Retrieving the Strays

There may be 30 million “recovering Catholics” (as they often call themselves) out there, across America, north of the Rio Grande — this according to a study cited by the Boston archdiocese. Perhaps 10 percent of the adult population of the United States count among our own lost sheep. It was part of their “market research” for a public relations and media campaign they will launch for Lent in the approaching year. Unspecified but large amounts of money are being raised specially and painfully in a district of the Church under real financial stress to pay for this “media outreach.”

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According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the Catholic population in the United States remains stable, but only because a disproportionate number of American immigrants are Catholic. Within the United States itself, Catholics are wandering out of the Church at four times the rate non-Catholics wander in. Without examining other demographic aspects — birth rates, for example — I’d say the numbers seem plausible. Indeed, up here in Canada I would think the numbers are rather worse, for there is still water flushing from the dam that burst when the Catholic Church in Quebec suddenly succumbed to “modernity” around 1960.

The Boston archdiocese is teaming up with the lay organization “Catholics Come Home.” According to the first message I found at their Web site: “Jesus wants to invite you back into His big, warm and loving Catholic family in the Church He founded 2,000 years ago. He’s calling you home, but the choice is yours. We are family,” et cetera.

Perhaps the quickest way to nail my colors to the mast is to say I find this kind of message sick-making. Quite apart from what it says about Holy Church, it demeans the target audience. It assumes these people are not fully functioning adults. Questions of birth, life, death, and salvation are being addressed (throughout the site) in terms employed for the marketing of bathroom tissue.

Such media campaigns “work,” in a temporary way, because, alas, there are people flighty enough to be “sold for a farthing.” You bet a certain (large) proportion of the people who have left the Church are “not fully functioning adults” — and, in the broad scheme of things, the Church must be blamed for the fact that they are lost. Yes, a proportion of that proportion can be lured back into a church for a Sunday or two, and sometimes even longer, if the message is pitched “professionally.”

But as an old magazine hand, I recall from years ago that paid circulation could be lifted infallibly with almost any ruinously expensive mass mailer campaign. The problem was when the subscriptions came up for renewal — and you needed another ruinous campaign to replace the freshly lapsed.


People have many different reasons for wandering away from the Catholic Church — ultimately, as many as there are warm bodies — and part of the difficulty is to address each in an individual way. That involves the precise opposite of the mindset that is engaged in designing the contemporary equivalent of a mass mailer.

Take, for our top example, the reasons that will be given by many hypnotized and brainwashed within the same popular culture in which we are proposing to participate. They will say that they object to Church teaching on premarital sex, contraception, abortion, the male priesthood, whatever; they will mention sex scandals, because that’s been in the news. And yes, maybe they have some flickering nostalgia for a moment in childhood when they felt that they “belonged,” all warm and cuddly, but that was many busted bridges ago.

The message to such people can only be, “Everything you know is wrong.” And believe me, that cannot be successfully expressed in a touchy-feely package. The Church is at war with the secular society on all the listed fronts, and no war in history was ever won without some kind of sharp weapons. Only a person in serious doubt about the alternative teachings of that secular society should even be welcome in Holy Church: for there is no graver peril to the citizenry inside than false converts.

At the forefront of the Church’s actual message to an unbelieving world is that bloody Cross, with the Man nailed to it — sinless and virgin-born of a woman immaculately conceived. “We are family” doesn’t cut it.

On the contrary, the appeal of the Church — to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness; for the Word before all worlds; and the peace beyond all understanding — is the very opposite of glib. And in the moment when her own officers have forgotten, that appeal is lost.

The evangelical message to lapsed Catholics, to Protestant and other “separated brethren,” and to men of goodwill beyond the Christian faith is one and the same. It must be expressed to each person with the tact that acknowledges his own unique and immortal soul, but also with the candor that follows:

“This is the Church of the Very Christ, founded upon the rock of Peter. We have made terrible human mistakes, we have created an appalling mess inside, and through our malice and stupidity and sloth, we have defiled her. We desperately appeal to all those who have glimpsed the Christ, to help us in the task of Restoration. Gloria!”


  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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