Why Are They Leaving? An InsideCatholic Symposium

According to a new Pew Forum study, more Americans have left the Catholic Church than any other religious body. We asked 34 prominent Catholics why.

Last week the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
released a study on the changing religious habits of Americans. Among many things, the researchers found that the Catholic Church has experienced the greatest net loss in membership.
We asked 34 prominent Catholics from various backgrounds to answer the question, "Why Are So Many Leaving the Catholic Church?"
Their responses follow.
♦ ♦ ♦
The survey sampled 35,500 people. One could argue that the sample size in a country of more than 300 million was too small. However, the survey generally confirms what many observers of the Catholic scene in the United States already knew — at least anecdotally.

Here in Central Florida, the number of Catholics is growing. Since I have been bishop, I have established eight new parishes or missions. This Easter season, more than 1,000 people will join the Catholic Church here in our diocese. Our pews are full because of the continuing influx of people to our area, either from the North (the snowbirds moving to a warmer climate) or from the South (Puerto Ricans and immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean). It is tempting to glibly dismiss the Pew study. However, given the constant arrival of newcomers, we might not as easily notice the members who quietly defect.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Why are we losing people? A possible explanation — but one I think is too facile — is that many adult Catholics have left the Church because of the phenomenally poor religious instruction received by Baby Boomers and their children over the last 40 years. This certainly plays a role; more often than not the former Catholic who joins another religious denomination did not understand why he or she was Catholic in the first place. But that cannot be the sole explanation. In fact, many of the immigrant Catholics who built the Church here in the United States a century ago were poorly educated in their faith and in just about everything else. However, they kept the Faith and built the schools that handed the Faith on to their children. These immigrants brought with them a culture that helped to shape their faith and forged a collective identity in which Catholicism was part of a distinctive way of life — a way of life that revolved around the parish.

Something changed though when their children and grandchildren entered into the American mainstream. Catholics were assimilated — or absorbed — into American culture, resulting in an erosion of Catholic identity. The parish plays a lesser role in their lives. The strong individualism of our culture undermines the sense of a collective identity. And thus Americans become individual consumers of religion, picking their religious identity a la carte, as it were. Churches are seen as merely voluntary organizations, and affiliation or non-affiliation a matter of personal taste or choice. The attraction of the Evangelical denominations with their emphasis on the therapeutic side of faith seems to bear this out.

What do we do about it? Certainly better catechesis is needed; but Catholics do not live their faith merely as individuals but as members of a community. Parishes are key to reinforcing Catholic identity and providing a place where people can experience the distinctiveness of Catholic life. Parishes at their best can draw people into a Catholic ethos in a way that does convert them. Most parishes did that well up until the mid-20th century — and many still do. If we want to stem the leakage from the Church — and at the same time reach out to the unaffiliated — parish life must be revitalized. As Pope John Paul II said in Novo Millennio Ineunte, the Church must be "the home and school of communion" where each member of Christ’s faithful is valued and taken into account, and where each is aware of his or her active responsibility for living the faith.

Most Rev. Thomas Wenski is the bishop of Orlando, Florida.
♦ ♦ ♦
There are many possible answers to the question posed here. I am first inclined to consider Pope John Paul II’s call to a new evangelization. Without an evangelized heart, without falling in love with Christ — which is really what it means to be evangelized — the practice of the faith redounds to duty and obligation. There is only a slim possibility of persevering in the practice of a faith that is viewed primarily or exclusively this way. Perhaps those properly evangelized would not so readily leave the One they love.

Another possible consideration: I am a firm believer in the Providence of God, and at the same time that this question was posed to me I happened to read a passage from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. It seems, oddly, to apply:

A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner Circle will go round and round the Inner circle unless he performs the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street. Decision is the whole business here; a door must be shut forever. Every remedy is a desperate remedy. Every cure is a miraculous cure. Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil.
We, as Americans, tend to look for rational reasons for action or for failure to act. There is inherent in the question a search for "reason," but perhaps it is reason itself, cut off from faith, that is precisely the cause of the abdication of the Catholic Faith. Have we not, after all, made the concept of assent to the truths and teachings of the Catholic Faith much more a matter of reason than faith? Phrases like "I just cannot believe that" manifest a great confusion between reason and faith. What we believe as Catholics is certainly reasonable, but raw reason, without any input from Faith, would of necessity reject a vast majority of what the Church believes and teaches. Modern man finds faith unreasonable and therefore unbelievable.

In America there is a very strong notion that what we believe must make perfect sense to us, and that we are somehow automatically absolved from believing that which does not seem to be rational. Once a person ensconces himself on the Inner Circle of cold reason, he "will go round and round his logical circle . . . unless he performs the voluntary, vigorous, and mysterious act" of making a personal faith commitment.

One definition of Faith is "a sacrifice of reason," a willingness to assent to the unreasonable. Faith has an element of unreasonableness about it. Unless we are willing to make that leap, we will never truly arrive at committed faith.

Most Rev. Robert Vasa, D.D., is the bishop of Baker, Oregon.{mospagebreak}
The Pew survey confirms what we already know: Americans are very mobile. During the course of their lifetimes they’re likely to change jobs, homes, political parties, and yes, even religions, any number of times.
"Church shopping" seems to be one of the signs of our time, and it does present new challenges to us. But our basic mission remains what it has been since the first Pentecost — bearing witness to the gospel and bringing all people to deeper knowledge and love of Christ.

The Pew numbers tell one story. Pastoral experience on the ground tells another. Here in San Antonio, our churches are full; we don’t feel anyexodus" of Catholics. We are very much an immigrant Church, as San Antonio always has been. We’re a Church of Americans, Mexicans, Asians, Africans, and Europeans.

San Antonio is not out of the ordinary; the Catholic Church in America today is most obviously an immigrant Church. The survey found that nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of American Catholics were born outside the United States.

Hispanics — immigrants and U.S.-born — now make up 29 percent of the Church. More than that, Hispanics make up almost half of all U.S. Catholics of prime child-rearing and career-building ages — 45 percent of Catholics ages 18-29 and 44 percent of Catholics ages 30-39.

The statistics on the faith of immigrants were also revealing. Nearly half of all immigrants to this country are Catholic (46 percent), and the influx of immigrant Catholics is the most hopeful sign of growth in the American Church today.

It’s very clear that this future is closely linked to immigration. I hope this survey leads us to find new openness in our hearts to our immigrant brothers and sisters.

