Following the Unfaithful

In an effort to be more "welcoming," many Church leaders are looking to fallen-away Catholics to lead the way.

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A well-known tactic in political circles is to release a “survey” that supports a predetermined conclusion. For example, a Republican PAC might send out a survey to its base asking “Do you think Joe Biden is right about the 2nd amendment?” Or the Democrats might ask if Trump is the next Hitler. Then the results will be touted as proof of massive support for the forgone conclusion.

This doesn’t just happen in political circles, though, as is clear from a recently released research survey commissioned by the Diocese of Brentwood, England, titled “Believing, Not Belonging: A research into why Catholics no longer come to Church: Ecclesial drift, estrangement, and disaffiliation.” The study’s stated purpose is to find out why fallen-away Catholics fell away.

That’s a noble cause, but anyone reading the report can see its conclusions were decided before the first question was even asked and that its entire methodology was flawed by false presuppositions.

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What are those presuppositions? The first and most glaring is that the Church’s purpose is to be “welcoming.” If this is so, then it’s the Church’s duty to adapt herself to those who feel disenfranchised from her.

The very first line of the Executive Summary is a quote from one of the participants:

My faith has not waivered, my relationship with God will always be strong, but it is the judgement from the Diocese and the Church which needs to change to become more inclusive of everyone. Churches must open their doors to all, not just to those defined specifically as ‘practising’ Catholics.

And lest we think that this viewpoint will be at all challenged in the report, the Executive Summary concludes:

It is a plea of faith from both parishioner and Pope for a Church in which all are welcome, noticed and appreciated for who they are, a rather simple yet challenging invitation to re-imagine a different Church that is attentive to the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of all, not least those forgotten or estranged.

Note the underlying assumption here: it is the Church’s duty to change, not the fallen-away Catholic’s. Not once in the report are the (wrong) views of the participants ever questioned; in fact, this would be anathema to this project’s leaders. We are called to “appreciate” their “experiences” and their “reasons” for leaving; to question them is not acceptable. In other words, Church leaders are asking people who do not have the grace of the Sacraments how the Church can cater to their whims.

Another false presupposition of the survey—and a presupposition that is widely prevalent among Catholic leaders today—is that Catholics who don’t attend Mass still possess the Catholic Faith; that their faith has not changed in spite of the fact that they no longer participate in the Sacraments.

For example, the report states,

It is an echo of this refrain that continues to resound in this research through the longing and yearning of the people of God in Brentwood, who though they might still believe, feel as though they no longer belong in the Church.

It then favorably quotes one participant:

I attended Mass weekly, as I have done all my life, up until approximately 5 years ago when I became disillusioned with the Church and my attendance gradually declined. My faith remains strong but I am disillusioned with the institution of the Church.

Finally, the report concludes,

[The survey] reveals a body of Catholics for whom faith remains precious, but for whom participation in the life of the Church has become more difficult to undertake and access through the pressure of competing family responsibilities, alternative weekly commitments and the stressful navigation of the many inflexible logistics of Church, parish and sacraments.

To think one can have faith yet not practice the Faith is contrary to Catholicism, since the “faith alone” heresy has been long rejected in favor of St. Paul’s command to have “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). If a person has a true Catholic faith, then he will make every effort to attend Mass and receive the Sacraments—that’s his faith working through love. If he doesn’t attend Mass, then he doesn’t really believe; at least, he doesn’t believe the Catholic Faith.

This is strong language, but it’s a hard truth Catholics need to accept, for it influences every evangelization and outreach program in the Church. The major problem with this presupposition is the pretense that the fallen-away Catholic is still a Catholic, just one that doesn’t go to church. This means all the Church needs to do to bring them back is adjust this teaching or tweak this liturgical practice and they’ll come back in droves. If we give in to the demands and desires of the unfaithful, then the pews will fill up again.

The reality, however, is that the vast majority of fallen-away Catholics are effectively non-Catholics: they need to be evangelized, not pandered to. They need to hear the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, which begins with the command to repent (cf. Mark 1:15). It’s not the Church that needs fundamentally to change; it’s the fallen-away Catholic who does. The reality, however, is that the vast majority of fallen-away Catholics are effectively non-Catholics: they need to be evangelized, not pandered to. Tweet This

Ultimately this report is deeply flawed, betraying a serious misunderstanding of the mission of the Catholic Church. It treats the Church as a social club. Social clubs are created for their members; they are supposed to cater to them, to make them feel comfortable and happy. That’s not the mission of the Church, however.

The mission of the Church is, first, to glorify God, and then to lead souls to heaven. Everything the Church does must flow from that two-fold mission.

To glorify God means that the Church must always be faithful to Him and His teachings, no matter the cost. It would be better to have only 10 members in a Church faithful to God than 1 billion in an unfaithful one.

To glorify God also means that the Church must celebrate a liturgy that is directed toward Him and His glory. This means the liturgy is not to be changed in order to be more “relevant” or attractive to those who have fallen away.

In addition, the mission to lead souls to heaven means the Church must challenge people out of their complacency toward repentance for their sins. We are not to “appreciate” their reasons for being unfaithful to Christ’s commands, but instead urge them to submit to those commands for their eternal happiness.

By this author:

When releasing this report, the Diocese of Brentwood tweeted, “Our research revealed that many of the 80% of baptised Catholics who no longer go to Church do not feel welcome, appreciated or even visible…” None of these three things—welcome, appreciated, or visible—are part of the Church’s mission. They may comprise the goals of modern social clubs, but they are irrelevant to the saving mission of Christ’s Church.

Surveys like this assume that all the complaints of fallen-away Catholics are legitimate. Yes, there are legitimate criticisms one could make of the Church today—the abuse crisis, uninspiring liturgies, loss of moral authority—but to be blunt, the Church should look to practicing Catholics—those who love the Church and still believe—for advice on what to change.

To ask those who have left how the Church should be different is to be unfaithful to what Christ wants for His Church. It is an exercise in catering to the demands of the unfaithful. We’ve seen numerous mainstream Protestant denominations do this in the past, and the end result is that the unfaithful don’t return and the faithful become disillusioned. In other words, it doesn’t reach out to those who have left the Church and it also drives away many who have remained.

As someone who has spent many hours studying surveys and reading reports on why people have left the Catholic Church, I can appreciate their value. But surveys are not going to help us as long as Church leaders forget the Church’s two-fold mission and refuse to see fallen-away Catholics as a mission field in need of evangelization. Years ago I learned as a computer programmer, “Garbage in, garbage out,” and when it comes to surveys like this it’s important to remember, “Bad presuppositions in, false conclusions out.” Instead of asking the unfaithful why they left, we should be evangelizing them with reasons to return. 

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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