7 reasons Catholics leave church (in Trenton, #1 is sex abuse crisis)
One in 10 Americans is a former Catholic.
March 30th, 2012
01:52 PM ET

7 reasons Catholics leave church (in Trenton, #1 is sex abuse crisis)

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – Even though Roman Catholics are the second-largest religious group in the United States, the tradition has seen an exodus of members in recent decades. One in ten Americans is an ex-Catholic.

If ex-Catholics were counted as their own religious group, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States, after Catholics and Baptists, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

If it weren’t for the infusion of Catholic immigrants, especially from Latin American, the American Catholic Church would be shrinking pretty fast.

A recent study by two college professor tries to get at a simple question: Why are they leaving?

Conducted William J. Byron, a professor of business at St. Joseph’s University and Charles Zech, founder of the Center for the Study of Church Management of Villanova’s School of Business, the anecdotal study conducted in late fall of 2011 processes the opinions of 300 non-churchgoing Catholics in Trenton, New Jersey.

The scholars, working at the request of Trenton’s Catholic bishop, asked parishioners who have drifted away not just why the left, but what church teachings they disagree with and whether they ever truly considered themselves part of the Catholic community.

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Though the study paints a picture of a church with some characteristics that rub people the wrong way, the researchers – both at Catholic schools in Pennsylvania – argue that the study presents new ways in which church leadership can reconcile with ex-Catholics.

"We need a more pastoral approach to people," Zech says. "There are two types of issues that appear. One revolves around church beliefs and frankly those won’t change. But we have to do a better job explaining some of the issue that the church might not change and why that is."

The report is based on one particular diocese, but its authors say it gives a good picture of challenges facing the broader church. "I think the same seven items would show up for the most part," in other areas of the country, Zech says.

The 7 biggest reasons Catholics from Trenton are leaving the church, according to the study:

1. The sex abuse crisis

Byron and Zech asked ex-Catholics to cite their main reason for leaving: “If you could communicate directly with the bishop, what would you say?”

The most common answer: the church’s inadequate response to clergy sex abuse. “The bishop’s refusal to list pedophile priests on the diocesan Web site and his non-support of the effort to lift the statute of limitations for bringing sexual abuses cases forward in the courts” did it for me, one man said, according to the report.

Several respondents said they had been victims of sexual abuse by church leadership.

2. The church’s stance on homosexuality

The second most cited reason for leaving the church was that former worshipers felt homosexuals were unwelcome in the church.

As recently as March 9, Pope Benedict XVI denounced what he categorized as the “powerful” gay marriage lobby in the United States. In the same speech he noted these views would be seen as “countercultural” to young people, but told bishops to not back down to “powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage."

When those surveyed were asked if there were any religious beliefs in the Catholic Church that troubled them, a number cited views on same-sex marriage. “The church’s view on gays, same-sex marriage, women as priests and priests not marrying, to name a few,” said one respondent, explaining her departure from the church.

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“Hypocrisy,” said one person. “History of discrimination against women, anti-gay stance, unwelcoming attitude.”

William D’Antonio of the Catholic University of America recently published a study called “Catholics in America: Persistence and change in the Catholic landscape.” found that even though the church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has come out against homosexual relationships, only 35% of Catholics surveyed said the church’s opinion on homosexuality is “very important.”

The same survey found that 86% of respondents believe a Catholic “can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church."

3. Dissatisfaction with the priest

About half of those surveyed in the Trenton report were not supportive of the pastor they had left behind.

According to Byron and Zech, words like “arrogant,” “distant,” “aloof” and “insensitive” were all used by respondents to describe their priest.

4. Uninspiring homilies on Sundays

A number of people responded that homilies, weekly Sunday messages from the priest, did not relate or “speak to” them.

“I stopped going regularly because the homilies were so empty,” one respondent said. “And whenever the church wanted to raise money, they dropped the homily and talked money.”

“I would advise the bishop to make training in public speaking mandatory for every priest,” said another. “They should also be trained in how to relate their homilies to the people and inspire them.”

