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. Mike

    The Vatican is OBSOLETE and corrupt. They have their own closets to clean before they can lecture people about morality and Godliness.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • rbsrs

      CNN won't report it but it is generally acknowledged that the Church now one of the safest place in the world for children. Is that enough "closest cleaning" for you? Probably not.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • margo

      I agree with you, OBSOLETE. The church has been exposed over and over on their hypocrisy and injustices, and yet, they still think we ought to follow their ideals & beliefs. I do not hate them and I do not trust them ever, I had my own bad experience.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • Elaborate please.

      "Generally" means that a majorith of people would agree with that statement. I find it incredibly difficult to believe that the majority of people consider the Catholic Church to be one of the safest place in the world for children.

      I know it's ridiculous to ask, because we never get a response on this, but could you please provide unbiased credible evidence of your statement? I googled it and found it is basicallt a propaganda sound byte the Catholic clergy has been using lately, but there is no study given that supports their words. Groups of victims vigorously deny the extent and vigorousness of the response claimed.

      Unless you can prove otherwise, the statement is nothing but the substance-free hot air that the Vatican has consistently used to pretend everything is fine.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • rbsrs

      Catholic child abuse in proportion by Andrew Brown in the Guardian (UK) the last line: "The safe guards in the Catholic Church are now some tightest in the world" and "objectively your child is less likely to be abused by a Catholic priest than almost any other profession." Many other reports are similar. Catholic are good people that have hurt by this scandal. They have and will continue to act.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • rbsrs

      Did you know that UN peace keeper have for years been accused of abuse. There have been inquests and commissions. They are nowhere near close to solving the problem the way that Catholics have. Jordan's Prince Al-Hussein (head of the commission) said "there is a natural instinct to coverup." 14 out of 82 requests for information form the UN were answered.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  2. Jason B.

    So in short the Church said "Screw it, we're not going to change a darn thing anyway."

    March 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • rbsrs

      The Church does not "decide" what it believes. It does not claim the authority to change revelation. Actually it made that mistake regarding abuse. It "went secular" under pressure. Psychology was thought to be able to cure all. Send them to modern medicine and they will be fine. This is the problem with you point. People want the Church to "change" but they should tell the Church to be the Church.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • JT

      The way you pedophile supporters reconcile the rape of children by your priests disgusts me.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  3. tinyprof

    For centuries the Church was able to determine the course of politics and cultural norms. They dictated the direction of society and controlled progress on their terms. They can't do that anymore, and they are trying to fight a modern battle with medieval weapons for control over the modern world.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • lisa

      ..but perhaps Apollo will descend from Olympus with lightning bolts and......whoops, wrong fantasy

      March 30, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  4. Tony

    In the "7 reasons why people leave the Church" all I saw was dissatisfaction. It did not say that people left, in large measure, for doctrinal reasons. It would be interesting to find out how many people come into the Church because they want doctrinal and moral security from the failure of the modern culture. The article did not mention the fact that thousands come into the Church, every year here in the U.S., for that very reason. The Church has been around for 2000 yrs. It has survived dictators, plagues, and heretical movements. Christ's promise to the Church is still valid today as it was 2000 yrs ago. "Thou art Peter, the rock, and upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

    March 30, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • amelia

      Absolutely. You are correct. Unfortunately, the purpose of this opinion was not to put forward facts, only inflammatory tripe.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  5. LouAZ

    8. The New Testament
    9. Men in dresses
    10. Pope that gets complete new expensive gold dripping outfit for every appearance
    11. Men that wear pointy hats
    12. No accountability of millions in donations throughout the world
    13. No accountability for millions of buildings and property throughout the world
    14. The Vatican BANK
    15. Opulent life of Vatican church officials
    16. Millions in artwork and artifacts in and out of the Vatican
    17. Piecemeal programs to help the poor and ill
    18. Virtual slavery of nuns that can only be servants to priests and the Vatican
    19. Keeping ancient books, manuscripts, and literature secret
    20. Eating the flesh and blood of a dead person, even if only symbolically
    21. Continuing celibacy of nuns and priests which is well understood as unnatural for humans
    22. Treating all children as sinners that must seek forgiveness regardless of their age
    23. Continuing ignorance of any but their own understanding of humans and the natural world
    24. Trying to convince every person in the world that everything needed is in one book

