“Vast majority of U.S. Catholics who left the church can’t imagine returning, study says.” Hmm … Not So Fast – A Reflection on a Recent Survey

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).

38 Replies to ““Vast majority of U.S. Catholics who left the church can’t imagine returning, study says.” Hmm … Not So Fast – A Reflection on a Recent Survey”

  1. Funny, these pollsters are just a bunch of inflated balloons. They obtained information from 5000 and then they inflate it to represent the whole Catholic population of the USA. Just like the last two elections of congressmen and senators, they said that the democrats will gain so much number of seats. Huh? Look what happened. Come on! A lot of well learned pastors and ministers from different denominations are being received in the Carholic Church and they are bringing with them their congregation. Just watch the Coming Home Network of Marcus Grodi. I just had a confrontation with a fallen away Catholic and all I said was ‘Oh brother, you do not know the faith, learn some more, check the Fathers of the Church.’ And he could not stop justifying his move. It was just that we were in a department store then and had very little time left because we had to go home to an ailing old man. I just concluded the discussion with ‘GOD Bless you man. I will pray for you, please pray for me.’ Up to now am praying for him and by GOD’s Grace may he see the fullness of faith. Amen.

    1. Dear edraCRUZ, there is a long established science behind polls like these. It is possible to extrapolate findings from a poll of 1,000 people to the entire population.

      1. Jamie Ryan,

        Yes, a person can extrapolate data to entire populations from small sample sizes, but it is often wrong. When studying statistics, sampling is one of the first things they will tell you people get wrong. The questions themselves can be leading, and the person asking the questions can also influence the answer simply by their own personal bias. If one wants to call this a science, it would be considered bad science. In fact, most learning institutions put statistics under the math department, not science.

        Heck, even medical statistics, used for drug trials and the like, are skewed. They found knowing whether you are taking a drug or a placebo can affect the outcome (placebo effect), AND, the attitude of the person giving the drug (when they know you are getting a life saving drug or not) can also influence the study. That is why they do double blind studies, where neither party has any idea what drug is being given, because human influence, no matter how subtle, still changes the outcome.

        So for the survey at hand, did you notice that 3500 of the 5000 are NOT practicing Catholics? That means, they already have some sort of personal bias against the church. Yes, it may be as insignificant as they are too lazy to attend church on Sunday, but the fact is, they have fallen away.

        So when you ask 5000 people, 70 percent of whom do not currently call the Church home what their opinion on divorce, LGBT, birth control, and married priests is, the data by default and by definition is SKEWED toward the secular attitudes of the day.

        Now had they broken down the numbers to faithful/practicing versus non practicing, then you might see something interesting. But they did not give that level of detail. Why? Because, as with any opinion poll, the opinion of the person running it matters most. This data can be interpreted so many different ways based on what the interpreter wants it to say. And that is exactly what we see in the Washington Post piece.

        It’s not science, it’s human nature. The science of that is, we see what we want to see.

        1. You point out many of the limitations with this type of research. My point spoke to the validity of the methodology (which was the point the original commenter made) and said nothing about the Washington Post article.

          1. “Now had they broken down the numbers to faithful/practicing versus non practicing, then you might see something interesting. But they did not give that level of detail. Why?”

            The data sheet published by Pew disaggregates the data by frequency of Mass attendance, sex, age, income, ethnicity, education level, and political affiliation. My quick review suggests that those who attend weekly had more orthodox views than those who did not.

      2. Have you ever worked with these pollsters? If you have not, you do not know how they work through their preconceived idea that they want as a resultant to be reflected out of the polled. Come on, these are the reasons why the liberals have their own favorite pollsters and so with the conservatives, so with the anti life and the pro life, so with the evolutionists and the creationists and so on and on. We were not born yesterday, you know. With the tremendous misinformation and disinformation nowadays, we do not know what to believe anymore even with these so called reliable pollsters. GOD Bless you. Do not believe so much in science, I know, for I am an engineer, believe in Truth and we will not go wayward. Hehehe.

