Intact marriage and weekly worship make children thrive 

On Friday 12 May, Dr Pat Fagan presented a webinar at the Family and Life Academy. Dr Fagan is the founder and director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute. In his five decades as a clinical therapist and social scientist, Dr Fagan has specialised in marriage, family and child therapy, and the study of marriage and religious practice, in which fields he has authored and commissioned scores of synthesis papers and original research projects, and advised President George Herbert Bush and Senator Dan Coats. In the webinar, Dr Fagan presented an overview of his research focusing on intact marriage and weekly worship, which in his own words, “cause — and I underline that word, cause — society to thrive or, in their absence, to wilt”.

With a wealth of data from US federal government surveys, which are among the best in the world for accuracy and sample size, Dr Fagan first presented a graph showing the grade point average (GPA — the best indicator of overall cognitive ability in the social sciences) of children by family structure. The trend is unmistakable and dramatic, showing the great advantage that children from families with “biological parents, married, raising their children” have over families of divorced and cohabiting parents, including so-called common-law marriages. “Actually,” he observed later, “marriage across all cultures, Christians or not, is always taken on as a sacred obligation, done before the community in religious ceremonies”. The evidence that he presented strongly suggests that this is more than a formality, but a reality with measurable effects. He also observed that, “there has never been a contradiction between the Church’s teaching and the data shown here”.

The next graph showed, the “same children, this time looking at it not by family structure but… by their frequency of religious worship”. This time, what is striking about the data is not only the incontrovertable benefit to children who attend church weekly, but also how reduced frequency of worship results in a directly commensurate reduction in GPA.

“That is a very significant drop and it is gradual. What you have is essentially a dose response curse, very common right throughout the sciences.”

Dr Fagan commented on another interesting aspect of this data: a relatively insignificant increase in the GPA between 2002 and 2009. He explained:

“This is the impact of the biggest federal education intervention ever in the United States. It happened under the presidency of George W Bush… You had a real bipartisan effort here in which they put billions per year for about eight years into trying to increase the grade point average. That … gives you the size of the general effect, which by the way, disappeared once the money disappeared. The impact of religious worship is massive and powerful right throughout education. And it is the totally neglected aspect in education research. This is a scandal in the social sciences, that this data is not made known.”

The vanishingly small impact of the best efforts of lawmakers, compared to what could be called natural piety is certainly very striking, calling to mind Our Lord’s words that “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Dr Fagan’s findings regarding education also vindicate the law of the Church charging Catholics to attend Mass every Sunday under pain of mortal sin. “There is a big difference,” said Dr Fagan, “between the outcome of those who worship weekly and those who worship a couple of times a month.” This is of little surprise to those who followed the Family and Life Academy course on parents as primary educators of their children, in which Dr Alan Fimister expounded the Church’s threefold mission to teach, rule and sanctify, and the definition of the family as the domestic Church.

Furthermore, Dr Fagan’s synthesis of the data on marriage and religious practice shows the difference that weekly worship makes within the intact-marriage family specifically.

“Now, in education terms these differences are just astronomical…. and I don’t know of anything in the social sciences that can compare with this. However, this does not hold in the education outcomes alone. It holds in almost every single measure—not with the same differences but the same pattern is there.”

The next graph represented the conclusions of the work of his colleague at the Heritage Foundation, Dr Robert Rector, which suggests that intact marriage families are not only better able to withstand the negative effects of poverty, but that marriage even tends to move families above the poverty line.

“[This] gives you an idea of the impact marriage [has] on the poor. And I’m sure this holds as much in Great Britain as it does in the United States, and across Europe, and across the world… On every dot up and down the scale, there’s a bell curve.”

He also refers to the work of sociologist Dr Mark Regnerus, showing that church attendance has an even more beneficent effect on the poor than it does on any other income group, whilst rather ironically, those directly engaged in the social sciences are among the least likely to benefit.

“The great scandal is social scientists who tend not to worship — a huge amount of them don’t worship at all. Psychiatrists are the least likely to worship, psychologists the next least likely, [then] social workers… Counsellors will worship more, but they all tend on the non-worship side. I think the data is a scandal… a stumbling block to them.”

To summarise his own findings, Dr Fagan compared the thriving model of society to what he called the planned parenthood model — adding, “I would call it the Marxist model actually… less worship, less marriage and less children,” observing that “almost every developed country in the world has been pursuing this model since the 1970s”, which is when the population of most of Europe dropped below replacement rate, chiefly as a result of contraception becoming more widespread. Dr Fagan attributes the greater prevalence of weekly worship in the United States to its slower rate of decline, relative to European countries, although he points out that, in the last decade, the US too has fallen below replacement rate.

Whilst his research chiefly concerns natural law and the social sciences, Dr Fagan also spoke of the impact that Humanae Vitae had on him as a young student and its prescience in the decades since, as the warnings contained in Paul VI’s encyclical have been realised more quickly than anyone, including Dr Fagan himself, could have anticipated. However, Dr Fagan’s reflection on the relationship between natural and divine law makes a worthy addendum to Dr Shaw’s and Fr Crean’s courses on the same subjects.

“[God] only gave us two positive commandments, that is, what we must do. One is [to] honour our parents and the other is to worship Him weekly on the Sabbath. The rest are negative: what ye shall not do… And you see the effect. And you see why the commandments are necessary… They’re a natural law guide.”

In the Q&A which made up the second part of the webinar, Dr Fagan expanded on the importance of his own faith, as a Catholic husband and father, and the impact of neo-Marxist ideology in American Universities, in which he touches on the same history as Ann Farmer covered in the course on abortion. However, he also expressed his anticipation of the results of a global study, currently being undertaken by Dr Tyler VanderWeele of Harvard, set to cover much the same ground as he has covered in his own research.

“So how do we sum this up?” asked Dr Fagan:

“I would say that the great difference, that is very observable in the social sciences, is between the two great loves: love of God and love of neighbour, which I would say is fully illustrated there in that [thriving] model: Worship of God, marriage, your closest neighbour — the one you choose for life, and then the children you beget… You have the square-off between worship of God, those who belong to God and to each other — and those two belongings tend to go together, one feeds the other — and now the other model, which has gradually developed over the last number of centuries, beginning in earnest with the French Revolution, which is no God, less kids, less marriage; which Marx then fully embraced, and they’ve been promulgating around the world, and is now fully manifest in what I’d call the more recent debate… People are calling it “woke”, which is really “Marxist”. And this is now embraced by the elites… the super-wealthy of the west. Interestingly, most of their policies are increasingly similar to the leading Marxist country in the world at present… Communist China. So what we have increasingly is the square-off between the materialists and those who worship God, and at the centre of those with increasing clarity is the Catholic Church. And this, I think, is the tendency of history…”

There was not time in this webinar to explore the question of correlation vs causation, which Dr Fagan emphasised in his introduction, or research into religious practice aside from church attendance, such as family prayer and devotions, or to delve more deeply into Dr Fagan’s new project, the Cornerstone Alliance, providing education resources for men on marriage and fatherhood. These would certainly be good subjects for future webinars, or perhaps a whole course, at the Academy. For information on sponsoring these events, please contact Voice of the Family or visit the Donate page on the Family and Life Academy website.

Dr Fagan’s webinar, The benefits of marriage and religious practice for children and society is available to view any time at the Family and Life Academy, along with all the graphical data referred to in this article and links to Dr Fagan’s further research.