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?


  1. My parish in the suburban Dayton area, and I am in the choir choir that usually sings at 9:30 AM Sunday Mass. I've seen Mass attendance fall off quite a bit from what it was when I first joined the parish. Unfortunately, the bishops and neotrad newbie priests are too busy criticizing Vatican II and allying themselves with the religious right to pay attention to the exodus right under their noses.

    1. Mid 60's....Vatican ll.....despite the actual documents, the Western Church through away any semblance of "Tradition." Immediately the Dominican sisters tossed their habits, and took on the "bermuda shorts" motif. Our pastor got married and moved to Miami Beach. All reasons to be "Catholic" were omitted from catechesis, and we were taught that all religions were equal, kumbaya! And the further we drifted from tradition, the faster the Sunday pews emptied.
      My "anti-tradition" bros and sisters have ignored the fact that Mass attendance, and claims of Catholicity are still spiralling down the drain, in spite of peace and joy and happiness at our sweet modern parishes. And are our seminaries full to the brim? NOT.
      But traditional orders with strict adherence to reverence and rules....have waiting lists, and the need to build more classroom space. Hmmmmm. Why not just look at yourselves, make a commitment to protest elsewhere, and become just another Protestant sect?

    2. Interesting that you attribute the current church exodus to things that took place in the 1960s when John Paul II and Benedict XVI fostered extreme conservative orthodoxy which included priestly formation and selection of bishops for over 35 years ending only a little over a year ago. Yet, the exodus only accelerated under their respective tenures. Today's state of church is far more a reflection of JPII and Benedict than Vatican II and that state is a severely declining state. It is time to stop blaming Vatican II and its advocates for the state of the church, I would think.

      The raw numbers of women joining the more traditional religious communities are about the same as the more progressive ones. It appears as a higher percentage growth because the base number of women in the traditional orders are far lower...thus the same number appear as a higher percentage of the base. Adding 10 people to a pool of 30 is 33.3% growth while adding 10 people to a pool of 1,000 is 1% growth. Yet, it is still adding just 10 people.

      I think it is inaccurate to portray progressive Catholics as non-reverent and I ask that you not do that on my blog.

      Also, your labeling of "anti-tradition" and "tradition" is quite interesting in that it seems to display your lack of familiarity with the full 2000 years of the Church's history and traditions. Church traditions have morphed and changed a lot. Perhaps this is because Jesus said to the Pharisees, "And why do you break God's commandment for the sake of your Traditions?" (MT:15:3)

      n.b. I think you meant to say the Western Church "threw away" versus "through away?"

  2. When I returned to the Catholic Church after a 5-year hiatus (I was one of the 54 percent at the time), the topic of Catholics leaving came up in a parish group meeting. Members of the group insisted - despite my personal testimony to the contrary - that people were leaving because of a departure from tradition.

    Sadly, this type of thinking dominates the USCCB, as well as the largest Catholic media organizations. Don't hold your breath waiting for change.

  3. As a theologically trained, (Master's in Theology, plus 15 years of hospital chaplaincy and various other specialized training), I am still relegated to mainly helping with setting up events, like moving tables, etc. There is nothing wrong with that, but the Church first encouraged the laity to get theologically educated, and now there are thousands who are so, now, they really don't know or are afraid to use them in the roles to which they are trained. I work for a Catholic hospital, but am still hamstrung, as are all of my similar colleagues, in areas like Sacrament of the Sick, which can only be administered by a priest. People do die before finding a priest in time, on occasion, when nationally Catholic accredited lay Chaplains are on the scene, and rendered helpless to provide exactly what the person and/or family wish from their church. How can this possibly be what God intends? Why do young people, especially leave the Catholic Church. Perhaps they are not being fed, or are given the options of being fed and nurtured by other, non-denominational, and are exercising that option-because they feel spiritually happy and fulfilled. If the Church continues to draw lines in the sand over topics that cannot even be discussed, and spreading third party anecdotal stories as "evidence," it is no wonder that educated people respectfully and with legitimacy, criticize the Church, are frustrated, and often leave to find people who are open to discussion, joyful in music and celebration in liturgies, and seem to understand the phrase, "make a joyful noise unto the Lord." I pray,attend Mass, participate, believe in the Real Presence, but I am profoundly sad about all of this. I have no answers, but thinking "outside clerical boxes" seems to be a very good idea.