    2. Yes, my own struggle with polls like these are not the sampling size but some of conclusions drawn. The main point is you can’t poll accurately on terms like “never” Never is a long time. Polls only capture today, the past and can indicated current trends. There is just simply no way to conclude to never based on their data.

      1. The only future-oriented question with “never” included in a response is Q.12 – if someone who identified as Catholic could imagine leaving the Church. The two response options are “That no matter what, the could never leave the Catholic Church” and “They could imagine leaving the Catholic Church someday”. In this question, “never” makes sense.

        Q.21 to those raised as but not currently self-identifying as Catholic asked if they could imagine returning. The options are “Could see themselves returning to Catholic Church” and “Not something they see themselves doing”.

        Neither the question nor the response options mention “never”. I am curious as to why you focus on this word, given that Pew did not use it in the context your comments suggest. Even the Washington Post article put “never” in the form of a question (“Vast Majority Never Return?”, which, in all fairness, is not an unreasonable question. But nothing in the WaPo article itself is a misrepresentation of the data or of the findings.

  2. An Irish Catholic friend informed me she just became a member of the Episcopal Church. She said that she still considers herself Catholic, that she will continue to pray the Rosary but that for now she feels at home in the Episcopal Church. Her reasons for joining were peppered throughout with the word “feeling.” After explaining to her that faith is primarily an intellectual assent to the revealed word of God and to the truths found wholly and only in our One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith and not based on feelings, she thanked me for my opinion. She insisted she feels peace and the Holy Spirit in that denomination. With prayer, hopefully she will return but it must be based on seeking the fullness of the truth and not just on feelings.

    1. Yes, feelings are by nature ephemeral. The word “emotion” contains the word “motion” for a reason. I too find that many who leave for reasons related to community and feeling eventually discover that people are basically the same everywhere and few if any communities are free from the tendencies the “leaver” seeks. Soon enough they too will find factions, a resistance to change, a lack of freshness. At first the preacher is full of new and fresh ideas, but six months later they discover, “Oh he said that several times already…I wonder why he’s so focused on that topic….etc” The other problem with some evangelical communities is just the opposite, they reinvent themselves every 90 days and are plagued by a lack of roots or stability.

  3. “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.”

    Exactly. It’s the same as giving students a test, whether in religion or another subject. When the majority get answers wrong, that shows the teacher what she needs to teach again, in a more effective way. It’s not helpful for the teacher to say, “It’s not my fault: they should have understood it!” A teacher’s effectiveness is measured by the students’ learning.

    1. Yes, its always a call to persevere and keep teaching. I do think however, that there may be more at work than just the teacher’s effectiveness when it comes to faith. There are some people who have hardened their hearts, or closed their mind, such that even if Jesus stood before them (as he has done) many would still reject him and what he teaches. There is also the issue of acedia (sloth) etc. So I think we have to be sober about both the teachers and the students when it comes to faith

  4. I’m not as optimistic regarding the return of Catholics to the Church. Our decadent culture and the ease of superficial worship seem to have more appeal than the transcendent and eternal virtues of truth beauty and goodness that are found in the Catholic Church. Unless we pray for the conversion of souls, more will succumb to the lure of the Lorelei (a/k/a, the prevailing culture of death).

    1. Yeah, I’m not saying I’m merely optimistic either. Jesus spoke of the wide road to destruction that many prefer and the narrow road to salvation that “few” fine. However, I think we can take heart in the fact that many who are away may not be that far away and with certain efforts we can still reach them. And who knows, God may permit game-changing events such as a natural disasters that wakes a few people up. All this to say, the survey points to opportunities and helps to remind us that a lot of people still sense some affiliation with the Church. I wonder if the situation in Europe is different? I sense there is more widespread hostility to the Church there and/or a more complete notion that the Church is utterly irrelevant. But perhaps European readers can speak to this

      1. The weekly church attendance in some of the Western European countries are terrible. I am thinking now of England and France. They could be in the single digit category. This is dismaying considering many of the Roman Catholic Church’s saints are of French ancestry.

