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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

“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. nino

    Religions: A BIG scam and they get all TAX FREE!!!! Better than oil companies! What a country!!!!!!!!

    March 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  2. Bob Buchanan

    All religions, Catholic, Islam, Hindu, etc., is a result of birth, NOT choise.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • mrbelvedere

      Out of the mouths of babes... literally. Now, give mommy the keyboard back.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • sam stone

      they are all a result of choice

      March 31, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  3. Adam

    Uhhh, how about transubstantiation? Anyone? No? Everyone here is cool about pretending to believe that if you say the right words over a biscuit that it turns into a person?

    March 30, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Soylent Green

      Wait, are you saying ... communion wafers are people!?!?!?!

      March 30, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Lewis Keseberg

      Having sampled a number of different types of meat, I find human flesh to be truly divine.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Adam

      Hi Green. Catholics believe that if you mutter the right Latin words over bread, that that bread LITERALLY turns itself into human meat. This dogma MUST be accepted to be a Catholic. This is a fact about the church. And this fact greatly informed my decision to abandon the Catholic church in which I was raised.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Zen

      Transubstantiation = priest invokes imaginary god into wafer and wine and literal transformation occurs.
      Consubstantiation = same thing, only transformation is symbolic.
      Either way, ignorance, loneliness and fear of death causes billions of people to abdicate their rational thinking faculties.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Soylent Green

      Oh, I actually knew that. Though nearly half of all Catholics either don't understand or don't believe in this core teaching of the church. I guess that's why they give first communion to seven year olds – they're not really going to question things.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Casey

      Adam – It is not just words that change a communion wafer into the body of Christ, it is the faith of the priest and the congregation, as well as the Spirit.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Adam

      That said, do you actually believe in the efficacy of this transformation? This is the point. It seems clear to me that the fact that the priest might actually believe that saying those words will do what he supposedly thinks it will do, does not actually make the claim any less absurd. And it is manifestly absurd on it's face.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  4. Albert

    RELIGION: For people who are too dumb to understand science.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Adam

      I think it has much more to do with intellectual dishonesty and one's willingness to pretend to know things that they do not know, than mere lack of intelligence. I am no friend of religion, but conflating religious thinking with "boy are you duuuuuuumb" does not invite people to participate in conversation. Give them good reasons why it is patently unethical to lie to yourselves and your children about what you know about the nature of the universe. Give them good reasons to disbelieve the dogma passed on through religious tradition. But don't CALL them stupid. SHOW them what they believe is stupid, and WHY.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  5. C.S. Lewis

    The Seven Deadly Sins of the Catholic Church

    March 30, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  6. Kafka

    My wife and I see who is going to preside over the Mass before we walk in. We have had Homilies about I dont know what but since the Father has a passion for geology, he gave us a college level lecture on the rocks around San Antonio. He spoke of how our sediment is like how it is by the river Jordan. He even went so far as to say what part of town would be the best to build a swimming pool. We have a lot of rocks the size of baseballs and it would be great if San Antonio would get an NFL team. (This is for real). Of course this was right after we found out that Dallas and Houston did not make the playoffs. Other than that, he is a pleasent fellow.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  7. Timesthree

    If the Catholic Church were a stock, I'd sell it short.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  8. AScared

    I attended Catholic school all my life including University. At Franciscan Univrsity in Steubenville Ohio, I was in a confessional with a priest who rubbed his hands up & down my thighs telling me that I was "God's princess." I remember the entire time, as his face neared mine, praying & praing "God please don't let him kiss me."

    March 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Rainbow Jeremy

      That's hot. Tell us more.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • sam stone

      mmmmm....catholic schoolgirl outfit........

      March 31, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • sam stone

      "come out virginia, don't make me wait, you catholic girls start much too late......" st. william of hicksville

      March 31, 2012 at 2:32 pm |


    "Six months after the CatholicsComeHome.org media campaign ended, a comprehensive analysis was conducted, which revealed the average increase in Mass attendance (returned Catholics, new converts) was 12 percent, even though population growth in the Diocese of Phoenix was flat during that period. This equates to an increase of as many as 92,000 souls who came home!"

    Ryan Hanning
    Director of Adult Evangelization, Diocese of Phoenix

    March 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      That addressed people who just weren't going to mass, not those who had actually left the church. But, since it helped fill church coffers a bit more, it likely accomplished its goal.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  10. Casey

    Not a good Catholic, but still trying – You say it is a good thing that people leave the Catholic Church if they disagree with Church teaching. I disagree. I am a gay Catholic, and I agree with the Church on most issues. I disagree with their stance on h o m o s e x u a l i t y, and the only way to help change the Church is from within.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • plucky

      Why are you catholic?

      March 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Elohel

      But what your saying is you want to change the "Word of God." Just like the new and the old testament... if it was the "Word of God" why would you ever change it... oh wait...a... COGNITIVE DISSONANCE.....