    Perhaps others will add to this list.
    Halle Julia

    March 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Tony the Ant Spilatro

      You forgot to mention that a lot of the artwork in the Vatican museums was gotten from conquerors who plundered during invasions and paid tribute to the mob boss, uh, Pope.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • LouAZ

      My additions to this Articles list of seven reasons people are leaving the Catholic Church are current practices of the Catholic Church that make them irrelevant in the 21st Century. It also makes them immoral in my thinking.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  6. amelia

    The Catholic Church is the largest Church in the US. The population is growing and includes those who have returned. Of course, none of this matters because this article is not real. Simply tripe designed to inflame and get people commenting.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • lisa

      Amelia – the Catholic Church in the US is shrinking...as well it should

      March 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • Ripper

      It's only growing cuz of the number of Latinos (including Illegals) that come into our country. But you take away that, the population has gone down.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Aaron

      Amelia, you are wrong, Just plain Wrong.

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

      amelia you are right, just plain right...the church is growing in many areas. More importantly(truth is not dictated by numbers, Jesus said the road is narrow and those who choose it few) robust "orthodox" belief is increasing dramatically all over the world.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  7. lisa

    The shrinking of the catholic church is no different than the shrinking of the followers of Zeus.....it is all silly hogwash that educated people will eventually ignore. There are not a whole lot of temples to the Greek Gods around, and likewise in a thousand years, there will be no more churches.....hopefully

    March 30, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Chris

      amen 😉

      March 30, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • stanleydwilliams

      Actually, Lisa, the Catholic Church in America is growing. There's a very good reason for that. While some of its priests and bishops are as human and as much a sinner as you, God has protected his Church for 2,000 years. It is none of the things you silly suggest, thank goodness. If it was, it wouldn't be God's Church, but a figment of an idiot's imagination.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • AGuest9

      It's "growing", which is why churches and parochial schools are closing, left and right.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • AGuest9

      In the last decade, through a combination of closing and mergers, U.S. Catholic Church leaders have reduced the number of parishes in the United States by 1,359 (a decline of 7.1 percent).

      But, hold on, the superst.itious illegal immigrant population will swell to fill that in.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  8. Robert

    I grew up as a Catholic but consider myself a Christian. When I was a Catholic, I never read the gospels. Catholicism has been passed down from the Holy Roman Empire which was more Roman than Christian with all the control and obligations etc. Jesus said it best in his own words in the gospels and a human trying to make you accept their interpretation of it is wrong.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • stanleydwilliams

      Robert, check your history. Luckily history and facts are not subject to your opinion.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  9. Religious Sects

    There's no greater sadness than industrial pollution, and the religion industry has been polluting healthy young minds for thousands of years.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • stanleydwilliams

      So Catholicism recommendation that lying, stealing, adultery, murder, envy, greed, etc are pollution? What are you drinking?

      March 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  10. john

    Here's the thing, The Bible is what the Bible is. It is not going to change and Catholics will never waver from that. The Ten Commandments are not going to change nor any of the other words in the Bible. I understand why many folks are leaving the church.
    The Church needs to be cool. Look, Jesus liked everyone and hung out with everyone and that is the image that the church needs to go with. Today it's just a little too high and mighty for me and some preachers appear to have been running with the devil.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • stanleydwilliams

      Let me get this straight. Jesus was murdered because he didn't conform, e.g. he wasn't "cool." But your solution, to be more like Jesus, is to conform and be cool? Is that it?

      March 30, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  11. Sir Ivanhoe

    To understand a broader aspect of religion read the novel - king of Bat'ha - and the sequel due out by summer 2012 - Tales from the East: Return of Ivanhoe.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
  12. Puzzled in Peoria

    As people have become more educated, they simply refuse to be commanded by men who are, in many cases, less moral than they are. Americans, especially, chafe under a dictatorship that has changed very little since medieval times. And, those who are serious students of the Bible see so many contradictions between the teachings of Christ and the church that they choose to simply drop out. Tradition does not guarantee truth.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • stanleydwilliams

