Why Young Catholics Are Leaving the Church

They leave for different reasons. Some saw hypocrisy. Others were hurt by those in authority. Still more disagree with a Church teaching. Sometimes, all they’re waiting for is an invitation back. And often, it’s not the Catholic Church itself that the “fallen away” have a beef with but their particular experience of it.

“Evangelize at all times; when necessary, use words,” St. Francis of Assisi is known to have said. Many people who no longer consider themselves Catholic experienced the reverse of this rule in their encounters with Catholics early in life.

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There are no numbers on how many people have left the Church, how many are thinking about coming back, or how many have indeed returned. But people in the “business” of apologetics, like Patrick Madrid, editor of Envoy magazine, report that wherever they go, they see the same thing.

In his book Search and Rescue: How to Bring Your Family and Friends Into — or Back Into — the Catholic Church, Madrid writes:

I’ve given countless seminars throughout the country about Christ and the Catholic Church. In each seminar, I ask the same question: “How many of you have a family member or a friend who has abandoned the Catholic Church and gone into another religion?” Whether it’s fifty people or five thousand, the answer is always the same, always unanimous: everyone in the audience raises a hand.

Denominational Sabbatical

Conservative radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, who is author of The Embarrassed Believer: Reviving Christian Witness in an Age of Unbelief, says he’s “on leave” from the Catholic Church. He argues, “The American Church… needs a reformation.” But, he despairs, “none is even remotely close to occurring.” Hewitt points to the cathedral in Los Angeles as “the perfect expression of the American Church today — so sterile it could be an air conditioning plant and designed to please non-Catholics with the taste of the leadership.”

Hewitt describes his move from Roman Catholicism to Presbyterianism as partly positive and partly negative. He considers himself an “ex-pat, obliged to move to a Protestant expression of faith because I experience God’s presence more easily and more conclusively as a Presbyterian and began to do so over a dozen years ago.” Presbyterianism works for him in ways Catholicism no longer did. “The Presbyterian confessions and order of worship are very left-brain and made me into a much better Christian,” he says.

But some of the reasons for Hewitt’s move were direct reactions to problems he saw in the Catholic Church. Hewitt says, “The American bishops literally drove me out. I could not read the paper without muttering about their inanities. James Malone, the bishop of Youngstown, my bishop, who confirmed me, sputtering about nuclear weapons and poverty” — all this while Hewitt worked in the Reagan White House.

“These silly men,” Hewitt complains, “issued reams of nonsense and met and met and met even as the liturgy collapsed into incoherence and the preaching dissolved into eight-minute homilies on the need for love. There was also the problem of the Responsorial Antiphon. It would almost always cause me to either laugh or grind my teeth. Is there a worse collection of ‘music’ anywhere? And the Christian Rite of Initiation, and the revamped Sacrament of Reconciliation — all of it just another set of committee reports from priests and nuns bored with the old Church. I could go on, but my guess is that you have heard it all before.”

Hewitt concludes, “There is enormous energy and talent within the American Church which might over the years genuinely renew it and rebuild it. But I need God on a much more immediate basis.”

Hewitt’s complaints will not surprise many practicing Catholics. If the average American Catholic based his faith formation and spiritual growth on statements issued by subcommittees of the bishops’ conference — or limp parish homilies — people would be dropping out at a much greater rate. Happily, the average American Catholic looks beyond these things.

But there is a significant number of people unable to find a reason to stay.

Joe Loconte, William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank, was raised in an Italian Catholic family — the kind that takes its Catholicism very seriously. He served as an altar boy and had a full Catholic upbringing. But when he hit college — he was a journalism major at the University of Illinois at Urbana — he began reading C.S. Lewis and the Bible.

He says it was there that he made the choice to “become a Christian.” In the most loving, respectful way, Loconte left the Catholic Church, where he says he “could never be good enough.” It was on the issue of salvation — a debate as old as the Reformation — that Loconte left the Church of his youth.

Like Hewitt, Loconte felt he could get to God more directly outside of Catholicism. But for Loconte, the departure is more permanent. “There are many Catholics who are Christians,” he says, “but they are [Christians] despite Catholicism.” He believes that errant theology keeps Catholics from Christ.

