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. Kebos

    I left the Catholic church because it is an antiquated notion based around a number of bizarre principles. All man-made. All created to control people, done to grow and exert power in community and state, all done to amass wealth and privilege at the expense of the church's members. A corrupt organization like no other. Not divine. Merely made by man, for man.

    And by the way, all religions fall into the same classification. Some are just more obvious than others.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Thepacific

      Good for you. Nothing more precious than freedom.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  2. amelia

    Where are the stories that talk about Jews or Muslims or Mormons leaving their faith? Where are the anti-Semitic stories CNN? Where are all of the posters who hate Jews or Muslims or other faiths? Why don't you run those kinds of stories or is it because CNN has an agenda to malign only Catholicism? Why might that be?? Hmmm because Catholicism stands up against the moral rot of Hollywood? Because the people in charge of CNN might be a bit uncomfortable with attacks on their faith? Because if the Catholic vote gets too strong your buddy just might get kicked out of office? Well, all of your stories and your posters will not influence one, not a single person, to leave the Church. Sorry, you lose.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • greg

      I beg to differ... I LEFT !
      well written article that gives voice to MY grievances, (divorcee) this foolish OLD MEN want to live in the past.
      I live in the present, not the DARK AGES when the church would dictate what I would be allowed to think.
      The Church and the POPE are the epithet of irrelevance. But like a dinossaur with a small brain ..they fail to realise that.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • Thepacific

      The problem with Catholics and other religions is when they chose to screw up other people life, either in politics or at home. To all christian out there, if you are happy with your god, take my advice, keep him at home or maybe refugee camps. Don't bring your god to politics. Your god is not good at it. He always looks like an ungodly "dumb"_ as he assumes superior power over the people before he, yes, your god not even elected, threatening and undermining the very essence of democracy.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • sam stone

      interesting..the church stands up to the "moral rot" of hollywood, but doesn't turn kiddie boinking priests into law enforcement.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  3. Margot Helquist

    Hi all you nay sayers or whatevers ... I do not understand that you are not able to discuss the topic at hand without being abusive. It is certainly not only inelegant and totally gauche to speak such nonsense when we are supposed to focus on the subject. It is too bad that some people never stand up for anything but will fall for just about anything. These negative replies – and some of them being totally abusive and irrelevant did not enlighten us at all. I know many of my own friends left their church (not only Catholics) because they did not like the minister. The minister, I say? Either you believe in the dogma and the church or you are upset about the preacher who offended you. Most people who keep switching churches or beliefs are looking to hear what they want to hear. Then suddenly a new church is grand, why, because the minister is telling you what you want to hear. I realize as well that it is difficult for some people to be loyal, come what may. Would you leave your family, if illness struck? Maybe, then you do not deserve to have one. The same goes for the church community. I realize that the Ten Commandments are too difficult to follow, and so is the Golden Rule. Some people never even heard of them. AND, we are the nation who believes in One nation under God ...? You are welcome to your way of life. Maybe you even believe in Nietsche who said that 'God is dead, I am God'. A variety of knowledge is the answer to your problems. Faith is also the answer to your happiness. Critics are not happy, especially those who have nothing good to say about anyone. And these swear words in this supposed discussion. Really! Grow up and get over yourselves.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • AGuest9

      If you make a statement such as " Faith is also the answer to your happiness," you must be under the impression that non-believers are unhappy. Where would you get that impression? I am generally only unhappy when someone is trying to impose their belief system on my children and/or me. This has only been " One nation under God" only since 1954, another relic of the Cold War. If you go back to the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, you will see that "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion".

      March 31, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  4. krehator

    If you look at the history of the church you can see why. It preaches whatever it needs to keep the people coming in. The bible is a mess of popular book that a selective group of people decided were good enough. Over the centuries the church has lied, stolen, burned, sold forgiveness, murdered, started wars, and many other things to maintain control.

    People get caught up in invisible promises no one can guarantee. They go to Church on Sunday, put money in the plate, and then think they are good for the next 6 days. It is like a drive-thu forgiveness racket.

    If you are going to be a Christian or Catholic, you could at least have the decency to be Christ like. I've seen non-Christians act more in line with the teachings of Jesus, then I've seen peddled by so called Christians.

