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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. Abinadi

    I would like to invite everyone to listen to the worlds living apostles and prophets as the semi-annual general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gets under way tomorrow and Sunday. You can tune in on lds.org.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Thanks Abinadi but I'll be staying home with my living apostles and prophets (my family). Enjoy your conference!

      March 30, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • roccop777

      Will they be commenting on how there are scores of god's scattered throught the universe - and that even the one we call "God" was once a normal human being on another planet, before he became a god?
      Will they revise their first prophet's description of the inhabitants of the moon as being over six feet tall and dressed up like puritans (this "prophecy" was once proudly boasted about - until the Apollo missions to the moon. Still these "revelations" of your prophet are archived in the Huntington Library in San Marino. CA. - founded by a devout Mormon).
      The LDS church is a freemasonary cult disguised as a christian church. Jesus warned about false prophets to arise and mislead many in the latter days - the LDS church fits the bill to a tee!

      March 30, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Abinadi

      RoCop, what nonsense!

      March 30, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Humanist

      You must be kidding, right?

      March 30, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  2. dominick

    We are not going to Vegas!

    March 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  3. Hopper

    IT IS ACTUALLY ENCOURAGING TO READ THAT MOST POSTS HERE ARE AGAINST RELIGION IN ALL ITS FORMS AND MANIFESTATIONS. HUMANITY IS GROWING UP AND LEAVING FEAR AND GUILT BASED SUPERNATURAL BELIEFS BEHIND. I RECENTLY ATTENDED THE REASON RALLY IN WASHINGTON, DC AND IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL THING TO SEE MANY FAMILIES WITH THEIR KIDS AND A PREDOMINANCE OF YOUNG PEOPLE. THE FUTURE OF THE UNITED STATES LOOKS BRIGHTER FOR THE NEW GENERATIONS.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • missapathetic

      Agreed.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  4. Jonathan Michael Brouillette

    "Dear friends, do not hesitate to follow Jesus Christ. In him we find the truth about God and about mankind. He helps us to overcome our selfishness, to rise above our ambitions and to conquer all that oppresses us. The one who does evil, who sins, becomes a slave of sin and will never attain freedom (cf. Jn 8:34). Only by renouncing hatred and our hard and blind hearts will we be free and a new life will well up in us. Convinced that it is Christ who is the true measure of man, and knowing that in him we find the strength needed to face every trial, I wish to proclaim openly Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life. In him everyone will find complete freedom, the light to understand reality more deeply and to transform it by the renewing power of love." – Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Visit to Cuba Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/popes-homilies-and-addresses-i n-cuba-full-texts#ixzz1qTk7CfSL

    March 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      All your posts really have no point. Or are you just trying to be another copy/paste troll?

      March 30, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  5. BS

    "...processes the opinions of 300 non-churchgoing Catholics in Trenton, New Jersey.:" Are you kidding me?

    March 30, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  6. Jonathan Michael Brouillette

    St. Ignatius of Antioch, student of the Apostle John – "They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils."

    March 30, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Humanist

      Jonathan: Too late. You’re clearly not avoiding us… having doubts are we?

      March 30, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  7. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Interviewer: "Why did you leave the church?"
    Me: "When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things."

    March 30, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Humanist

      Amen!

      March 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  8. Mary

    If the Pope is SO holy and SO important and is loved by god (and thus must be protected by him) SO much, WHY DOES HE HIDE BEHIND BULLETPROOF GLASS IN PUBLIC? P.S. – YOU JUST GOT SERVED.

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

      Because people like you? (had had had) but I digress... Religion needs to stay out of politics and focused laws. Religion is best served by how you live your life. A good life is the best example for others to follow...

      March 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • rickincambridge

      In case someone shooting at your ignor*nt Azz misses. Don't want any collateral damage.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  9. Imagine

    Although many issues are spoken of here, one must remember that these are man made issues. Because one is Christian does not make one perfect, only fogiven. No one will ever be perfect and all people fall far short of the glory of God. Being Christian is and should be about a personal relationship with Christ. It is all about grace. Far too many people in the world associate christianity with the misgivings of man. That is natural. To understand Christianity, one needs to take a personal journey. You will be mocked and ridiculed, but Christ said this would surely happen. It is not a road that is easy, but Christ tells us that we must take up our cross daily. In the end, it is a personal journey. You can chose to put your faith in Christ and change or you may chose to change but not put your faith in Christ. You can either chose a life of selflessness and put your faith in Christ or you can live life to it's fullest and for yourself. We all will die. those that believe are promised eternal life. Those that do not will perish. You can laugh, but it is a very serious question to contemplate. Eternity is a very very long time. End note: if you wish to redicule me and make fun, that is fine. I know it is an expression of weakness and insecurity when one has to mock others.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  10. bbcblogger

