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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. Lizzy10

    Too bad that those who leave the church don't realize one important issue, that the PEOPLE are the church, not the pope, cardinals, bishops or priests. I like being Catholic and I'm not going to leave. I'm also not going to follow blindly all the things that the "church" wants me to. If you can't question your religion, it's a cult.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  2. pknabenshue

    Someone once said: "If everyone in all religions stopped trying to 'save' or convert everyone else (Islam? Christian Fanatics?) and only worried about their own soul, the world would be a better place". If I want to be saved, I will come a knocking on the door. Until then, I guess the modern, organized religions that enforce dogma and doctrine by fear, coercion, social ostrification, etc....will wither and die.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • loathstheright

      Why are atheists the lowest percentage in prisons? Might they be just naturally good and believe in not doing harm to others, just might be.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  3. AGuest9

    #1 reason: It's all a big LIE

    March 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  4. loathstheright

    In the end, we, earth, humans, everything we have done, everything we will do means absolutely nothing in the grand sceme of the universe, so suck on that thought, you are meaningless, and a blip, a speck in time.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  5. Rodeo_Joe

    After the Rapture – can I have your car?

    March 30, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • TheWiz71

      Catholics don't believe in "The Rapture" – it's a heretical doctrine not found in Scripture or tradition, only invented within the last 150 years, and only taken up by Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, so sorry, no.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  6. Number 8

    Beggin' Strips.
    It's........BACONNNNNNNNNN!!!

    March 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  7. Rodeo_Joe

    Freedom of Religion = Freedom

    FREEDOM. I'm not into "Tickets to Heaven", or "Hocus Pocus".

    – Born OK the first time.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  8. Lynn Ladouceur

    Although I do believe in some of their laws, most of them, unfortunately are 'out of date' . To stop loosing members the church will have to make some serious changes, i.e., annulling a marriage that produced 4 children??????? To me this is ridiculous. Baptizing a baby as soon as it is born, otherwise if it dies for whatever reason, before it is baptized it will go to hell?????? All children are born pure. Lastly, the birth control pill should be allowed to be used by women to plan their families. Gees, afterall, this is the 21 century.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Willow

      These are the church's beliefs. Those who disagree with the beliefs should either leave and go to other denominations they agree with more, or admit that they don't believe in the supernatural and avoid church all together. The problem is a society that discriminates against those who do not literally believe in supernatural things. If I said to most of my relatives and friends that I did not believe in God, they would ostracize me. I would be alone. It is the ostracizing that hurts the most.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Shayna

      To Willow,

      You are exactly the type of person the billboards, "Good without god" are trying to reach. You are NOT alone!

      March 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Mike

      Ok, you obviously have no idea about the Catholics churches law's or teachings. A baby does not go to Hell. You have to have the ability and conscience to go to Hell. Babies have not developed the ability to know whats right and wrong.

      No offense but I wish people would actually learn what they are complaining about.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • Jennifer C

      Lynn, I have a boatload of problems with Church doctrine, but the Church never taught that unbaptized babies went to hell. Years ago, we were taught that unbaptized babies who died were in "Limbo" a neutral place. The Church backed off this stance a long time ago. I, too, am shocked that the issue of birth control didn't make the list.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • AGuest9

      No, church teaching is that all children are born with "original sin". Thus, the purpose of baptism.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • Jennifer C

      Yes, AGuest9, according to Church doctrine, all are born with original sin. That does not mean that the Church said babies who died without being Baptized went to hell.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  9. kdnr

    The Vatican Roman Catholic Church is not Christian. It does not follow the
    teachings of Jesus Christ. That is the real reason for either never joining them,
    or for leaving them behind....

    March 30, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • olcranky

      most conservative Protestant denominations don't follow the teachings of Jesus either – they seem to follow the teachings of Paul instead (as does the Catholic church despite being founded by Peter); that's why they tend to be so judgmental and hateful in their determination that everyone capitulate to their doctrine

      March 30, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  10. David

    The suppression of free thinking and science, is not even on the list. 😦

    March 30, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • AGuest9

      You would think that church members would be concerned about free thought and science? Both are frowned upon by many rank-and-file members.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
  11. rayosun

    If I could escape from the Catholic Church after 24 years of education in Catholic schools and seminaries culminating with ordination to the priesthood and a teaching position in a Catholic seminary, almost anyone can. I'm not selling anything or telling people how to live their lives. All I want to do is to help people to free themselves from the tyranny and stupidity of the Roman Catholic church, by exposing the truth about this very human, very dishonest organization at a site you can find by Googling "Jesuswouldbefurious" (one word).