      March 30, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Casey

      Plucky – I am Catholic because I agree with the core teachings of the Church. I believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I agree with the Catholic view of Scripture (putting Scripture in historical and cultural context, not interpreting it literally). I also like the sense of liturgy in the Church. I am most at home in the Catholic Church because that is the Church in which I was raised.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • plucky

      I think your truely honest reason was the very last one.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Casey

      Elohel – I am not changing the Word of God. There is a legitimate argument to be made that the Scriptures do not condemn h o m o s e x u a l i ty when they are put in historical and cultural context.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • maz king

      good luck with that.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Casey

      Plucky – You may be right. I attended a UCC church for a while (the denomination openly accepts and affirms LGBT individuals) but ended up leaving because of church politics. I returned to the Catholic Church and hope that my presence is a witness to the Church hierarchy that the Catholic Church belongs to God and the people. Change can only happen from within.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • plucky

      Don't waste any more of your time with the church. You will feel a great sense of freedom and relief once you drop all the dogma (not just the churches dogma, but all dogma)
      In reality, nobody knows how we got here. Anyone who tells you they do is either a lier or is diluded. That's it, and live your life like you want to.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  11. Erik

    Reason 8: 'cause it's make believe and science/evidence/logic don't support it.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  12. LouAZ

    What is the matter CNN Belief Blog ? Didn't like my additional reasond to leave the Catholic Church ? Why didn't you print them here ?

    March 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Jeff

      I agree. I spent a good bit writing my first comments and they never got posted. I didn't say anything bad and were good thoughts on the subject. I hit post and it never got posted. I then back paged to my original paragraph of writing and hit post and got a error message saying I repeated myself. Thanks for completely wasting my time CNN.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      LouAZ, go back to your post (if you can) and look for any of these:

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in rac-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      cu-nt.....as in Scu-nthorpe, a city in the UK famous for having problems with filters...!
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, etc.
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!

      There are more, some of them considered "racist", so do not assume that this list is complete.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  13. stagg

    In our Catholic church there is a former Presbyterian priest who converted to Catholicism. He came with his wife and children. So he is a married catholic priest and I'm sure he's having marital relations with his wife (who wouldn't want to with their spouse?). By the way, this was approved by the Bishop who in turn received permission from Rome. I've heard this has been done at other parishes as well.

    So if they allow this priest to give out Communion, why won't they allow every other priest to marry? Hypocrisy.


    March 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  14. Alex

    they forgot to mention that it is a false religion

    March 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  15. *facepalm*

    And given numbers from the pew research foundation, these numbers are far less than the numbers leaving the church. Not sure what your point is, especially about infant baptisms.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  16. Daniel

    All of the reasons are legitimate and pointing in the right direction. This reasoning should point the way for people in developing complete minds of their own. This is impossible in any religion. Religion is an addiction that I would argue has caused more harm, misery, poverty, and abuse than any drug and any combination of drugs. The difficult, painful truth is that there is no one out there to take care of us, and soothe our pain. As mature adults we have to cope with this reality. We only have each other.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm |

    When I was a kid, I remember my father getting a financial statement from the Catholic church telling him that he need to "pay up". That's is how I think of the Catholic church, and the greed behind it all.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  18. Christina

    I am a non-practicing Catholic. When I was in Catholic school, they forced us to go to mass weekly. If not, we get a fine by increasing our tuition and they tell us it is a sin. You know what? The church make up things they considered sins for their own benefit. Such nonsense. If the Lord was alive, he wouldn't make up such rules. Worst of all, they made us go to mass to collect money. If we give less, they charged it to our tuition. We must give a certain amount or more to avoid the fine. We were poor and it is really bad how the church treated us. I'm not sure about other catholic church, but my church was in Brooklyn, NY. Holy Innocents Church when I attended as a child from 1977-1982. Since then, I seldom go to church. Plus with all the child molestation cases around the world, who can trust a priest. And the Pope, in his Prada shoes and high end fashioned hats and outfits, why should we Catholics continue to give his Church monies for them to enjoy the good life. They are fakes who make us believe it is a sin for this for that, etc. Don't believe everything the Catholic Church tells you. Believe in God in your own heart if you want, but don't let the Catholic church or other religions force you to do so. Religion are made up by man, not God. Maybe there is no God.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • plucky

      So why do you still consider yourself catholic?

      March 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • jbcal

      You can always join some other faith where their ministers wear the $1,000 suits and drive a benz.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Hopper

      Just give it up. There is no good reason to believe in GOD(s). Science is slowly providing good explanations for a lot of the phenomena that used to mystify man. You can be a good and moral person without any religion in your life. It is actually liberating, no guilt, no fairy watching you all the time, no fear.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  19. pensimmon

    I was educated at Roman Catholic schools for 12 years – 5 years at a boarding school. Mass every day, religous instruction daily, benediction twice a week, Angelus every day, Litany twice a day and so on. Even as a child I was struck by the lack of tolerance for people of other beliefs, who appeared to me to live good, honest lives, while the Catholics were smugly saying that everyone else was going to hell. Then too, all the stuff we read was so outdated and irrelevant to modern life. Men wrote the Bible, the Gospels and the Acts. Just as now, they put their personal "spin" on what was often from a tradition of oral stories. God did NOT write any of it- not one word. I would prefer that any religion that picked out the parts that were still relevant – possibly the Ten Commandments- although so many of these extreme conservatives worship money (banned by the first commandment as a false god) that that might be unpopular. We need some modern theologians to write new texts that would be useful. We should be helped to find our own personal spiritual journey, not dictated to and brainwashed. It is far better to live a moral life because a person decides it's the right thng to do, than to only live a moral life because wome priest scared you into it. as you can tell, I think a huge overhaul would be great. I'm also very supportive of married preists, women priests and gay marriage!!!!! But then I'm a tolerant person.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm |

    In 2011, the Official Catholic Directory (OCD) has reported that there were 43,335 adult baptisms and 72,859 people received into full communion in the US in the Roman Catholic Church of Jesus Christ. There will be many more this Easter Vigil... These numbers are based on participation in the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion, the final phase of the RCIA process celebrated at the beginning of Lent. Also, Infant baptisms totaled 830,673 this year alone...

    March 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • plucky

      and your point is.....

      March 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.