The Catholic nature of childhood is often elusive, changes across time and place, and often reflects the broader culture of which it is part. In addition, historians of Catholicism have only recently turned their attention to childhood experiences. Given these important cautions, however, there are some important distinctive ways in which Catholicism has shaped childhood experiences.

The Early Church

Early church sources contain repeated favorable references to people who chose the church over their families, of parents who abandoned their children to lead devout lives themselves, or who gave their children to the church to help build monastic populations. But it is not clear whether this indifference to children reflected more the Christian or the Roman cultural influence. Some historians suggest that these attitudes reflected the dualistic thought of early Christians that contrasted the perfect sacred with the profane secular. Theologians and church officials often characterized things of the world, such as the body and material goods, as inherently evil. Attachment to biological families reflected the power of the world to sway individuals. Christian literature characterized those who chose marriage and parenthood as weaker and more prone to their passions and desires than those who chose childlessness. Christianity clearly praised the latter over the former. But for those Christians who bore and raised children, little evidence suggests a powerfully distinct experience from that of non-Christian families.

The emphasis on the duality of thought did appear to provide a theological or philosophical foundation for child-rearing practices, however. Many debated whether children, and especially "infant" children (those under seven years of age), were capable of sin. Did they suffer from the same earthly passions and enticements that plagued adults? The introduction and adoption of infant BAPTISM during the fourth century suggests that church officials believed that children could sin, and that they inherited original sin. Evidence of severe corporal punishment for childhood transgressions abounds, and suggests a special fervor aimed at rid-ding children of their proclivity to sin. But here again it is not so clear that these Christian child-rearing practices differed significantly from those of non-Christians. The Christian reasons for severe child-rearing practices might differ, but the practices themselves seem more widely shared. Moreover, some historians see the Church as a strong child advocate. Historian Richard Lyman Jr., for example, writes that the Church insisted that "children had souls, were important to God, could be taught, and should not be killed, maimed or abandoned, and that they were very useful to the self-image of the parents" (p. 90). In short, the Church championed children's interests against cultural pressures to kill, abandon, or devalue them.

Infant baptism had other implications for church sacraments and children. The early Church initiated adults with a process that required great preparation and instruction, and culminated with a ceremony incorporating what Roman Catholics today know as baptism, FIRST COMMUNION, andCONFIRMATION. By the fourth and fifth centuries, however, Roman churches began to baptize infants (relative newborns), and delay the other ritual sacraments until later in childhood. This separation of the sacraments did not spread universally until the eleventh century, however, and did not receive official sanction until the Council of Trent in 1562 asserted that small children need not receive the Eucharist. Throughout the medieval period, the Church stressed Christ's divinity more and more, and therefore discouraged children from receiving communion for fear that they might not fully comprehend the distinction between the Eucharist and normal bread and wine. Catholic theology teaches that the bread and wine actually transform into Christ's body and blood during Mass, and so communion reception is a powerful sacred act. Delaying communion reception until children become older was a recognition that young boys and girls would likely not appreciate the gravity of the ritual. Some places forbade children from receiving communion until age fourteen.

Pope Pius X sought to increase communion reception among all Catholics, and so decreed in 1910 that children should receive first communion at age seven. Only in the twentieth century has this become the common age at which Catholic children receive their first communion. Confirmation too has changed a great deal over the years. Eastern churches continued to link baptism and confirmation, so that Eastern-rite Catholic children were confirmed in their infancy. Western churches saw a variety of practices over time and from place to place, with a more uniform practice emerging only in the twentieth century. Pope Pius X's 1910 decree Quam singulari had the effect of making confirmation a sacrament that children received in their ADOLESCENCE, as a mark of spiritual maturity.

Despite the universal practice of infant baptism during the Middle Ages, the Church came to see children younger than seven years old as largely incapable of sin. Manuals for confessors began to focus on the sins of older children. These manuals suggested a great concern for two kinds of sin: theft and sexual activity. One presumes that the church stressed these to parents as well, and urged them to discourage their children from stealing (especially food) and having sex. Italian Catholic child-rearing manuals in the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth century recognized the important role that parents played in shaping their children,

First Communion (1896), Pablo Picasso. For Roman Catholics, first communion is not only a sacrament of initiation but a rite of passage signifying attainment of the age of reason. © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

and for this reason struggled with two somewhat opposed positions. The first supported and encouraged parents as the surest teachers of their children to help in resisting the allure of sin. The second worried about the parents' roles in discouraging children of mature age from choosing a religious vocation. These guides, commissioned largely for powerful bishops who sought to guide their flocks in their roles as parents, concentrated on urging parents to take on nurturing rather than repressive roles in moving children toward a virtuous life. They saw within children the seeds of virtue, and not primarily the weeds of sin, and they instructed parents to support virtue's growth within their children. Catholic parents following these manuals would have created a nurturing and affectionate environment for their children.

