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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. Yahweh.

    The catholic church is wallowing in the dark ages. Only a medieval peasant would fall for their line of cr.ap.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  2. hokiethug

    How about the fact that there is no magic sky fairy? That's why I never joined any church.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • do

      must be all the @$$r@ping the priests are known for...

      March 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  3. joey

    The no communion for divorcees has to change. It's insulting, degrading, and unfair. It's also man-made law – Jesus would accept anyone.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Ben

      Actully, one who is divorced can recieve communion. The problem comes about when they get remarried and they either can't or refuse to get an annulment. However, if you are like my uncle, who is divorced and is single, you are free to take communion as long as you are within the right to do so per cannon law

      March 30, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • TomNPitt

      Telling Catholics who have voted for a candidate who is pro-choice they are no longer welcome to receive communion; or telling a politician you plan on denying them communion if they show up at your church is also an exertion of man-made law. Christ welcomed and encouraged sinners to hang out with him. That kind of political showmanship is really a big killer of beleivers. Who do you think you are passing judgement on anyone else for any reason.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  4. relmfoxdale

    My brother actually joined the Catholic church in adulthood after being protestant. But it was only because he wanted to take communion, and they wouldn't let him unless he got baptized in (and his previous protestant baptism was no good, of course). He was attending that church in the first place simply because he liked it (that specific church). It was a "non-papal" church, which I find amusing. The priest wasn't too bothered about the Pope. LOL.

    I have to admit, I don't actively attend any church, but the one that sounds best to me is the Quakers/Society of Friends. That's about as un-Catholic as you can get. Whoa nelly.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  5. The Flamingo Kid

    If it is from Satan it will not stand. This is why so many people are leaving this den of demons and the Church is falling.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  6. Lee

    I'm surprised that realizing the absurdity of a mythical super-being isn't one of the reasons, but that's probably due to the brainwashing they've been subject to for most of their lives.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Answer

      It's unbelievable because people are too scared to face the wide world alone. We are born into a family but we are just one person that dies and we can't take our whole family with us when we die with us. For that selfish comfort we have a made up god.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Scott

      Of course 'Lee', whenever an article comes on out on religion, your kind is never far behind. Instead using the term "Atheists', why don't you folks change it to the other A-word. It fits much better.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Chris

      Agreed

      March 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Chris

      i agreed with lee btw

      March 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • joey

      ...and that's what makes you such a pleasure

      March 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • say what

      scott- whats jesuses golden rule... "treat others like you would want to be treated" and that means athiests and gays

      March 30, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • watnen

      Nail on head Lee, well said.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  7. Apostasy is Fatal

    LORD/Allah says that his WORD and TORAH / QURAN is written in the heart and mind of everyone, JER 31, ROM 2 Surah 29:49.
    The Abrahamic/Mosaic Covenant is indelable and unbreakable. Be warned: APOSTASY is fatal and leads to spiritual destruction. "Curse GOD and DIE" Job 2, EX 32, LV 18, DT 13. No one can hide from the LIVING GOD of heaven and earth. RV 22: "Repent, for the KINGDOM is near!"

    March 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Jagged

      Thank you.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Answer

      Sure. Quack.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • kaeldraknowsall

      The LORD/ALLAH said no such thing. People who pretended to be speaking for their GREAT INVISIBILIBUDDY said those things to cow other people (pretty effectively for many centuries). It's hogwash.

      Yes, the GREAT INVISIBILIBUDDY will be offended if you don't use all-caps when you spell his name. We know this by faith, and our faith is the evidence of it. See how that works?

      March 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • Yahweh.

      True, apostsy is fatal, but only in certain countries like Saudi Arabia. It has nothing to do with a higher power however. The fatal part is due to power hungry elderly clerics wanting to slit your throat if you choose not to believe their suppresive tripe.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  8. ana

    I HATE religeon. However, I LOVE God.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Jagged

      Good on you, if you want to see the latest fashions, go to church, if you want to get your feelings hurt, go to church. If you want to have a personal relationship with the Almighty God, get on your knees in a quiet place and wait on the Lord. Jesus is your best friend, you can tell him anything. There is nothing he doesn't already know about you, so be honest, leave your troubles at the foot of the cross and believe.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  9. Sardukar

    Nothing good has come out of the religion..the people have grown up and left the imaginary friends behind..this is the age of reason.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Randoms

      Bingo

      March 30, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • jrkleineck

      Reason and Truth are fundamentally aligned. The question is what is on what your "Reason" is based.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Jagged

      There is a way which seems right with man, the end thereof however is death, eternal death.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Wilmer Henao

      yeah. But they're not leaving to ateism necessarily. Some are moving to even more conservative denominations.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • kaeldraknowsall

      @Jagged – you just added to Scripture. That little "eternal death" bit is not in the holy ancient text. Altering the word of God is a sin. Go say some Hail Mary's and cleanse thyself or you might be risking limbo or purgatory or, shucks, maybe even hell.

