Why Are So Many Catholics Leaving the Church?

That’s the question that InsideCatholic posed last year to a long list of luminaries: the bishops of Orlando and Baker, Oregon; the Archbishop of San Antonio, the auxiliary bishop of San Diego, the late Bob Novak, Senator Sam Brownback, Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. (founder of Ignatius Press, the single best Catholic press, bar none), Mark Shea, Thomas Peters of American Papist, Elizabeth Scalia of The Anchoress and sometimes First Things, Steve Skojec, etc.

It’s sparked an incredible discussion: you can read all of the contributions here (one-page version here). And their answers were almost uniformly excellent. There were a few exceptions: Bishop Cordileone’s response (although I suspect very well-intentioned), reads as if having a cultural Catholic identity is what’s most important — I suspect my problem may be that I’m not sure I understand what he’s driving at. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s answer was basically that churches were still full due to incoming immigrants, an answer which downplays a real problem, treats human souls as if they’re interchangable, and acts as those immigrantion is the same as conversion (an influx of primarily Hispanic Catholics hides the cold facts that the Pew study suggests). Bishop Wenski warns of this exact error when he says that for churches in Florida (and I suspect something similar is true for southern Texas, where Cordileone is archbishop):

Our pews are full because of the continuing influx of people to our area, either
from the North (the snowbirds moving to a warmer climate) or from the South
(Puerto Ricans and immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean). It is
tempting to glibly dismiss the Pew study. However, given the constant arrival of
newcomers, we might not as easily notice the members who quietly defect.

Still, on the whole, the answers are quite good: cultural shifts (Americans in general are less religious than they were a generation ago), increasingly bloated American egos (trying to make religion more about “us,” and finding churches, or abstract forms of spirituality, to accommodate that narcissism), the media portrayal of Vatican II and some of the ways that it was implemented in the US context, and so on. The people responding, for the most part, seem to have their pulse on American Catholicism in a way that secular journalism simply doesn’t.

Some of the best answers, in my opinion (in no particular order):
*1*Bob Lockwood, director for communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, noted that we don’t teach young adults apologetics anymore. Not only are they denied the tools of conversion, but they don’t even have the intellectual mooring to defend the Faith when it’s inevitably attacked. As a result, scores of young adults leave the Faith (usually in their 20s), many never to return.

*2*Ronald J. Rychlak, associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law, says that church leaders are selling the flocks short in other ways, too. When you describe all religions as basically equal, and put all your emphasis on “being a good person,” there’s no reason to become (or stay Catholic). Dean Rychlak concludes by saying that ” the Church needs to ask more of us, not less. Most people are pretty strong when they are assigned a task and know that others expect them to meet it. Most of us tend, however, not to be particularly good at self-motivation. I’d like to see the bishops pick up the challenge, ask more of the people, and develop a more robust Catholicism.”

*3*Mark Shea places blame where it is richly deserved:

Indeed, much of our present predicament seems to me to proceed precisely because of our bishops’ stunning obliviousness to the needs of the flock and their over-attention to world methods of navigation. When the flock cried for justice in the matter of the rape of their children, our bishops heard only the counsel of lawyers and psychologists, not the bleedin’-obvious testimony of the Tradition. When the faithful begged for decent catechesis, a generation got “Cut, Color, and Draw,” not formation in the Tradition. When the pope tried to make Catholic universities teach the Catholic faith, our bishops labored with might and main to make certain that Ex Corde Ecclesia was dead on arrival, lest we learn the Tradition.

In each case, however, the problem has not been with the Church not knowing what to do. It has only been with the Church not liking what it had to do: namely, preach the gospel in season and out of season. That is what the flock needs, what it has ever needed: a Church that preaches and lives the Tradition of the Apostles. If we live it, they will come.

*4*Fr. Dwight Longenecker, chaplain of St Joseph’s Catholic School, makes a pretty convincing argument that the Church correctly identified the problem — people were feeling disconnected from the Mass, and then provided the wrong remedy. Instead of addressing the personal needs of the flock, they tried to address what they understood to be the communal needs, so many in the Church started leading the way on social issues, even on issues where either side could be held in good faith. The result was only to further alienate people: after all, few people show up to weekly Mass, but far fewer show up to weekly ACLU meetings… and besides, if people wanted a place to talk current events and forment political action, those itches can get scratched elsewhere, while the need to feel spiritually connected to, and loved by, God is best met in the Mass (particularly, in the Mass done correctly).

Fr. Longenecker also notes that much of the attempt to become more relevant was done by mimicking Protestantism, but not the things that Protestantism does well. So instead of powerful, moving homilies (which many Protestant churches do quite well), we got folk music which badly mimicked what was going on either at the Protestant church down the road, or the hippies’ campsite.

*5*In a lengthy response worth the read, Todd M. Aglialoro, editor of Sophia Institute Press, describes how many Catholics, all too often deprived of the authentic Faith by bad cathechesis, bad homilies, and bad liturgies, are drawn like moths to Evangelism, where they see a faith that means something. His conclusion for the Church is that:

A Catholicism that sets before its believers a broad and strict test of moral and doctrinal adherence will keep its members. A Catholicism that is reduced (and often it is so, ironically, in order not to scare folks away) to “being a good person” will lose them.