    I grew up and learned is just a Political Party. It has little to do with God and Spirituality and more with power and money.The power play of the Catholic church is a big turn off.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Cath ho lick

      We worship God, we love Jesus...Pope, just a pompous control freak that makes you feel guilty, fearing him that are spoiled by brainwashed mass attendees pretending to be good Catholics. Now I'm attending non-denominational church where there is unconditional love. Sorry about my honest feedback.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  11. BobCrow

    To NoBody, Fact: It took the Catholic Church 400 years to acknowledge Galileo was correct. Until then he was a heretic according to the Vatican. Prediction: It will take another 400 years for the Catholic Church to acknowledge it's archaic thinking is responsible for Reasons 1-7. In the meantime millions of Catholics are not going to wait for the Pope and his flock of Cardinals, they will live good Christian lives, be faithful to Jesus, go to church, and not be a Catholic!

    March 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  12. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Rainbow Jeremy

      Please provide real-world evidence.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      I prayed for the Catholic Church to go away .. it appears to be working!

      March 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • SBSTR

      So atheism is not good? How about Buddhism or Hinduism? Are they any good? Maybe Baha'i? What about their prayers? Do they help?

      March 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • just sayin

      You are here.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • heretic(greek for free thinker)

      giving your child false hope of some magical fairy tale to believe in isnt healthy either.

      I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
      ~ Stephen Roberts

      March 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Humanist

      Religion is the root of all evils, just look at history. Atheism, humanism, and the ability to reason, teach children that humanity is important in and of itself. If you, personally, require religion or some other fairytale to justify your personal being or anything else in this life, I feel sorry for you.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • missapathetic

      Humanist's sentiment, a million times over.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Jesus

      ~~You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      Plus don't forget. The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.!

      March 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Hopper

      Actually a childhood free of religious indoctrination is one of the best things that can happen to any child!!!

      March 30, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  13. Someone

    You know, why did CNN not post that the Catholic world population actually GREW last year... Maybe because all news agencies only want to attack the Church

    March 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • PulTab

      Keep going farther into the jungles to find "believers". It last forever.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Humanist

      Um, yes, the population, in general, grows every year. Did they not teach you any further math, or about percentages in your parochial school?

      March 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  14. BCL12

    IIs there a reason that an article giving a list of criticisms of the Catholic Church doesn't include a response from Church hierarchy? These people were listing what they would say to their bishops if given the opportunity. Well, they just were given that chance. Why not let the bishops respond? If you then wanted to have a counterpoint to the bishops' responses you could have that too. Just seems to me like there should be balance here.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • plucky

      Why would you ask Bishops, who are still in the church, why so many people are leaving the church? Isn't it better to ask the people who actually left?

      March 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  15. csg

    FYI, The photo here is of my Church – The Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, DC. It's quite a treasure. President Kennedy was shown here after his assassination. My real point is that at EACH Easter Vigil (Saturday night before Easter Sunday) at least 30 adults are inducted into the Catholic church. They are Baptized, Confirmed, and receive first Communion, all from the Cardinal of Washington. I don't think that's a sign of a shrinking community.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Jesuswillcomeasecndtime

      Never in an argument or an opposing statement should you use ANY Christian holiday. They ALL HAVE PAGAN ORGINS. If this case, Easter, "Easter", many scholars agree, has its root in ancient pagan religion. -info taken from http://www.bethhamashiach.com/pagan_origins_of_easter.htm
      "Easter" derived from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. The name is actually much older – going back to Babel and it's infamous tower-GOOGLE IT
      OH and you should google December 25th... who's son are we really celebrating this day 🙂

      March 30, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  16. Rainbow Jeremy

    All religion is horrible. Be free and live your own life.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • David in Three Hills

      Rainbow Jerry said in this string "All religion is horrible. Be free and live your own life."

      We all must be accountable. If everyone were free as a bird and lived accordingingly, it would be guns and bodyguards everywhere, wouldn't it?

      If we can live a civic life under the rule of law, why not our spiritual lives?

      Of course, one is challenged to determine which code is reliable. Therein lies the difference between following a religion and following a faith. I have yet to find a reliablereligion, but have found comfort and security in a faith-based construct.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • pk

      "Please provide real-world evidence."
      –Rainbow Jeremy

      March 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  17. Michael

    I am happily married, with child, supportive family, and stable career-and I credit ALL of this to the teachings of the Catholic Church. I pray for the haters, because we can all come back and choose water over fire.

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

      Can you explain why the church gets credit for all you have accomplished?

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

      You've obviously never seen the book "Eucharistic Miracles."

      March 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Judas Priest

      Choose gasoline.
      Some of us are not sheep.