      But on another note... if Catholicism seems right to you... and there is a way that seems right to a man but leads to death... ouch man... you better repent from Catholicism and start following a way that doesn't seem right to you. Only then can you be safe from that tangled mess of a scripture you just referenced.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  10. 12025

    Cathalism is the Democrats of religion believe or not. The basis of the Cathalic church is to assist and carry those who need the added assistance to have a a relationship with Christ. The rules/behaviors represent the nanny society of today. Where the non-denominational church would be your independants and the Baptist church would be your Republicans.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • MITPhD

      It is my opinion that your comparison is flawed and your spelling is atrocious.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  11. watnen

    The #1 reason should be that Christianity is ridiculous and archaic!
    I have no problem with someone saying "This beautiful world must have been created by some higher power", but come on people, how can anyone read the Bible and not say "WHAT THE #$@%" !!!!!
    At least pick a religion that is based on even a shred of reality, decency or morality.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  12. cleareye1

    I've always wondered how the Catholic Church stays in business. They make no effort to respond to complaints or changing times. They just don't care since they have sufficient wealth accrued to pay any legal settlements and the faithful keep handing them more money. Is there a time coming that modern communications will educate the followers enough to enlighten them to real truth?

    March 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  13. Reality

    The "vomit-inducing" ped-ophilia and coverup will simply hasten the decline of all religions as they finally go extinct from their own absurdity.. It is time to replace all religions with a few rules like "Do No Harm" and convert all houses of "worthless worship" to recreation facilities and parks.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • That's Why

      The reality is religion will never disappear. Your hope that it will is less rational than the faith you detest so much. Ped-ophilia is not a religion-exclusive thing, there are also ped-o atheists. Even in the event religion were to disappear, some religious buildings are art and your desire is no less destructive than the burning of libraries and destruction of landmarks practiced in the Dark Ages. You want to free people from the bonds of religion? Why don't you start with yourself? It's clear that you're still a slave to it.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Peter

      In reply to Thats Why, "Ped-ophilia is not a religion-exclusive thing, there are also ped-o atheists." Agreed, but where is the world wide and accepted as reputable power structure covering up for them? Aside from that whole stupidity of invisible friend in the sky theory.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  14. Moo

    Notice how all of these responses are about the self-fulfillment of those that left the Church. Rather than acknowledge that Our Lord, Jesus Christ founded the Church, they want to leave because the homilies are boring and/or they believe the hierarchy is too conservative.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Reed Anson Forrester

      Read your history. Jesus sent his apostles out to all the corners of the world, and then later the leaders in various places called themselves bishops, and then the one in Rome decided he was the most powerful one, so he blackmailed the others into naming him the supreme bishop. But the ones in the East wouldn't go along with that, so the Great Schism happened. The bishop of Rome should be just one among equals, and NONE of them were infallible. Even the doctrine of infallibility wasn't created until the First Vatican Council of 1869-1870.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • JA

      Or maybe they are capable of seeing through the smoke and mirrors of church doctrine and perceiving the 2000 year old Iron Age religion for what it is.

      If the Church doesn't get with the times, it likely won't survive into the next century.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • relmfoxdale

      Jesus founded the church. He didn't found the Roman Catholic church. That didn't exist until some time after he died. And it was a "variation" (I'm being nice with my word choice there) on the church he'd actually founded.

      Why is everyone always on about how sinful the priests are? Newsflash: There have been sinning priests for as long as there have been priests. There are also sinning pastors, ministers, rabbis, and whatever they call them in Islam (I should probably know that). The issue shouldn't be whether they sin but whether they believe they're "above the law" and whether the church covers for rampant abuses.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  15. Ron

    How do I know historically and biblically I'm in good company in the church!?

    If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, "A servant is not greater than his master." If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me. (Jn 15:18-21)

    March 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • Reed Anson Forrester

      There are plenty of non-Catholics who cite the same verse, but with less of an Inquisition in their history.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • kaeldraknowsall

      So the more hated you are and persecuted you are, the more you know you're right? That's ridiculous. If that were true, you should be trumpeting the awesomeness of gays because they're hated and persecuted much more than whiney catholics who get upset about a news article.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Ron

      Written in the fervor of anti-Catholic passions...

      March 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  16. JustIn

    As far as Catholic presidential candidates that are really willing to go the distance, I'd like to get behind Rick Santorum and give him my solid support, but until he's more open about all the stimulus that has gone into his package, we won't know for sure that he's a real Republican and a true Catholic. No matter how oral he gets on Romney, Romney is still just getting a head.