    March 30, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Hopper

      There is also the Clergy Project, which seeks to help priests that have seen the light and can't make themselves believe anymore to overcome all the obstacles and hardships of leaving the church.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  12. kdnr

    The Vatican Roman Catholic Church is not Christian. It does not follow the
    teachings of Jesus Christ. That is the real reason for either never joining them,
    or for leaving them behind.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • 5thApe

      Their delusion – your delusion – whats the difference?

      March 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  13. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Best reason to leave any church .. "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 8:11 pm |
  14. Bogeyman

    Bottom line, Man created god not the other way around. End of story and wake up!!!!

    March 30, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  15. ytuque

    And the Churches opposition to family planning. How can a poor woman improve her lot if she has 7 children?

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

      The woman isn't supposed to improve her lot. The poor are SUPPOSED to suffer according to the church, as Mother Teresa said: "The suffering of the poor is something very beautiful and the world is being very much helped by the nobility of this example of misery and suffering" Mother Teresa would also withhold pain meds to suffering patients because pain should be embraced as it was a sign that Jesus was kissing you. This is a woman who has been beatified and is considered someone who exemplifies Catholicism and how a good Catholic should be and act towards others (fast tracked for sainthood and all)

      March 30, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
  16. ytuque

    Missed the Catholic Churches support of illegal immigration

    March 30, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  17. mickey1313

    I would add the fact that it is obvously fake.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  18. Mercyme

    ???????????

    March 30, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  19. Scott

    Why don't we get back to Biblical truth- which is absolute. Sin is sin, redemption and forgiveness is free to all through Christ's work on the cross and especially His resurrection. Religion is not the answer, a relationship with God through Christ provides life! Too much talk about "religion" and not enough about LIFE in Christ.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Space Cat

      because it's not truth?

      March 30, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Wholly Mary

      The easter bunny is coming too!

      March 30, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • mickey1313

      I will talk about jesus, when one single source (not the binle) can colaborate he was real. Since even jewish scolars of the time didnt mention him, im betting on the fact that jesus was never real, and he certanlly was not Hosana in the highest.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • Eleanor Greene

      Scott you are 100% correct!

      March 30, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • 5thApe

      Because its a myth....

      March 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • James PDX

      I refuse to believe in a god who is refuted to be perfect and infallible when his own holy book proves he is anything but.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • guest

      Mickey1313 – Josephus made two references to Jesus in his historically accepted accounts. He referred to Jesus as a wise man and as the Christ. Thought you'd be interested.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • olcranky

      back in the 80's the head of the southern baptist convention announced that G-d didn't hear the prayers of Jews. Since Christians pray through Jesus and Jesus was a Jew, I'm guessing he doesn't hear your prayers either

      March 30, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • Patrick

      Amen Scott! You hit the nail on the head with your comment. So many people get caught up in RELIGION. Religion is a tradition and or a set of acts/rituals created by man. Putting your faith in Christ, repentance and turning to the cross, quite simply is the bridge that allows for you to connect with God. Christ was offered for all, but Gods grace is not upon all. Christ was persecuted on the cross and so to will be Christians until the end. He showed himself in the flesh and people still spit in the face of God, he showed himself for that very purpose, in that I will take on the flesh and you will still deny me.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • Hopper

      Be honest to yourself and check the large lists of errors in the Bible easily found in the web. If you don't quickly see that it is all nonsense then you should examine what kind of blinders are holding you down. If you find that all errors are just nonsense then you should be justified to have all the Christian beliefs you can take.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • ZEN KITTY

      Yaaaaawwwwnnnnnn

      March 30, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  20. AW

    How about the fact that the Catholic church is a scam with their false prophets and system that makes you believe you have to donate money to get to heaven.. The Pope is the Antichrist.

    March 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • C Majta

      Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Thy dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. For the sake of Jesus sorrowful passion – His agony in the garden, His scourging at the pillar, His crowning with thorns, His walk with the cross to calvary, His crucifixion – for the sake of Jesus sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world. Holy Gd, Holy Mighty One, Holy immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world. – AW – may Gd reveal Himself to you with His mercy – Praised be Jesus most precious Blood!

      March 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Margot Helquist

      I am very sorry for you. You are being disrespectful to the Pope. Would you say the same about another head of a church? No, It's always pick on the Catholics. That's why we have so many protestant religions or gatherings called religion or faith. Do you realize that it is not important to pick on one particular church or person, but it is important that you yourself establish faith in God, believe that we have a higher being above us, and you will have grace and won't speak so disrespectfully about any one human being. We are all related in that we are human beings. So please think before you engage your brain. Critics don't enjoy their lives, they are miserable creatures and dissatisfied for the most part. Enjoy your life with a respect for all beings.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Pope Hitler Youth I? Probably.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:27 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.