Why Are Catholics So “Cold?”

Over Memorial Day weekend, I went with a friend of mine to Shenandoah, Virginia, and then to Oak Hill, West Virginia.  We went to Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church.  It was an enlightening experience for me, and I’m very glad that I went. I’ll get to why in a moment.

I. The Problem

One of the common frustrations that people have with Catholic parishes is that they seem impersonal.  Let me give three examples of what I see Protestants doing that I largely haven’t been seeing Catholics do:

  • A woman that I know has been church-shopping at various Baptist churches in northern Virginia. At more than one of the churches she went to, the pastor asked if there were any visitors, people went out their way to greet her and introduce her to other people, and they gave away free gifts.  In one case, she filled out a visitor card, and by that afternoon, had a package of goodies on her doorstep. 
  • Another woman I know told me about how the pastor of the church she grew up in will travel up every season to change the flowers by the roadside where her aunt died in a car wreck.  
  • When I was looking online on Google Maps for Catholic churches in northern Virginia, I came across Christ the King, which has this offer: “For six weeks we will gather with friends and neighbors for an honest and open conversation about life, meaning, and the basic tenants of the Christian faith. We will be at the Royal Restaurant (734 N. St. Asaph St.) on Wednesdays 6:30-8:00 p.m., from May 18th through June 22nd. For our first gathering, we’ll pick up the tab for dinner! For more information, contact Christ the King’s office at 703-535-6815.” I was surprised and pleased to see a Catholic church doing this sort of outreach… at which point I realized that Christ the King is Anglican.
I’m not saying that every Catholic parish has to do any or all of the above. But I am saying that the fact that Protestants tend to do these sort of things more than we do makes the lot of us Catholics seem spiritually lukewarm, and personally cold.
II. The Roots of the Problem

I think that reputation is at least partially unfair.  I have a few reasons for thinking this. The first is simply that  I’ve gotten to know priests personally.  Northern Virginia has some of the finest priests in the country, hands down — the seminary she draws from was recently profiled by an Evangelical as “a visit to Heaven,” and he was wowed by the sanctity of the young men he found there.  These seminarians and priests aren’t uncaring: in fact, many of them push themselves to their breaking point trying to care for their flocks.  
Second, there’s the nature of the Mass vis-à-vis Protestant worship services. At Mass, we believe that we experience and encounter Jesus Christ in the Flesh, in a totally unique way in the Eucharist. We don’t just come together to lift our prayers to Heaven (although we do that as well), but we partake of Him here. The worship space of the Church is a sort of hallowed ground.  When you’re face-to-face with God Himself, it’s unreasonable to ask that you chit-chat with your neighbor.  While small talk on the street is often a very Christian form of outreach, when you’re kneeling before the divine, such small talk seems insulting to God, rather than friendly.
Finally, there’s the cold, hard data, which paints quite a picture. Nearly all my life, I’ve lived in big city parishes.  The diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, where I grew up, has 97 parishes and missions serving over 134,000 Catholics.  The diocese of Arlington, where I live now, has 74 parishes and missions, serving roughly 450,000 Catholics. The archdiocese of Washington, where I work, has over 140 parishes serving over 580,000 Catholics, with Mass in twenty different languages. That means that for every church or mission in Arlington, there are roughly six thousand Catholics. And that’s on average: inside the city itself, you’ve got the more populous churches, and the churches with a large influx of tourists and visitors.  To put those numbers in perspective, the Baptist church in that first example which hand-delivered a goody basket, had roughly 40 members. 
Now, granted, all of the numbers above are based upon diocesan self-reporting, and I imagine that the number of Catholics in the pews on any given Sunday is far smaller.  But even adjusting for that, the point remains: Catholic priests in bigger cities tend to be swamped with parishioners, to say nothing of the tourists, the Catholics from out of town, and the non-Catholics who may be exploring the Catholic church, or visiting with friends. Speaking personally, I can attest that this creates a very different dynamic.  It’s easy to welcome someone new to men’s group, since it’s tiny, and we know who’s new. It’s not easy to do the same at Mass — is this someone who’s new, or who you just don’t recognize? I’m far more hesitant to strike up a conversation with some random pew-sitter than I am with a new guy at men’s group, and I imagine that other Catholics are the same way.  To those Christians used to tiny churches, this comes off as cold.  (I think something similar may partially account for why people from rural areas often find city dwellers rude, although there’s also a genuine rudeness that goes with the anonymity of a big city).
III. The Catholic Church for “Mountain Folk”
That’s why it was nice to get to Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic church out in Oak Hill, West Virginia. It has a tiny congregation (West Virginia’s not very Catholic), with a fair amount of visitors, since it’s near the New River Gorge. The priest is one Fr. Paul Yuenger, and he seems to be a perfect fit for the congregation. His weekly column in the bulletin, depicting him in a cowboy hat, answers questions about the Catholic faith ranging from annulments to apostolic succession. Every Saturday, they have “Scripture sharing” at the local Bob Evans, with the instruction to “bring a Bible and a friend“! And on Sunday mornings before Mass, they have an adult Bible study. 
When my friend and I went, the priest made a point at the end of Mass to invite all the visitors to pick up a gift on the way out of Mass. The gift, it turned out, was a small plastic rosary, with a little card with the name of the church, and a message that we were in their prayers.  In the back of the church, we were warmly greeted by one of the parishioners, who asked us all about our trip. Since we had a long drive ahead of us, we didn’t stay long, but the sidewalk outside of church was full of parents chatting, and children playing and ringing the church bells. 
My point in mentioning all of this is that I suspect that if Catholic parishes were as small as the Protestant churches I described above, they’d seem more outgoing. The fact that small Catholic groups (like prayer groups and mission trips) are outgoing suggests this, as does the presence of small, outgoing Catholic churches like Sts. Peter and Paul.  I don’t mean to suggest that we Catholics have nothing to worry about. But I do mean to suggest that much of the solution may be as simple as trying to form smaller Church groups, rather than trying to jettison those Catholic distinctives which often take the blame.