        1. I don’t think you can generalize about Europe. The Faith is still strong in parts of Eastern Europe. And there are also pockets of strong, vocal Catholics in Southern Europe and even France. Germany, UK, and Scandinavia are pretty bad though.

          1. There may be pockets of Catholic practice in all of the Western European countries (that is the area I emphasized, not Poland and the like), but the stats I have seen on France are abysmal.

          2. I am replying to your link about France. I think rejuvenation of the Church via the Extraordinary Form of the mass is tantamount to “whistling past the graveyard.” Even in Los Angeles County being s populous as it is there are very few masses of this type. Also, the number of priests who can perform such a service are few and far between. Mostly what the bishops want now is for the clergy to be bilingual, preferably the second language being Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, what have you, not Latin.

  5. In the early 90’s I listened to radio talk show host in Los Angeles, Dennis Prager, who had a Sunday eve program, “Religion On The Line.” Typically his guests were clergy from Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism. He often received calls from former Catholics expressing their dismay with their former faith and the reasons they left – many becoming evangelical Protestants. He often quipped that the show should be called the fallen away Catholic Show or something to that affect.

    My take away from listening to the program that The American Roman Catholic church has problems keeping those who were born into the faith from leaving it. The only conclusion I was able to draw was evangelical churches are giving the former Catholics something their original faith wasn’t. The most telling retort was “I never had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as a Catholic.” Overall, I had the feeling that many of them were improperly catechized and never understood Catholicism correctly. However, I am still left with the question if they were up to date on their original faith’s apologetics would they still have left it?

  6. The truth is the truth. It is not our job to interpret the truth. Some of us are terrible at teaching or evangelizing with our words. But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to give.

    God gave each one of us a gift to give the world. It is not our gift to give, but His. We are meant to bring God to the unbelievers, the fallen away, the spiritually blind by means of this gift. That means we as faithful Catholics must grow in our own faith and find what it is we have to give. Then we must go out and give that gift. If it means working along side people as we live our faith out boldly and with joy then we do that. If we were given the gift to evangelize with our words, we do that. If we can heal, we do that. The point is we go out and do it, just like the 72, just like the Apostles. We go out and bring God to the masses. He has done all the hard work already. Once presented with the Truth of our Lord, it is then up to these folks to either choose or not choose. Our Faith in God will make a humongous difference. Our faith can move mountains. Our faith can raise the dead, cure the sick, give sight to the blind. It is the same faith the Apostles had, we just seem to have less of it these days.

    So pray. Pray hard for the Faith we need to save God’s people, to save ourselves.

  7. A quick question.

    Can the upcoming visit by Pope Francis help more Catholics who have left the Church make their way back?

    Thank-you and God Bless!

    1. I think it will! I’m praying it will! My dad is a wayward Catholic but he’s very excited about Pope Francis. I’m the only Catholic a lot of people around me even know and even they come to me and ask me about this or that newest headline about the Pope. The only thing that makes me sad is that often they’re embracing the liberal interpretation of his words. But, he does have people excited and at least curious.

    2. One would hope. I would also hope of lot of other more on-going and ordinary things would too, like stuff going on in parishes, like clear teaching on moral and social issues, etc.

  8. I am one of those people who returned after a long absence. Never give up on people. That said, the Church also needs to emphasize the Truth that outside the Church, there is no salvation. Protestantism, Islam, agnosticism. etc. are paths to Hell. I’d argue that the soft universalism we see today in the Church and culture at large is the primary source of our problems. If being Catholic has no impact on your Salvation, then why bother?

  9. I left the Catholic Church, but I’m back now and will never leave again. Most who leave are poorly catechized, I was and I went to Catholic school for 14 years. What brought me back was the Eucharist. Other faiths may have “joyful” music, friendlier people, but they don’t have the Euchrist. I’ll never give it up again. If you understand the truth of the Euchrist, you will never leave again. Some of the “seeker” churches understand what a hold the Euchrist can have, so they really make fun of our belief in the true body and blood. Sad

  10. Never is a very long time, but I cannot ever see myself returning to the RC church. Almost everything that has happened to the RC church since I left in the 1970’s has made it less attractive to me. That especially includes this pope.