Of course, Loconte’s isn’t the only college exit story, and his move away from the Church was much more intellectual than that of most young people. In Search and Rescue, Madrid tells a story familiar to many families he’s met across the country: Send your kid off to college and soon you are faced with his new understanding of the Faith, an understanding often riddled with anti-Catholic prejudices and other bits of ignorance he has picked up from mainstream culture:

Take, for example, your grown son, Rick. You raised him in a good Catholic home, took him to Mass every Sunday, taught him his prayers, drove him to altar-boy practice, and made sure he attended CCD classes. You scrimped and budgeted so you could send him to a Catholic high school. You assumed he’d remain Catholic. Then you found out that in college he became friendly with a large, dynamic group of Evangelical Protestant students who met every week for Bible study.

“At first,” Madrid writes, “you were happy to see him remaining interested in religious issues, so you didn’t give it much thought when he began quoting Bible verses when he came home on weekends.” But “eventually, you noticed his vocabulary changing.” He started saying things like “The Lord spoke to my heart about this” and “Praise God about that…. Before long, he broke the news to you that he’s no longer a Catholic. He left, he explained, because his Evangelical friends convinced him that the Catholic Church is unbiblical and that her traditions are manmade and her doctrines are false.”

There’s no reason for parents to despair, however. “Even though Rick may think he has already discovered the answers in his new church,” Madrid concludes, “he still wants, deep down, to grapple with what the Catholic Church claims to be true. Believe it or not, that makes it easier to bring him back to the Church.”

Of course, that brings us to another crucial problem: formation. As Rev. George W. Rutler says, the problem is fivefold and deep: First, “the current young generation has been reared by parents who are the first generation to have been spiritually malformed themselves.” Second, so many times “the schools have failed them.” Third, “the Liturgy has sunk to a level so contemptible that at best it serves to mortify the humble but generally denies anyone a vision of the kingdom of God.” And fourth, “preaching is largely reduced to inane moralizing.”

Finally, there’s the problem of confession. “Youth have been lost because of suppression of the sacrament of reconciliation,” Rutler explains. “While confession has declined in large measure through sloth and neglect… the sacrament has been discouraged intentionally… and impeded by people who hate the priesthood and the doctrine of personal sin. So young people are deprived of the most radical conversion of their souls.”

A great many Catholics who find out that their children have become Protestants at college simply don’t know how to argue against the charge that much of Catholic teaching and tradition is made up. In many families, unfortunately, no one from the baby boomers on down knows much about the Faith. Some forgot. Some never learned in the first place.

Theological Malpractice

Matthew’s experience is an example of the humanity of the Church and why Catholics must pray for the Church daily. He grew up in a practicing Catholic household and went to Catholic schools. “I was raised with the indoctrination of how the Church was infallible, perfect, the sole authority of God,” he says. As he grew older, he began to wonder whether this corresponded to the Church he saw.

“I was taught that the Bible was something for the priest to read and tell us what it meant,” he says. “Nobody ever told me to, but I always had this image that a priest was a good man, didn’t do bad things, someone you could trust. But then I would ask myself, ‘Why does Father So-and-So smoke and drink?’ Those always seemed like things that priests weren’t supposed to do. And again, I wasn’t taught that. I always wondered why the priests could have money and drive Cadillacs, but the nuns had to take a vow of poverty.

“Then also in high school,” he continues, “I saw firsthand the sex abuse with boys by priests. One was trying to recruit me into that stuff, and I knew boys who were being abused. This priest was arrested a year after I graduated, along with one of his buddies who was not a priest. This same priest was also the biology teacher, and when asked one day if he believed in Creation or evolution, he said evolution. I couldn’t believe it. Soon after, I saw an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch about how Pope John Paul II believed in both Creation and evolution. This told me that he didn’t believe the book that was supposed to be the foundation of the religion.”

Matthew stopped attending Mass after high school — when his mother stopped making him go — and would later meet and marry the daughter of a Baptist preacher. Going to her father’s church, he says, “I wasn’t looking for God, but He was looking for me. After about six to nine months of going to her dad’s church, hearing the Word of God, He saved me, and I trusted Jesus as my Savior. I had heard things that I’d never heard before.”

Matthew, clearly, never had the chance to learn what the Catholic Church really teaches. He says, “I didn’t know Jesus when I was Catholic…. The Catholics do not know the God of the Bible…. They worship and practice things that are unbiblical, trusting in their religion to save them, instead of God.”