    No way has Santorum been able to get out and on top of Romney so far despite his occasional thrusts in the south. There's no way Romney should be going soft on him at this stage, either. The messy climax is not far off in this little erection campaign and you can learn about it here at http://santorum.com

    March 30, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • ForGoodOfAll

      Very clever and funny Justin! Great job! LOL !!!!!!

      March 30, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  17. J.R.

    Former Catholic; Science-based Agnostic – have never been happier. Oh, and keep in mind, the Catholic Church knew the holocaust was happening and did absolutely nothing. That Church is the ultimate in evil.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • AM

      What do you think the Catholic Church should have done? They didn't have an army that could beat the Nazis.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • kaeldraknowsall

      AM: "What do you think the Catholic Church should have done?"

      For starters, not laying the groundwork for the Nazis by conducting 16 centuries of persecution (murder, theft, exile, torture, oppression) against Jews.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Ben

      So you are saying that Pope Pius XII did not shelter Jews in both the Vatican and in the summer home, Castel Gandolfo? Or that st. maximilian kolbe did not give his life in the place of a jewish man in Auschwitz?

      March 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  18. Reed Anson Forrester

    For all of you still struggling with the conflict between what the Catholic Church says and how it acts, I suggest you check out the "White Robed Monks of St. Benedict." They are true Catholic priests who act the way the Catholic Church should be acting, humbly serving the people instead of dictating to them. They have left the political hierarchy of the church and provide the sacraments to anyone who wants them, without questioning or judging them.

    March 30, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  19. chris

    Just another in a series of anti christian and anti catholic articles coming from cnn....

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

      Is it the writing you don't like or just the factual content?
      Unless CNN is making this up, it's Catholics who are being .. um .. anti Catholic.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • jrkleineck

      That's really the problem, though–isn't it? The Church isn't easy. The really humorous [though at the same time, not humorous at all] thing is that people think it should be... or so I gather. And yet, if you look into the lives of people like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, or Padre Pio, or Maximilian Kolbe, what we find are lives riddled with strife and pain, but yet peace. A peace that perseveres through adversity and upholds the dignity of the common man. But in order for someone to come to that conclusion, they'd have to unplug their earbuds and exit from a lifestyle that tends to be largely centered around what I want, and what I think is best for the world. Really, that's the issue that divides society. It's not the rules or the regulations that people misinterpret as an assault on their "freedom", it's the reluctance to step outside of the self and give their lives over to something bigger. The most closed minded people are not the Church heirarchy to have been guiding a human race to God over the past 2000+ years, but the man who now asserts that after 30 years of living he understands life better than the Church or who asserts that the Church should "get with the times". Have we ever even stopped to question if we've left the times get away from us?

      And so, it makes sense that the rants continue to come down from CNN and major news media, because the media doesn't get it–though to be fair neither does contemporary man. Self importance must take a back seat to really loving others – even to the detriment of our "flesh" – to understand our faith and Church. Until we truly cede to that, I fully expect the criticism and blanket complaints will continue without anyone really questioning what they are rebelling against.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • tateman

      Yes those people were saints in spite of the Catholic Church.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • jrkleineck

      No, they served the Church. Your assertion is fundamentally juxtaposed with any moral claim on sainthood.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • McBuggins

      Amen Brother

      March 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • Hopper

      Only hope you are not leaving your kids unattended when you go to your blessed church.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  20. JoJo

    A few years ago, I not only severed myself from Catholicism, but also from ALL religion and accepted what I AM and have been my whole adult life - an agnostic Humanist. The straw, or maybe I should call it the log, that broke my back was the enthusiastic support of many of the so-called Christians in this country for the unnecessary lie-based mass-murder, torture-laden, holocaust called the "Preventive War of Choice in Iraq", which the Vatican admitted clearly violated Christian Just War Criteria when you cornered them to address the issue.

    “It is essential not to lose sight of the moral dimension of war. ……..The War in Iraq did not even come close to satisfying the requirements of a just war.” Ron Paul

    "All murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets". Voltaire

    March 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • booboo

      just try to remember that god and religion are two different things. dont sever yourself from the truth just because mankind perverted the concept of god and weaponized it. theres much much more to life than what we are. you dont need religion to walk with god. just your two feet.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • Cathy

      booboo-AMEN!

      March 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Answer

      So funny.. god and religion being seperate.. right.

      They are both the same pathetic thing. Both imaginary. Made up for the weak.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Yogi

      booboo,
      That is not God over there you want so badly, it is a picinik-basket.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:39 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.