    1. Edward, I am continually lobbying and praying that hospital pastoral people like yourself be allowed to administer the Sacrament of the Sick. Even deacons may not administer this sacrament. This is a matter in urgent need of reform. I will highlight your comment on my site (menu of Feb 17).

    2. Excellent post, especially the observation that lapsed Catholics are often more informed than the average congregant.

      Something the hierarchy and the "true believers" seem blind to.

      You may already know that your post was featured today by William Lindsay at his Bilgrimage blog.

    3. The sacramental structure was established by Christ and the Apostles - there is a fixed matter, form, and minister for each sacrament.

      It is by the very nature and structure of the Sacrament of the Sick that only a priest can give it - otherwise it is not validly given.

    4. That statement does not reflect Christ' example in scripture. In Luke 10 Jesus commissions 72 disciples...not the 12 apostles to go forth in a healing ministry...curing the sick. We read later in Luke 10 that they were very successful doing this. So, seems to me that Christ set the form and function for disciples not apostles when it comes to care for the sick. The very nature and structure set by Christ evident in scripture says disciples not only can but should provide sacramental care to the sick.

    5. Also, to fixate on form and structure for validity sounds like reducing faith and ministry to magic and ministers to sorcerers. Jesus rebuked the 12 when they complained that others were casting out demons in Jesus' name. The 12 felt like that was something reservered for their club but Jesus sternly corrected them. This also seems to put your statement opposite what Jesus taught us via the gospels, I think.

  4. It's boring, it costs money, the people there have the personalities of gerbils, the clergy are either closet cases or semi-out of the closet left-of-center freaks, the politics are nearly as stupid as the economics; why bother? What's in it for me?

  5. When a number of priests not acting in a bad manner and the church keeping it secret why would you want to stay in a church like that?

  6. I was raised a catholic, I attended eight horrific years of grade catholic school, I suffered emotional abuse amongst the mentally unstable psychotic nuns and twisted lay teachers. I was affected for many years afterwards seeking therapy that was mediocre at best.

    I was raised to believe that god punished, that you must uphold all sacraments and do no wrong or you'd be banished to hell for all eternity. I used to believe in Santa Clause and the tooth fairy too")
    Religious belief is no different than Aesop's fables. They're just stories with some sort of morals attached them.

    I'm 46 now and I feel pretty well grounded in life now. I don't have fears about death like I did when I was young since I'm confident that death is truly the end of all consciousness. I'm a militant agnostic borderline atheist and I completely dismiss all catholic and all other religious dogma as nonsense. It's church law to designed to "keep order" and to keep people coming back to the church. Churches are businesses and by instilling fear in believers that they must keep "holy thy sabbath" means the collection plates won't go bare.

    I know that science can't conclusively disprove a god, but current scientific evidence certainly points to the direction that there isn't a god. The new atheist movement propelled by Oxford University's evolutionary biologist Dr. Richard Dawkins has taken the world by storm. Dr. Dawkins' philosophy isn't born of imagination and delusions. It's scientific fact that will capitalize over religious belief in the future. It's already begun. The catholic church is dying. It deserves to go down and hard.

    As long as there are wishful thinkers, the brainwashed, the ignorant and the naive, the mentally ill as well, the catholic church will keep bouncing along. But the day will come and the catholic church and most other religions will go splat!

  7. No time to write much.Just to say that I empathize with you, the last annonymous writer especially with the experiences you said you had growing up. I guess that is wherre you started getting it all wrong. Well, as a full adult now, your views are your view, but some of them are mere wishes hat may not come to be. That the Catholic Church will one day go completely under is just a mere wish. The gates of hell has not and shall not prevail against the Church. It has stood the test of time and will continue to wax on in spite of problems and obstacles. My prayers are with you. Stay blessed.