      Name one teaching of the Church that is in contradiction to the Bible. There is none. You might cite the behavior of Catholics that are in contradiction to Biblical teaching, but you won't find any teaching of the Church that does. You forget that the Church gave you the Bible, and it has no authority to change any of its teachings that came from Sacred Tradition, which includes the Bible. Learn more about Catholicism before thinking you know anything about it.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  13. ArcFire213

    How about the fact that it's bulls**t and has no place in the 21st century? That's why I left.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • stanleydwilliams

      Maybe you left because you believe your own bull***t, and it wouldn't step in your poop. Did you ever think of that? The Church hasn't changed in 2,000 hears. People do, unfortunately. And some people (hint) have egos that are bigger than their brains.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  14. AGuest9

    "4. Uninspiring homilies on Sundays"

    Wha??? Give me a break!!

    March 30, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  15. hrpufnstuf

    Old guys in beanies and dresses. Yeah, that's who I want telling me how to live my life, uh huh.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • stanleydwilliams

      Well, you might change your tune when you're not along side them in heaven. What are you wearing?

      March 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  16. John Braeger

    Who are you people at CNN? Journalists, muckrakers or something else? Inquiry minds would like to know. You cannot event answer basic journalistic questions such as who, what, when, where, why and how much! Sources, if you have them, are they credible? Misleading headlines, unsubstantiated content, logical fallacies, and even grammatical, mechanical, and stylistic errors. How can you even post anything like this?

    March 30, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • John Braeger

      Dan Merica and Dan Gilgoff – CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor, are you able to even find the error in my last post? Do you people proof-read? Well here is an exercise for you.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • lol


      March 30, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • amelia

      Umm ex employees of the National Enquirer?

      March 30, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  17. TheWiz71

    To a great many disaffected RCs out there – if you believe in the Sacraments of the Church, ordered ministry (laity, deacons, priests, bishops), the catholic tradition, using reason to illuminate your faith, AND you believe that women do have the ability to be ordained, that clergy should be allowed to marry, that the Pope might (or might not be) a nice guy and all, but he's not ever infallible, and not the boss of you – the Episcopal (or Anglican depending on where you live) welcomes you! All the great stuff about being a catholic, with none of the guilt, none of the bossy-ness (and snobbery) of highly centralized heirarchical (and overtly patriarchal) leadership. And, we turn our clergy in to the police if they get caught abusing anybody. Check us out!

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

      I did. everything you say is true. But then I had to deal with arrogant, cold people who saw church as a place to display their class status. And in the usa, that was often simply nouveau riche.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • stanleydwilliams

      Yep, leave Catholicism for a Church where just about anything goes.... sin? what sin? We don't believe in sin? Do what you want. Just remember, you can make any decision you want, but you have no choice over the consequence. God makes that choice.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  18. PFVanc

    This is no news, just a subjective opinion which characterizes CNN recurring attacks on the CHURCH.
    "The caravan goes on and the dogs keep barking..."

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

      I believe CNN posts this inflamatory garbage for the same reason that the supermarket tabloids publish tripe about Snooki and Lohan. Also, I wonder how many of these usual posters are actually legit.

      I suppose if you want to be an electronic supermarket rag, you have achieved your goal.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  19. cuk

    when i left the lds church i got a ten percent raise and sundays off.

    March 30, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  20. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Today someone attempts to kill their child and they're arrested, when they say God told them too, they're diagnosed as delusional ..
    Again Today, tell people that same story happened 4000 years ago and they flock to mosques, synagogues and churches and no one is allowed to diagnose them as delusional.
    ... and that's why people need to leave religion behind.

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

      your post makes no sense, there was no Islam 4000 years ago.....why are atheists so stupid??....learn about your atheism...google marshal Stalin, Chairman Mao and Jared Loughner....

      March 30, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • stephaneetienne

      Wow Robert, you don't even know your own religion. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. Also note that Stalin, Mao, etc did not commit the atrocities they committed in the name of Atheism. List just one person who killed another person in the name of Atheism. I am not saying that it can't happen but I don't know of even one person,

      March 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • 5thApe

      Abraham would have been locked up today. Abrahamic religious celebrate the actions of a lunatic and an imaginary god who would me so cruel and perverted to ask such an evil deed.

      Robert – please educate yourself.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:24 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.