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. bobcat2u

    I was born into a catholic family. I was baptized into catholicism as an infant. Therefore I had no choice in the matter. I was made to go to a catholic school where the "penguins" resorted to every torture their twisted minds could conceive. ( that may have come from those extremely tight habits they wore) Even as a child I felt there was something wrong in the way the church conducted its business, ie, Kneeling down and telling a priest your sins, and then him telling you to kneel in front of the statue of such a such saint, or the virgin mother and pray. That right there sent up warning flags to me, as in idolatry. There was just always something there that told me to get the hell out. At the age of 12 years, I did just that.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  2. Michael

    I grew up gay in the Catholic school system and it almost killed me. I could not comprehend why God would make me gay, not change it no matter how hard I prayed and then send me to Hell for it. What was odd is I heard sermons about "love thy neighbor" and the teachings about gays and lesbians seemed to counter that. Fortunately I picked up the Gospel of John and realized things hadn't changed in 2,000 years and the "religious elders" and stone throwers were alive and thriving in today's world. Did some research and discovered the original text never condemned gay people.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • pervert alert

      You are not gay. Gay is a word stolen by qu eers to try to legitimize their sick disgusting lifestyles. Find another way to describe yourself that is honest.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • JoJo

      Reply to "Pervert Alert": How about "indoctrinated bigot"? Is that honest enough? As it applies to you that is.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  3. cyntblanco

    I left the catholic church April of "85. I was mourning the loss of my mother who had died Easter of that year. I was in catholic college and my Dean, who was also the pastor, physically took me out of class(hand on bicept) and dragged me in the hall. He said that I was still mourning my mother. I said yes, it had only been two weeks. He said it must stop because my mourning was taking glory away from god. This Dean that smoked and drank told me not to mourn, not encouraging words, not offering to pray the rosary with me....I left that day. I still pray the rosary and follow my catholic practices, even eating fish on fridays, but will not go back...Kinda pointless now that I have been divorced and remarried.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  4. dumbox

    The church of God by God for us. God bless the Church! The gates of hell will not prevail against it.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • gerald


      March 30, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Answer

      Silly notion of hell for idiots who can't even understand that there isn't even such a place.

      If your heaven under god's protection can be reached by the denizens of hell then your god surely does lack the power to keep out the bad company.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  5. Leschiguy

    Strange that nobody left the church because they lost their faith. I mean, if I believed that Catholicism was the one true church, I would have to put up with all the other stuff. I was an altar boy, choir boy, but I went to the library in my Catholic high school and picked up a book on the great religions of the world. I found out that their were many ideas about gods, the afterlife, creation etc. Everybody had a different story. That was it for me.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • bobcat2u

      @ Leschiguy

      That is the problem with ALL organized religions. Every single one of them claim to be " The only ture religion, and if you don't adhere to "their" rules, there is no way you will ever see heaven.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  6. believe

    as children they are taught the life of Jesus. as adults, they don't see Jesus represented in the church. just a bunch of people telling you what to do, people joining the church who favor child labor (Newt) and hating gay people (Rick) not to mention all the love the fetus hate the child folks who do nothing to show compassion or care for the kids "miracles" who are here and neglected and abused.

    it's hard to believe you were brought up in a religion of love and kindness to the least among us when the conservative portion praises wealth, judgement on others, and such. Jesus is a side character in the catholic church.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  7. New yorker

    Nobody mentioned how money hungry the church is.....religion is for the weak minded who actually believed a man lived inside a fish for 3 days, a ship was made for ALL living creatures to escape to during a massive flood, and the world began from Adam, Eve and an evil snake...in 7 days. Come on people...abandon religion and come to your senses! Live on the "principles" put forth that the religions try to instill, but cease doing things in God's name...blah blah blah. My dog knows no God and prays to no God...he won't get into doggy heaven I guess because he doesn't pray, donate to doggie church or confess to the doggy preist about peeing on the couch....sounds silly right?!

