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. holyhellministry

    Their archaic nineteenth century dogma and no-condom policies cast and keep a demographic black and white shadow in today’s world of living color, creating the resemblance of a tomb of the dying rather than a progressive inspiration for life, displacing the current active spirit of life with a turn of the last century antiquity Fair, – The No Birth Control Policies of the church through their missions interfere with developing nations they enmesh with.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • TR6

      “The No Birth Control Policies of the church through their missions interfere with developing nations they enmesh with.”

      It’s just good business. The church makes the most money and gets the most power from the poor, illiterate masses and so the church does its best to make as many of them as possible

      March 30, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • sam stone

      nineteenth century dogma? aren't you being a wee bit generous?

      March 31, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  2. Convert

    The church has always felt the people must change not the church. If our faith in Christ is based on the Bible then most of what any church preaching that is not in the Bible is man made doctrine. So with the Catholic church their conservative practices are man made. So why can't they be changed or modified.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  3. JennyTX

    Didn't Jesus tell his followers to care for the sick and the poor? Then why are so many conservatives opposed to universal health care?

    March 30, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Ann

      We do take care of the poor! It's called medicaid! Universal healthcare means poor healthcare.Just ask your doctor.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  4. Angela

    Its shame people can't just get together and do what God said to do, which was "love each other" It's not that hard. In our hearts, we know what is right and what is wrong. If you love thy neighbor like you love yourself, you will find its easy to be religious. The only requirement to get into heaven was to believe in Jesus as your savior so if you believe that then your already forgiven. Most mainstream faiths have this as their central theme: fairness, balance, and love. It's not that hard people!

    March 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Will

      Actually, it's VERY hard. When was the last time you tried loving an arrogant or selfish person who was incapable of examining himself honestly? Jesus asked us to love – he never said it would be easy. It is as hard as being nailed to a cross.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • TR6

      God also commanded us not to cook baby goats in their mothers milk
      Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21

      March 30, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • just wondering

      Cook a lot of goat do you?

      March 30, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • sam stone

      Angela: Read The Year Of Living Bibically.

      March 31, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  5. arfnwoof

    #8 – Dogs dont go to heaven.

    That did it for me when I was 7.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  6. Subjugation

    "Why are they leaving?" Because the church is all about money, power, and control. That said, it's the same for "organized" religion no matter what the faith.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Ann

      This article was dug up somewhere, by CNNNNN. It's BS. In fact, the Catholic population is growing. It's the religion Jesus started on earth! Who better can you follow.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • sam stone

      ann: but, you are not following jesus. you are following the words of man

      March 31, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  7. stevie68a

    My number one reason is that we're in a New Age, and the church represents the old.
    People have come to realize that they were brainwashed as children to believe in nonsense.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Drew

      If believers of faith are brainwashed so are believers of other unproven theories.

      http://mbbc.us/resource/skeptics.pdf please read mr freethinker

      March 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Brian

      We're talking about a 2000 year old instution. The Church will be around much longer then you, me or even our country.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • philtration

      So you are saying that the church will be protecting child molesters long after we are gone?

      March 30, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Astrology still has many adherents. This doesn't make astrology true, nor does the jesus myth having as few as one believer make it true.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • Prayer for the country

      God keep our land ... wonderful prayer the Canadian national anthem

      March 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      I have hope that throwback to the dark ages line will one day be removed. Whenever I hear it, I respond with "There are no gods!"

      March 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • Prayer for the country

      God keep our land glorious prayer from the Canadian national anthem

      March 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm |

    they get a bible and see truth not the marlarki Catholics teach.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  9. Erin

    I was born & raised as a Catholic – and went to catholic school until High School. I have only been back twice – both for funerals. All of the reasons listed above are part of the reason I will never consider myself a Catholic, along with many others. Hypocricy, the feeling that many Catholics seem to think that they are the only Religion that is correct (this can be said for all Religions). I choose to raise my family in a non-Religous household that values honesty, respect and compassion – frankly the things that many Catholics like to pretend that they represent, but really don't.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • John R

      To 'Erin'....

      I could have written the exact some posting.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • It's a cancer

      Organized religion destroys religion in general.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Michael

      Erin......my feelings exactly! Couldn't have said it better. I see many hypocrite Catholics in our community. As a former Catholic .....born, raised and schooled catholic....I finally woke up. When I got married I joined my wifes Lutheran church and we raised our boys there. Never regretted the move!

      March 30, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • sam stone

      erin: i had the same experience with the orthodox church.

      it's a cancer: all religion is organized. religion is top down (organized) individual beliefs more grass root. speaking of, where is my lighter?

      March 31, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  10. ludvig

    Having an old priest in his 80's or so come to our parish and saying he had a personal message from the pope that doctors were murdering millions of unborn babies by prescribing birth control devices. We can't even have more kids due to medical reasons, so his criticism did not have anything to do with the way we lived our lives. I just thought that I didn't want my one child to grow up in what looked more and more like a cult. I do agree that I won't attend a church that tells me how to vote.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  11. becool

    Catholic Church? I am wondering why people still going to this medieval church? Any Christ-centered preaching? Heartfelt? powerful prayer? none of these! Just the Rosary and Mary that always pop up before Christ. If people are serious about Christ they need to go where Christ is preached.. period! And then all other reasons may come after.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • So Close! Just A Bit Further!!!

      Their phony-balony bullshit beliefs and rituals are every bit as legitimate as your phony-balony bullshit beliefs and rituals.

      But you do understand atheism! Your ability to look at another religion (all others, in fact) and recognize it as bullshit is exactly what atheists do. You are the same, but for that one last religion. We think that the estimated 4,200 religions are wrong. You think that 4,199 are wrong.

      You are so close! Just apply that same analysis to your own religion and you are there!

