“I have three kids. They don’t go to church regularly, but they’ve all turned out to be good adults, persons I can be proud of. All of them are caring, giving, fair, and gracious people. I think that they are Christian because they live like Christians, even if they don’t regularly go to church.”

These are words spoken to me by a mother recently and hers is an interesting assessment – you can be a good Christian even if you don’t go to church. There is a certain logic to her argument, but it is true? Are her children Christian, Catholic, despite their lack of ecclesial involvement? What is to be said about her statement?

At one level, one might agree with her assessment. If her children are, as she puts it, caring, giving, fair, and gracious people, much of it surely the result of a Christian upbringing, are they not Christian? Christ, after all, said that real belief is more in our actions than in our creeds and worship services: “What I want is loving, kindness, not sacrifice. … It is not necessarily those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ who enter the kingdom, but those who do the will of God on earth.”

By the same logic, however, one could also argue that while her children are Christian they are not particularly Catholic. To be Catholic implies something else, namely, a certain ecclesial conversion. Bernard Lonergan, surely one of the foremost Catholic minds of the century, taught that true conversion, at some point, is not just conversion to God and to the fundamental principles of morality, decency, and generosity that flow from that belief. It is also, though not necessarily initially, a conversion to community, to ecclesiology, to the fact that we are meant to walk to God as part of a group. Full conversion is also conversion to the fact that true religion is not something we do alone, but in a group, with others. For Roman Catholics, that means gathering for Eucharist.

But, while all of this is true, it is, to my mind, not the most helpful perspective within which to assess this woman’s remarks. A more fruitful approach, I believe, is to insert the whole question of who is practicing his or her faith and who is not into the reality (not analogy, but reality) of family.

The church is a family and, as in all families, members are at different levels of commitment and maturity. Some are more adult and responsible, not just in terms of their own behaviour but also in terms of helping steward the welfare and ethos of the family. Others are more immature, taking more than they give, having only their own individual welfare as their concern. However, any family worth the name understands this, has patience with it, knows that maturity and commitment take time, and is not quick to write anyone off. Your kids might be too interested in their own lives to come home regularly, but you don’t, on that basis alone, say they no longer belong to your family.

Young people, and not so young people too, tend to treat their churches in pretty well the same way as they treat their families. Hence, it should be no great surprise to us that in an age when family life is at a low ebb the consequence is that church life is at an equally low ebb. Bluntly put, if your kids come home, and then briefly and distractedly, only at Christmas and on the odd major holiday, should it surprise you that they treat their churches in the same way? But you still consider them a vital part of your family – “a Jones, a Smith, a Prediger, an O’Brien, or Kronsky”. Why shouldn’t the church consider them a vital part of itself  “a Christian, a Catholic” for the same reason?  At what stage do you write off a family member? Surely not while they still have your name and family ethos, even if they aren’t home a lot.

Reginald Bibby, the renowned sociologist of religion, is fond of saying that people are not leaving their churches, they just aren’t going to them. There is a difference. That is also true for our children, both as pertains to family and church.

So is this woman’s statement correct? Can our children be Christian and Catholic, even if they are not going to church? The answer is yes. To the extent that they precisely are caring, giving, fair, and gracious persons, persons we can in many ways be proud of, they are also Christian and Catholic. That’s the good news. The negative side is that they are adolescent as pertains to ecclesiology, whatever their other maturities. Adulthood comes only when one begins to take some active responsibility for the family, for both its welfare and its ethos. That is also true for our relationship to the church.