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

      Just because YOU need religion to justify your life doesn’t mean we are all so weak.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  18. Shadow0429

    Christianity and Catholicism in particular have two prime things in common. They both master use of guilt and fear! I speak as an former-Catholic and a former Christian! I finally reached the point where I recognized Christianity and Catholicism are nothing but a huge business. I'm not stating this to be offensive towards anyone, I state this because it's my own opinion. Should the general consensus from you readers be that my soul Is going to rot in hell
    is a prime example of Christian fear! Christians have been taught from an early age to beware of losing their "faith". They have been using that fear and guilt for 2012 years! When one realizes the amount of time man has lived on this planet, 2012 years is the blink of an eye. I see where Christianity as a whole, has caused more misery in this world than it has cause joy and happiness! I don't see myself as one who has "lost his faith", I see myself as one who has finally reached that turning point in my life where I can say emphatically and
    without any fear and/or guilt whatsoever that I am at peace with myself. I treat others the same way I want to be treated! I respect all life, all life from human life to insect life and I have no guilt or fear at all.
    Thank you

    March 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • James

      Well said

      March 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • The Dust on That Olive Branch is Anthrax

      The number one reason, IMHO, that people leave the Catholic Church is that they never learn enough about it to understand it. Sadly, most Catholics are unable to explain the meaning of the elements of the Mass, let alone the teachings of the Church. If they knew enough to do that, they'd stay, not out of fear, but out of the peace and joy that comes from knowing the Truth. Our society doesn't emphasize the truth, though. It emphasizes material success, pleasure, and calling all of your own shots on everything–part of the moral relativism that is systematically destroying American society. Regarding Shadow's assertions about fear, if I were to tell a smoker about my Dad dying of lung cancer and that smoking causes cancer because I care about them and want to influence them to quit, does that make me a fear monger? The fact that a certain truth scares you or doesn't fit in with what you want doesn't make it any less true nor does it make me the villain for telling you.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Ray

      Hello & God Bless You "Shadow0429"!.
      I'm a Christian believer and a former Catholic. Let me begin by stating that I respect your opinions and love you as a brother. You stated that both are nothing but huge businesses; and tend to lightly agree on the basis of how these organizations are operated. But I disagree if what you're insinuating is that you stopped going beacuse you believe that they're just cashing in (like a normal business profits)-and I'm not naive of the fact that there are certain churches/ministries that do so in a dishonest way. First, let me state that any of us that state such facts without having proper authority and proof would be acting in disobedience to God (because you're accusing some wrongfully-unless you're employed by the IRS, state or federal agency and have proof). Number two, and really should have been #1; the Bible(which is the Word of God)says that the church(that's us) has obligation of honoring God by giving our tythe which is 10% of our gross income everytime we are compensated from our jobs. This comes before paying any of our bills-in this direct according according to the scriptures. We do this out of obedience because if we believe in Him then we're proving our faith by doing so. Offerings are additional gifts that we also give to honor God and the Church. Now these funds SHOULD be allocated to help support the churche's expenses, maintenance expenses, utilities, to provide to other ministries, homeless, missions, etc. Pastors, Priests and other Church Leaders have Occupational Certifications from their prespective boards and they receive salaries just as you and I do to support themselves. Yes, there are many church leaders that abuse this beyond belief; we see and hear about it in the news all the time. But my overall point is that this is a Biblical principle mandating by God in his own words throughout the scriptures and we'd be guilty of "judging others"; where at the end of the day; it is God's job to do that. If I give $500 for tything and offering and later find that is was used by a clergy member or the church in a unappropriate way; and I have no proof to report it to authorities; then I'm not losing any sleep over it; I know my God and am confident that God know's what I gave; He saw what was done with that money believe me and there will be judgment one day for that leader, etc. Finally, please DO NOT take my word for it; just read the bible. Whenever my church asks for additional donations for a said ministry or mission, etc I give whatever I can and that's the end of it. I hope you understand God instruction on this and change your views about this; because you would be disobeying his instruction. Take Care & God Bless You!

      March 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  19. jONATHAN mICHAEL bROUILLETTE

    Pastor Alex Jones' conversion story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oWiqJCYGlU

    March 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  20. ExCatholic

    Add to the list: Hypocrisy, hierarchy luxurious living (unlike Christ), out of touch with reality, stance on contraception.

    March 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Judas Priest

      And that whole "anything issued by a pope remains infallible and incontrovertible unless directly overturned by a later pope" thing. All those lovely little rules which the church doesn't like to talk about, but are still on the books. As a catholic, you are expected to abide by them– but you are never told about so many of them. It's less a "Gotcha!" thing than it is an "overwhelmingly hidebound bureaucracy" thing– but a thing it is, and a thing it remains.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
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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.