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. Patrick

    Does anyone EDIT these blogs before they are submitted? This one is almost unreadable.

    The 5th paragraph/section, which starts "Conducted William J. Byron, a professor of business ..." makes no sense!

    If you have a point, make it, but make it clearly.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • momoya

      Conducted BY.. solves the grammatical/logic portion, but does nothing to untangle the unnecessary fussiness of the entire sentence structure.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  2. johnfrichardson

    Those are seven good reasons to leave. And whenever I hearing about polls showing many Catholics, sometimes a majority,disagree with church doctrine, I just think how this sad show could be closed if these people followed their consciences straight out the door.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  3. Kathy

    I left for 2 reasons. 1, how women are treated. 2, I started reading the Bible. When I would ask the Priest why the religion was different he told me the Bible was not meant to be read and understood by lowly mortals, it was for the Priest hood.
    I decided I love Jesus, I love the gospel, but I do not accept the view that I am to stupid to read and understand the Bible with the help of the Lord.
    The exit was easy after I made that decision. I respect all religions and those who choose not to have a religion. I do not mean this post to speak badly of the Catholic Church. Its just my experience. Kg

    March 31, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • stanJames

      the bible biz was one of the reasons Martin Luther began a still far from reformed reformation.

      He published on his church door a german copy of he bible, for which he was excommed.

      the catholic church is all about power and money and mind control. Little different then islam.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  4. bill

    All churches are hemorraghing in the US. The fastest growning group is the "nones," the unaffiliated. They have grown from 8% 15 years ago to 16% today! Protestantism has shrunk from 68% of the population in the 1960's to barely 51% today. And while Catholicism has stayed the same (24%) owing to immigration primarily, it too is hemorraghing.

    Questions about why this is happening to all churches ought to be posted. But more importantly, why are the "nones" continually growing.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • David

      Perhaps the answer is simply that some people are listening to what the church says and asking one question: Does this make sense? That could be the reason for the growth of the " nones" you speak of however I do not see that as a bad thing. Just a thought

      March 31, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Glenn

      In today's society, education and science has made much of the writings seem impossible.

      I find hard to belive people of 20 centuries had the means to truly understand the world and much came from the imagination. Believing you understand is the same as understanding, until science said otherwise.

      True Christians with an inate perception of the world consistant with the bible will always want to believe. Genetics makes it possible.

      The non-believers were once called heathens.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    March 31, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  6. Bootyfunk

    oh gosh! oh golly! which reason do i pick? there's just so many reasons to leave the church! i'm gonna have to go off the board and pick "i want to think for myself!"

    March 31, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • just sayin

      Seen your posts – would recommend you seek other options than thinking for yourself.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  7. Amelia

    Either you are flat out lying, are delusional or just a sick *** trying to be clever.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • Amelia

      I meant this for ExC

      March 31, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  8. Zed

    This is all predicted and stated plainly in the bible. One must take the time to read and understand it, however. As stated by both Jesus and the writings of Paul, the Church will be subject to all the same sins and interests that people tend to have. It is simply a place to come together and worship in the comfort of other Christians and believers. Like all people, it will not be perfect.

    The Catholic Church is picked on more because it has historically strayed further from the teachings of Jesus, and in modern times is in direct conflict with the gospel. I know as many ex-Catholics at my Christian church as life long Christians. They are not leaving the Catholic church because they do not believe. They are leaving BECAUSE THEY BELIEVE.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      tell that to the christians. atheists generally have more knowledge of the book that christians say they live their lives by than christians. fact.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  9. ForGoodOfAll

    #8 the lying, coverups & relocating of abusive priests to other parishes.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
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    March 31, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  11. Nan

    I don't think a lot of ex-Catholics even agree with this article on why they have left the church. I am a practicing Catholic, and some of the people who I know that have left did so because of a more personal reason; disagreements with pastors, etc. I think people think leaving the church will help them find what they are looking for-which in reality is faith. Having a relationship with God takes work on your part: prayer and dedication to God. You can't blame a church for your own apathy and lack of dedication. I agree that some people have been wronged by the church, but your faith is what you make it. I think the problems in the church are what people blame for leaving, but I don't know if this is really true for most people.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • kaeelle