    Just telling the truth as I see it, no offense intended.

    1. You had me until the last sentence, I figured you to be a social liberal. But maybe your a radical traditional? At any rate, mark my words there are many in the Church today, whom I know personally who said never (not ever), just like you. If that time comes Steve, we’ll be here. Bless you

      1. Actually I’m a conservative from a conservative family. What Vatican 1 showed me was that the construct of a structure between each individual and GOD is a fabrication of man.

        BUT I have no hostility towards the RC church or her followers. Quite the opposite.

        I do not doubt you sir when you say many have said “never”. I was guilty of doing that also when I was younger myself.

        I don’t believe that the RC church is the only way to CHRISTIAN salvation. But I have no need to force anybody else to agree with me.

        I had always thought that I was a pretty bad Catholic, turns out that I’m actually a pretty bad Protestant.

        Thank you for your kind words and I pray that you and all of yours will be always be blessed.

    2. Why cut off your nose to spite your face? Despite scandals and other disturbing issues with the institutional church, it is still the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith the Lord Our God, founded on His Blood. How can you ever leave that? Jesus never leaves us no matter how unfaithful and disloyal we are to HIm. Can’t you try at least to do the same?

      1. I just don’t believe that salvation is tied to any one source other that GOD. I’m no hater. I understand that any organization of humans has all of the faults that ALL we humans have. I just do not accept that the RC church is the ONLY way.

        Jesus is GOD. HE is not Ok with losing even one of his sheep.

        If I ask HIM for a loaf of bread would HE give me a stone?

        I worship the one true GOD, not any human organization.

        Btw I feel like the RC church left me. i.e.. ALL of my life we observed no meat on fridays and fasted for Lent.

        Then in one day in one decree meat was suddenly OK?

        Same thing with the Latin mass et. al.

        I don’t mean to be confrontational or hostile in anyway to you or the church.

        I only mean to speak the truth.

        Best to you and yours

  11. I actually left the Church myself for several years due to a few accumulated bad experiences that I needed time to recover from. I am slowly coming back, going to Mass, and trying different events to get my feet wet again. In a few weeks, I am going back into a career where I can lose my life (a lot more easily than in healthcare). I need the Church in my life for stability during that time. I need God in my life so that I can better help others.

    Great post, and never say never 🙂 I often think that some surveys can be skewed a bit.

  12. There was another poll published within the past couple of weeks in which respondents agreed that the Catholic Church is “moving in the right direction.”

    I’m not sure what that statement means…the Church has staked out Her position on a number of social issues, and isn’t about to change them. One can agree with those positions, or not, but the Church has her feet firmly planted, and the floods of public opinion won’t move them.

  13. To Steve J., I am curious as to why someone who will “never return to the RC church” is reading this blog. Are you one of those who still feels connected, but for some reason is resisting Christ’s call to return fully?

    1. Chris I didn’t say “never”. I said that I couldn’t ever see doing it. That is quite different.

      I was raised RC, as an IRISH RC. If you know how that works, then you understand that religion is a very big part of the self identification and is a political tool for some ethnic groups such as the GREEN Irish.

      Christ has never told me to re-enter the RC church, in fact HE has led me to another Christian church.

      I just feel a historical and “racial” affection for the RC faithful.

      Best to you and yours

  14. Pride is one reason why some Catholics leave the Church:
    1. By accident, they cannot go to a local church
    2. Pride prevents them from asking for help to go to church
    3. They decide to substitute obedience for works of mercy
    4. Doing such works, they decide they don’t need to go to church after all
    5. They decide they don’t need the Catholic Church to be holy
    6. They fight their consciences over drifting from Catholicism
    7. They commit apostasy

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