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7 reasons Catholics leave church (in Trenton, #1 is sex abuse crisis)
One in 10 Americans is a former Catholic.
March 30th, 2012
01:52 PM ET

7 reasons Catholics leave church (in Trenton, #1 is sex abuse crisis)

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – Even though Roman Catholics are the second-largest religious group in the United States, the tradition has seen an exodus of members in recent decades. One in ten Americans is an ex-Catholic.

If ex-Catholics were counted as their own religious group, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States, after Catholics and Baptists, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

If it weren’t for the infusion of Catholic immigrants, especially from Latin American, the American Catholic Church would be shrinking pretty fast.

A recent study by two college professor tries to get at a simple question: Why are they leaving?

Conducted William J. Byron, a professor of business at St. Joseph’s University and Charles Zech, founder of the Center for the Study of Church Management of Villanova’s School of Business, the anecdotal study conducted in late fall of 2011 processes the opinions of 300 non-churchgoing Catholics in Trenton, New Jersey.

The scholars, working at the request of Trenton’s Catholic bishop, asked parishioners who have drifted away not just why the left, but what church teachings they disagree with and whether they ever truly considered themselves part of the Catholic community.

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Though the study paints a picture of a church with some characteristics that rub people the wrong way, the researchers – both at Catholic schools in Pennsylvania – argue that the study presents new ways in which church leadership can reconcile with ex-Catholics.

"We need a more pastoral approach to people," Zech says. "There are two types of issues that appear. One revolves around church beliefs and frankly those won’t change. But we have to do a better job explaining some of the issue that the church might not change and why that is."

The report is based on one particular diocese, but its authors say it gives a good picture of challenges facing the broader church. "I think the same seven items would show up for the most part," in other areas of the country, Zech says.

The 7 biggest reasons Catholics from Trenton are leaving the church, according to the study:

1. The sex abuse crisis

Byron and Zech asked ex-Catholics to cite their main reason for leaving: “If you could communicate directly with the bishop, what would you say?”

The most common answer: the church’s inadequate response to clergy sex abuse. “The bishop’s refusal to list pedophile priests on the diocesan Web site and his non-support of the effort to lift the statute of limitations for bringing sexual abuses cases forward in the courts” did it for me, one man said, according to the report.

Several respondents said they had been victims of sexual abuse by church leadership.

2. The church’s stance on homosexuality

The second most cited reason for leaving the church was that former worshipers felt homosexuals were unwelcome in the church.

As recently as March 9, Pope Benedict XVI denounced what he categorized as the “powerful” gay marriage lobby in the United States. In the same speech he noted these views would be seen as “countercultural” to young people, but told bishops to not back down to “powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage."

When those surveyed were asked if there were any religious beliefs in the Catholic Church that troubled them, a number cited views on same-sex marriage. “The church’s view on gays, same-sex marriage, women as priests and priests not marrying, to name a few,” said one respondent, explaining her departure from the church.

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“Hypocrisy,” said one person. “History of discrimination against women, anti-gay stance, unwelcoming attitude.”

William D’Antonio of the Catholic University of America recently published a study called “Catholics in America: Persistence and change in the Catholic landscape.” found that even though the church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has come out against homosexual relationships, only 35% of Catholics surveyed said the church’s opinion on homosexuality is “very important.”

The same survey found that 86% of respondents believe a Catholic “can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church."

3. Dissatisfaction with the priest

About half of those surveyed in the Trenton report were not supportive of the pastor they had left behind.

According to Byron and Zech, words like “arrogant,” “distant,” “aloof” and “insensitive” were all used by respondents to describe their priest.

4. Uninspiring homilies on Sundays

A number of people responded that homilies, weekly Sunday messages from the priest, did not relate or “speak to” them.

“I stopped going regularly because the homilies were so empty,” one respondent said. “And whenever the church wanted to raise money, they dropped the homily and talked money.”

“I would advise the bishop to make training in public speaking mandatory for every priest,” said another. “They should also be trained in how to relate their homilies to the people and inspire them.”