Though he was raised Catholic, his understanding of Catholicism comes remarkably close to the caricature of Jack Chick comics. His story suggests that this is largely the fault of the Catholics he encountered as he was growing up. Sometimes such a tragic misunderstanding is caused by what Boston College’s Rev. Matthew Lamb has referred to as “theological malpractice.” And sometimes, as in Matthew’s case, it’s caused by scandal. No Catholic ever introduced him to the true teachings of the Faith; no one addressed his doubts or dispelled his misconceptions.

A Painful Exit

While some abandon Catholicism enthusiastically, others leave the Church with great anguish and hesitation. Peter, a victim of sex abuse by a priest (which he does not blame for his later leaving), converted to Catholicism from Lutheranism when he was 17. Last year he left the Catholic Church in large part because of his homosexuality. But his decision should not be dismissed as a convenient act of self-justification.

Peter attended an orthodox Catholic college where he studied theology and philosophy. He spent time in an ex-gay counseling ministry. But after going off to Europe for graduate school, he says, he realized “it just wasn’t working.” He had been celibate (and still is) the whole time and was facing this as his lifetime status — he had no hope of ever living as anything but a single celibate. “I was lonely, sad, ashamed,” he says.

The more he studied, the more he developed other difficulties with his adoptive church: On women’s ordination, gay marriage, and infallibility. Ultimately, he found himself leaning toward the Anglican Church. “Where else does a gay Christian, with strong incarnational theological positions, who favors the ordination of women and a conciliar model of the Church, fit in the body of Christ?”

Peter formally became an Anglican in April 2001. “The Anglican Church is far from perfect,” he says. “But at least I feel I maintain my integrity there. I also do not feel the sense of shame that follows from repeated exposure to Roman Catholic sexual theology, in spite of my celibacy and in spite of [that theology’s] many strong and valid points.”

Peter “still maintain[s] immense respect and even love” for the Roman Catholic Church. He says, “I am Catholic in spirit, in soul, and in spirituality. My deepest formation was that of Catholicism.” But the only circumstances under which he sees himself returning to the Roman Catholic Church would involve a change of teaching on gay marriage, ordained women, and papal infallibility.

“My faith is being nourished in my new home. I feel welcomed, valued, and affirmed,” he says. While attending the Catholic Church, Peter got conflicting advice in the confessional. “Many priests, perhaps the majority, told me to go out and find a steady partner. Some went the other direction and scolded me simply for having same-sex attractions.”

His Catholic friends — many of whom remain close — often frustrated him, as well.

“Many of my lay friends would take an approach toward me that seemed insincere and paternalistic,” he says. “They would promise support and friendship. But more often than not, I was simply ignored. Frequently, I would be asked if I was being celibate. I would greet someone, engage in some talk, and then they would pop this question, ‘So, are you behaving?’ It was not only rude, it also showed the obsession many of my Catholic friends have with sexuality in general. It was as if my celibacy was a public issue for the asking. I was held in suspicion for reason of my sexual orientation. Straight friends who were single do not report being asked if they remained celibate on a regular basis. It was as if, ‘As long as the homosexual behaves, we can all rest a little easier.’”

As for a reconciliation with the Church, Peter’s not holding his breath. “I think it seems pretty clear that I will remain Anglican,” Peter says. “But who knows what God has in store?”

Familiar Stories

Rev. Joseph Wilson, a priest at St. Luke’s Church in Queens, New York, has heard Matthew’s story more than once. Father Wilson says, “I’m sure people drift away for all kinds of reasons, but I think we ought to be especially concerned for people who are turned off by the anemic parish life one finds in so many places in our country. Here in New York City I know of a good number of couples who travel over parish and diocesan boundaries to a parish where they find good worship and teaching. They know something is missing and go out of their way to supply the need. How many more there must be whose faith was simply never nourished in their parishes, and how many there are who end up in ‘Bible churches’ because they find fellowship, scriptural preaching and teaching, and a sense of spirituality they had been lacking.

“As far as preaching goes,” Father Wilson says, “I hear a lot about the abysmal state of Catholic homilies. Part of the problem is that in this age a priest or deacon who teaches something clearly and forthrightly will catch flak for it. Early on in his ministry a homilist should be able to make a few mistakes, find his own gifts as a preacher, learn how to phrase an argument or an example and how to talk about sin. Today, however, in the age where everyone is an expert and all truth is subjective, many people do not want to hear uncomfortable teachings expounded. It becomes very easy to fall back on a feel-good approach to the homily, light on content, long on uplifting anecdotes and the power of positive thinking.”