*The “mountain folk” reference comes from this charming statute outside of the church. It’s St. Joseph, and reads: “JOSEPH, PATRON SAINT OF WEST VIRGINIA, SPECIAL CHAMPION OF ALL WORKERS, AND OF US MOUNTAIN FOLK.”


  1. I think you’re right, but I think you also miss the cultural distinctive of Catholicism. There is a general culture to Roman Catholicism, much like an ethnic culture or nationalistic culture. It includes a specific language/vocabulary, a set of beliefs and behaviors, a set of values, even a specific history. At the parish level, the culture includes all the same but at a more specific and intense if microcosmic way. One either knows the culture (and belongs), or one doesn’t.

    In the evangelical protestant world, the culture is basically “American,” with a lot of Bible knowledge and very basic theological education mixed in. My point is that being or becoming Evangelical (and certainly mainline Protestant) is much easier in terms of a social/relational challenge than being/becoming Catholic. Further, the “evangelism imperative” at many churches ensures a degree of “outreach” which also eases the burden of trying to “fit in.”

    I believe you’re right on about the “small group” comments, however it doesn’t explain why so many (Catholics included) flock to Evangelical mega-churches. I think what is also necessary is that many of those steeped in Catholic culture need to stop for a second, and if they care about those far from God…especially those who don’t know Catholicism (or were improperly raised in it), stop assuming people OUGHT to “make the first step…blah, blah, blah,” start making Catholic “culture” secondary, and begin to “reach out” as opposed to simply waiting for people to come home.

    Evangelization in the Catholic church includes so much of what makes a person whole in their relationship with God. I just think too many parishes forget the evangelism part and focus only on the works, education, sacraments, parts. Evangelism and outreach are left to the priests to do…and as you pointed out, they can’t be responsible for everything.


  2. DJ,

    Good comment, and I largely agree. Crossing that gulf is hard in both directions: it seems to me that non-Catholics are often afraid to attend Mass, and don’t know where to start in seeking to understand the Faith; meanwhile, we Catholics are all too often afraid to even invite our non-Catholic friends to Mass, and don’t know where or how to begin in evangelizing them.