      March 30, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  12. jaha

    Dan – as you probably know, averages in a big sample can be misleading. What I think you will find, if you look behind the "average," is that two things are happening simultaneously. Heterodox catholics – those who disagree with the Church on matters of faith or morals – are leaving, just as they always have, and it might be that this population represents a larger part of the total population. Orthodox catholics, however, are actually increasing in number, both as a result of higher birth rate, but also because, for whatever reason, some people are drawn to the church in its full and complete form. You might think of that as a reaction, or as an authentic awakening, depending upon your perspective. In other words, it's helpful to look at groups within the broader group called "Catholic," and look at what is happening in those sub-populations. The reality is that those who are leaving because of homilies, or the ordination of women, or even the abuse scandals, had already decided that the Apostolic succession was arbitrary or unnecessary, and that grace is not obtained thru the sacraments. In other words, they might have been going to a Catholic Church, but wouldn't have accepted those positions in the first place. So, oddly enough, you have a quickly growing orthodox representation, both because it is growing in absolute terms, but also because the other segment, which still probably represents the majority, is leaving. The Curia's response to this trend is interesting – they seem to feel no particular urgency to placate the portion of the population that is leaving by "broadening" doctrine (aka 180 degree reversal). Instead, the emphasis is on improved Catechesis – giving young people the formation so that they have an authentic Catholic foundation, rather than merely a social affiliation.

    Some readers might think this would result in the inevitable collapse of the Church and its presence on a global scale – the Vatican reports its financials. They have only a $350mm operating budget. Chump change. Economics aren't going to do anything, here, regardless of how many people leave.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  13. Gregory the Illuminator

    I do not why people are leaving the Catholic Church, but I know one thing that by going and becoming fake Christian like Protestants is not the way in which you should worship Jesus. Protestants was made by the English King who could was a Catholic and could not have a son to carry his throne. So, what did he do he broke off from the Catholic Church to get a Divorce and remarry to have a son. Now that is how Protestants came about. Pathetic! God did not want his family to run the kingdom anymore thus the reason why he was not having a son. The best kind of Christian you can be is Orthodox.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • AGuest9

      You have never heard of the German former monk named Martin Luther?

      March 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • Beckerson


      March 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Holier than thou Catholics

      People are leaving the Catholic church because it's infected to the core with brainwashed, foolish, prejudiced, people like you.

      Now you know.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • kingsgirl

      fake Christian? Really? You are sadly ignorant of so many things. Read Jesus's encounter with the Samaritan woman. True worshipers are those who worship not in a specific location, but in spirit and truth. My relationship with Christ is not predicated on the name on the church door. You can keep your man made rituals and guilt ridden religion. I will choose Christ and joy in relationship with Him. Also, the Protestant Reformation was a process that happened over many, many years and generations. While Martin Luther's act of calling out the abuses of the church was certainly the most famous event, his frustration was felt by scores of historical church leaders and theologians who came before him.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  14. Iqbal Khan

    Islam Have the answer!

    March 30, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • Beckerson

      Will you chop off my head if I disagree?

      March 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Bwaaa hahahaha

      Isn't Islam the religion of peace? The one that preaches the killing of non-believers?

      If that's your answer, then you get an F.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Islam: The Religion That Goes BANG!!!!

      Yeah, cast off that creepy oppressive old religion.

      Wait, am I talking about Catholicism, or Islam? Aw heck, cast them all off.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • Gooney

      Tell Bwaaaa haha that yes, there is perhaps nothing more peaceful than a beheaded corpse.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  15. Al

    The number one reason should be, "I just can't believe this silliness any longer."

    March 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  16. khoiducle

    it's ironic that people say that they are bigger than religion and that Jesus is the greatest mythical character ever created. Yet people praise God of his magnificence when witnessing birth, and ask for forgiveness as the last cry for peace near death. I've witness the need for a higher being through seeing the battles that my dad fought against cancer, and i'm glad that I have faith to believe that my father's life is much more than his short time on earth. I can affirm to you that he is an angel now who prays for me as well as you. May God's peace be with you.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Al

      You're jumping to conclusions. Many of us go through live and face calamities and come through them without ever appealing to any deity. For example, I have sat through my daughter's open-heart surgeries without appealing to mythology. There is no need for a deity to deal with life's problems.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • Dig a little deeper

      You need to recognize the difference between "religion" and "organized religion". Your argument(s) shot down in flames.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • khoiducle

      Al, you're right. many of us go through life dealing with problems just fine. for some of those who struggle and don't make it, either against external or internal calamities, there is a need there where God can provide hope, not just for them but also for those that are left behind. Maybe God is really a hoax and these people are delusional, but the belief in a God who is merciful, especially to them when others judges, provides the only glimmer of hope to these lowliest of the low in the worst of times even for the shortest moment measurable. For these people, there is a real undeniable need for God.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ,

    March 30, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • Al


      March 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • God

      Seriously, you're embarrassing me.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • just sayin

      You are not God and you are not god, you are embarrassing yourself

      March 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • BiffJones

      It actually does help. There is a God. All the miracles in the world would never convince you otherwise though, which is the slightly humorous aspect of it.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • God

      Yes it is I, your master. Now repent and stop with this nonsense.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • just sayin

      You are compounding your embarrassment.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things

      March 30, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  18. The Dude


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

      did you ever read the Summa Theologica? your too ignorant to even know what it is get lost idiot!

      March 30, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
  19. Dave Jones

    True for all seven. Your not leading if no one is following.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  20. stephaneetienne

    Amazing. Not one of these reason lists that it is a bunch bullcrap, the main reason why people leave faith, not just the Catholic church for that matter.

    March 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • TING

      Good point. You would think "load of crap" would be in the top 10.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:22 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.