Concern over the numbers of those who leave the Catholic Church, and those who have simply stopped practicing any faith, has been a consistent discussion on this blog. I recently came across an article by Fr. Thomas Reese SJ. who cites some recent Pew Survey results on why Catholics leave. I will admit that I do not share a lot of Fr. Reese’s views of the Church. Nevertheless, the data he shares is good and, while I do not agree with some of his conclusions, his article is thought provoking.
I will provide excerpts here. You can read his full article here: Hidden Exodus.
Of those who leave the Church, half simply stop practicing any faith. Forty percent go to Protestant denominations and 10 percent to non-Christian religions. Reese focuses his article on those who go to Protestant denominations. His remarks are in bold, italic black, my remarks are in plain text red.
The number of people who have left the Catholic church is huge. To be fair, that is because the Church is huge. There are over 70 million (at least nominal Catholics) and that number is still growing (due mostly to immigration) Even a small percentage of that number is large. Also, to be fair, Protestant, even Evangelical denominations also loose a large number of adherents, close in percentage to the Catholic experience. That said, it still remains that an alarming number of Catholics are leaving the Church.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has put hard numbers on the anecdotal evidence: One out of every 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a separate denomination, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States, after Catholics and Baptists. One of three people who were raised Catholic no longer identifies as Catholic.
Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why. But the U.S. bishops have never devoted any time at their national meetings to discussing the exodus. Nor have they spent a dime trying to find out why it is happening.
Agreed. This has not been enough on the radar at the USCCB. Here in the Archdiocese Washington we have recently become more serious about the problem and doing some pretty significant things to focus anew on keeping Catholics connected and evangelizing. But at the national level there does seem to be an eerie silence as hundred of Catholic parishes are being closed, Catholic schools likewise. Where is the reflection, study and teaching on this matter. What is the plan to re-engage the Catholic faithful and get them to return to Mass. How have we let weekly Mass attendance slip to 27%, according to recent CARA studies.
Pew’s data shows that those leaving the church are not homogenous. They can be divided into two major groups: those who become unaffiliated and those who become Protestant. Almost half of those leaving the church become unaffiliated and almost half become Protestant.
The principal reasons given by people who leave the church to become Protestant are
- that their “spiritual needs were not being met” in the Catholic church (71 percent)
- they “found a religion they like more” (70 percent).
- Eighty-one percent of respondents say they joined their new church because they enjoy the religious service and style of worship of their new faith.
In other words, the Catholic church has failed to deliver what people consider fundamental products of religion: spiritual sustenance and a good worship service. And before conservatives blame the new liturgy, only 11 percent of those leaving complained that Catholicism had drifted too far from traditional practices such as the Latin Mass.
Yes, regarding our “worship service” (aka the Mass), I must say that the key point is not that it is or is not traditional or contemporary. The key point seems to be that Catholic liturgy generally seems sleepy. Sermons are short, often uninspired, filled with generalities and abstractions, and generally do seem to teach the Scripture effectively. Liturgies are often hurried, people do not seem all that happy, and generally seem relived when it is all over. Sometimes, in a typical Catholic Parish, it looks like every one just sucked a lemon. Frowns and distractions are common. One might conclude that a funeral was being celebrated more than a risen Lord, that the Church was a widow, rather than a bride.
It is interesting that, having served in African American Parishes most of my priesthood where liturgies are quite spirited, the most common remark that visitors make is, “Is this a Catholic Church?” To be sure we follow the rubrical norms exactly, it is the enthusiasm to which they refer. What does this say of the average parish?
And these remarks are not targeted at traditional liturgy which I also love. I have been to plenty of traditional Masses where people were awake and joyful. I’ve also been to contemporary masses where musicians et al. thought they we being relevant and behold, the congregation is sleepy and bored. And vice versa.
People, at least a lot of those who leave, really are hungry for a liturgy that is more vital and engaging. They are also hungry to be taught the Word of God. At least for those who leave for Protestant denominations, the “Say it in Seven” “Thought for the Day” Catholic approach to preaching does not nourish them or meet their spiritual needs. Perhaps one Mass in a parish could be tailored to those who are seeking a more substantial homily and are not insistent with being out in under an hour.