    As for Protestant mega-churches, I think that they already go to great lengths to ensure that people feel connected. One of my Catholic friends described going to his sister’s mega-church, and being surprised at how personalized things were: there were different rooms catering to different musical tastes (one room would have traditional Christian music, another Christian rock, and so forth), and then they’d all come together in the main area for the sermon, or else watch the sermon on TV from another room. The idea seems to have been that there was unity around the core message (the sermon), and flexibility and Christian independence around the non-essentials (the style of music, etc.).

    Now, I’m not suggesting that this is a model Catholics would want to parrot — the whole structure is based on the sort of arena-style Christianity that Catholicism eschews — but it is something we should be aware of, since it shows one way that large Protestant churches are handling the inherent problems of a massive congregation. There are surely certain practices which we would benefit from, and others we’d be wise to avoid.

    And it does seem that Catholics are left in something of a bind — when groups like Catholic Answers try to evangelize, they’re told to get their own house in order, and take care of the problems of poorly-catechized, disenchanted, or heretical Catholics; when parishes try and tend to the needs of Catholics, they’re told they’re not evangelistic enough. I think both are important needs which should be met, but we shouldn’t knock the good Catholics are doing just because there are other important tasks which aren’t being done well enough. (I’m not saying you’re doing that: I’m just pointing out the bind which leads many parishes to over-emphasize tending the sheep they already have, instead of fishing for new Christians).

    God bless!


  3. As a former Evangelical who is being confirmed this Sunday, Ascension Sunday, I have learned the lesson that Catholic parishes are not solely ‘American’ churches but THE Church of God and I am there to worship God and to do so in spirit and in truth…I always felt somewhat uncomfy with the over emotionalism of the Evangelical perspective. Even as ‘one of their own’ I was always suspect of the whole “being nice to convert people” mentality. Jesus loved us without strings, people were free to walk away from Him but it did not stop His love for them.

    And for some shameless self promotion, I write as well and I’ve blogged my musings on becoming Catholic.


    Much love and thanks for your blog, I read every post. AND I lived 18 years in DC proper (Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant) and I currently am at Sacred Heart Church in Winchester (Diocese of Arlington) so we are veritable neighbors!


  4. Niles, welcome home! I was going to invite you to Men’s Group tonight at St. Mary’s in Alexandria, but it’s about two hours from Winchester, so I’ll understand if you don’t make it. 🙂

    I checked out your blog, and like what I see: added!

  5. Thanks! I would have loved to come to your Men’s Group, but I just started a new gig as a the Executive Director of a small youth and family services nonprofit and the days and full and long right now. Say a prayer for Sunday! And thanks for the blog link, truly humbled by that.

  6. I remain Catholic but though I’m not supposed to I attend a Methodist church where my children and I have been welcomed and thanked for coming to worship with them,and made feel welcome. That’s never happened at any Catholic church I’ve attended. It makes a huge difference to us because people talk to us,and have helped us. They have a foodnet there and a room full of donated clothing, toys, books, and personal items. To me it defines what I think Christian fellowship is and should be. I guess I think that God loves us unconditionally and gave us freedom of will and choice, so he can’t judge us or love any of us less for what he allowed us to do or choose. I think all the commandments give us guidance as to right and wrong. But the churches rules are to encourage us to stay “in line” because there are about 4% of the population who are without conscience and cause the majority of the major problems in society. The other problems I feel are due to poor choices without thought of consequences, learned behavior that’s not timely addresses and people’s inability to control their emotions with the subsequent projection on to others. I think people largely take offense to perceived slights or insults because their ego’s are out of control. Fear is the opposite of love not hate.Hate is a dear based response because your ego’s percieved sense of “specialness ” is threatened by another’s words or actions. Love is what our spirit is fueled by. Our higher self turns the other cheek. Our ego fires back in its defense because it feels threatened (fear). I don’t know of many who fear being loved, but many fear not being good enough,smart enough,pretty enough etc… Life’s too short to waste.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *