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. us1776

    Reason #1: It's a 2000 yr old scam and we're done with this religion nonsense.


    March 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • JOE


      March 30, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  2. peick

    I dare the anti-religionists to adopt and promulgate a creed that people should live by. We'd soon see what they were all about when they were the target.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Sin lies only in harming others unnecessarily.
      All other "sin" is invented nonsense, with "blasphemy" and "heresy" fighting it out for ti/tle of most ridiculous.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Snow

      you mean, you are being good and doing good ONLY because your religion COMMANDED you to be?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • crazypete

      I’m going to promulgate the ugliness of your face…

      March 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  3. John Steriff

    The American Compact is, you don't make fun of my religion and I don't burn you at the stake. It has worked for 280 years...

    March 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • crazypete

      How about I just make fun of your religion?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • crazypete

      There are religions that worship Tom Cruise's poop that are better than your religion. Ha!

      March 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • crazypete

      Attempting hermeneutics on your religion is like eating soup with chopsticks: stupid! Ha!

      March 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • crazypete

      A Rabbi, Your Religion, and an Italian walk into a bar... ouch!

      March 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |

      Actually, I prefer prefer hanging, drawing, and quartering....not so noisy.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  4. john

    There are two big reasons 1) A lot of Catholics live in the most urban and secular areas of the country, so their children are secularized along with the culture.
    2) The church holds firm to traditional Christian doctrines on faith and morality that many people don't agree with.

    There are protestants converting into Catholicism too. The Catholic church isn't dying. Liberal churches that fully embrace the changes that many ex catholics seek for the church are doing much worse.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  5. bobcrow

    cybercmdr puts it best: the Catholic Church is still back in Medieval times. It was only 20 years ago they acknowledged Galileo was correct in saying the Earth revolves around the Sun. Maybe in another 400 years the Cardinals & the Pope will begin to address reasons 1-7 as to why Catholics are fed up with the Church.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Nobody

      BoBCrow, Galilleo was a pompous jerk. He "gave away" the invention of the telecope for free when he didn't invent it. And an official apology 20 years ago doesn't mean the Chuch only agreed that the Earth revolves around the Sun 20 years ago. And Coppernicus said that the Earth revolved around the Sun 150 years earlier. BTW: He was a priest.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  6. Natfka

    More anti-catholic rhetoric? CNN would never publish or even consider doing articles like this against Muslims or any other faith. Really getting tired of the anti-catholic views and articles on CNN.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • LogicShallPrevail

      There can't possibly be enough anti-religious articles. Keep it up CNN, good work.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  7. Jeff

    How many fundamentalists allow women clergy? Gays aren't welcome in many Protestant denominations either.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  8. guest

    I find this article to be insulting. As a "cradle Catholic" woman, I think what truly matters about the Church is its core beliefs and someone who truly believes in the Catholic faith will make every effort to better understand the Church's stance on many of these issues. Some of them, like a personal opinion on a priest, can either be overlooked, or you can change parishes. Others, like the abuse issues, are not a reflection of the whole Church or Church teachings. From my experience these are not reasons to leave a religion, but rather, they are things that should push someone to better understand their faith. And, if after a lot of soul searching, someone still finds that they cannot fundamentally agree with the Catholic Church, then that's their choice and should be respected. However, I find it insulting that this article was based on a very small sampling of American Catholics, when the very word "catholic" means "universal" and refers to the world-wide Church. Overall, the Catholic Church continues to grow around the world and I would like to see an article about the seven reasons people become Catholic.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • really?

      "insulted" eh? well, many are insulted by your religion. Count me among them.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Robin

      Are you kidding? The fact that you cannot receive the holy communion in a Catholic church if you are not a "catholic in good-standing" and that a Catholic cannot recive it in any other denomination church is deplorable enough to make anyone want to leave. When Jesus was at the Last Supper I am sure he said "eat of this bread as it is my flesh, drink of this wine as it is my blood", not..."Oh by the way...I meant that only for the Catholics" All you others, sorry, but you can fold your hands across your chest and receive a blessing but you are not welcome for the communion.....YIKES!

      March 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      7 Reasons Why People Become Catholic
      1) Childhood indoctrination
      2) Societal Pressure
      3) Forced Conversion (Augustine's 'Cognite Intrare')
      4) Appeasement (fiancee, spouse, family etc.)
      5) Other religions not condemning enough people to hell / justification for self-loathing
      6) Hooked on the flavour of communion wafers
      7) Easily impressed by ornate haberdashery

      March 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Kristy

      I am not Catholic, but I would have to agree with your statement that this study is such a small sampling, I can't imagine it is indicative of the Catholic population of the United States. I live in New Mexico, which has a very large Hispanic Catholic population, and I hear often from my Catholic friends and colleagues that one of the reasons they like the church is because of their priest. So it's pretty clear to me that there are varied reasons why people leave or stay with the church.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @ doc – re: #6 – the flavor of the communion wafers –

      The ones I tried tasted a bit "gamey". And I found a couple short curly hairs in it. Hey! Since Catholics thing these wafers turn into the body of Christ, you don't think I got a piece of holy wiener, do you?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • relmfoxdale

      Studies are very often based on small samples. That doesn't make their findings invalid. Why does everyone always think that because they only talked to 100 people or something that the results are no good? That's how that works. It's called statistics. It's beautiful. You don't actually have to talk to every person on earth to get meaningful results. We really need to teach statistics in high school–seriously.

      Secondly, there's "catholic" and there's "Catholic." The latter means Roman Catholic, which is a specific denomination, not a simple vocabulary term. That's how it was meant.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  9. DeeNYC

    Do you really need more reasons than they are raping small children?

    March 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      It isn't the pedophilia per se – people haven't quit playing hockey because a few coaches diddle the boys in the lockerroom.
      It's more the centuries long, ubiquitous cover-up that I think ticks people off.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  10. BY

    Most of the former Roman Catholics I know left because of doctrines and theology that are not consistent with scripture (diefication of Mary, dispensing of grace through a preist and sacrements, praying to dead saints, etc)

    March 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • john

      The catholic church put the bible together, it was approved by a Pope. They know what is in the bible.
      What is unscriptural is the Protestant doctrine of " sola scriptura" or " bible alone". It is not found anywhere in the bible.

      A person who really looks into the Christian faith, particularly the early church, would not attack the church on doctrines. All Catholic doctrines have roots in early Christian belief. Listen to Scott Hahn's conversion or google " catholic answers" and you'll be directed to the truth.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Nobody

      BY, you don't know what Catholics believe. All three of your statements are false.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  11. SheilaKA

    The fundamental theology isn't going to budge much, so I believe only #1, #3 and #4 are those we can realistically expect to be addressed. Those who have a problem with the role of women in the Catholic Church are welcome to their opinion, but I (who entered the Church as an adult) don't feel oppressed in any way, shape or form. I DO encourage better homilies (sermons). Younger priests have been trained better, but there is still some way to go on that account.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Gerry

      Priceless! I love it when women say they don't feel oppressed by the Catholic church. They can't hold positions of authority, decision making or power in the church but they're equal. Hahaha. Just goes to show how you don't need guns to force people to place limits on their own value and integrity. They'll do it all by themselves.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  12. Omar

    Keep coming out of her my people.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  13. christards

    religion and cigarettes

    bad for you but addicting

    March 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  14. Anomic Office Drone

    1, 2, 6, and 7 apply to me, but my biggest complaint is that the Bible is a silly collection of fables, many of which don't even begin to apply to life in the past 1000 years.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Omar

      you're absolutely incorrect. You must not read prophecy.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Anomic Office Drone

      Prophesy is the silliest and most laughable part.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • BY

      If you reject the Christian faith and the Bible, then all of these other issues are just noise, correct?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Anomic Office Drone

      Not necessarily. Catholicism allows for many views of the Bible, even among clergy. In my experience, a literal view of the Old Testament is somewhat rare among Catholics.

      I reject the old testament as the word of God but accept it as a primitive explanation of the world and a collection of fables that, at one point, were considered valuable and necessary life lessons.

      As for Jesus, whether or not he existed is irrelevant to me. His teachings provide valuable lessons about compassion, humility, selflessness and kindness. We'd all be better off following his example, especially those who identify themselves as Christian.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • JH

      Just because someone does not agree with the christian faith, labels and indoctrinated ritual doesn't mean they are a bad person. You can be a good person and a non-catholic just as easily as you can be a bad person and a catholic.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • BY


      Who is "good", except God alone?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  15. David Martin

    A couple years ago I toured the Vatican while on vacation. I kept thinking back to the biblical story of Jesus destroying the temple of the money-changers, and wondering what he would think if he saw what had become of Saint Peter's church. I found the wealth and pomposity to be disgusting. Living and working in that cloistered, privileged environment, it would be very difficult for anyone to relate to the real world. And when it comes to embracing the full rights of women, ANY church that refuses to do so isn't worth a penny of my money or a second of my time.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Anomic Office Drone

      I feel that way every day at work because I always have to drive past Trinity Christian City International.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Eric

      The opulence seen there, and in any new, massive church of any denomination, is hypocritical.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  16. Josef Bleaux

    #7. They grow a brain.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  17. Aloisae

    Actually, the researchers missed an important component in conducting their survey. Are the participants in the survey joining another organized religion? If not, is whatever reason they cited just really an excuse to stop participating in organized religion because they have no real commitment to their religious beliefs.. or have no faith at all.