  8. Is it not an easily observed phenomenon of your world that the howling winds, crushing ice and snow, flooding rains and searing droughts of the changing seasons eventually cut down trees which have grown too heavy with corrupt and diseased wood?

    All of the sacred trees of religious tradition on this earth have grown much wood that is diseased and corrupted. Just as trees with diseased and corrupted wood in the forest are cut down by the seasons, every one of them will likewise be cut down.

    The wind will scatter their seeds all across the earth. Those seeds will take root and put forth vibrant new life in accordance with the Divine Will and Holy Spirit of God.

    Do you observe that when the winds cut down a diseased corrupted tree and it falls in the forest, amazingly new fresh abundant life springs up from its deep roots to start a tree anew? Likewise the original root stocks of the fallen trees will put forth an abundance of vibrant fresh new life according to the Divine Will and Spirit of God.

    This process has been going on for some time now and is readily visible
    to those with eyes to see it.
    The new life will exceed anything humanity has heretofore witnessed on earth.

    In the meantime, as you walk fasting through the storms, the snows, the deluge rains, and the desolation and howling winds of the deserts, remember always the words of the Master:

  9. The catholic church thrived because they were the world government for 1500 years. They were the Law. They had no competition. The church has been in steady decline since the reformation. With the internet and full access to truth and reality it will continue to decline. The church can,t hide from its gateway to evil past and Christ has given us the spirit of truth to see through there evil cloud.

  10. To Anonymous 06/11/14: Your words are wise. I have copied them and am keeping them for spiritual refreshment.

  11. I think there are other reasons too. Some of the most hostile people have been the same self proclaimed holy Catholics you see in Church. One time after Mass, in the parking lot, a driver cut off another one and horns were blaring and finger gestures were flying. I looked at my children and they looked at me. The unspoken question was deafening: didn't we all just get out of Church? Didn't we all, just minutes earlier, receive the Eucharist? The self righteousness that abounds in the Church is enough to drive people away. I have even considered it as of late. Additionally, it seems as if they are asking for money at every turn. There's always a new campaign or a second collection or a phone call for something. Look around you at the next Mass when they bring up needing money for something. It's not just me. You see parishioners rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, or giving each other sideways looks. It gets old. I understand the need to tithe, but it's getting excessive.

  12. No person is perfect and no group of people are perfect. Most of you need some stones to throw, since you all sound like you have not done anything wrong. "You without sin, cast the first stone." Unhappy? Stay and help to make things better - I left the Catholic Church, but returned and became a Catechist and, at times, fought against the "wishy washy let's all feel good Workbooks" and after a number of years, I, yes I, was asked to choose the best Workbook for all grades!
    Stay,be patient but strong and work to improve the Church! And, now, I hear more people asking for more Traditional Teachings than ever before - in this area, there are improvements in our Parish. And much of it had to do with ME doing less complaining and being a more positive example - at least, that is what people have told me! Please,
    move on from the past treatment from Nuns and others and all your other reasons for anger - don't be a quiter - be a "righter" - YOU can make a difference!

    1. You assume I have left. I have not. This blog is a way to help improve the church. I am told it is the reason several people remain in the church. I am told it is read by many hierarchy members. I am told that some bishops assign staff to read it.

      We all walk different paths. We all are touched and called by the Spirit differently. We are taught that a common error by people in ministry is to assume that their experience can and should be universalized when it cannot. So, what worked for you is not necessarily appropriate for others.

      It is interesting that you assume all those who left were angry while you sound extremely angry yourself. You accuse others of believing they are perfect and casting stones while you come across as self-righteous and definitely casting stones. I guess it is all a matter of perspective.

      I do not hear a clamoring for traditional teachings except from the a small fraction of the remaining 25% in the pews. The hierarchy catered to those angry people for a few decades and they bullied people and the large percentage left. As Pope Francis says, the first place to look as to why people leave the church is in the attitude and behaviors of those who remain.

    2. Sorry, forgot to mention. Not only have I not left, I often attend daily Mass.