    March 30, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Yessica

      Dogs don't have souls, I'm sorry to tell you that.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Nomen

      Yes, your comment does sound silly, even risible. Largely because you have constructed a straw-man argument and refuted it to your own, and no one else's, satisfaction.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  8. stanton


    March 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • That's Why

      Caps lock and meds. Find them and use them again.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • relmfoxdale

      *wants *illegals *lawsuits *pedophiles *can't *Americans
      Use about 1/10th the punctuation marks and 1/100th the capital letters, too.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  9. TC

    I find the article spot on but the only reason I found to be valid is that church leadership has done a poor job and priests are failing to educate and give inspiring homilies.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  10. DavefromNJ

    Being a practicing Catholic from the diocese of Trenton, it appears that the people of this study are extremely biased. With the exception of the very first item, the remaining six are excuses that people hide behind in an attempt to justify why they don't want to go to church anymore.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • me

      It's an article about WHY PEOPLE DON"T GO TO MASS ANYMORE! Duh!

      March 30, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  11. Yessica

    Once you are baptized in the Catholic church you will always be a Catholic, even if you don't practice it. Did your new corner church told you that? Sad, All those churches just keep misleding people, wish people could see it. True conversion is need it, most people's heart have been harden and God's loves can not come in. Your choice. Never forget that we humans have souls and that there is a life after. I could try to teach people about the Catholic church but it is a waste of time if people are not willing to listen .

    March 30, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • stanton


      March 30, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Cletus

      What? I left the RC church when I was 16 years old (1962). Surly I was not enslaved by the dogma, that water-drops-upon-my-head at 2 months old, would dictate the bounds by which I could search for the mean of an abstract presence in the universe. Fools rush in where witch’s fear to tread! Bound me not by the dictates of dogma, for the sake of salvation

      March 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  12. Justmyopinion

    Church should be about learning how JESUS won the love of his followers. How he struggled with the "problem" before him and peacefully overcame them. How that relates to TODAYS SOCIETY and how we can do the same. The rules of society has changed and if the Church cannot change then the people will look elsewhere for "leadership". I am sure that may o not want to "leave" the church, but "children" are always looking for guidance.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  13. gerald

    People want a McCatholic Church is why they leave. A little separating of the sheep from the goats, tares from the wheat, isn't a bad thing.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Gotta agree with ya gerald .. if you're going to follow religion at least be sincere about it.
      McCatholic .. LOL nice!

      March 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  14. Jesus

    Why does CNN post articles everyday talking negative on religion? Whether its Christians, Catholics,ect. Someone that's works for CNN is trying to imprint and promote deception on the American public. I'm starting to hate this site. And the public all responds and fights and posts hate mail while the guy who wrote the article is sitting in his office laughing at everyone. Don't fall for CNN s hate articles everyone there setting you guys up.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Lilith

      They write stories like these to get hits to this site, hits = advertising $'s.
      As for promoting deception, why should the religion industry have a corner on that market?!

      March 30, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  15. GA in TX

    "Catholicisim is defined by being open to all truth and every value." We are waiting...

    March 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  16. Bravin

    I was born into Catholicism but then I studied Buddhist philosophies, and my perceptions of the self finally began making sense. I worship no deity, but I respect consciousness and reincarnation replaces the oblivion of the big three religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity). All you need is curiosity, understanding Buddhism is as easy as a sled ride down a snow covered hill. Try it, you'll like it.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  17. kenny

    religion exists because we can't accept that we will one day no longer exist even though we didn't exist for billions of years and won't exist for eternity. we can't understand the beginning or end or vastness of the universe and the unknown aspects of our existence are soooo scary we can't accept them and create fairy tales to take away those fears. those fairy tales become popular and the more popular they become the more we think they may be real. There's nothing wrong with having fairy tales as long as you know they are fairy tales.... lots of people tend to forget this and NEED their fairy tales to be real at ANY COST which usually results in the misery, suffering, and death of other people including even themselves.... all because we want to believe there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow... when deep down we ALL know there isn't....