Some lapsed Catholics seem much more “gettable” than others; that is, it’s easier to persuade them to return.

One young woman tells me, for example, “I want to go to Mass, I want to be part of the community, but [my attempts have been] a disaster.” She says she considers herself “a Catholic without a country” — a Catholic without a parish.

Many Catholics of all ages say they don’t get anything out of Mass. Father Wilson believes that this is the result of a deep misunderstanding of what the Mass is about, a misunderstanding perpetuated by certain liturgical trends. “In most places, the way the liturgy is celebrated sends clear signals out to everyone that liturgy is our self-expression, that it should be comfy and entertaining. Most Catholics never quite pick up the astounding truth that the Mass is not about what we do so much as about what God does, that the Mass is Calvary made present, that when we stand before the altar as Mass is offered we are standing at the foot of the Cross with Our Lady and St. John.”

Father Wilson worries that “we’re too busy tuning up the guitars and choosing the refrain of the responsorial psalm to think of those things anymore, let alone to teach them. Of course, poorly formed young Catholics drift away. They don’t even realize what they are rejecting.”

The Path Back to Rome

But Gen-Xers may be starting a trend — young people making their own way back to Rome, despite misguided teachers. After a generation or two of malformation, today’s young Catholics still have an appetite for what the Church offers. Colleen Carroll, author of The New Faithful: Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, spent several years interviewing young Christians. She says, “A fair number of the young adults I interviewed for my book labeled themselves ‘reverts’ — those who left the Church consciously, or simply fell away, then had powerful conversion experiences that led them back to the Church.” In many of their cases, they left as teenagers who were turned away by what they often cite as “spiritually dead worship.” Increasingly, though, they’re finding lively fellowship and community worship focused on the Eucharist — something very different from their childhood experience of the Faith.

Jana Novak, who cowrote Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God with her father, Michael Novak, has a unique outlook on Catholics her age. The daughter of a world-renowned theologian, she has often struggled with her Catholicism — a struggle we read about in Tell Me Why. Jana has found that many Gen-X Catholics who leave the Church are somewhat cynical; they dislike pushy evangelism:

Many left because they did not feel resonance behind the words they were listening to, so having someone playing the ‘Pollyanna’ religious converter is just more of the same. They appreciate the emotion and the passion but find it questionable.

Twenty- and thirty-somethings do not need to be hoodwinked into returning to the Church; nor do they need Church teachings watered down by their elders. Indeed, in some cases it’s the watering down that gives them pause. “Basically,” Jana says, “I think Gen X truly understands and relates to the concept of free will — something that is usually so hard for believers to understand. For them, that is the most important — not in the sense that they can do or get away with anything, but in the sense that they can respect and understand a God that encourages them to think, question, doubt, research, struggle, and then come willingly to Him.”

Jana says that saccharine representations of the Christian life only exacerbate her generation’s general skepticism. Young people are more likely to respond to a vision of faith that includes its difficulties: “They do not want to hear platitudes, they want to hear that it is tough, but that God offers unconditional love, and isn’t that the best thing to have?”

So where does that leave the Church? Where it has always been. “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

Madrid, who’s reached out to hundreds of “lapsed Catholics,” reminds his readers that back in the 16th century, St. Francis de Sales managed to convert 60,000 Calvinists back to Catholicism. While that may seem impossible in today’s world, St. Francis took Christ at His word: “In all your affairs, rely entirely on the Providence of God through which alone all your plans succeed…. Strive very gently to cooperate with it. Then, believe that if you trust well in God, success will come to you.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Kathryn Jean Lopez

    An award-winning opinion journalist and editor, Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online and an associate editor at National Review (a.k.a. National Review on Dead Tree). She is a graduate of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she studied philosophy and politics. Before standing athwart history at National Review, she worked at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank on Capitol Hill. Besides National Review and NRO, her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, The Women’s Quarterly, The National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, American Outlook, New York Press, and The Human Life Review, among other publications. Lopez has appeared on CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and oxygen and is a frequent guest on radio and TV shows internationally. She speaks frequently, often to high-school and college groups. She writes often on bioethics, religion, feminism, education, and politics, among other topics.

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