“As much as I wanted to get involved and expand my faith, there were no clear avenues to do that,” replied one person. “So it was just a place to attend Mass. And because attending Mass was a guilt-ridden obligation, I was always alone in a crowd where I knew no one and no one knew me.”

5. Perception that church hierarchy is too closely tied to conservative politics

Politics was a mixed bag, according to the survey.

Though some people wanted the church to become more conservative – “change the liberal-progressive political slant to a more conservative,” said one person – others responded differently.

“Eliminate the extreme conservative haranguing,” said one person. Another respondent said politics and the church shouldn’t mix: “I feel the church should stay out of politics; it should certainly not threaten politicians.”

6. Church’s stance toward divorced and remarried Catholics

Catholicism’s stance on divorce and remarriage were also highlighted, especially by divorced females.

The churches stance on divorce is closely tied to their stance on adultery. Without getting a marriage annulled, any marriage after a divorce is considered adulterous. Therefore, divorced people who have not had their marriage annulled or remarried are not able to receive Holy Communion.

“Please find a way not to exclude me from the Catholic community,” said one 56-year old divorced female. A 59-year old divorced female said she would tell her bishop to “petition the church to expand its view on divorce.”

In November of last year, Pope Benedict XVI responded to a German bishop who questioned the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage. “A pastoral approach which truly wants to help the people concerned must always be grounded in the truth… in the end, only the truth can be pastoral,” the Pope wrote, signaling a reluctance to change church teachings on divorce and remarriage policy.

“Instead of making every Mass a form of humiliation for Catholics who cannot receive communion,” one respondent to the Trenton survey said, “do something like a private blessing at communion time, to include everyone.”

7. The status of women

With the political debate over religious conscience and contraceptive coverage, women’s rights and the church have come to the forefront of debate in American politics. According to the Trenton study, a number of people who have left the church cite a “history of discrimination against women,” as one reason for leaving.

Respondents also took issue with the fact that while other churches allow women to become ordained priests, the Catholic Church does not.

“If the Catholic Church does not change its archaic views on women, it is going to become a religion that survives on the fringe of an open-minded, progressive society,” one person who was surveyed said.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Sex abuse

soundoff (1,757 Responses)
  1. lainnj

    I grew up Catholic. I was deeply brainwashed and had horrible experiences. It took me decades to break away. Hypocrisy, while mentioned here, should have been its own category. It covers so much of everything else. I hope people wise up and that fewer and fewer children are exposed to this.

    December 5, 2013 at 7:12 am |
  2. charles allan

    If you go once a week most catholics are surviving on about 5 minutes bible reading and almost no sermon. The Word is not the main part of the service. Only a tiny amount of catholics do private bible study or in groups – prayer is also forgotten.
    If you google the amount of times God tells you to read the Bible you will see what I mean. Going to church then a football match with drinking on a Sunday is not Christian life. I know since I did this and realised my mistake so late.

    November 28, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  3. mulberry

    mulberry http://mulberryvesker.avogel.org

    November 27, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
  4. Patty

    I am still in the Catholic Church. I let my kids go to CCD but I only take them to a Community Confession never private Confession. I had experiences with a priest in Confession where he said inappropriate stuff on numerous occasions and I was alone with him in a booth without witnesses. I like my religion and won't allow once person to control my Faith. My four kids are homeschooled due to various health issues that two have had. We find a Protestant church that is supportive of them where they learn art, music and Spanish once a week. They get to socialize and learn with a group. The Catholic Church prefers Catholic Schools....I wish they did stuff for home educators but luckily another Christian Church in our area can help us. I split our donations between the two churches. I think we shouldn't judge too much....just do what is best for you and if you have kids for them too. Forgive but if you need to adjust stuff so it doesn't happen again....adjust. Love more, judge less. I like learning from two different churches.....all Christian Churches have ways of helping others find Jesus and trying our best to do what He did....that's what is most important. I love Pope Francis. I met Mother Teresa and Cardinal Bernadine. Some faces are so radiant that it gives you a glimpse of the feeling of what it must be like to meet Jesus.