Most Rev. Jose H. Gomez, S.T.D., is the archbishop of San Antonio.
♦ ♦ ♦
In an ecumenical discussion group I recently attended, a lay Episcopalian campus minister commented that, at his university, the religions with a thriving campus ministry are Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic. He theorized that this is because these three have a strong cultural identity. A Methodist minister in the group followed up by commenting on an article he had recently read: The author was pondering why more Catholics hadn’t left their Church in the wake of the clergy sex-abuse crisis. One would have expected Catholics to leave in droves, and yet the great majority has remained faithful to the Church. He opined that the identity of Catholics with their religious culture was likely the reason.
I make reference to this not to downplay the seriousness of the situation, but rather to approach it from a different perspective: If people, for the most part, are not leaving the Church because of their Catholic cultural identity, then, to the extent that they are, it is because this cultural identity has been weakened.
The real question, then, is this: What are the key constituent elements of Catholic culture? The answer is certainly a complex one, but I would suggest three such Catholic-defining elements: liturgy, education, and common prayers and practices. Furthermore, the seeds of this identity have to be planted deep in the psyche early on in life, otherwise they will not take root and have the power to keep people in the Church (short of a genuine conversion experience later in life, of course). Unfortunately, all three of these elements have been, to some degree and in some way, in crisis for a very long time, which means children have not been receiving this essential formation.
To keep our people in the Church, their Catholic identity must result from deep love for and cultural connection with their faith tradition. They must also find inspiration and spiritual nourishment in their faith communities, and in a way that accords with Catholic-defining elements. If they don’t, and if they are unhooked from this deep-seated Catholic identity, then it is not surprising if they go elsewhere to find it. If just one of these realities apply, people will stay; however, the contemporary situation of the Church is all too conducive to our people being subject to both of them at the same time.
Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone is auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of San Diego.
♦ ♦ ♦
On May 20, 1998, at the age of 67, I was baptized as a Christian and confirmed as a Catholic. Pat, a fellow journalist and longtime friend, read about it many weeks later and greeted me: "Congratulations, Bob. Welcome to the church." When I asked Pat his parish, however, he said he had not gone to Mass in 20 years.
That pointed up the difficulty of counting Catholics in present-day America. Is Pat a Catholic? He thinks so, though truly he is only ethically and culturally, not theologically, a Catholic. It compares to my ethnic but not theological Jewishness when I abandoned the religion after my bar mitzvah at age 13. Pat’s classification in the Pew Forum’s study would depend on what exactly he said — whether "Catholic" or just "raised Catholic." If the latter was the case, he would be classified as "ex-Catholic."
More significantly, my encounter with Pat and others who were "raised Catholic" created for me an image of the church as a revolving door: people like Pat leaving, people like me entering. That was nothing like Conservative Judaism, the religion of my youth; no apostates left, and certainly no converts entered.
The difficulty of classification and the revolving door image both make meaningless the alleged exodus of American Catholics. Pew sees a 10 percent exit because of the alleged reduction of the country’s Catholic population from one-in-three to one-in-four, but those numbers are skewed by faulty counting.
Mark Gray, a research associate with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, calculates a net gain of 150,000 American Catholics in 2006 without including the impact of immigration, much of it illegal.
Statistics aside, I am fascinated by the difference between people going in opposite directions through the American Catholic revolving door. Those leaving remind me of assimilated Jews who no longer enter the synagogue and in all likelihood have married non-Jews. Talking to many who say they were "raised Catholic," I find people who were bored stiff by sluggish performance of the liturgy and uninspired homilies and seem to know little about their faith.
In contrast, I find during each Lenten season at my church, St. Patrick’s in downtown Washington, bright, eager young men and women converts entering the Church — touched by the Holy Spirit, I believe, as I was. They represent a surge in Catholics by choice, reflected by the rise of students at Newman Centers across the country. I think Pew has missed the boat, demonstrating the failure of statistical analysis.
Robert Novak is a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.{mospagebreak}
I found the recent survey on religious practice in the United States to be something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, great numbers expressed belief in God and the importance of faith. On the other hand, an increasing number seem to affiliate with no particular church at all.
While the survey is limited in scope (since faith cannot simply be measured by counting the number of adherents, or using other empirical data), it does tell us something significant. We are at a unique moment in American history and, in particular, in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.
There will be others who will be able to give a more informed account of what this study might indicate in terms of sound pastoral practice for the Church in the United States. Perhaps I can offer some insights as a Catholic in political life of how this area might affect the Church’s future in our country.
Catholic teaching about the lay vocation expounded so profoundly in the documents of the Second Vatican Council has not been well understood. Too many Catholics do not see the clear implications their faith has for their public lives, whether in politics, business, or education. A genuine, authentic faith will be shared and inform all aspects of one’s life.
I think the future of the Church can be especially strong if Catholic teaching in this area were better understood. Catholics do not want to impose their faith on anyone, but simply to propose a way of living — and a way of loving — that will bring true freedom and happiness.
I am hopeful when I see Catholics carrying the message of the gospel into their public lives. We bring the nonnegotiable principles of the value of every life, the importance of marriage for a virtuous society, and the need to care for the weak and vulnerable in the public arena. By doing so, we invite further reflection on why we live — and love — the way we do. It is a strong impetus for deeper reflection and deeper conversion to the gospel.
The new springtime for the Church envisioned by Pope John Paul the Great could indeed be on the horizon. Without ignoring the clear challenges ahead, I am convinced that the strong presence of Catholics in public life could play an important part in the renewal of the Church in the United States.
Sam Brownback is the Republican senator from Kansas.
♦ ♦ ♦
I read with some interest the headline that religion is on the decline in the United States. The media were delighted in reporting that Christianity in America had dropped significantly. One highlighted aspect of the survey was that the fastest growing group of people described themselves as "unaffiliated" — no formal religion at all.
One scholar from a prominent Catholic college pointed out that religion "is out of touch with our secular culture today." All the so-called experts further warned that these disturbing trends are likely to accelerate in the near future, because younger people are more likely to join minority churches rather than Christian churches.
Speaking from a lay Catholic perspective based on over 35 years of extensive political and media experience, Catholics have no meaningful voice in the American political arena today. Of course we have Catholics on the political right and left, but sides tend to negate any serious political message to unite Catholics and provide us with a more effective voice.
Our opponents do not want us united. They are afraid we will impose our values on them; a valueless society fits the secularists’ agenda just fine.
And because mainstream Catholics have no effective voice in the media today, we are wandering the desert, looking for a political home. Thus, the growing number of "unaffiliated" continues to increase in the United States. Secularists are winning the cultural war in a divided Christian America.
I was speaking at a St. Patrick’s Day event in Rhode Island recently when I was asked, "Mayor Flynn, I know you’re pro-life and a working-class Democrat. So am I. Who is our leader — you?" "No, Jesus Christ," I proudly said.
Ray Flynn is the former Mayor of Boston, U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, and best-selling author of The Accidental Pope and Pope John Paul II: A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man.
♦ ♦ ♦
The reason so many Catholics are leaving the Catholic Church is simple, at least in looking at most of the people who have left: It simply makes too many demands of its members. In a culture where morals are a matter of choosing and sacrifice is unheard of, why would a person want to belong to a Church that says one may not live with someone who is not one’s spouse, nor marry a same sex partner; must not use contraceptives; must not have an abortion; and use every effort to stay away from serious sin, or even small ones? Added to this, one must go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, fast on days appointed, and practice voluntary penance. One must keep all the precepts of the Church.

The above is too overwhelming — plus the fact that many people, for generations now, have not been catechized and don’t have the foggiest notion of what they must believe as Catholics. They have little knowledge of the grace and beauty of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the teaching of the Magisterium, and the wealth of Tradition. They haven’t become real friends of the saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Many leave for "fellowship," which gives them a warm feeling of belonging. Perhaps Catholics need to do more to foster community, but ultimately they will always be faced with the Crucified Christ, an image of which should always be predominate in their Churches, to remind them that a price was paid for their salvation. If they are to follow Christ then they, too, must take up their cross daily. In the long haul, although the Catholic Church makes great demands on its members, it is teaching Truth — the only thing that will set them free and lead to the Beatific Vision.