    If this isn't you, then let it roll off your shoulder.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:13 am |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 31, 2012 at 6:04 am |
    • Thepacific

      I am without god. I raise wonderful healthy and intelligent children. They are not racists. They tolerate and respect differences, and best of all, they study very hard.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  6. Brian Comments

    I left because the priest was only interested in the other kids. What's a guy got to do?

    March 31, 2012 at 2:32 am |
  7. MaryM

    fables and man made stories

    March 31, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • Thepacific

      yes simple and clear as you just state.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  8. Fish

    GOD IS LOVE Live your life with love in your heart that easy that hard..

    March 31, 2012 at 2:25 am |
    • Thepacific

      No, god is a flying tinker bell.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  9. Cataholic

    Catholics are leaving the church because the people who go to church on Sundays are not people they want to be associated with.

    March 31, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • AGuest9

      But, isn't every one there to "be seen"? It's the Sunday morning fashion show!

      March 31, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  10. Ira Radnick

    Catholic beliefs are as deeply rooted in fables and awe of alleged mysteries as any other religion. We created god(s), not the other way around. Once a person begins to think for him/herself, and stops fearing the unknown and listening to those who pretend to have all answers that are based on "faith", religion loses its one grasp is has and another human is freed from total enslavement. Religion is used to control the masses and children, and to wring money from those silly enough to believe the teachings that are based on the imaginative rantings of humans from thousands of generations back – all of whom would be laughing were they to know how their little stories have morphed into such nonsense.

    March 31, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • Jesus

      Best answer!

      March 31, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • Mark11

      Ira. I think you are totally wrong, but respect your determination to speak out on what you believe in. Faith is what gives every person hope for an after life. The bible claims there is an afterlife by God's side, but as part of our natural instincts and our want to disbelieve anything is true until proven, we as humans are blind to the truth the bible talks about. Christian faith is more like assurance. Why not believe in an afterlife of complete happiness next to the throne of God? To have faith in God is to have the knowledge that there is no room for fear in ones life. I do not know why people think that religion is such a bad thing. People should believe in something that gives them assurance that the afterlife holds a place for them, even if they do not believe in God, but why must it be wrong for the Christians to believe such a thing? Why is the Christian religion just a make up of fairy tales and fables? Whose to say it is not... nothing has been "proven" otherwise right?

      March 31, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • tallulah13

      Mark11, your comment indicates that the primary reason you believe in your god is because you fear death. Frankly, I cannot understand the reasoning that allows an adult to believe in pretty stories about eternal life after death, when there isn't a single shred of evidence to support such a thing. Death is the only natural outcome to life. There is nothing to be afraid of.

      March 31, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • Thepacific

      @Mark11, If I claim I believe there is a flying gorilla, can you disprove the claim? Christians make the claim that there is a supernatural being. The burden of proof rests on them not those who questioning. As of now, there is no such thing supernatural _ god. Nor there is santa clause, tinker bells, or angels. There are lots of walking holy cows in India.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  11. larry5

    Why are people leaving the church? They have a little boy in their family.

    March 31, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • Thepacific

      hihihiihi I hope I get you right. I wonder why they just prey on boys.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:19 am |

    Religion is boring and useless.

    March 31, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • b4bigbang

      But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:

      4In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

      2 Corinthians 4

      March 31, 2012 at 1:38 am |

      Hey buddy.

      Shut the fuck up. No one wants to hear it.

      March 31, 2012 at 1:40 am |
    • b4bigbang

      11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
      Matthew 5

      March 31, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • Nah


      Don't fret about b4's posts. Just consider it our little gift to society... keeping him/her here and off the streets and off of our front door steps!

      March 31, 2012 at 1:50 am |

      I'm not worried about the little fuckstick.

      Believers are mostly harmless. Unless their names are David Koresh. Or Adolph Hitler.

      March 31, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • Thepacific

      Indeed. Religions divide the world we live in. They retard human as a specie. We human should think that we are capable of doing much better without religions.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  13. Dick Hertz

    Let me hear you squeel like a pig, boy. WWWWEEEEEEEEEE,WWWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

    March 31, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • And now for something completely different: Christian love


      March 31, 2012 at 1:05 am |
  14. mandarax

    Personally, I think it's because they continually refuse to employ the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, one of the sacred relics that Brother Maynard carries.