Catholic childhood experiences varied so widely throughout Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the state of research is so young, that it is difficult to make broad and accurate generalizations. But it is reasonable to suppose that as the international Church became more tightly controlled by Rome, and as the local Bishops sought to establish their own power more firmly, the emphasis on obedience to authority heightened. Catholic child-rearing practices may have reflected the greater stress on hierarchy within the family. Some social scientists have suggested as much, though the empirical data are not so strong here. It is clear that many Catholic children felt the difficult transition to industrialization through first-hand experience with mechanized work. Even Catholic ORPHANAGES embraced child labor as a means of covering institutional costs. It is also quite clear that many Catholic children embarked on overseas voyages as their families sought economic improvement in the developing United States.

American Catholicism and Childhood

American Catholic children in the revolutionary and early national period grew up in what historian Jay Dolan has termed the "republican" church. American Catholics in this period sought to align themselves culturally, politically, and socially with the democratic ideals of the emerging nation. Catholics sought less to separate themselves from prevailing norms than to embrace the new ideals that guided social and cultural behavior. Because so few priests and nuns labored in America during this time, the laity provided most of the institutional, community, and liturgical structures for themselves. Children would have grown up experiencing their religious lives in their homes primarily, rather than in a separate sacred space. Their parents provided religious instruction and the opportunities for prayer, reflection, and ritual practices, and they would have emphasized very similar social and cultural ideals to their Protestant neighbors. Though still clearly patriarchal, Catholic families moved with Protestant Americans toward a more democratic family structure that emphasized affection over duty.

Once European Catholics began immigrating to America in large numbers during the early nineteenth century, the nature of American Catholic childhood experiences changed dramatically. Catholics in this immigrant church constructed and lived within a church suffused with a hierarchical and formal institutional presence that sought to shape children's lives profoundly. The family remained the most powerful influence on Catholic children, of course, but the institutional church sought to shape Catholic children much more powerfully than in the republican church. The rise of the separate Catholic school system and the devotional culture that immigrants brought with them and then adapted to the new nation shaped Catholic childhood indirectly through its influence on parents and directly by its pervasive contact with children themselves. With the masses of lay Catholic immigrants to America came thousands of Catholic priests and nuns as well, so that a church that had developed largely independent of clerical presence saw the dramatic growth of the formal institutional structure.

The Catholic school system grew tremendously throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as an alternative to the emerging public school system. For many Catholics, their experiences in PAROCHIAL SCHOOLS constituted their most extensive immersion in the Catholic world. Catholic bishops stressed to their priests from the middle of the nineteenth century onward the importance of developing parish schools, with the result that parishes built their schools before even their churches. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, Catholic children often sat in classes of fifty to seventy students taught largely by women religious whose own education often ended with the eighth grade. Students learned discipline, deference, obedience, and respect for hierarchy.

Despite extraordinary efforts to educate all Catholic children in parochial schools, at no point in American history did more than half of Catholic children actually attend such schools. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most Catholic children attended public schools with their Protestant, Jewish, and other neighbors. For these Catholics, the most significant institutional encounters came when they joined the Catholic school children in the extensive devotional culture that immersed Catholic children in an extensive array of formal rituals. This powerful devotional experience most distinguished Catholic childhood from others.

Historian Jay Dolan has characterized devotional Catholicism for the century between 1850 and 1950 as exhibiting four key features: a strong sense of sin, a heavy emphasis on ritual, a firm belief in the miraculous, and a keen sense of hierarchy and deference within that hierarchy. Catholic children experienced this culture in the churches when they attended weekly–and sometimes daily–Mass, confession, any of the regularly sponsored novenas (special rituals typically dedicated to particular saints offered each of nine consecutive weeks), benedictions, and adorations. Parishes also sponsored "missions" offered by orders of priests who specialized in generating enthusiasm among the faithful or fallen away. Children here learned of the dangers that the temporal world posed for them, that God would intervene to help deserving believers in their crises, and that they should respect church–and by extension all–authority. Wedded to each other through a vast array of distinctive behaviors, Catholic children developed powerful identities as a unique and religiously privileged group. Though historians disagree on whether these experiences aided or hindered adult Catholic social and cultural success in America, they generally agree that Catholics developed a very powerful Catholic identity with strong boundaries that limited social interaction with others. They lived within an extensive Catholic social and cultural (though not geographical) ghetto that prized otherworldly salvation above all else, and saw as the only means to that aim a life lived apart from the evil influences of the broader materialist society.

In the schools and churches, Catholic institutional representatives had direct and powerful contact with Catholic children. Priests and nuns sought to shape childhood experiences according to religious norms defined largely by church officials. But the children came from families with varying commitments to these ideals, and embraced or resisted the institutional influences accordingly. The Catholic family more than any official church institution most profoundly shaped Catholic childhood, and the Catholic family did not always embrace official church ideals. Because Irish Catholics dominated the clergy, for example, families from other ethnic backgrounds often resisted the institutional influence resolutely.