Mother M. Assumpta Long, O.P., is the superior of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. {mospagebreak}
John Paul II once remarked that a scientific survey could not "measure" faith, either its existence or depths. The Pew survey presents a rather bleak picture of Catholic loses due to "affiliation changes": "While nearly one in three Americans (31 percent) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24 percent) describe themselves as Catholic."
Of course, the phrase "describe themselves as Catholic" gives us no indication of just what those who do "describe themselves as Catholic" actually hold. Most heretics usually describe themselves as true believers. One of the main functions of authority in the Church is to keep tabs on just what Catholics, particularly Catholic intellectuals, mean when they "describe themselves as Catholic."
By every criterion, it is difficult to retain one’s faith in a hostile culture. I recall reading somewhere that if everyone who was baptized Catholic retained his faith in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the country would long ago have been mostly Catholic. The idea that only Catholics should never lose their faith is at best an odd one.
What the Pew report does not cover is the quality of faith. As I have often said, the Catholic Church today has never been intellectually stronger or culturally weaker. We have had as popes two of the finest and most incisive minds of our time. The conversions to the faith are significant. I myself think that someone who in fact ceases to believe or never really takes any steps to understand and retain his faith ought to indulge what is quaintly called "an affiliation change." Much confusion in the Church itself is caused by those calling themselves Catholic but who are long distant from its meaning and practice.
Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., is a columnist for Inside Catholic and teaches political science at Georgetown University. His latest book, The Order of Things, is recently published by Ignatius Press.
♦ ♦ ♦
I see at least two major contributing factors.
The United States, along with Europe, was going through a massive cultural shift beginning a decade or two after World War II. The shift was away from tradition, authority, formality, and — underlying all the rest — sexual restraint. All these values are integral to the Catholic faith.
The Catholic Church convened an ecumenical council in a moment that appeared tranquil but was in fact the vortex of the cultural storm. Expectations were for radical change. The media had attained a presence that made it the lens through which the Council was seen — and interpreted — not only by Catholics but the world at large. The regnant interpretation of the Council was therefore precisely the "hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture" rejected by Pope Benedict XVI.
So it is not so much the faithful that have left the Catholic Church; it is the Church — at least in appearance — that left them.
Rev. Joseph Fessio, S.J., is the editor of Ignatius Press and theologian in residence at Ave Maria University.
♦ ♦ ♦
This disastrous situation reflects the impact of secularization on a Catholic community far gone in theoretical and practical dissent and deeply sunk in habits of keeping up with the Joneses that sociologists call cultural assimilation. American Catholics have long craved to be like everybody else, and now they seem to have succeeded all too well. The sex-abuse scandal, weak leadership, and the unconscionable defection of most formerly Catholic colleges and universities have contributed significantly to the general collapse.
At the moment, I have only two suggestions.
First, the Catholic bishops should declare a moratorium on most of the scheduled activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and spend the next two or three years reflecting on the Pew study and the recent CARA study on the basket case called Catholic marriage. On that basis, and with the help of loyal Catholic scholars, they might be able to develop a worthwhile action plan.
Second, the pastors and people of the Church in the United States should halt the continual lowering of the bar for membership in the Church that’s been going on for the last 40 years and start raising the bar instead. To be a member of the Catholic Church is an enormous privilege that carries with it enormous responsibilities. People need to be challenged by that message, not coaxed and cajoled to show up on Sunday every once in a while.
Russell Shaw’s 20th book, Nothing To Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church, is forthcoming from Ignatius Press.
♦ ♦ ♦
"Big loser" is the summation of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life concerning American Catholicism. The stats: Ten percent of Americans are former Catholics; 31 percent of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24 percent still identify as Catholic. Disturbing results, but not a surprise. We had it coming.
Two generations of Catholics were raised with flaccid catechetics. Just last month a pastor related his astonishment that a third of his confirmation candidates could not recite the Nicene Creed; those who could "weren’t sure" they actually believed in the Virgin Birth or a bodily resurrection. What they do believe is the cartoon "Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild" who is cool with premarital sex, mild drug use, gay relationships, and, "like, you know, we can’t judge others." This is religion understood as if it doesn’t matter — and, eventually, it doesn’t.
What’s the most target-rich environment for an ersatz Christianity, a passionate evangelicalism, or the rise of trendy atheism? Poorly catechized Catholics.
American Catholics are ignorant of the history of Christianity and are unable to cogently outline the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. Protestant churches where the culture is accommodated — abortion or divorce or gay relationships are deemed within the bounds of Christian practice — entice those who find Catholicism a "hard saying." At the other pole, Evangelicals, schooled in both anti-Catholicism and apologetics, preach a faith in Christ as if it actually does matter.
Atheism is a glittering attraction for those who find the cultural war a tiresome déclassé skirmish. These Catholics abdicate their faith in favor of a go-along-to-get-along posture toward the urgent social issues of the day. They idolize a pseudo-science that promises "salvation by progress," at the expense of actual science or the dignity of human beings.
The survey notes that assimilation into the culture accounts for dwindling church membership. Recall the warning in the unpopular encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae:"Beloved son, [that] we are not able to give approval to those views which, in their collective sense, are called by some ‘Americanism.’" Pope Leo XIII decried the temptation to conform Catholic teaching to the prevailing culture. How prophetic!
There is an argument to be made that significant numbers of former Catholics are repulsed by the scandal of sex abuse and homosexuality in the priesthood. A neighbor, a cradle Catholic, falls into this group. He has "simply had it" with a Church that fails to discipline its own. His parting comment, "The pope needs to sack half the U.S. bishops."
The remedy is no mystery, only difficult to achieve: good catechesis, strong support for Catholic family life, orthodox seminaries — and perhaps a few martyrs.

Mary Jo Anderson is a contributing correspondent for
www.WorldNetDaily.com. Visit her blog at www.properlyscared.wordpress.com, or e-mail her at [email protected].

♦ ♦ ♦

In the course of my national work with both Priests for Life and the National Pro-Life Religious Council, I meet people regularly who love their Catholic Faith but are bitterly disappointed in the institutional Church. They feel that the allocation of energies by the institution does not reflect the priorities its own teaching embodies. This is particularly true when it comes to matters touching fundamental moral issues like the sanctity of life, which is the focus of my entire ministry.

Some of the common complaints include, "My priest never preaches about abortion," "Our diocese doesn’t even fund the pro-life office," "We are discouraged from promoting voter education information and thrown out of the Church parking lot when we try to educate our fellow parishioners," and "We never have a priest show up to pray with us at the local abortion clinic, or visit the pregnancy center."

Usually, those who experience these disappointing realities channel their energies to independent right-to-life organizations that are doing the pro-life work that these believers would like to see their own parishes do. Many remain faithful Catholics, but bitterly disappointed ones.

But there are others whose disappointment, combined with opportunities to join vibrant local church communities where moral truths are preached without fear of controversy and where the culture battles are engaged with enthusiasm, leads them to join other denominations. I’ve spoken with many of them. They want church to be a place where they hear something different and are challenged to rise above the mediocrity to which their natural inclinations attract them. They want to join a body of believers where action matches rhetoric, and where the message that abortion is murder is matched by actions that treat it as such.

Rev. Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life and the president of the National Pro-Life Religious Council.{mospagebreak}

First of all, let’s take the hysteria down a notch. The Pew survey doesn’t paint quite the horrid picture of a dying Catholic Church that the media want to portray in a spasm of wish-fulfillment. The Protestant picture is much worse. With 51.3 percent of America claiming to be Protestant, we’re on the verge of an historic sea change: an America where Protestantism is the minority.

But rather than engage in joyless stats, let’s take on face value that the Catholic Church suffers the largest gross number loss of adherents and quickly assess the problem and the solution.