      I left the Catholic church for five of the seven reasons listed above.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  12. Numyorangay

    I don't get it. I listen to many of my friends, ex-catholics and some still practicing, and they glorify this whole catholic school and church education, joyously recounting the punishments and dress downs they received. I think the Catholic Church is less about religion and more about politics and greed. . .it is a business with a big corporate office in Italy. It teaches self-hating minorities to hate themselves even more by promoting a "we are white and supreme" image. . .and it creates an environment for crooks to thrive in. . .sin and be forgiven, go out and do it again. I think people are leaving this church because they recognize that there something not normal about church period, and the catholic church in particular. . .get your hands out of my land, you priest!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  13. Jesus is not the son of god

    Bottom line – more people realize religion is a farce.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Nan

      Jesus is the true son of God, and I am glad He is in my life. My prayers have been answered many times, and God has taken care of me very well. I am a Catholic, and proud of it!

      March 31, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  14. jarvis.lorry

    I think there is a eighth big reason why people are leaving the Catholic church. They just don't believe all that religious crap and have become atheists. Many churches in Europe are nothing more than museums. It's going to happen in the U.S. as well simply because people are waking up to the idea that atheism makes more sense than believing in a god–whatever that is supposed to be.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Ryan Fahey

      I think that no matter what we say it comes down to the fact that these systemic issues are all around us but when stuff happens in any church or any religion it is exploited and therefore it turns massive amounts of people away.
      Check out my blog and let me know what you think. http://www.wellnessnetworkblog.blogspot.com

      March 31, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Jhunne Soriano

      In time of trouble you can not rely on the atheist, but you will ask the help of God.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • jarvis.lorry

      In times of trouble you should rely on someone who can help you solve your problems, or help put your mind at ease. I'd trust someone who was intellectually honest and who didn't try to make me believe things that just ain't so.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  15. Thank God For Miracles

    Wow, a study based on 300 people...In Trenton, New Jersey even... Oh Wow! I am sure that reflects the views of millions of Catholics world wide(rolls eyes, while typing this sarcasm)

    March 31, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Amelia

      That is all they could get for this piece of journalistic tripe. I repeat, the Church is alive and vibrant. This is more about what these authors and those that publish it hope will happen rather than reality.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  16. Ezo

    If these posts are any indication, this "civilization" is in deep trouble. Women haters; religious haters; racial haters; immigrant haters; hater haters. The solution is knowledge of self. How do you fit into this world? What is your purpose? What can you do? Until we all learn that this is the case, there is only inevitable self destruction. May God help us all...

    March 31, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  17. ricky

    very simple! they done follow jesus steps!

    March 31, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  18. Sowhat

    The only people sitting in churches believing in all that BS are a bunch of gullible weak-minded fools who will believe anything that is told to them. I'm a natural skeptic – I don't believe in anything unless I have undeniable tangible proof of its existence. This is why there are so many stories of stupid people being conned out of their savings – they have too much faith! Would a rational thinking person buy a used car that they have never seen or driven? No. So why do people believe in god-like beings that have never been seen or heard? Gullibility.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Thank God For Miracles

      Thomas doubted too.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Boast Busters


      What is the verified evidence for the actuality of the "Thomas" legend?

      March 31, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Ken

      And I Guess "Sowhat" you so didnt believe whats written in this article, that you were forced to comment. Arm chair criticism onto a all new level (or depth?)

      March 31, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • jarvis.lorry

      Ordinary people now have the information at hand to effectively counter the efforts of the priestly class to control their minds. Books that in the past never would have found their way to bookstores are now readily available. One in particular that I would recommend is "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins presents excellent arguments to counter religious dogma.

      March 31, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 31, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Thank God For Miracles

      In my case... Definitely for the better

      March 31, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  20. ExC

    A big turning point for me was when I was working as an exotic dancer and my childhood priest came in to watch the show.

    March 31, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Wes Scott

      I DID NO SUCH THING! I only came in to read the menu!

      March 31, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • just sayin

      Sounds like you had been "turned" quite a bit by that time. Try to remember what being honest was like.

      March 31, 2012 at 5:11 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.