    I've seen this with many of my former Catholic friends and the children of my Catholic friends (some of which were in the former Catholic group until they got married or had children themselves and rejoined the Church). Most aren't rejecting the Catholic Church for the reason they purportedly are.. they really are either apathetic about religion in general or are agnostic or atheist and are looking for a justification to give to their family and friends for why they left the Church so they don't have to admit they just don't believe in any of it or would rather do something else on Sundays.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Mary

      Such apathy and agnosticism doesn't come about in a vacuum. Likely it is precipitated by the things described here. Also don't forget that Eastern Orthodox Catholics have different views when it comes to priests and marriage. I would consider them no less "Catholic" than anyone in the Roman Catholic Church, and I have often found them more pensive in their beliefs rather than blindly believing what a priest says.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Maggie Smith

      Way too judgemental, my friend. I have very firm religious beliefs, left the catholic church, and don't belong to any other church. I don't believe in any organized religion I have knowledge of and I have studied plenty of them. Please don't think you know what is in the heart of someone else. You don't.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Aloisae

      I'm not being judgmental, Maggie Smith, just criticizing the methodology of the study. It asked people leaving the Church (or lapsed in their practice) which Catholic teachings they disagreed with as opposed to actually asking why they left the Church. You actually helped support my point by saying you don't believe in any organized religion and have developed a personal spirituality based on your own beliefs (whatever they may be)... speaking from a personal sense, I have done exactly the same thing. This means that it wasn't something superficial, like less than engaging homilies or dissatisfaction with a particular priest, that made you leave.. it was something to do with your spiritual beliefs... either, as in the case of many of the lapsed Catholics that I know, that they either lack faith or are apathetic about religion or that, as in your case, you developed spiritual beliefs that don't require participating in an organized religion. Otherwise, people leaving the Catholic Church for the very specific types of social teaching things listed would have joined another Church which shares many religious and spiritual teachings with Catholicism but doesn't share the particular social teaching.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  18. Ben

    What bars? The only thing women can't do in the Church is be a priest. Men can't be nuns, either. And why would women want to be like men? Are they not good enough on their own? Whats wrong with the role of women? Again, they have all the legal rights men do, so I don't see the problem here.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • really?

      So... nevermind. I just can't spend another moment to educate you on what you clearly are denying.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • evolvedDNA

      Ben.. the problem is that the women are in subservient roles...why cant women be priests in your organization...? Or does god only faovor men?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Snow

      Lets see how great church was to women.. out of the last two THOUSAND years church was actively trying to "save" people, women saw their rights improve only in the last century.. what was the church doing all those 1900 yrs before women got equality? or was what women had in those 1900 yrs its definition of equality?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • eric

      You can't compare priests to nuns. Men CAN be monks, which is the better comparison

      March 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  19. Jewtard

    I'd have thought "Actually reading the Bible" would've been high on the list.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Gerry

      The highest percentage of people who actually read the bible cover to cover are atheists.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  20. stu

    Strange that "God is a myth" doesn't make the list.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • Omar

      God is your Creator.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Chris

      Seriouly I agree with that 100%. That is my #1 reason, but that is because I grew up and used my logic. Where as my catholic family members still deny to me that they believe evolution is a valid theory. I would say the mountains of evidence suggest different.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • stu

      If true, he did a great job. But, not true so I guess it doesn't matter. If I'm wrong, I at least hope God is that cool Elephant the Hindu's worship and not the boring God Western religions love.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      This comment was inspired by God. There's a 1956 Chevy orbiting Saturn's C Ring. How do I know? Because it says so in this comment. How can I trust this comment? Go back and read the first sentence.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • evolvedDNA

      Omar..god is not real so how can he create? If you were free to think for your self it would be easy to see.. but fear is a powerful motivator.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • mightaswellbe

      Hey Omar, mankind created God.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • mightaswellbe

      And as for me, my creators were my mom and dad and their crators were their moms and das and so on all the back to the primordial ooze. A much more wonderous string of ancestors than the magic hocus pocus pushed by the Dictaorship of the Pulpit

      March 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Aloisae

      For what it is worth, Chris, the Catholic Church does not reject the theory of evolution. The official teaching (since at least Pope Pius XII) is that evolution is compatible with Church teachings.. however, the Church teaches that souls are not the result of evolution but rather God's specific creation (which seems to be the province of religion, not science, anyway if one believes in such things as souls). The other definitely factor is that the Church teaches that evolution was not entirely random but religion saying that God set off the Big Bang isn't exactly incompatible with the scientific theory.. just outside the current scope of it. Having said all of that, I'm an agnostic and I don't see the need to insert God into things but I also don't see how science can disprove God's existence.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:10 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.