The problem, as with every faith community, is that young people vanish and they don’t come back. Talk to a 50-year-old that doesn’t practice his or her faith, and 90 percent of the time you’ll be talking to a person who dropped out in his late teens or early 20s. That’s exacerbated in the Catholic Church because we have lost the old Jesuit model of equipping young adults with a sense of apologetics and mission.
We need to teach a new apologetics. We don’t teach young people how to defend their faith in contemporary culture, so we lose them to what appears to be a better argument. It isn’t so much sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll that pull them away, as in my salad days. It’s the constant bombardment of secular imagery and secular thinking. They are untrained to see it for what it is. And they are definitely untrained to present a reasoned counterargument. They judge the Faith through the eyes of the world because they have little training in judging the world through the eyes of faith.
At the same time, we do not teach our young people how to mission — how to evangelize non-believers. Thus, they become those evangelized by the culture, rather than the "evangelizers" in the world in which they live.
We’re teaching the faith better than we have in years. But we cannot forget critical thinking, apologetics, and mission. This requires discipline and study, not feelings and emotions. It is training of the mind as well as the heart.
Bob Lockwood, director for communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Mid-Life Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).
♦ ♦ ♦
"Why do people leave the Catholic Church?" Isn’t this the wrong question?
It may still be a fruitful question; wrong questions often are. There are all kinds of potential sociological or theological explanations that could be presented: If you want a sociological prescription, I’ll say that parishes should provide support for children from divorced families. Elizabeth Marquardt’s excellent Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce talks about the spiritual and ethical searches that children of divorce must undertake from a very early age — searches in which they frequently receive no guidance from church.
But fundamentally, the question of why people leave the Church — like, in some ways, the question of why people enter — will always be a mix of sin and virtue so complex that even those who make the decision may not understand that decision very well, and outsiders can’t hope to. Intellectual disputes with the Church, for example, can be simultaneously genuine philosophical seeking and sinful intellectual pride.
Moreover, even people who seem to have a relatively well-defined problem with the Church may need a lot of different things to help them keep the faith or return to it. Someone who considers herself an "ex-Catholic" because of the Church’s stance on homosexuality may need a better understanding of the theology of sex; she may need to get to know Catholics who aren’t dismissive or even hateful toward gays; she may need guidance on how to express deep, genuine love (whether her love of other women, or her love for a gay family member or friend — the two most common kinds of love which people most often experience as in conflict with the Church on this question), so that being Catholic doesn’t seem to require denying love, care, beauty, and joy. She may — shoot, she does — need Christ in the Eucharist.And to make matters even more complicated, she may be wrong about which of these things she needs most, and what she’s really seeking.
So the real "solution" always has to be, Do more of everything. Better art, better journalism, better catechetical education, better living on our own parts (Catholics are probably the number one reason people leave the Church), et familiar cetera. Whatever you can do that is Catholic, do more of that thing, so that the people who yearn for it can find it. We often don’t find it at the parish church.
Specifically, Americans are obsessed with finding narratives of personal discovery — finding our true selves. Narratives of transformation are more obvious in this respect than any other kind. Who wants to say, "Yeah, I was born Catholic and . . . am still Catholic now, so I guess that’s who I am . . . you know, by default"? That just doesn’t have the ring of radical self-discovery that Americans tend to consider "authentic."
So perhaps what American Catholics need is a renewed devotion to the saints. The saints offer countless stories of people born Catholic who nonetheless underwent radical personal transformations in the fire of Divine love. Even saints who were born Catholic aren’t Catholic by default. If we need some kind of story to tell us who we are, we could do much worse than becoming a self by surrendering that self to Christ.
Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C. Visit her blog at www.eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.
♦ ♦ ♦
What’s to be done about the exodus from the Catholic Church? Well, God created the universe, He is the Lord of history, and His Church saves us; we don’t save it. He no doubt will surprise us with a resurrection like He always has before.
We even have some indication what it will look like. In 2001, Pope John Paul the Great laid out a plan for renewing the Church that amounted simply to letting God do what He planned all along. John Paul implemented the plan with extraordinary effort in his final years, and Pope Benedict XVI picked up where he left off.
The plan: promote Sunday Mass, confession, prayer, and charity work. The plan is simple and profound. It calls for actions that are objective, easy to describe, not daunting or excessive, have tangible benefits, are available to every Catholic, and transform the lives of anyone who takes them up.
For full effect, the plan should be vigorously pursued immediately in the Hispanic community, which the Pew study saw as the major source of vitality in American Catholicism.
I know what they mean. My own Mexican grandparents spent their last days praying the rosary for me in Spanish, and my Mexican mother went to confession when she could no longer speak, and Sunday Mass until her dying day. The Mexicans are the hobbits of North America: forgotten country folk to the South who just might save Middle Earth — if we stop assimilating them downward.
Another thing that can be done is an earlier plan of John Paul’s, one that Benedict will address in his U.S. visit: reclaim the universities.
Without the universities, all is lost. And whoever has the universities has everything.
Catholics universities gave in to ghetto insecurities, tried to look as smart as the secularists, and stopped teaching the Faith long ago. But now, a new crop of colleges is actually complying with canon law and the bishops’ clear guidelines once again.
What will their impact be? Back in the 1980s, the St. Ignatius Institute (SII) was one of the very few places you could study the faith in higher education. Today, the editors of Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic World Report, Faith & Family, and the National Catholic Register are all SII grads. If you read the pope’s new book, you read an SII grad’s translation. If you saw the Vatican on CNN when John Paul II was pope, it was an SII grad reporting.
The impact of the graduates of today’s mandatum universities will be far more than even wishful thinking expects. The Catholic truth, once it’s allowed to be spoken, always surprises us with its power to change what we thought could never change.
And when it’s shut up, it always surprises us how fast the Church’s numbers disappear into thin air.
Tom Hoopes is executive editor of the National Catholic Register and with his wife, April, is editorial co-director of Faith & Family magazine.
♦ ♦ ♦
The Pew findings are dissapointing but not surprising. During the past 40 or 50 years, Catholicism in the United States has become "Americanized" — which means that, since the United States is, historically speaking, a Protestant country, American Catholicism has become "Protestantized." And the form of Protestantism that has served as the model for this transformation has been Protestantism not of the conservative-Evangelical species but of the liberal-mainline species.
Thus Catholics, with the consent of their clerical leadership, have de-emphasized the distinctively Catholic elements of their creed and moral code (including, for example, abortion and homosexuality). Instead, they have come to believe in something that may be called "generic Christianity" (or "least common denominator Christianity"). Although there are important exceptions, today’s Catholics tend to be very "tolerant" and au courant (the two are really the same thing).
Small wonder, then, that many of them feel free to switch to another denomination that also believes in generic Christianity. Small wonder, too, that others, who have no stomach for the watery religion represented by generic Christianity, switch to Evangelical churches. And finally, small wonder that many give up on Christianity altogether, moving directly to the a-religious state that is the natural terminus ad quem of generic Christianity.
♦ ♦ ♦

Why are so many cradle Catholics falling away from the Church in adulthood? In a nutshell, it is because so many Catholic clergy see the world in a way that does not match the views of most religious Americans.

Since the early 1970s, many priests and religious have shunned orthodox Catholic teaching, while in many cases also openly advocating politically liberal social viewpoints. Especially in the Northeast, where there is a disproportionate number of Baby Boomers who grew up in Catholic families, the flavor — if not the explicit teachings — of Liberation Theology is spread in homilies about social justice, economics, and the role of government. At the same time, the Church’s teaching on issues such as abortion is often obscured and ignored.

The trend toward a more heterodox, politically liberal Church mixes with American social trends in a noxious way. Consider this: The General Social Survey reveals that while 27 percent of Americans who called themselves "liberal" or "extremely liberal" attended church weekly in 1974, only 16 percent did so by 2004. In contrast, the percentage of American calling themselves "conservative" or "extremely conservative" rose over the same period from 38 percent to 46 percent. Regular attendance at a house of worship has declined very little over the decades, but this obscures the fact that there is a growing faith gap between Right and Left.

The religious trends among conservatives and liberals have the same effect: They empty our Catholic churches. Conservatives — increasingly religious — are less and less at home in the established Catholic Church, and are looking elsewhere for a message about the world that accords with their faith. Meanwhile, liberals are quitting religion entirely. In other words, the progressive Church is preaching to a vanishing group.

Arthur Brooks is the Louis A. Bantle Professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Affairs and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is author of the forthcoming book, Gross National Happiness.{mospagebreak}