Dissatisfaction with how the church deals with spiritual needs and worship services dwarfs any disagreements over specific doctrines…..
People are not becoming Protestants because they disagree with specific Catholic teachings; people are leaving because the church does not meet their spiritual needs and they find Protestant worship service better.
[A]lmost two-thirds of former Catholics who join a Protestant church join an evangelical church. Catholics who become evangelicals and Catholics who join mainline churches are two very distinct groups. We need to take a closer look at why each leaves the church.
- Fifty-four percent of both groups say that they just gradually drifted away from Catholicism.
- Both groups also had almost equal numbers (82 percent evangelicals, 80 percent mainline) saying they joined their new church because they enjoyed the worship service.
- But….a higher percentage of those becoming evangelicals said they left because their spiritual needs were not being met (78 percent versus 57 percent)….
- They also cited the church’s teaching on the Bible (55 percent versus 16 percent) more frequently as a reason for leaving.
- Forty-six percent of these new evangelicals felt the Catholic church did not view the Bible literally enough.
- Thus, for those leaving to become evangelicals, spiritual sustenance, worship services and the Bible were key. They are leaving to get spiritual nourishment from worship services and the Bible.
Looking at the responses of those who join mainline churches also provides some surprising results.
- For example, few (20 percent) say they left because they stopped believing in Catholic teachings…..
- Thirty-one percent cited unhappiness with the church’s teaching on abortion and homosexuality, women, and divorce and remarriage
- 26 percent mentioned birth control as a reason for leaving.
- Although these numbers are higher than for Catholics who become evangelicals, they are still dwarfed by the number (57 percent) who said their spiritual needs were not met in the Catholic church.
- Those joining mainline communities also were more likely to cite dissatisfaction of the Catholic clergy (39 percent) than were those who became evangelical (23 percent).
- Those who join mainline churches are looking for a less clerically dominated church.
- What stands out in the data on Catholics who join mainline churches is that they tend to cite personal or familiar reasons for leaving more frequently than do those who become evangelicals. Forty-four percent of the Catholics who join mainline churches say that they married someone of the faith they joined, a number that trumps all doctrinal issues. Only 22 percent of those who join the evangelicals cite this reason.
Thus, those becoming evangelicals were more generically unhappy than specifically unhappy with church teaching, while those who became mainline Protestant tended to be more specifically unhappy than generically unhappy with church teaching.
Lessons from the data
There are many lessons that we can learn from the Pew data, but I will focus on only three.
First, those who are leaving the church for Protestant churches are more interested in spiritual nourishment than doctrinal issues. Tinkering with the wording of the creed at Mass is not going to help. No one except the Vatican and the bishops cares whether Jesus is “one in being” with the Father or “consubstantial” with the Father. That the hierarchy thinks this is important shows how out of it they are.While the hierarchy worries about literal translations of the Latin text, people are longing for liturgies that touch the heart and emotions. More creativity with the liturgy is needed, and that means more flexibility must be allowed. If you build it, they will come; if you do not, they will find it elsewhere. The changes that will go into effect this Advent will make matters worse, not better.
Well, OK Father, but if the wording of Mass is no big deal with people, as you suggest, then you shouldn’t mind so much that we’re doing this. Frankly I agree, the issue of the translation is rather beside the point in this whole discussion of why people leave and go to Protestant denominations. Why one of only three points that Fr. Reese chooses to focus on is this, seems puzzling, given the premise that “no one cares” how consubstantialem is translated.
I don’t think anyone has said that we should change the translation to gain new members or staunch the flow of leaving members. Rather, the new translation is necessary since the old one is just plain wrong. It is a paraphrase at best, and inaccurate at worse. It makes sense that we should have a translation that is accurate.
But that is a separate issue in this matter of those who leave and not, as Fr. admits, a major factor in why people leave. So why raise it?