Immigrant Catholics came to America from a number of different nations and cultures even within their nations of origin. Catholic families often differed from each other in the values that they prized and passed on to their children. It is difficult therefore to make precise conclusions that apply to all Catholics in this period, so readers should be mindful of the great variety of American "Catholic" experiences throughout the period. Some generalizations are warranted, however. In general, Catholic immigrant families in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries tended to have more children than their native counterparts, and they tended to be quite poor. Catholic children often grew up in large families that suffered great economic hardship. They understood want and deprivation, and they went to work at young ages to help support their families. At a time when middle-class American culture prized domesticity and a pronounced and prolonged childhood experience apart from the emerging market economy, American Catholic children experienced the market intrusion into their lives at very young ages. Catholic parents worked long hours in the mills and mines, and their children filled the tenements and alleys of America's emerging slums. Catholicism both challenged and ameliorated these experiences.

American church officials and the parochial schools by and large emphasized deference to authority, and this included civic and economic authority. In this way the Church pushed children to work within established social structures rather than challenge them. Yet the late nineteenth century saw increasing sanction for social justice efforts that condemned exploitation of the poor and their families. Pope Leo XXIII's 1893 encyclical Rarem novarum officially endorsed social justice work and supported demands for family wages, unions, and a just economic order. For the most part, Catholic families remained largely working class through the early decades of the twentieth century. The real changes in Catholic family size and child-rearing strategies came in the latter decades of the twentieth century, and coincided with Catholics' movement to the middle classes.

Social scientists in the twentieth century tell us that American Catholic families in the early decades of the century had more children than Protestants. Catholic FERTILITYRATES then converged briefly with Protestant in the 1930s before diverging during the baby boom decades of the 1950s and 1960s. The Catholic rate declined faster than the Protestant during the 1970s, however, so that they were largely indistinguishable by the 1980s. Not surprisingly, Catholic attitudes toward BIRTH CONTROL followed similar patterns, so that by the 1970s they differed insignificantly from Protestant attitudes even as church officials persisted in forbidding their use.

A similar pattern seems to have existed for Catholic child-rearing strategies. Social scientists suggest that Catholic parents more than Protestants valued obedience highly and devalued intellectual autonomy in their children throughout much of the twentieth century. The evidence for these claims is less firm than for the birth rate patterns, however. The conclusions depend upon the logical extension of a hierarchical church model into the family, and interpretations of responses on social surveys. Catholic parents presumably discouraged their children from creative explorations of intellectual challenges and from pursuing challenges to authority. By the early 1980s, however, Catholic PARENTING values converged with mainline Protestant perspectives, and conservative Protestant parents appear to have adopted the positions once held by Catholics. At the end of the twentieth century, American Catholic parents differed very little in their child-rearing attitudes and practices from their Protestant neighbors. But the Church continued to support a separate school system, mark childhood milestones with sacraments, and prize child rearing as a laudable vocation. The latter two actions characterized Catholic practices throughout the rest of the world as well. The Catholic influence on childhood experience throughout the western world matters less than socioeconomic class, race, and geography, but it continues to mediate responses to these forces. It does not do so uniformly, though, nor with the same power.

See also: Islam; Judaism; Protestant Reformation.


Alwin, Duane F. 1986. "Religion and Parental Child-Rearing Orientations: Evidence of a Catholic–Protestant Convergence." American Journal of Sociology (September): 412–440.

Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick. New York: Knopf.

Burns, Jeffrey M. 1978. "The Ideal Catholic Child: Images from Catholic Textbooks 1875–1912." Working Paper Series, Center for the Study of American Catholicism, University of Notre Dame. Spring. Notre Dame, IN: The Center.

deMause, Lloyd, ed. 1974. History of Childhood. New York: Psycho-history Press.

Dolan, Jay P. 1985. American Catholic Experience. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Ellison, Christopher, and Darren Sherkat. 1993. "Obedience and Autonomy: Religion and Parental Values Reconsidered." Journalfor the Social Scientific Study of Religion 32, no. 4: 313–329.

Hyde, Kenneth E. 1990. Religion in Childhood and Adolescence: A Comprehensive Review of the Research. Birminghan, AL: Religious Education Press.

Lyman, Richard B., Jr. 1974. "Barbarism and Religion: Late Roman and Early Medieval Childhood." In The History of Childhood, ed. Lloyd deMause. New York: Psychohistory Press.

Martos, Joseph. 1982. Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to the Sacraments in the Catholic Church. Garden City, NY: Image Books.

Mosher, William D., David Johnson, and Marjorie Horn. 1986. "Religion and Fertility in the United States: The Importance of Marriage Patterns and Hispanic Origin." Demography August: 367–380.

Shahar, Shulamith. 1990. Childhood in the Middle Ages. Trans. Chaya Galai. London: Routledge.

Walch, Timothy. 1996. Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Crossroad.

Wood, Diana, ed. 1994. Church and Childhood: Papers Read at the 1993 Summer Meeting and the 1994 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.