On this question of why Catholics leave:
The first reason pertains to those Catholics who leave for Christian sects, usually of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist variety. It was my friend and former boss Karl Keating who convincingly put forward to me the idea that these folks do not leave, on the whole, because (as is often claimed) they were snubbed by their pastor or uninspired by the lack of liturgical dynamism or "fellowship" in Catholic parish life. Rather they leave, he said, because through some experience with a sect and its members they are led to experience for the first time an intellectual connection with Christianity.
They may hear a Scripture verse placed into the larger context of salvation history, and for a brief second glimpse God’s revealed word as something majestic and profoundly true — instead of as a collection of Hallmark sentiments best used as a jumping-off point for mundane, anecdotal sermonettes. They may hear a "testimony" on sin and conversion, and be bowled over by the radical nature of Christian faith — apprehending for the first time that it demands a totally new (and often scandalous to the world) series of life choices. Or they may simply encounter theological conviction in an unadulterated form — be told unflichingly by someone that Jesus is wholly divine, or the Bible is inerrant, or paradise and hellfire are real and one of them awaits each of us, and that this truth has unavoidable implications — and say to themselves, I want more of this. I want a religion that makes a statement about the way things really are.
The Catholic Church makes that statement in its fullness, of course. But for a couple generations now it has failed conspicuously on the local level to put it to the flock (in ways and for reasons that would be a subject for another day, but still — let him with ears to hear, hear). And so parishes have emptied while the little Bible chapels swelled.
For the second reason I refer to Catholic sociologist David Carlin, whose wondrous book The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America explains not so much Catholic attrition to the born-agains, but the loss of Catholics simply to irreligiosity.
Carlin paints a picture of an American Catholic Church that, after two centuries of manning the "Tridentine ramparts" against its Protestant foes in what had traditionally been a hostile land, by the 1960s finally considered itself in a strong-enough position — both as a religion and as full participant in the national culture — to drop some of its defenses and engage its old enemy on genial terms. But when it did so, it was wholly unprepared to discover that its enemy was no longer Protestantism but secularism,which had already hollowed out the doctrines and practices of mainline Protestant churches, and was now being invited to infect Catholicism — through contact with modernistic Scripture scholarship, mischievous moral theology, corrupted social sciences, horizontal liturgism, and the generalized rebellion against tradition and authority that marked the era. Thus did liberal Christianity — which Carlin characterizes as low-doctrine, anti-miraculous, morally malleable, and geocentric in its aims — enter the Church through the front door and go on to leave its mark on Catholic life and practice.
How does this bear on the question of why Catholics leave the Church? Because liberal Christianity, being essentially a working compromise with secularism, cannot sustain itself. This is observable both as a historical phenomenon (each time Christianity has engaged in compromise with secularism, it has emerged less distinctively Christian than it was before) and also in reflection upon human nature. For religions retain believers, and especially those most fervent and active believers, when their doctrines and practices are distinct, complex, and engaging — and lose believers when they’re not.
Put into concrete terms: A Catholicism that sets before its believers a broad and strict test of moral and doctrinal adherence will keep its members. A Catholicism that is reduced (and often it is so, ironically, in order not to scare folks away) to "being a good person" will lose them. Because — and this is the nub of it — one can be a good person without going to church.
On this point, the mainline Protestants have been somewhat more advanced than we. But now the Catholic children of the children of the 1960s, unburdened by conviction or even mere nostalgia or guilty habit, are figuring it out in droves.
Todd M. Aglialoro is the editor of Sophia Institute Press and a columnist and blogger for InsideCatholic.com.
♦ ♦ ♦
While I love the Church and have grown closer to it over the past decade, I think that our leaders have failed by trying too hard. What I mean is that we have dumbed-down the liturgy, offered (already out-of-date) "pop" music, decreased the number of Holy Days of Obligation, de-emphasized confession, let the standards for Catholic education slip, and eliminated Catholic markers like "no meat on Friday." The thought was that these things were hard and were causing people to pull away from the Church. What we are finding instead is that many people lost the sense of identity as a Catholic and left the Church. Others were driven to adopt a more traditional form of Catholicism, just to retain that which should have been there all along. Now we have less of an identity and more division within the Church.

I personally know two converts who came to the Church precisely because they studied the Catholic approach to birth control, realized that this was indeed the proper Christian position, and continued reading Catholic teachings until they overcame their previous bias. Yet how often does an average Catholic hear about the Church’s teaching on birth control?

I also know a couple who delayed entering the Church for almost a decade due to the sloppy teachings put to them in RCIA class. The nun who taught the course the first time they attended equated all religions and said there was no difference; the key was just to be a good person. Of course, they had been perfectly content as good people in their Baptist church. They were seeking more. As they explain it, they came to the Catholic Church in spite of RCIA, not because of it.

I also have a very good friend who is a traditionalist Catholic. He used to be a left-leaning "social justice" Catholic, and he attended a Mass where the priest let him "drop a needle" on any record he chose. Later, he attended the oh-so-groovy guitar Masses that were offered in most Catholic parishes. My friend, quite a connoisseur of modern music, told me that there had to be something very wrong in any Church that played such poor music. He eventually made his way to one of those groups that was always on the fringe of being schismatic. (I’m hoping that recent developments in Rome will help solidify the relationship.)

Examples could go on, but the main point is that I think the Church needs to ask more of us, not less. Most people are pretty strong when they are assigned a task and know that others expect them to meet it. Most of us tend, however, not to be particularly good at self-motivation. I’d like to see the bishops pick up the challenge, ask more of the people, and develop a more robust Catholicism.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (2000) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).
♦ ♦ ♦
The closest you ever get to a poll in Scripture occurs in the memorable exchange between Pilate and the crowd concerning the fate of Jesus and Barabbas in Mark’s Gospel. Given the signal failure of democracy, along with all the other forms of government and philosophy, it is not terribly surprising that the New Testament does not concern itself overmuch with things like Pew Surveys. The popularity of the Church has ever waxed and waned, and the reasons for that are all over the map. Sometimes the Church is popular because it is right; sometimes it is unpopular because it is right. Sometimes a saint is beloved because he is a saint; sometimes a saint is martyred because he is a saint.
Add to that the fact that the Church is, in this world, a hospital for sinners before she is ever a shrine for saints, and you have a recipe for ensuring that poll results are always going to tell you . . . well, not much that is useful in terms of deciding what to do next.
At present, the Pew Survey tells us that "the Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition because of affiliation swapping . . . . While nearly one in three Americans were raised Catholic, fewer than one in four say they’re Catholic today. That means roughly 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics." Knowing this, we should . . . what?
Well, using the Pontius Pilate method for spiritual navigation, we should listen to the loudest voices screaming advice and make the Church more Episcopalian by embracing various trendy leftisms such as approval of gay marriage, easing up on abortion, and all those other pelvic issues, and generally stop offering any challenges to whatever it is the New York Times says we should be doing and thinking. What some screamers want is a gospel of license, rather than a gospel of grace.
Or, if we apply to other sectors in the Culture Wars, we should Hannitize the Church by kicking butt and taking names, seeing to it that all that mercy crap is flushed out along with all the other sob-sister stuff that makes the Church a haven for weak-kneed Peace-n-Justice types. What some screamers want is a gospel of law and judgment, rather than a gospel of grace.
The point is, in both cases, we think we should be navigating by poll, which is precisely the way the apostles never thought to proceed.
Not that they were oblivious to the needs of the flock. Indeed, much of our present predicament seems to me to proceed precisely because of our bishops’ stunning obliviousness to the needs of the flock and their over-attention to world methods of navigation. When the flock cried for justice in the matter of the rape of their children, our bishops heard only the counsel of lawyers and psychologists, not the bleedin’-obvious testimony of the Tradition. When the faithful begged for decent catechesis, a generation got "Cut, Color, and Draw," not formation in the Tradition. When the pope tried to make Catholic universities teach the Catholic faith, our bishops labored with might and main to make certain that Ex Corde Ecclesia was dead on arrival, lest we learn the Tradition.
In each case, however, the problem has not been with the Church not knowing what to do. It has only been with the Church not liking what it had to do: namely, preach the gospel in season and out of season. That is what the flock needs, what it has ever needed: a Church that preaches and lives the Tradition of the Apostles. If we live it, they will come.
♦ ♦ ♦
The Pew Foundation reports that "Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes." This should cause the American leadership to rethink its marketing strategy. Why is it that people remain attached to a religious affiliation? Is it because it offers a less impressive version of the fastest-growing affiliation? Or is it because it offers something uniquely desired by its current members?

Another way to ask the question: What is the comparative advantage that the Catholic Church has over its competition? The concept of comparative advantage is familiar to students of economics but not usually outside of it. In brief, the idea here is to find the task that you are uniquely suited to do within the overall structure of the division of labor. This offers the greatest hope for success for you in the marketplace. You might be a wonderful violinist, but the market is already crowded with them. Another skill you have is accounting, which is much in demand. Your comparative advantage is to specialize in accounting.