“As much as I wanted to get involved and expand my faith, there were no clear avenues to do that,” replied one person. “So it was just a place to attend Mass. And because attending Mass was a guilt-ridden obligation, I was always alone in a crowd where I knew no one and no one knew me.”

5. Perception that church hierarchy is too closely tied to conservative politics

Politics was a mixed bag, according to the survey.

Though some people wanted the church to become more conservative – “change the liberal-progressive political slant to a more conservative,” said one person – others responded differently.

“Eliminate the extreme conservative haranguing,” said one person. Another respondent said politics and the church shouldn’t mix: “I feel the church should stay out of politics; it should certainly not threaten politicians.”

6. Church’s stance toward divorced and remarried Catholics

Catholicism’s stance on divorce and remarriage were also highlighted, especially by divorced females.

The churches stance on divorce is closely tied to their stance on adultery. Without getting a marriage annulled, any marriage after a divorce is considered adulterous. Therefore, divorced people who have not had their marriage annulled or remarried are not able to receive Holy Communion.

“Please find a way not to exclude me from the Catholic community,” said one 56-year old divorced female. A 59-year old divorced female said she would tell her bishop to “petition the church to expand its view on divorce.”

In November of last year, Pope Benedict XVI responded to a German bishop who questioned the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage. “A pastoral approach which truly wants to help the people concerned must always be grounded in the truth… in the end, only the truth can be pastoral,” the Pope wrote, signaling a reluctance to change church teachings on divorce and remarriage policy.

“Instead of making every Mass a form of humiliation for Catholics who cannot receive communion,” one respondent to the Trenton survey said, “do something like a private blessing at communion time, to include everyone.”

7. The status of women

With the political debate over religious conscience and contraceptive coverage, women’s rights and the church have come to the forefront of debate in American politics. According to the Trenton study, a number of people who have left the church cite a “history of discrimination against women,” as one reason for leaving.

Respondents also took issue with the fact that while other churches allow women to become ordained priests, the Catholic Church does not.

“If the Catholic Church does not change its archaic views on women, it is going to become a religion that survives on the fringe of an open-minded, progressive society,” one person who was surveyed said.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Sex abuse

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    Interested Reader:Thank you for answering my quieston. Here is my response to yours…Joh 4:24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.God is a spirit:God can also be referred to as power 2Ti 1:7 For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.Notice how it says God is a spirit and not God is spirit which correlates to God being one of the seven spirits. Rev 5:6 And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.To worship God in spirit:Most importantly, we have to be on the cross and carry the cross. Luk 14:27 And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. Gal 2:20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.If we crucify our wordly thoughts then we are Crucified with Christ like Christ was. Once we banish our wordly thoughts to the outer darkness the spirit of Christ lives in us i.e. we are Christ. Not in a physical sense like Jesus of Nazareth but in spirit.How do I know when I am on the cross?Based on the 2 new commandments: Mat 22:36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Mat 22:37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. Mat 22:38 This is the first and great commandment. Mat 22:39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.If we abide by these commandments then we fulfil the 10 commandments. Mat 22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.The vertical part of the cross represents love God above all and the horizontal part represent loving your neighbour as yourself.After I have crucified the flesh then I need to do the deed. For deed to manifest I need to make a sacrifice in my life today. If you read the part in Rev 5:6 stood a Lamb as it had been slain. The slaughtering of the Lamb represents what we have to be in order to be Gods servants. We must be submissive, obedient and humble so that the blood can be shed. 1Pe 1:19 But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. The blood that is shed represents the sacrifices we have to make in order to do Gods will. For example, we need to balance the natural work that we do in our lives in order to the spiritual work that’s required not only for ourselves but to help our fellow brothers and sisters with there spiritual growth too (the body of Christ is not one but many). Heb 9:22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.To worship him in truth:To worship God in truth means to bring fourth the light (the understanding) of the Gospel unto people so that the seed maybe sown. Joh 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Joh 1:2 The same was in the beginning with God. Joh 1:3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. Joh 1:4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. Joh 1:5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.Spirit and truth must go hand in hand though. You cannot have one without the other. In other words, you cannot bring fourth the light unless you possess the spirit of God which is within you. It is only within you when we are on the cross though.Once we are on the cross and have the understanding then we must shed the blood and do the works by embracing the gifts of the Apostle, Evangelist, Prophet, Pasta and Teacher that us within us. Eph 4:11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; We then must use all of these gifts either singularly or simultaneously to bring fourth the light.So in summary:God is a spirit/power which is within us. To worship the lord in sprit we must allow the spirit of God/power which dwells in us to lead and guide us. To do this, we need to be on the cross by crucifying our wordly thoughts so that the spirit of God can guide us in the works. For the works to happen we have to make a sacrifice in our lives which means we have shed the blood i.e. we have to take action. As a result of doing the works via the spirit of God which is within us allows us as instruments to bring fourth the understanding of the Gospel.Intersted Reader, I hope that you find explanation satisfactory and that it allows you to see the light. I have to admit though, I find this very challenging through the net as certain topics might not be understood in the correct context and that goes for your responses you have provided us all too.I think you and everyone here are very wise and know the scriptures very well. My advice would be for you to keep testing the spirits as Former OAC has suggested until you find and experience the joy, peace and righteousness.