    March 30, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • That's Why

      There's nothing wrong with completely (dis)believing in a religion, even (dis)believing in "fairy tales" as you say. The problem is when you conclude you have to force others to believe as you do or just conform to your beliefs.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Wishing really badly and believing are not the same thing .. most people just wish the stories are true but don't actually believe them.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • me

      "The problem is when you conclude you have to force others to believe as you do or just conform to your beliefs."

      That's funny you say that because that's the main problem atheists have with churchies!

      March 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 30, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • 3vix6

      Please explain to me how it's healthier to believe in fictional stories without any basis? So, it is it healthy to believe in unicorns? What about if the child was brought up to believe in Zeus, Osiris, Hera, etc?

      I would say the contrary, that religion is unhealthy for children and people of all walks of life. Do you not see all the wars and division the abrahamic religions have caused all for a belief in something that we don't even know is real or not?

      March 30, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • lwampach

      We never took our children to a single church service. We raised them to do the right thing because it is right, not for fear of retrubution or some imaginary hell. They are good, decent, moral, responsible adults and all of that without the hypocricy and sanctimony of organized religion. My husband and I have managed to have a wonderful, happy marriage for 25 years, again, without stepping foot inside a church. Besides, how did mankind survive for thousands of years before Christianity?

      March 30, 2012 at 6:45 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 6:52 pm |
    • David

      So according to "3vix6" wars have been cause by people believing in Christ? or being Catholic. Fictional characters? Last time I checked there was no mention of unicorns in the Bible. Have you even read it or let me ask you the same question I asked another Aethiest person have you ever felt a Spiritual connection to anything? Unfortunately not everything is not explained with logic. If there is no God you better be right.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • just sayin

      Salvation has always been by grace through faith. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • 3vix6


      The Unicorns are in reference to a fictional animal. Is it healthy for a child to believe in something that we all regard as fiction? What about something that has no basis that people are afraid to dismiss as fiction?

      Yes, I've read the Bible. Many times. I was raised a Christian and was a Christian until I started looking beyond the Bible for answers. The Bible has less basis in reality and more basis in religions that came before it.

      As for your Spiritual Connection, I believe I get that from other things in my life than I do from a church. Friends, family, loved ones, computers, accomplishments, video games, etc. Do I believe there is a giant curtian behind it all? Yes. Do I believe that Christianity/Islam/Judiasm has any relivant answers to the questions of life? No. Do I believe that anyone out there truly knows whats going on? No, I don't.

      David, if I am wrong, I'll gladly take my place with the great minds of the history of humanity that questioned faith and the existance of Gods. I would much rather be burning with them and having an intelligible conversation among our screams than to hear the droning of Christian preachers.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  19. GA in TX

    "Catholicisim is defined by being open to all truth and every value." We are all waiting.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • David

      The sad reality is that most Catholics that leave do not trully know their faith. Also the Catholics that come back usually do because they rediscover what the fatih is about. It's easy to criticze when you don't know what your talking about.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  20. Keith

    I left the Catholic Church after I came out as gay to my family. My parents are practicing Catholics and are 100% supportive of me. I've asked them to leave the Church or at least stop donating to the Church as they fund some pretty corrupt things. I would definitely consider myself an ex-Catholic. Plus, from what I've heard, things have gone really down hill since I've left. Reverting back to old ways is definitely not a good way to retain members.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • TC

      And what evidence and proof do you have the church as a whoel or th elocal church funds corrupt things? I know our feeds, clothes and shelters poor and homeless after paying labor and utilities.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Howard

      keith, its good that you have the support of your family. I would note, however, that people I've met who support gays, only do so because they have a family member who is gay. This is mostly evident with Christians and Republicans. My point is that they would be just as hateful toward gay people as others of their ilk, had it not been for thei own personal connections.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Cathy

      My husband and I have recently stopped attending mass because of a homily our priest recently gave which admonished gays. I will not teach hate to my children. God LOVES all people. If he created you, he loves you. What ever happened to "Love thy neighbor as I have loved you"? No where does it say "Love your neighbor unless they are gay". God's love to you, Keith and to your parents!

      March 30, 2012 at 6:55 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.