For as long as I can remember, Catholic leaders have said that this trend, which they have long detected, should be addressed by attempting to copy the styles and approaches of their more successful competitors. Hence we should be warm and wonderful and have uppity music just like the evangelicals. Or maybe we should have long and inspiring sermons. Or maybe we should set aside a time in our services for personal testimonies and otherwise try to enhance that feeling of togetherness as a community. Everything must be super accessible and superficially edifying, so that people always feel good about themselves.
The question is rarely asked whether this really works. The data seem to show that it doesn’t.
Let’s leave doctrine and liturgy out of it completely and consider the best approach from a marketing point of view. If friendliness, togetherness, happiness, socializing, and chit chat are what people want, they will get all that and more at the local evangelical sect. Catholics can attempt to copy this for 1,000 years and never come close to doing it as well as they do.
It makes far more sense for Catholics to focus on their comparative advantage: robust doctrine, mystery in its liturgy, unfashionable teachings on morality, and its claims to truth. There is also the obvious marketability of a 2,000-year-old heritage, which must be kept alive in order to retain its market share.
Look at it from a business point of view. If your computer company were losing profits, what is the best approach: attempt to be just like Dell, or offer something unique and attractive that Dell does not offer? Everyone in business school knows that pure imitation is a sure path to failure. The market leader will remain the market leader, and you will be forever playing catch up with a phony version of the real thing.
Or consider another analogy: Let’s say you had a product to offer that was very much bound up with a long heritage of service and a huge devoted following, something like Coke. Would it be wise to suddenly spring a New Coke on the market? Coke found out otherwise, in one of the most legendary calamities in the history of marketing.
It seems that postconciliar attempts to be hip, modern, chummy, communicative, and all the rest should also be ranked up there in the history of religious marketing failures. It is not only doctrinally unsound; it is simply bad business practice. Catholics have so much that no one else has. Recapturing that is the key to firming up the Catholic Church’s share in the religious market.
Jeffrey Tucker is editor of www.Mises.org. E-mail him at [email protected]. {mospagebreak}
Why have so many Catholics left the church? In my opinion, the two most important reasons seem to be contradictory: first, because people did not find the faith to be relevant to their lives. Second, the Church tried too hard to make the faith relevant to their lives.
What I mean is this: Many Catholics left the faith because it was, to their minds, a dull, routine performance that was no more than eternal fire insurance. People want a faith that is alive. They want a faith that is practical, personal, and real. They want to learn how to pray. They want to be healed when they are anointed. They want to feel forgiven after confession. They want inspiring homilies they can understand and remember. They want simple opportunities to grow in their faith, be involved in their parish, and belong to a warm Christian fellowship.
They didn’t get this. Instead, they got a Church that confused personal relevance with communal relevance. Too many in the church thought that relevance meant being socially aware, politically correct, involved in peace and justice issues, and fighting for human rights. While these things may be worthy, they did not nurture the faithful with a powerful, dynamic, and personally engaging experience of Jesus Christ.
They also thought that, to be relevant, they had to mimic the Protestants. The problem is, they imitated the worst things about Protestantism, not the best. They built churches that looked like bare preaching halls, tried to make the liturgy more folksy, and brought in folk music. In other words, like the cowboys that are all hat and boots, they were "dude Protestants."
Catholic parishes grow when they are authentically Catholic. They grow where priests and people truly believe in the reality and efficacy of the sacraments. They grow where people believe in the power of prayer, the necessity for spiritual warfare, personal discipline, and the universal call to holiness. They grow where priests and people strive together to learn more about the faith, give sacrificially, and work together to evangelize. They grow where there is inspired and powerful preaching based on the Scriptures, and where the faithful are called to live dedicated lives set apart for God.
Fear not. The Church of the 21st century will be a lean, mean, fighting machine, or it will be nothing at all. From that concentration and focus new life will come.
Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the chaplain of St Joseph’s Catholic School. His newest book is Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing. Visit his website at www.dwightlongenecker.com.
♦ ♦ ♦
There are a million reasons why Catholics leave the Church, from "mean nuns" and cranky priests; to the serious breach of trust engendered by the revelation of sexual abuse by priests and the cover-up by bishops; to the deplorable catechesis of the last 40 years (thank God we are finally moving away from CCD programs full of stick-figure cartoons and the "everyone is special, mass is special, God is special, and you are special" theology-of-goo that rendered every treasure of the church down to treacle and plasticine and inspired nothing in our children); to the priests who — no longer feared — discovered they wanted to be loved and stopped preaching about sin, sacraments, and salvation; to the poorly taught reforms of the Second Vatican Council; to the simple fact that a prosperous society, becoming too comfortable, always tends to put God on the backburner until circumstances bring Him to the fore. Ireland used to be the most devout of Catholic nations; now she is prosperous enough to forget all that, and to forget gratitude as well, which means she will soon be joyless, because where there is not gratitude, joy fades.

But I think things also need to be put into perspective. The Pew report suggests that mainline Protestantism has actually suffered a greater blow than the Catholic Church, and the mainline churches, let us remember, are churches that have, for the most part, fully embraced the times. Moreover, as with every study on religion, much is made here of the change in numbers since the middle of the 20th century — the coming of age of the baby-boomers. That generation swelled numbers beyond earlier norms in every way, in every institution — and, of course, in religious vocations as well — but the numbers themselves were aberrant, because of the post-war boom. Eliminate that generation, and the high drama of these numbers suddenly becomes less so.

That’s not to say, of course, that the church has not lost members and is not still losing them. But there is something to be said for a Church that is engaged, faithful, lively, vigorous, and smaller, rather than larger-but-mostly-dead. What we’re beginning to see in America is a Church that is growing from the inside out — from the Mid-West and the South — and the vibrancy of the church in places like Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky will spread outward toward the mostly dead coasts, which are already becoming mission posts for African and Asian religious.

I think ultimately we have reason to be optimistic. The generation that had serious issues with the Church, and which moved to either "bring the church into the times" (where it would die along with the unrecognizable mainline Protestant churches) or desert it completely, is a generation that is reaching its culmination. They are now the establishment generation, and they are as out-of-touch as they used to claim their parents were.

They do not understand that a new generation has succeeded them, one that does not share their experience or understanding of the Church, one that is not still "reacting" to Humanae vitae but is actually reading the thing and responding to it. This generation has no neuroses attached to devotions, no uncomfortable acquaintance with "old world" superstitions, and it wants to reclaim all the babies that were tossed out with the endlessly flung bathwaters. They’re bringing back devotions, novenas, and Benediction, and they’re bringing new life back to the moribund idea of religious vocations, too. The number of men and women in religious formation in America went up 30 percent in 2007. Over 60 percent of those religious communities and seminaries surveyed reported an increase in inquiries.

The Spirit is at work, and springtime is coming in more ways than one. A Pew report may say one thing this year, but a report from the pews in the coming years will, I think, say something very different.