As for “creativity” I’d like to know more what Fr. means here. Frankly, a lot of “creativity” has irked the faithful and has, in fact driven some away. If, he means that we should allow permissible creativity to thrive and do perhaps a little niche marketing, perhaps so. I do have people come from all over the area for the experience of African American Liturgy we have. I also have them come from all over the area for the Traditional Latin Mass I celebrate. We get especially good crowds there when we’ve done polyphonic or symphonic masses. Perhaps too I’d like to see more use of Taize music. I’m not a big fan of “folk” music but some like it, and it’s allowed. Then of course masses in various languages etc. At some level of course we risk a balkanization, but for now, I’m OK with allowing diversity to flourish.
Second, thanks to Pope Pius XII, Catholic scripture scholars have had decades to produce the best thinking on scripture in the world. That Catholics are leaving to join evangelical churches because of the church teaching on the Bible is a disgrace. Too few homilists explain the scriptures to their people. Few Catholics read the Bible. The church needs a massive Bible education program. The church needs to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is more important than memorizing the catechism. If we could get Catholics to read the Sunday scripture readings each week before they come to Mass, it would be revolutionary. If you do not read and pray the scriptures, you are not an adult Christian. Catholics who become evangelicals understand this.
Agreed, as I stated above. I would only add, that another big feature of Protestant denominations is the weekly (usually Wednesday) Bible Study. Every Catholic parish should have good, effective bible study available. But please, less of this unguided bible study in the parish hall. If Bible Study is going to be effective, well trained clergy, religious and lay people have to teach it. Perhaps this means that regional Bible studies in which a number of parishes come together. But effective teachers are the key. Just handing out books and having small groups grope through the material is not effective. In my own parish I lead a bible study ever Wednesday Evening and it is usually well attended. People are hungry for the Word of God. It is a lot of work, but THIS is what I was ordained to do.
Finally, the Pew data shows that two-thirds of Catholics who become Protestants do so before they reach the age of 24. The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence over the complaints of fuddy-duddies and rubrical purists. Current religious education programs and teen groups appear to have little effect on keeping these folks Catholic, according to the Pew data, although those who attend a Catholic high school do appear to stay at a higher rate. More research is needed to find out what works and what does not.
But, careful here. Many young people I have met are hungry for liturgy that is more authentically Catholic. Trendy, ephemeral things are less desired among the young than in decades past. I am amazed at how many young adults are interested in Eucharistic adoration, and want vigorous study of the faith and solid moral instruction rooted in Scripture and the Catechism. A surprising number of them attend the Traditional Latin Mass and I get a lot of wedding request in that form.
As for religious education programs and teen clubs being currently ineffective, I surely agree. I just wish I had some clear ideas of how to better teach the faith to young people. It’s tough when so many of their families are lukewarm. Nothing is a better indicator to me that a kid is going to know his faith than that his parents are strongly practicing their faith. The family component is obviously a critical factor. Surely we have to do a better job at the parish level, but the family too must be recalled as the chief influence on whether a kid will know his faith and stay connected through the 20s.
The Catholic church is hemorrhaging members. It needs to acknowledge this and do more to understand why. Only if we acknowledge the exodus and understand it will we be in a position to do something about it.
Agreed, though it needs to be said that many are also coming TO the Catholic Church and we have a lot to learn from them about what we are doing right. There is also the truth that Evangelical Protestantism is not as strong and vigorous as we often think. They too are struggling to keep members and suffer from the tendency to reinvent themselves every 90 days. We’re getting some wonderful converts from the ranks of the Evangelicals and they bring many gifts.
Further, I think it is unmistakable that the Lord is purifying and reforming the Church. And I see a lot of this happening in the best place: among young adults. While it is true that we have on-going concerns about numbers, I also see the Lord laying the groundwork for a Church that may be smaller, but also more intense and more rooted in the faith. We shall see, but I am excited by what I see in many places even as the overall numbers continue to cause concern.
Here is an example of Protestant Preaching. Adrian Rogers (RIP), one of my favorite Baptist preachers, is commenting on the verse that man shall cling to his wife… The preaching is direct, sincere, uncompromisingly biblical and practical. There is nothing of abstract generalities here, rather, it is practical and plainspoken.