*6*Catholic blogger Rich Leonardi provides examples that support Aglialoro’s claim: the Denver diocese, under the auspice of the almost unparalleled Bp. Chaput, is growing quite well: over half of Catholics polled considered themselves “fervent” or “faithful” in their belief, and their weekly Mass attendance is well above average, although still not ideal. Meanwhile, the “inverse of Denver is Rochester, whose shepherd, Bishop Matthew Clark, serves the same weak tea as the mainline Protestant denominations. There, Mass attendance is in a free-fall, dropping almost 20 percent since 2000.

*7*Many of the commentators noted the methodological shortcoming of a survey: even the most perfect survey could only tell you quantity, not quality. And given that the Pew survey which sparked this discussion was based on self-reporting, it tells you much less: someone calling themselves “Catholic” tells you nothing about their religious fervor, Mass attendance, morality, or lifestyle. Cultural Catholics who stopped attending after First Communion, but never embaced another religion: are they Catholics or ex-Catholics? And if they never practiced the Faith, how can they be considered to have left it? For many of them, Baptism and First Communion were the two times they may have darkened the doorstep of a church throughout childhood. Thomas Peters makes the case that as a group, practicing Catholics today, deprived of the Catholic ghetto in most parts of the country, are more faithful, simply because practicing the Faith requires more courage than it did in, say, early 20th century Boston. Bob Novak described how those leaving the Faith usually have little idea of Her teachings on fundamental issues, while those entering the Faith are usually vibrant “Catholics by choice” who know why they believe.

My Own Take.
I really liked what I gleaned from all of the above (and much more which I didn’t mention), and I thought that the point that Aglialoro and Leonardi made is very sound. From virtually everything I’ve read, the more orthodox a parish, diocese, etc., is, the more people will enter and stay within in. On the other hand, the watered-down Faith appeals to very few. One of my priests, Fr. Belli, puts it like this: “In World War II, due to shortages and the number of wounded men, they watered down the penicillin to try and stretch it further. The result was that it didn’t work for anyone.” I think it captures the problem perfectly: a Faith that requires nothing from anyone isn’t worth the effort of going to Mass.

Think about it this way, in the context of “be a good person” cathechesis that treats all religious views as fundamentally equal. Would you rather “be a good person” and have required Holy Days of Obligation, Lenten fasts, avoid premarital sex and birth control (even after you’re married), and so forth, or would you rather “be a good person” and live a life of hedonism? There’s a correct answer to the question, and then there’s the answer that a countless number of young people are choosing. Particularly if you’ve never heard a homily explaining the importance of Lenten fasts or Holy Days of Obligation, and if you’ve never learned why the Church teaches against birth control and fornication, the answer seems deceptively easy: why do more work than required if you just need to be a “good person” to go to Heaven? And with that, you’ve just lost another Catholic.

Where Do We Go From Here?
It seems to me that Catholic teachers and clergy have two responsibilities: raise the dismally-low bar set for Catholics today, and start teaching the Catholic Faith. When teachers in Catholic schools are non-Catholics, ex-Catholics, and dissident ex-clergy, the odds of getting a Catholic education in the schools declines. When the priest would rather be liked than right, the homilies become suspect. The thing is, the things which are uncomfortable to preach on – purgatory, Hell, homosexuality, abortion, papal infallibility, women’s ordination, etc. – are uncomfortable for a reason, namely, that they’re unpopular. But they’re not just unpopular among Catholics – non-Catholics often see this beliefs as oddities, absurdities, or worse. So when a priest or religious education teacher refuses to teach on the topic, or teaches something wrong on the topic, they’re doing a supreme disservice to young people: sending them out unprepared, where they will be attacked on these issues. Just because many in the Church are too timid to speak on the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, those who are hostile to the Church harbor no such timidity. Expect young adults (and increasingly, children), to be grilled by peers on why the Church teaches x. Without priests and religious educators supporting them, these young adults are easy prey for Fundamentalists (who do know what they believe, and aren’t afraid or ashamed of it) or atheists (who have become increasingly vocal “evangelists” for faithlessness).

Or to put it another way. Someone, inquiring or hostile, is going to raise some tough questions about the Catholic Faith. Maybe it’ll be in a friendly way, maybe it’ll be angry. This can be either an opportunity for evangelism, or an opening salvo that destroys a weak faith. And the questions will be posed to untrained laypeople, most likely: a strange sense of decorum prevents all but the most brazen from assaulting the Church in front of priests. If the Church in America is going to thrive, it needs to prepare Her laypeople to answer these questions and respond. And at this point, we’re still only talking defense. Ideally, we’d have waves of laymen and women so on fire for their Faith that they are always “ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks [them] for a reason for [their] hope,” while maintaining a sense of gentleness and reverence, which keeps their consciences clear (1 Peter 3:15-16).

I don’t claim to have a full answer to the problem, nor is a lack of religious education the only problem. Bishop Wenski points out that the Catholic immigrants who built a good part of this nation a century ago were poorly educated in the Faith (and everything else, as schooling was sometimes slow to catch up with mobile immigrants, and industrial workers had little time for school or cathechesis), yet they remained loyal and devoted to the Faith and to their local parish. He’s right, of course. But in modern times, with Catholic assimilation and new threats from secularism and the New Atheism (along with more familiar challenges, like Protestant evangelists, modernism, and simple selfishness), having the tools of Faith seems more indispensible than ever.

I’m interested in what others have to say on this topic. I don’t think any of us will capture the full problem and solution in one take, but I think all of us can provide a unique perspective, and a unique piece to the puzzle (whether one is looking at the Catholic Church from the inside or the outside, really).

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