Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why do Catholics leave the church?

Ever since my daughter’s copy of “The Rolling Stone” magazine arrived with Pope Francis’ smiling face on the cover, Dr. Hook’s 1970s song, “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, has been playing in my head.  I keep wondering if Francis “bought five copies for his mother.” 

According to the song’s lyrics, making the cover of “The Rolling Stone” epitomizes success, beyond any amount of money or other material goods.  Therefore, in today’s world of spirtu-tainment approaches to faith, I wondered if church attendance was sky-rocketing with a Francis “bump.” 

As luck would have it, that same week the local parish bulletin published the diocese’s October, 2013 Mass count numbers.   In 2013 6 of the 10 diocesan counties experienced their all-time lowest Mass attendance since the history of Mass-counting began.  Overall diocesan Mass attendance was down year to year in 2013.  These reflect similar findings of a Pew Research study which indicated 2013 U.S. Mass attendance dropped.  Furthermore, between 2000 and 2013 my diocese’s overall geographic population grew 3% yet diocesan Mass participation dropped 28%.  At my parish we rattle around like B-Bs in a shoebox.

Evidently Francis alone cannot reverse the multi-year downward participation spiral.  Why not? 

Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) conducted a survey about Mass attendance.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell an accurate story because CARA limited respondents’ choices for reasons they miss Mass to the following:
Busy schedule or lack of time
Family responsibilities
Health problems or a disability
I don’t believe missing Mass is a sin
Conflict with work
Inconvenient Mass schedule
I’m not a very religious person

There are glaring omissions from that list.  CARA’s survey provided more insight as to their sincerity for understanding the issue than on the issue itself.

The Pew Forum conducted a more insightful study entitled, “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” which inquired why people changed religions and to what religion they migrated.  This 2009 study indicated that former Catholics number as one of the largest religious demographic groups with an almost even split between ex-Catholics becoming unaffiliated versus joining another denomination.   Here’s a summary of the most common reasons for leaving the Catholic Church.


Responses from a 2013 Vatican survey about marriage, family and sexuality are also trickling into the public domain.  Regardless of country, common themes repeatedly appear that strongly align with the Pew Forum study’s top reasons for leaving the church.  Therefore, it would seem many remaining Catholics are “at risk” for departure since their frustrations mirror those of already departed Catholics.  It would also seem urgent to address these issues.

It’s been 5 years since the insightful Pew Forum study.  How are the departure reasons being addressed?

To slow or reverse the exodus, church leaders embarked on a “New Evangelization” campaign.  This seems to consist of telling people with whom they disagree that they are wrong and/or damned but delivering the message with a perky smile, modern lingo and perhaps a “friendly” handshake or over an adult beverage.  I suspect that just more regularly and stridently, or even more “kindly” and colloquially deriding people will only lose not regain members.  The statistics seem to support my assertion.

“New Evangelization” tactics seem based on incorrect assumptions that lapsed Catholics don’t know church dogma or scripture and just need these screamed or sung at them in bars, Jesus pep rallies, and other spiritu-tainment venues until the person wakes up and says, “Hallelujah, I’m going back to church.”  However, study after study reveals Catholics do know dogma and just disagree with, if not outright reject facets of it.  Church doctrine espouses this practice as a way of fostering the organization’s continual maturation but many church leaders reject it.  Furthermore, many Catholics left the church because of familiarity with gospel teachings and belief that the hierarchy strayed too far from those teachings.  Floating amongst all this is a lot of “us vs them” mentality.

Strongly fueling the “us vs them” mindset is the hierarchy’s belief that it has cornered the markets on truth and correctly interpreting scripture.  Insistence on supreme “listening-to-God” qualities creates an impasse perhaps beyond resolution.  It is impossible to be just “us” - one integrated Body of Christ - as long as any individuals or factions believe they serve a superior versus a different function within the body.   The Spirit is violated and faith in the Holy Trinity is replaced by worship of the organization itself via making adherence to “tradition” more sacred than truth or love.

If church leaders sincerely want lapsed Catholics back, it’s time to quit before getting farther behind in the infallibility game.  It already has pinned the institutional church into what the hierarchy perceives is an inescapable and what others perceive is an intolerant extremist corner on homosexuality, birth control, treatment of women, divorce and remarriage as well as abortion – the top reasons people leave the church.  In the past 5 years there have been increased political lobbying expenditures and activities, excommunications, threats of excommunications and job terminations pertaining to all those topics.  I suspect if the Pew Forum survey were taken now, the top departure reasons would be even more pronounced.    

Continuing down the list of departure reasons, we hit the sex abuse tragedy.  The institutional church refuses to address the clergy abuse scandal in an effective way that holds bishops accountable and works towards institutional reconciliation.  Instead it continually tries to downplay the scandal’s impact and existence despite scandal after scandal unfolding and the recent publication of a scathing U.N. report.   

Right after sex abuse we hit clergy celibacy.  A simple stroke of Francis’ pen reinstates the practice of married clergy because no theological reason prevents it.  Why hasn’t this happened? 

We finally arrive at topics associated with clergy’s personal charm and Mass quality.  The cardinals did select a personally charming pope, charming enough to make the cover of The Rolling Stone.  Aside from that, there’s a reversion to the Council – not the Second Vatican Council but the 1500s Council of Trent.  Seminarians seem dipped in heavy impenetrable wax coatings of Tridentine philosophy which features weak biblical scholarship, fears the God-created world, promotes misinformation about human biology, sexuality and psychology and further fosters an “us vs them” relationship with the laity.  Significant investments were made to re-translate the Mass but this was done to adopt more Tridentine-esque language and aura despite about 90% of former Catholics saying the church’s departure from old traditions had absolutely nothing to do with their departure from the church.

Help me understand how re-entrenching on things that caused people’s departures while “fixing” things that didn’t is going to bring people back?  Is there an ounce of sincerity in lamentations about missing those who’ve left if even the simplest reforms are not made?

Please note that Francis’ laudable favorite topic of poverty is pretty far down the list of reasons people leave the church.  Perhaps laypeople and religious sisters living Catholic Social Doctrine already defined the Catholic experience enough on this topic that finally having a pope aligned with it just doesn’t move the attendance needle.

Piecing this together makes sense.  Addressing Catholics’ lesser concerns by electing a more personable, poverty-minded pope does not negate ill effects from neglecting people’s most impacting concerns. 

Where do we go from here?  How do we work as “us” when groups continue to foster “us vs them” mentalities?  Is the Body of Christ – the church - really dismembered or just in diaspora?