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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. loathstheright

    It should be due to intelligence and reason.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  2. brahamn samaritan

    People are getting more infomed and learning that there is no such thing as GOD.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • ryan

      indefensible blanket statement (perfect example of ignorance and arrogance)

      March 30, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Making a blanket statement doesn't make it any less true.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • MandoZink

      Absolutely brahamn samaritan!

      Once you have a concept of how enormous the universe is, all those mythological stories from the ancients seem small and insignificant compared to the vastness of time and space. The concept of "heaven" eventually looks like a simplistic fairy tale for kiddies. Go science!

      March 30, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • Hopper

      A blanket statement, the same as saying that people are growing up, being able to discuss these things through the internet and becoming less and less gullible. You don't need to believe all the Bible and other sacred books' nonsense to be a good and well balance person. One of the great human advances of this 21st century should be the demise of religion.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  3. Wilson Baird

    I don't believe they are leaving the Roman Church because of it's correct doctrine on matters of gays. The Evangelical Church has the same Biblical view and people are not leaving there! This is another clever way to CNN try to tell Roman Church to do what they (CNN) would like to see! Never!!

    March 30, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • ryan

      took the words right out of my mouth

      March 30, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  4. helomoto12354

    That article is so idiotic. Ask the 1.1 Billion practising Catholics about the church and then you'll get your dose of reality. This article was written by someone who doesn't know what they are talking about.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • 5thApe

      The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree...

      March 30, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  5. Amy

    So sad.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  6. cmjt12

    Maybe they no longer believe in "The Church" but many still believe in Catholicism.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  7. X Files

    They're leaving the catholic church because they're finally growing a brain and realizing how wrong and disgusting the church really is.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  8. scientificpoetry

    I don't know where they got their top 7 but there's probably a few more. As an ex-catholic – for me it was just too much to believe with a total lack of evidence. And "because we say so" just wasn't good enough anymore. I finally got to a point in my life where I wasn't afraid to ask questions and none of the questions I had were answered to my satisfaction by the catholic church – or any other church for that matter. I started to see the world from a different perspective – a perspective deeply rooted in reality – and realized after some time that there clearly is no higher power in charge of things. Things happened as a result of random events, some natural, some by man – but certainly none caused by god. It was clear to me that there was no god in the universe. That's when I began to understand how important life was – because it was an incredible fortune that life on earth has come to pass through evolution.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • MandoZink

      Although I learned science later, I started to wonder when the nuns told us we were lucky to be in the one guaranteed true religion. They did say some of the protestants and a few others were probably good enough to also go to heaven. That made me happy, until I thought about it a little harder. Hmmm...., was I lucky, or are we all being conned by our personal brand of belief?

      March 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  9. MandoZink

    Reason #8 (my reason):
    I had 12 years of an excellent Catholic education. I studied plenty of good math and science, and even had a comprehensive and enlightening course on the history of religions around the world, while in Catholic High School. This inspired me to seek out ever more knowledge and gave me remarkable beginnings to a life of social and scientific understanding. The result – I now have an extensive comprehension of an wide range of science topics. Now my overall picture of the universe we inhabit is constantly bolstered by my understanding of cutting-edge research and current events.

    Thanks to that excellent Catholic education I am now an very happy and constantly-amazed-by-the-universe Atheist.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Andrea

      Ditto. I received an excellent Catholic education, which taught me to think logically, question things, and be skeptical. And now i'm an atheist..

      March 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  10. Alex

    I was 14, told the priest about my conflicting views with the Church teachings and masturbation, and his method for me "stop the abomination" was to picture Jesus in the room every time I reach for the sock and lube. That's when I left.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  11. no dealer necessary

    The Catholic church is not about encouraging/requiring/performing service work (as it should be), it is about control. If Jesus Christ is real, nobody requires a middleman/broker to communicate or have a relationship with God. Stop paying your Catholic priest dealer, get out and do some service work and begin your own personal relationship with God.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • helomoto12354

      Sure... Is that why protestantism is dwarfed by the size of the Catholic Church?

      March 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  12. Billy Idol

    Last night a little dancer came dancin' to my door
    Last night a little angel Came pumping cross my floor
    She said "Come on baby I got a licence for love
    And if it expires pray help from above"

    March 30, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  13. False Idol

    I believe you sinners need a new perspective

    March 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • 5thApe

      Yours right........ 🙂

      March 30, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  14. False Idol

    Fall down on your knees and pray to me, I command all of you!

    March 30, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  15. P.T. Barnum

    There is a sucker born every minute, Amen!

    March 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  16. trollol

    So what happens when they 'leave' the catholic church? Do they denounce their faith or are they still 'christians' that don't follow tradition? Perhaps they no longer found the fairy tales to be amusing. The more educated the masses become the less likely they will be to believe in fairy tales. I say we burn all the public schools that don't force religious ideals down the throats of children! That will definitely bring back church attendance. MUAHAHAHHAH!

    March 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  17. brandon

    It's because, in general, the catholic church is pretty lifeless. Seems to be a lot about works and confessing and not too much about grace and forgiveness

    March 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • helomoto12354

      You obviously don't know anything about the Catholic Church.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  18. Bazoing

    Their administration is corrupt. They so lacked faith in God that they were afraid to get rid of evil false priests for fear that they would suffer a greater shortage. This sort of thing is typical of them. Otherwise it is a vast organization and has no more pedophiles than any other job that offers the same amount of opportunity. Most religions have their theological controversies, but this one has long been burdened by its self serving faithless and godless bureaucracy.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  19. JWDT

    Ever occurred that many Lose their Faith because they never Learned & Practiced the Faith?! Thankfully those who leave the Church for above reasons never really understood the deeper meaning of God's Omniscience & Omnipotence....

    March 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      And apparently you are someone who is qualified to state this? Talk about arrogance.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Hopper

      Just give it up. Some day you'll understand that you don't need to believe in 'spiritual' made up stories to be a good and productive person. The Bible is full of inconsistencies and what can only be called errors, besides all the unpleasant stuff too. If you study any other religion you quickly find the same evidences of all that being made up by humans wanting to exert control over others.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • trollol

      All seeing and all knowing, huh? This 'god' figure created everything knowing how it was all going to turn out. The pain and suffering appears to be a necessity for his perfect creation. It is god's will that people suffer. Great god huh?

      March 30, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Facepalm28

      Exactly, Hopper. Neither church attendence, nor belief in a supreme being, nor a priest dictating religious doctrine is required to be a moral person. We have the ability to seek out knowledge, reason for ourselves, and determine what approach to life and the universe makes the most sense to us. Unfortunately, most religions are too set in their dogmas to appreciate this, and insist on all or nothing.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  20. erich2112x

    8) NFL

    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.