Elizabeth Scalia writes from New York and is a columnist and blogger for InsideCatholic.com.
♦ ♦ ♦
I was recently struck by a poll poll published in the Financial Times that found that more than half of the inhabitants of Great Britain do not believe in God. When I arrived in London to stay with friends, I mentioned my surprise to them. Their response was surprise that the number of believers was so high.
With these observations in mind, I read with interest, but some detachment, the recent study of the Pew Research Center on religious life in America. While much emphasis has been given in the press to the fluidity of believers’ affiliation, in particular the alleged attrition among Catholics, I see a different landscape.
We live in a country that is astoundingly religious. Religious groups receive, by far, the largest grants of charity. Religion is a major factor in the current electoral campaign. Candidates refer openly to their faith, and regularly appear in venues of worship. This would be unheard of in virtually any European country. The United States has the largest private, religiously affiliated school system in the world. Moreover, individuals are not locked into ethnic or familial religious practices, but move freely on their own.
My skepticism emerges on how the survey sought to identify one’s "original" religion. In a word, they "self-identified." Now, we all know that Catholics more readily identify themselves as incubate Catholics than any other group. In other words, if the last time they had been in a church was when they were held over the baptismal font, they think themselves "raised Catholic." This may account for the extraordinarily high number (one in three) of Americans who claim to be raised Catholic. Perhaps only Jews have a similar familial adherence.
I am encouraged by the finding that seems to indicate that the better educated the Catholic, the more likely he is to remain in his Faith. My fear is that this survey may, however, give fodder to the neo-Pelagians who would like to impose rigid obligations upon potential converts or mildly observant parents wishing to baptize their children. We are, remember, the Church that received the baptism of a dying emperor, but also confirmed the austerity of the Grande Chartreuse. We are the Church that sanctioned Boniface’s catechism class for thousands, which lasted only as long as it took him to cut down Donar’s sacred oak, but also the Church that lovingly embraced reception of a Newman, who took half a lifetime refining truth.
Msgr. Steven D. Otellini is a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and chaplain for the Knights of Malta.
♦ ♦ ♦
The recent mass exodus from the Church stems from the interrelated negation of Catholic identity and a corruption of the Catholic parochial system, leading to a collective failure to support and encourage the act of faith. In other words, the Church in her most visible forms has offered nothing distinctive or compelling because she has lost her ability to manifest to the world her purpose: to proclaim with authority the full truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In diluting her doctrine and discipline, she had no public identity and began to lack that "catching force" Cardinal Newman speaks of, and the evangelical institutions of the Catholic parochial system began serving platitudes, not incarnating the Truths of the gospel as a witness to the world. This, in turn, led to an inability of the Church to propose to people with confidence and authority the necessary prerequisites that lead one to accepting the gift of faith, and then to support and form in them all that is necessary for living the life of faith.
At the bottom of this problem is a failure of holy leadership willing to lead by faith, not by worldly sight or calculation, as St. Paul instructs us. This point has been illustrated in abundance at numerous flashpoints in the long progression of the Catholic crisis, which has been with us in acute and chronic form since the close of the Second Vatican Council. In every instance where clear, confident, forceful, orthodox, and uncompromising pastoral leadership would have served as a bracing tonic and healing balm to the moral, pastoral, spiritual, and theological maladies of the day, such leadership was not forthcoming. Even at present, when we are still realizing the effects, past and present, of such a failure of faith-guided leadership in the Church, there is still a destructive reticence on the part of the leadership of the Church to lead according to the full reality and to accept with courage the implications of Catholic orthodoxy.
In short, the Church in these last several decades lost the courage to be Catholic, trusting that the entirety of the Faith is true. In losing the courage to be Catholic, we had only the timidity to be "relevant," which has made us more irrelevant than we could have ever imagined.
Rev. Phillip W. De Vous is the pastor of Divine Mercy Parish in Bellevue, KY, and St. Bernard Parish in Dayton, KY. {mospagebreak}
The Wall Street Journal examines the winners and losers in the recent Pew survey by noting that "religions that demand the most of people are growing the fastest." Want proof that the dynamic described is at work in the Catholic Church? Take a look at Mass attendance figures for Denver, whose shepherd, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, is a model of orthodoxy:
Mass attendance in the Denver Archdiocese is higher than that of the national average, shows a recent survey commissioned by the Denver Archdiocese. The survey also shows that a majority of Catholics in the archdiocese, 51 percent, are "fervent" or "faithful" in their belief.

A total of 45 percent of local Catholics polled said they attended Mass in the prior week, compared to 32 percent nationally.

Want more proof? The inverse of Denver is Rochester, whose shepherd, Bishop Matthew Clark, serves the same weak tea as the mainline Protestant denominations. There, Mass attendance is in a free-fall, dropping almost 20 percent since 2000.
Rich Leonardi blogs at richleonardi.blogspot.com.
♦ ♦ ♦
The published findings of the recent Pew Forum survey (PFS) should, without a doubt, provoke a keen sense of urgency among Catholics. Pope John Paul II called for the Church to take up a New Evangelization, and the internal need for better catechesis and ongoing adult formation is widely acknowledged.

Before we think the situation appears too bleak, however, three qualifications to the PFS conclusions should be made, which, while not exhaustive, are particularly revealing.

First, when MSNBC reports that the "Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition," it should be remembered that these are absolute numbers, not relative numbers, because the Catholic Church is the largest faith group in America. Thus, while Catholicism has retained 68 percent of its members, Baptists only retain 60 percent; Episcopalians, 45 percent; and Jehovah’s Witnesses, 37 percent. The reason that 10 percent of Americans are ex-Catholics is that Catholics had by far the most American members to begin with.

Second, broadly speaking, it is more demanding to be a Catholic nowadays than it is to be a member of a Protestant denomination. Few other faiths have retained an intact teaching about sexual morality or life issues. Catholicism still teaches that abortion, contraception, cloning, and homosexual acts are objectively wrong, and people have left the Church because of this. In liturgical and sacramental questions, similarly, the Church keeps its tradition: Divorced Catholics who have not received an annulment cannot remarry in the Church, nor does the Church allow the ordination of women to the priesthood. In sum, people leave the Church because of the commandments, not necessarily the Creed.

Third, those Catholics who have remained with the Church have demonstrated a tested fidelity to the faith of their upbringing that should not be ignored. Gone are the days when it could be presumed someone would die in the same faith they were born into. Many Catholics who have remained Catholic experience something akin to being "born again," returning to a Catholic faith that they may have abandoned for some time. Again, the Pew Forum has no way of measuring how likely it is for someone to switch back into their former faith, nor does it have a way of measuring the transition of so-called "cradle Catholics" into self-consciously "proud Catholics," by which I mean those who have actually "switched" to the Church, even if they were already technically a baptized member of it.

I do not mean these three considerations to diminish the urgent need for all Catholics to address the causes of defection. Thirty-two percent of Catholics leaving the faith is still 32 percent too high. But the most effective external evangelization must start with better self-understanding and disciplined self-catechesis.

Thomas Peters studies and works in Washington, D.C., and blogs at AmericanPapist.com.

