Addressing the Church’s Attrition Problem


It’s no secret that the Catholic Church has an attrition problem. As Father Thomas Reese points out in his column “The hidden exodus: Catholics becoming Protestants,” the findings of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, point to a stark reality:

One out of every 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a separate denomination, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States, after Catholics and Baptists. One of three people who were raised Catholic no longer identifies as Catholic.

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All Catholics have their pet theories about why this is happening, and the best way to address it — usually, as Father Reese notes, colored by their personal experience and preferences for how the Church should be run. This is no less true for Father Reese himself, as when he addresses the problem of young people leaving the Church:

[T]he Pew data shows that two-thirds of Catholics who become Protestants do so before they reach the age of 24. The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence over the complaints of fuddy-duddies and rubrical purists.

But there’s a crucial error here: Without fail, every parish where I’ve been a member already does make a “preferential option” for young Catholics, and has for a long time. Life Teen and young adult Masses have been specifically designed to “cater to their needs” — fuddy-duddies and rubrical purists notwithstanding — and yet the trend remains the same.

Why aren’t these programs working? They tend to emphasize modern, “accessible” liturgies; social justice outreach; and tight-knit communities — the very things done so well by many Protestant communions. But in a head-to-head battle, wherever the Catholic Church is simply mimicking these attributes and not offering anything distinct, young adults continue to drift away.

If the Catholic Church is considered no different than the Protestant church down the street, there is no reason for young people to stay — unless, that is, we can show that we offer something that can’t be found anywhere else: namely, the Eucharist. Community is important; social outreach is important; inspiring liturgies are important — though given the rise in interest in the Traditional Latin Mass among young people in particular, “relevant” may not be the watered-down pabulum we’ve been spoon-feeding them for so long.

But all of this means nothing if we haven’t conveyed the fundamental truth at the heart of our Faith: that we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord in the Eucharist at every Mass, through an unbroken 2,000-year chain stretching back to Christ Himself. Any attempt to address the attrition problem that doesn’t begin here will fail before it has begun.


  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at

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