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  9. R. Corlias

    Reason # 1 and Reason #2 are inconsistent with each other, you cant have it both ways and there is an underlying link between them, make no mistake.

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  11. Nance

    Well I went to Catholic school as a child. The nuns and priests that I encountered there were very, very kind. Taught me to play the piano. Taught me to be smart. We sang in the church, all the kids, it was so loud and impressive. Attended Girl Scout meetings in the church meeting hall. We has parades for the religious holidays. There was this one lay teacher, not a nun, I remember got angry with me I did not turn my test in real fast, checking over the answers. My experience as a Catholic was very fine. But I do have anger at the larger Catholic church organization for not doing something about the child abusers, sick people who could be involved with any organization. Does make me question things. Those abused kids should have had the type of Catholic childhood that I experienced, not be miserable forever. A rotten apple in every barrel.

    May 17, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • JoeyTy

      Very interesting article that makes it very clear why people, probably everywhere (not just in NJ), are leaving the Catholic Church. My reasons for leaving were my "growing away from it" when I realized most of my Church experiences involved meanspirited people (and no wonder it was the perfect social setting for my mean-spirited mother and stepfather), who were totally useless as far as offering any help when a serious life-crisis finally struck, but I can understand and appreciate every other reason listed here.

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    • JoeyTy

      I'm sorry, Nance, somehow I included that as a Response to you, when it was meant to respond to the original article.

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      Their understanding of the great cossimmion is that each believer is commanded to preach the gospel to everyone they can. Some denominations take this to the extreme of interrupting people in the privacy of their homes. I am a believer but I don't think this is what Jesus had in mind at all. One way I can tell is that it irritates me when people interrupt me in my home to sell me something or preach something at me. So the golden rule won't allow me to do that to other people. I also don't answer the door unless I look through the peep hole and see someone I know or who has legitimate business standing out there on my porch. I ignore the doorbell otherwise and they go away.

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    this article forgot the main reasons people leave the catholic church. People are just not obediant to Gods will. for the ones about the pretext of child scandals well in case you didnt know an apostole also betrayed Jesus so scandals are nothing new. This church will never disappear its been around for 2000 years and will go on!

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    The devil must be very impressed with his work with the pope, bishops, and priests of the catholic church.

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      and with every other version of religion, especially Christianity, Islam and Judism as they as a whole are doing more to mess up this world and brings humans closer to self-annihilation than any other singular belief system....

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      except the devil does not exist either....

      April 4, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Myriam

      Ann, the ancient accusor who we call 'the devil' is tempting you to judge the Catholic Church, whom he hates. Seek humility and leave the judgement to God. That way, on the last day, you will have humility to defend your case.

      May 31, 2012 at 1:42 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.