    October 5, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
  5. howie

    The RC parish members ran me off when my wife filed for divorce – not something I wanted myself for the sake of my kids. She never attended mass, however I attended every week. A protestant church welcomed her after the divorce where she attends services regularly now. I have been to protestant services in the past but it is not the same as a mass so I never joined. A minister I talked to said I should stay in RC because I was raised in it and would never enjoy a protestant service. I have been back a handful of times for family event masses, but when I went, I started sweating, my heart rate went through the roof, and had extreme anxiety from the memory of church member psychological harassment. It's been 10 years since the divorce and have decided it's in my best interest not to attend for fear of a heart attack – it's that bad for me. Tears sometimes stream down my face because I miss God's mass. I watch mass on the internet now instead attending local parishes.

    September 21, 2013 at 11:07 am |
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    August 11, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  7. Jefferey Overley

    marriage is the best thing that could ever happen to anyone, i really love my wife .

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    December 23, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  8. Dan C

    I think the bottom line as to why I left the church is that the church does not "feed it's flock" with God's word. Seem like a calculated plan from the devil to keep priest talking about Mary, the saints, the pope, the church thus staying away from the word of God. If you don't feed the flock they will either starve or move away to find other pasture.

    November 27, 2012 at 12:34 am |
  9. Bishop Frank Adams

    As a former Roman Catholic priest, now a bishop of the Independent Catholic and Orthodox Church, I fully agree with the seven reasons found for RC members leaving the church. However, I have some additional reasons that most lay people do not know about. I blame the last two popes for most of my reason for leaving. The the last pope and the current pope were very much against the reform of Vatican II. They were not very good, creative and thoughtful theologians and did not want the reform. So they have systematically put bishops in power all over the world who have fought the reform. Both popes have silenced most good and creative theologians. They have favored the rich and powerful conservative groups like Opus Dei, Cuff, and Legion of Christ, etc. Both popes knew about the pedophile priests over three decades ago and were the force behind keeping it silent. They have been behind the money laundering by the Vatican Bank for the Mafia. They have stolen millions of dollars from the faithful through the actions taken by the Vatican Bank. If people would read books like Matthew Fox's "The Pope's War" or the book by Paul Williams, "The Vatican Exposed: Money, Murder, and the Mafia" or even an older book like Penny Lernoux's "People of God" then they would have even greater reason to abandon the RC church as quickly as possible! The RC church is in the throes of death and dying. I hope for the Resurrection of the RC church but I doubt that I will live long enough the see it. And most people think that I am a very optimistic person.
    Bishop Adams

    October 16, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • Faith7

      Bishop Frank: Did you not take the oath before God when you became a Priest? Does your word not mean anything to you? Yes I agree that the RC Church is in chrisis, but doesn't Rev 18-22 describe it's downfall? So why aren't you staying faithful to your Beloved? Like James and Mary? At the foot of the Cross until the time comes for Him to take you? It is so easy to put the blame on others, when it realy lies in us! The UNFAITHFUL, the Arrogant and self loathing. The Pius and Holier than thou... I hope you can sleep at night. I'd be terrified to think that I made serious promises to Our Lord and Savior, and did'nt live them out, regardless of how difficult it may be! May the Lord Bless you and Keep you, May He Shine His Face upon you, May He look upon you with Kindess and Grant you His Peace! Amen! Please email me back. I'd like to enter into further discussion with you... In His Service, Faith

      August 28, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
      • Faith7

        And No I'm not saying that I'm perfect! Far from it! But there are things you just don't do to Our Lord and Savior!

        August 28, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  10. JO

    2000 years old check your history, Catholics do not read the The Word Of God,so what do they base their faith on???

    October 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • nathaniel fernandes

      Teachings from Human Philosophy .. as I can truly see.

      August 7, 2013 at 6:53 am |
  11. Mandy

    I'm shocked that realizing that the teachings of the church were unfounded and lacking in evidence wasn't on the list.

    October 9, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • JO

      Good one!

      October 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
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