since they are being raised in one-parent families?
The headline on this giant Sun story was simple:
Census: Fewer than 10 percent of city households are nuclear families
The anecdotal lede was just as direct and to the point:
Before moving with her boyfriend of three years to a Hampden home this September, Brandy Washington lived with two other women, both young professionals in their 20s, just like her.
Delaying marriage is a lifestyle that has suited the 27-year-old. She and her boyfriend wanted to "try things out" and live together before becoming more serious -- a far cry from her high-school-sweetheart parents, who married right out of college.
Almost all of her peers, Washington said, are living the same way, either with friends or a long-term partner. They have few serious personal commitments, and are free of social stigmas pressuring them to get married and have children on a specific timeline.
"Living in Baltimore, it's definitely more liberal than other parts of the country," said Washington, who works in marketing. "It's nice to have camaraderie and people who are going through some of the same situations as you are. It's a great way to prolong your youth as well."
New U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that her choice is becoming more common here. Baltimore and Washington are among a handful of U.S. localities where fewer than 10 percent of households are made up of married couples and their children. In the city, 8.6 percent of households are such nuclear families, compared to 23 percent statewide and nationwide.
Now, I am well aware that this is not a story about religion, per se.
No, it's a story about sex, cohabitation, marriage, fertility, children, divorce, abortion, single-parent homes, absent fathers and the shifting tides in what once was called "public morality." This has nothing to do with religion, of course, even in a symbolic city such as Baltimore. One might even be tempted to suggest that this obvious and major trend is important to the future of Catholicism in the urban Northeast, but I digress.
The bottom line: Marriage is old fashioned and has little or nothing to do with sexual morality. That is a big chunk of the new reality -- it's hard to argue otherwise. This, however, has nothing to do with religion. Keep repeating that mantra.
Then again, this does make we wonder why there are so many new marriages of young adults in my Eastern Orthodox parish in an old, old, old neighborhood just out of the Baltimore city line. The number of new children is shockingly high, too. I wonder what churches encourage marriages and children and which do not? Does this have any impact on urban demographics? On life in the public square? On the future of Catholicism?
Surely not. Otherwise there might be a hint of that in this Sun report. Then again, our local newspaper does not even take these kinds of issues into account when writing about, oh, issues such as the decline of Catholic schools or the declining numbers of priests in the region.
For some reason, this also reminds me of that recent Weekly Standard piece about the declining size of traditional two-parent families in this fair land of ours. Do you remember my post on that? As a refresher, here is the money quote:
The best indicator of actual fertility is "aspirational fertility" -- the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their "ideal family size" since 1936. When they first asked the question, 64 percent of Americans said that three or more children were ideal; 34 percent said that zero, one, or two children were ideal. Today only 34 percent of Americans think that a family with three-or-more children is ideal.
But on this question there are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families. Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they're making a cultural and theological statement.
However, this theological statement has nothing to do with Baltimore and it has nothing to do with Catholic Baltimore. Religion does not even play a small role in this important story. Nope. No way.