A recent article in the Washington Post (by Abby Ohlheiser) analyzes a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Catholics and family life, which was conducted this spring among a national sample of more than 5,000 adults. As with all polls and their interpretation, there is a time for reflection but also critique. For indeed, even the title of the article indicates a rather bold, and I would argue extreme, interpretation of the data. Let’s take a look at some excerpts from the Washington Post article (in bold black italics). My comments are in plain red text. The full article is here: Vast Majority Never Return?
Most Americans who were raised Catholic, but have since left the church, could not envision themselves returning to it, according to a new Pew Research Center survey examining American Catholics and family life.
Pardon me for being less-than-impressed when people predict the future from a current snapshot. My own experience indicates that most people (including me) who say at some point that they will never do something (like go to church, or vote for “the other party,” or be like their father, etc.) often end up doing just that.
If you got into your time machine and traveled back to my sophomore (a word that means “wise fool”) year in high school, you’d find an agnostic kid with long hair who listened to loud rock music and had devilish “black light” posters in his bedroom. And if you were to ask that kid if he could see himself as a Catholic priest in the future, he’d laugh and say, “I don’t believe all that Bible stuff and I only go to church ‘cause my parents make me.” But here I am now, a priest and a strong believer! Things change.
If you got into your time machine and traveled back to the early fifties, you’d find most African Americans were Republicans and the Democratic Party was identified with “Bubba” and the KKK, at least in the South. Bull Connor was no Republican. Things change.
And all of us swore that we’d never sound like our parents; but here we are. Things change!
A lot of people who say they’ll “never” do a lot of things really have no idea. And analyses that broadcast “never” have even less of an idea of what people will do or what the future may bring.
A poll is only a picture of today and perhaps the very recent past. But that’s all that they are. They cannot predict the future. They may indicate a trend, but “never” is a long time into the future. Things can change on a dime when catastrophes like natural disasters, war, etc. occur. Things can also change when personal crises or life-changing events such as the death of a loved one, or falling in love, or moving to a new area occur. Things change.
My doorbell often rings and I meet people who say they never thought they’d be in a Catholic Church talking to a priest, or perhaps they’ve returned after 30 or 40 years away.
So don’t tell me you’ll “never” return to the Catholic Church. You really have no idea or basis to say that. I’ve got a thousand stories I could tell you of people who have come back after a long absence, or who were dyed-in-the-wool Protestants; yet here they are.
And the opposite proves true as well. Some leave or fall into serious sin who never thought they would. We have to work to stay on the straight and narrow path. St. Paul says, Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall (1 Cor 10:12).
But the new survey illustrates something else about Catholic life in the United States: Although the percentage of Americans who may identify their religion as Catholicism is dropping, a much larger group of Americans identify as Catholic in some way. In all, 45 percent of Americans say they are Catholic or are connected to Catholicism. [This] includes “Cultural Catholics” who are not practicing Catholics but who identify with the religion in some way; and “ex-Catholics” who were formerly Catholic … [others who have] connection to Catholicism by, for instance, having a Catholic partner or spouse. … The breakdown provides an interesting look at the cultural reach of Catholicism. … The survey also found that 8 in 10 American Latinos have some direct connection to Catholicism whether as a current practicing Catholic, as an ex-Catholic, or otherwise.
This is encouraging because it shows that the faith still has a good reach, even for those who are not practicing it as they should or have not formally converted but feel connected somehow.
For many it means that they are only one confession away from returning. For others it means that they are one Easter Vigil away from entering.
It’s folks like these who are often most affected by the visit of a Pope or by other significant events that attract them to the faith. Surely folks like these are generally not hostile to the faith and can or will be attracted by a variety of means to deepen their ties with the Church and the Lord.
These are the people in my neighborhood I am trying to reach when we do concerts, evangelization walks, May processions in the neighborhood, movie nights, and the Blessing of the Animals on October 4th. This is why I leave our Church door propped open during the day and ring the Angelus bells.
Sadly, the number of practicing Catholics is in decline, but many still have room for us in their hearts and we should be encouraged that they are not as far away as they sometimes seem.
The study also sheds some light on how Catholic American attitudes on family, sex and marriage compare with church teaching. When asked whether they believed that the church should change its position on a variety of issues, a very large percentage of religiously identified Catholics—76 percent—expressed a desire to see the church allow the use of birth control. Sixty-two percent said they felt that the church should allow priests to marry, and about the same percentage said they thought that the church should allow divorced and cohabitating couples to receive Communion. Fifty-nine percent of Catholics surveyed said women should be allowed to become priests. Meanwhile, just 46 percent of Catholics said the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples. Among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, support for these changes was lower overall.
All this shows that we have work to do in convincing Catholics to be more Catholic and biblical. But here, too, polls are of little use beyond this, since (with the exception of mandatory celibacy for priests) these are doctrinal positions that are not going to change (and neither is widespread celibacy for priests).
The job of the Church is not to poll its members to find out what to say or teach. The job of the Church is not to reflect the views of its members. The job of the Church is to reflect and teach the views of its head and founder, Jesus Christ.
So this survey information is all interesting, and indicative of the work we must do to teach and to convince, but it cannot guide what we teach. We’re not selling a product. We’re not marketing views. We’re announcing the truth proclaimed by Christ to His Apostles and handed down intact through the centuries. Doctrine may develop and our grasp of it may deepen, but never in such a way that the doctrine changes into something it was not, or that yes becomes no, or that no becomes yes.
Cultural and ex-Catholics gave a variety of answers when asked why they decided to leave Catholicism, and no consensus emerges from those reasons that could point to any one factor driving away those who were raised in that faith. A 2008 Pew study asked a similar question and found that fewer than 1 in 4 Catholics said that the rule banning priests from marrying was an important reason for leaving Catholicism. About 3 in 10 said that the church’s teachings on abortion and remarriage were important. Far more common, in that 2008 survey, were those who said they simply stopped believing the church’s overall teachings, gradually drifted away from Catholicism or said their spiritual needs weren’t being met.
This aspect of the study resonates with my experience of talking to non-practicing or “former” Catholics. Most of them just drifted away. Very few walked out in a huff or as a result of protesting one particular issue.
Many people drifted away during their college years. Their parents weren’t there to make them go or their habits changed (college kids tend to be very nocturnal). And then when they got out of college and settled into careers they just didn’t “get back” into the practice of the faith in their new settings.
Some people meet spouses from a Protestant Church and then go to their services. Very few say that the Church’s teaching on “X” was a huge reason that they left or will not return.
So much for all the pressure the ideologues put on the Church to change our teachings or else risk non-existence. As I have documented here and elsewhere, the Protestant denominations that have done just that, giving in to every cultural demand, are devastated by losses in membership to a far greater degree than the Catholic Church or the Pentecostals, who have held the line against changing biblical and moral teaching.
In the end, it looks like many who leave the Church aren’t quite done with us yet. Keep working to develop the ties. To those who say they will never return, simply remember that never is a long time and a lot of things can happen in a long time. The door is still open; the light is still on. Long after the latest trends have faded and the secular upsurge has subsided, we’ll still be here (or in the catacombs, or even in jail). But we’ll still be preaching the same gospel as ever: Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8).