♦ ♦ ♦
What accounts for the recent exodus of American Catholics from the Church? In a word — narcissism. The culture of self-love that has sprung up in our time is one of the principal reasons why I believe American Catholics are leaving the faith. They leave because it’s more about "me" than it is about God. They say, "I don’t get anything out of Mass," but rarely ask what they should be bringing to it. They complain about the rules (particularly those that deal with sex or mandatory attendance) but never seem to entertain the notion that the rules might serve a good purpose, even if it’s one they may not fully understand.
G. K. Chesterton famously replied to a newspaper inquiry on the question of "What’s wrong with the world?" with two simple words: "I am." It strikes me that the attitude of those leaving the Church en masse,if asked the same question, would be, "It isn’t me!" The narcissist never sees a failure in his own doing; it’s always a problem with the system or with somebody else.
Because of this, one’s religious creed has become less of an eternal obligation and more like a check box on the consumer satisfaction index. "If my religion fails to give me the good feelings I’m looking for, I’ll simply shop around until I find a better one."
In this regard, it’s no wonder they’re leaving the Catholic Church. Despite quite a lot of bad theology and shameless pandering to emotion in the last 50 years, Catholicism is still too immutably centered on the crucifixion to truly please the narcissist. The passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord is inseparable from our law, as well as our liturgy. With each consecration of the Eucharist we look upon Golgotha, facing our own sinfulness and feeling compelled to worship our savior rather than ourselves. This is why the laser light and rock music shows that pass for religion in some other denominations never make sense in ours: The others may talk about Calvary every Sunday but we go there, and there is no place for entertainment masquerading as religion when standing at the foot of the cross.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that the self-love of the departing faithful has been nourished by pastors. The abandonment of ad orientem has given Catholics a false but heightened sense of self-importance; after all, the priest has turned his back on God to have a dialogue with us. Add bad catechesis, poor sermons, lousy liturgy, vapid confessions, and so on, and Catholics are left wondering what, exactly, is worth staying for. At the megachurch down the street, they can have more fun and follow fewer rules, and the doughnuts and coffee are better, too.
A little card my uncle had in his house said, "The Catholic Church: Never Popular, Always Attractive." If we want to keep them, we have to remember how to be Catholic again.
Steve Skojec is a columnist and blogger for InsideCatholic.com. Visit his personal blog at skojec.wordpress.com.
♦ ♦ ♦
The Pew study identifies 10 percent of all Americans as "ex-Catholic," making the U.S. Catholic Church "the group that has experienced the greatest net loss by far." The data points for young adults as hard hit — most of whom are "currently unaffiliated with any particular religion." Indeed, Pew reports that 16.1 percent of the U.S. population is "unaffiliated," with over 25 percent of that group being raised Catholic and 31 percent being under the age 30 (compared to 20 percent of the overall adult population).
There’s no surprise here. The 2001 report "Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice"warned, "Catholicism’s institutional vitality, public witness, and capacity to retain its young are in jeopardy." As the count currently stands, only 18 percent of Catholics are 18-29. Academics have attempted to identify prominent factors for this youthful disillusionment. In Being Catholic in a Culture of Choice, Thomas Rausch of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles cited young adults’ desire for "a more egalitarian, participatory, and democratic community."
These numbers, it seems to me, reflect a normal faith cycle now aggravated by a culture "whose idols are pleasure, comfort and independence," to use John Paul II’s phrase — a culture that has mislead many Catholic educators to water-down and even dissent from core Church teachings. The danger lies in these cafeteria Catholics pressuring to implement as a solution the very tactic which has undoubtedly contributed to the disaffection in the first place: dilution of doctrinal authority in the core teaching areas of the Church. Calls for a more "youth friendly" Catholicism — in other words, less authoritarianism with greater "tolerance," particularly on sexual issues — must be soundly rejected. It is the authoritative teaching of moral truth that brings our young adults back to active Catholicism. In fact, 41 percent of U.S. Catholics are 30-49 years of age, compared to 39 percent of the population overall.
In 2001, I was involved in founding the only Catholic private preschool in San Francisco. Now, seven years later, we have a long waiting list of families desperately seeking admission into our doctrinally uncompromised Catholic school. Pew might have counted many of these young adults "unaffiliated" but, faced with the formation of their first child, the structure, authority and truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church take on a profound significance that self-centered pursuits in the culture of choice and compromised teaching had obscured. Their hearts are turned by love, their heads turn toward reason. As John Paul II said, "God endowed [the human race] with the capacity to attain to the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good and behold it face to face."
Once they get it, they are Catholic forever.
Marjorie Campbell is an attorney and speaker on social issues from a Catholic perspective. She lives in San Francisco with her family and blogs at www.dealwhudson.typepad.com. {mospagebreak}
When you ask someone why he is longer Catholic, the answers are generally self-serving. From complaints about the nuns or priests to doctrinal teachings on marriage and family, the individual avoids personal responsibility for leaving the Church. When the person has adopted another Christian expression, the circumstances generally reflect first a falling away from Catholic practice and then a "finding Jesus" in the Evangelical community. The person now is "being fed" and feels "welcome." His memory of his Catholic upbringing has been reduced to rote formula prayers and "praying to Mary." In many cases, there is also a second marriage and children and a spouse who is a "Christian believer."
These stories reflect poor catechesis. Starting with the Mass, Catholics have been treated to an explosion of confusion as to what this central act of worship means, both personally and to the entire Church. Many Catholics do not understand the real presence of Lord in the Eucharist, nor do they appreciate the other sacraments. As a result, when there is a crisis, they do not know how to seek help within the Church. When the temptation to leave arises, whether due to marriage issues or disagreements with Church teaching, they cannot adequately consider the question because they have not developed a properly formed conscience.
Population mobility has also had a negative effect on Catholic stability. When Catholic families are isolated without a strong community, everyday life can cause the family to drift from the Church.
Feminization in the Church through its staff and preaching has turned many men away from the Faith. Men want Catholic priests and teachings that inspire courage and strength of character. They do not want women to use authority to undermine the special role that men play in the Church, in the community, and in the family.
The secular influence of society has been destructive as well. Church teachings and traditions are ridiculed, and no one has the courage to stand up for them. People who do not want to follow the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and contraception find that it’s easier to leave. Many divorced Catholics view the Church’s annulment process as a burden, so it is easier to go somewhere else. The Church has failed to clearly articulate the rationale for God’s word, and so it appears irrelevant.
The blurring of the distinctive nature of the Church also affects their outlook. After all, they think, "It really doesn’t matter where I worship; all of these religions are the same. God loves me even if I do not go to church."
The good news is that there is a new generation responding to the gospel commission that invites everyone to examine the truths of our Faith. Of all the institutions in society, the Church stands alone in her commitment to the sanctity of life, the integrity of marriage and the family, and the dignity of human freedom. As Rev. John Neuhaus reminds us, this is the "Catholic moment," and we need to issue the call for the sake of civilization.
♦ ♦ ♦
Why are Catholics leaving the Church? For the same reason most Americans are overweight, can’t identify a constellation other than the Big Dipper, or understand economics past the value of a mutual fund going up or down.
While most people remember their catechism classes about as well as they do seventh grade math or literature, they recall it with even less affection, as it involves demands and rules that seem to run counter to one’s choice and free will. Partner that with a poor prayer life and an absence of felt purpose, and one becomes vulnerable to other temptations.
It’s easy to dismiss a concept barely understood; it’s easier still to embrace something thought a suitable substitute. Those afterlife scenarios the Church offers can be pretty readily ignored; they don’t address the emotionalism and easy spirituality on offer in the popular culture today. And they make few real demands.
We’d all be better off if we could return to the simple but total faith we had as children.
Laurance Alvarado is a blogger for InsideCatholic.com.
♦ ♦ ♦
While many blame poor catechesis for high numbers of baptized Catholics leaving the Church, I think this is only a small part of it. The full reasons are varied and complex.
Societal pressure to conform has changed a great deal. My grandparents, born in the early 1900s, were well-educated in Catholic schools. But they didn’t know a great deal about what the Church actually taught. It didn’t really matter. If you were born Catholic, you went to Mass, made your Sacraments, prayed your rosary, and didn’t question anything. If you did, you kept it to yourself. You didn’t leave your Church, just as you didn’t leave your spouse.
Then came my parents’ generation. They were raised on orthodox catechesis but the culture around them was changing; it questioned everything. No longer did you have to stay in a church (or a marriage) that meant nothing to you. Rituals, rules and traditions rang hollow. So many began to leave, and if they stayed, they did so on their own terms.
Here are some of the other reasons I believe Catholics leave the Church today:
  1. They don’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ. And if they do, they don’t understand why the Catholic Church is the best place to live out that relationship.
  2. Most parishes are lifeless. “Dynamic orthodoxy” is hard to find.
  3. In today’s culture, people are drawn to authenticity and heroic virtue, which they see infrequently among Catholic leaders today.
  4. In a busy, disconnected society, people now expect the Church to meet many of their human needs. If these needs aren’t met, they’ll go elsewhere.
  5. Because they can.
Fault lies across the board for the loss of numbers in the American Church. We shouldn’t despair, however. Better to have a small group of Catholics who are authentic, joyful and heroic, than large numbers of Catholics simply going through the motions.
Zoe Romanowsky is a development consultant and blogger for InsideCatholic.com.
♦ ♦

I remember a Catholic friend once explaining to me that, when she did go to Mass, she would often only stay through the homily, which she thought to be the most important part of the liturgy anyway. Seeing the Mass in that light, it’s a wonder we have any Catholics left at all.
But it points out what I think is a key reason for the exodus from the Church: In a bid to be more "relevant," we’ve abandoned the difficult task of raising our understanding of the Faith and instead simply lowered the Church to our level. In the process, we’ve flattened it and shed its unique signifiers, thereby making the Faith something easier to be cast off or traded in. After all, if faith is simply a matter of the best preaching, I can think of any number of places I’d go before the local Catholic church.
On some level, I think that sense of being set apart and called to something better and higher than our ordinary lives is what appeals to most Catholics, fallen away or no. It’s telling, for instance, that outside of Christmas and Easter, the most heavily attended service of the year is Ash Wednesday, when we are imposed with a physical reminder of our difference from the rest of the world. If given an adequate understanding of what we are being called to, and why, Catholics can rise to the occasion and embrace the fullness of the Faith, which is so countercultural. But if the Church itself no longer emphasizes these truths, trying instead to become more like other congregations, why shouldn’t Catholics take it at its word — that these beliefs are all interchangeable?
In short, it’s not that the Church needs to change to become more like the world; of course, simply standing athwart history yelling "stop" won’t work, either. But if we can perform the difficult work of truly catechizing the faithful — of explaining the miraculous event that happens immediately after the homily — the Faith becomes "relevant" in the most important and lasting way.
Margaret Cabaniss is the managing editor of InsideCatholic.com.


Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...