Who Is to Blame When Catholics Leave the Church?

Some Catholics seem to think that if we all pretend, really really hard, that everything is perfect in the Church, then it will never occur to anyone to leave.

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Every now and then we read on social media about a Catholic lapsing from the practice of the Faith, or apostatizing—transferring allegiance to some grouping not in communion with the Holy See. This is always a tragedy. As St. Peter said to Christ when some disciples left Him because of His teaching on the Eucharist, “Thou hast the message of eternal life” (John 6:68).

There are many reasons why people leave, and it is something which has happened on a truly apocalyptic scale in recent decades, starting in the 1970s, in Europe and North America. It is depressingly predictable that many Catholic commentators display very little curiosity about why it has been happening, until they think they have found a way to use it as a stick to beat an opponent. This is what happened to Eric Sammons on Twitter/X when he shared the content of an email he had received by someone who had left for the Orthodox Church. 

Not only do many of Sammons’s respondents show no compassion for the man in question, or understanding of the factors which influenced his decision, but they contrive to blame Sammons, and the Traditional movement in general, for what happened. Their argument seems to go like this: the guy complains about poor liturgy; therefore, the people who recognize that liturgy is indeed often poor and want to improve it must have influenced him into thinking that liturgy is important enough to leave the Church over. The same goes for his other complaints: effeminacy, the lack of “challenge,” the impression that even some priests don’t believe in the Real Presence, and so on. If we address these concerns by trying to improve things, we are part of the problem because we are admitting that some aspects of Church life could be improved. 

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Readers may think I am being unfair, but here are examples. One poster said Crisis Magazine’s “alarmism, a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit guiding the Church” were to blame. Other responses included these: “You made this man value the ‘basedness’ of his local community over holding to the Catholic faith.” “A great example of how trads drive people away from the Church.” “Your rag got a fellow Catholic to focus on externals and rage himself right out of the Church.”

Their message seems to be that if we all pretend, really really hard, that everything is perfect in the Church, then it will never occur to anyone to leave. No one would spot the problems in the Church if Crisis didn’t point them out. 

The level of self-delusion necessary to believe this is almost preternatural. It can be shown to be false very simply—by pointing out that massive lapsation and apostasy took place in the thirty years after 1970, when the Traditional Catholic critique of the post-Vatican II situation had almost zero public impact. Yes, people are quite capable of noticing the problems for themselves.

Liberal Catholic commentators tend to be much more sympathetic toward those who leave the Church saying it is not liberal enough. Indeed, they often tell us that the Church should change—to allow female ordination, for example—to stem the flood. Perhaps what really annoys them about the case Sammons highlighted is that they can’t claim that this person would have stayed if the remaining restrictions on liturgical and doctrinal chaos were torn up. 

Not enough research has been done on why Catholics leave, but one survey and analysis by a proper sociologist, Prof. Stephen Bullivant, paints a fairly complex picture but makes it clear, nonetheless, that there are many people like Sammons’s young man. As a 23-year-old woman told Bullivant’s survey: “If the Church looks confused, seems to change when the pressure mounts, or fudges on difficult issues, then it’s not attractive to anyone.”

What everyone involved in the Traditional movement knows is that the Traditional Mass has become a haven for young Catholics who would otherwise have left the Faith—and in many cases, indeed, did lapse from the practice of the Faith for a time, until they discovered it. It also draws in converts. We know this because we have met them. When the prodigals do return, we don’t lambast them or try to test the purity of their motives. Following the example of our Heavenly Father, we congratulate them and offer them what they need: food for their souls.  What everyone involved in the Traditional movement knows is that the Traditional Mass has become a haven for young Catholics who would otherwise have left the Faith.Tweet This

Most of the young Catholics who lapse have never heard about the Traditional Mass because most Catholics in general know little or nothing about it; and the overwhelming majority of parishes, schools, and university chaplaincies never have celebrations of it. It is all the more striking, then, how many lapsed Catholics do have some inkling that something along these lines would help them. Ten percent of the respondents to the Bullivant survey agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I prefer the Latin Mass but there is none in my area.” Saying you are joining the Orthodox in search of spiritual “challenge” points in the same direction. 

These people are spiritually starving. And yet they get no compassion from liberal Catholics. It reminds me of those who proudly display on social media their lack of sympathy for the victims of natural disasters or terrorist outrages if they are members of the wrong category of human being. Some were grimly satisfied when Republican voters were said to be dying of Covid at a higher rate than Democrats; others when Jewish children were murdered. This is, in part, a sad consequence of social-media-driven polarization. But liberal Catholics got there first.

For my newly-released book, I read a lot of letters to the U.K. Catholic press about the liturgical reform in the 1960s. From 1964, when Latin almost completely disappeared, the spiritual distress of many is unbearable. In 1965, a convert named Gillian Edwards wrote: “Misery is not a strong enough word for what we feel.” Cardinal Heenan of Westminster Archdiocese told larger parishes to put on a Latin Mass (until 1970); but Pope Paul VI doubled down, accusing critics of vernacularization of “spiritual indolence” in a 1965 General Audience address.

Why is it so important for liberal Catholics not just to have what they want but to stop anyone else having what is of proven spiritual value to them? As Gillian Edwards concludes her letter, “Isn’t there room for both?”

What kind of arrogance and lack of empathy denies to young Catholics what the Church provided for centuries, something that formed the saints and doctors of the Church? And continues to deny them this when some young Catholics find out about it and specifically ask for it? Even when this poses no conceivable threat to the provision of the opposite kind of experience, the doctrinal and liturgical gloop available in so many liberal parishes across the world? This is a mystery, not just of the Church since Traditionis Custodes in 2021, but ever since the liberals took control of the liturgy in 1964. For them, it would seem that ordinary Catholics are not sheep to be fed but rats to be experimented upon—and heaven help them if they try to escape from the lab.


  • Joseph Shaw

    Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He is the editor of A Defence of Monarchy: Catholics Under a Protestant King (Angelico, 2023), with contributions from Sohrab Ahmari, James Bogle, Charles Coulombe, Peter Day-Milne, and Sebastian Morello.

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