    "And Saint Atila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying,
    'Oh, Lord, bless this thy hand grenade that with it thou mayest blow
    thy enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.' And the Lord did grin, and
    people did feast upon the lambs, and sloths, and carp, and anchovies,
    and orangutans, and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats"

    March 31, 2012 at 12:32 am |
    • A knight who until recently said 'Ni'


      March 31, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • Gokubi

      Icky Icky Icky Pecan Ruboing oing oing oing....

      March 31, 2012 at 12:55 am |
    • mandarax

      "And the Lord spake, saying, 'First shalt thou take out the
      Holy Pin. Then, shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three
      shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting
      shalt be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two,
      excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once
      the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou
      thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thou foe, who being naughty
      in my sight, shall snuff it.'"

      March 31, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      'Tis only a flesh wound!

      March 31, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • Sgt Major, marching up and down the square

      Oh Lord, please don't burn us,
      Don't grill or toast your flock,
      Don't put us on the barbecue,
      Or simmer us in stock,
      Don't braise or bake or boil us,
      Or stir-fry us in a wok...

      Oh please don't lightly poach us,
      Or baste us with hot fat,
      Don't fricassee or roast us,
      Or boil us in a vat,
      And please don't stick thy servants Lord,
      In a Rotissomat...

      Let us praise God. Oh Lord...
      Oooh you are so big...
      So absolutely huge.
      Gosh, we're all really impressed down here I can tell you.
      Forgive Us, O Lord, for this dreadful toadying.
      And barefaced flattery.
      But you are so strong and, well, just so super.

      March 31, 2012 at 1:12 am |
    • Gokubi


      That's not in Monty Python

      March 31, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • Sgt Major, marching up and down the square

      "Meaning Of Life", just before the Public School sex lesson

      Not their best work, but some nice moments.

      March 31, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • mandarax

      Every sperm is sacred
      Every sperm is great
      Every sperm that's wasted
      God gets quite irate....

      March 31, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Gokubi

      I stand corrected sir.

      March 31, 2012 at 3:02 am |
    • Bart the Apostle

      I love Homer Simpson!

      March 31, 2012 at 5:16 am |
  15. Boogieman

    #8 could be 'I started to think for myself and found religion lacking'. The absence of any evidence what so ever also helped.
    The illogic, irrational, and lacking in common sense didn't hurt. That Christianity is a fourth hand version of other older religions is also a factor. Some how the fourth hand version is the "truth" but the three versions before are "False".

    March 31, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  16. mandarax

    Poor Chad. You get no love. Have you ever considered maybe you have it all wrong? Maybe that's why you are consistently on the wrong side in arguments with educated people.

    March 31, 2012 at 12:21 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Amen, amen, amen.

      He'll never get it.

      March 31, 2012 at 12:40 am |
  17. ChrkeePrde

    Its interesting how people jump to conclusions: If Bob has cancer, then all men have cancer... so if a few priests are criminals and pedophiles, all priests are criminals and pedophiles. Sounds to me like people are resentful towards the Church and love attacking it. No one can deny this though: the purpose of the Church is to help humanity and not attack and destroy it. But obviously you wouldn't know that... I mean the media has washed your brain through and through.

    March 31, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • mandarax

      It's not just that a few priests were pedophiles, it is that the Catholic church has facilitated it by covering things up, and moving problem priests to new parishes rather than treating or expelling them. Don't be a sap.

      March 31, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • HellBent

      Then there's the whole leadership actively try to oppose extension of the statue of limitations for victims.

      March 31, 2012 at 12:40 am |
  18. mandarax

    For those of you who don't read Russian, that says "The Catholic church is bad. Have a nice day."

    March 31, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  19. Bizarre

    Федор Михайлович Достоевский,

    Oh goodie... now we know that we can just type in "суеверен" instead of that clunky, "superst-ition"! 🙂

    March 31, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  20. Reality

    Why I am no longer a Catholic:

    1. origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    “New Torah For Modern Minds

    Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine docu-ment. “

    2. Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.


    For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedophiliac priests, cover-ups, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    March 31, 2012 at 12:03 am |
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About this blog

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.