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. Meg

    When my husband was abusing me and the church said don't leave him, but they weren't going to help me stop the abuse and were not going to say anything to him about it – well would you stay after that?

    March 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nope. Glad you left. I hope you've found some peace.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  2. Chris from Iowa

    It's the ENRON of religions.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  3. Dude

    I left the church because I read the bible. It's full of so many inconsistencies that nobody could believe that it represent what a good and just god wants. It's complete garbage.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  4. really?

    Catholics and other religions appear to benefit so much from their church. And yet, believers seem to have so little understanding of the real harm they also cause. Suicide and war and murder will have a religious basis, but religious people want to distance themselves from the crazy religious people but, to me, those people wouldn't get anywhere without the rest of you making space for them in the universe. Yes... I blame you.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  5. Michele

    Well T.S. for those of us who do not believe there IS a god, there is no willingness to suffer and growing up having a false god shoved down our throats was torture. Being an adult now and seeing the abject corruption, greed and reluctance to come into the 21st century, there is no wonder people are leaving as fast as they can. You can take your "advanced degrees from an elite university" and put them next to mine because I'm an atheist and couldn't care less what piece of paper you stand in front of. Every point in this article is valid and people are angry and feel deceived and abused.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      So when The Belief Blog editors put up articles such as ones in the past that declared that the Catholic church is still growing, will you also say that it is valid?

      Hang out here long enough and you will see that all of us are pretty much play toys for the Belief Blog editors. That this article has not hit 4 or 5 thousand comments in the first day with the article linked on CNNs front page, has gotta be upseting someone on the Blog Staff.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Religion is generally in decline. The number of christians may be growing but christianity is decreasing as a percentage of believers. They are losing marker share to islam and "The Nones," the fastest growing group ithat includes various forms of no belief in a supernatural being or not belonging to any cult.

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

      God keep our land ... prayer borrowed from the Canadian national anthem.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  6. M.

    I'm guessing the real number one reason is omitted for political correctness: people are looking for truth, and they are starting to realize no truth can be found within the walls of a church.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  7. sfr

    What about the one where they just stop believing in fairy tales?

    March 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Blaise

      Glad you know all the answers. It must be nice to be so secure in your knowledge of the metaphysical.

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

      Better accept that you do not know something and try search for it than accept that you do not know something and wait for the "god' to hand it over.. its called hardwork..

      March 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  8. Blaise

    Wow, CNN taking another shot at Catholics. Go figure. How many people on the CNN staff are dedicated to badmouthing religion?

    March 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son

      You’re of course are right. They should focus only on the few positive things that can be found in religion and ignore the rest. It’s the only way to be unbiased…right?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • michael

      Really? CNN "badmouthing" the Church. Buddy, you better get a clue on reality. The Church's abuse of power (financial scandals, money laundering, associations with the Mafia, child abuse, child molestation, hiding pedophiles) isn't CNN's reporting domain. It's the entire world that's reporting on this. So, next time you point the finger, think of what Jesus would say. I might suggest Jesus would say something like this "you're stupid – use the brain I gave you."

      March 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Nemesis

      This is not CNN picking on Catholics. Jeeez...they are publishing the results of a report by "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". Hardly bastions of liberalism. CNN had NO part in the study. But of course YOU know better than those folks what's going on, right?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  9. NotSoFast

    @EnjaySea You have just established a new religion. What are you going to call it? It has just as much and exactly the same kind of evidence to support it Catholicism. BOOM! You have just performed your first miracle! You just created an invisible mouse inside this comment. This miracle is just as valid and meaningful as the Roman Catholic "miracle" of Transubstantiation. That proves that it is the one true religion.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm |


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

      Well we wouldnt want people like you in our churches anyways...You cant even tell the difference between accept and except.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Dude

      Why would you go back to a place filled with hypocrites?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Mary

      All you have to do is go to the priest and have your marriage blessed. If one or the other of you were married before, then you need to dissolve that marriage through the church. I went through it and I basically wrote down what happened in my first marriage and our time of engagement. My husband used drugs and lied to me during our engagment. The process was more cathartic than going to a counselor. My second husband and I (both Catholics) married in Vegas, we had the our marriage blessed in the church. We had to reconcile our past with the priest. My husband's faith has grown stronger and he is more of a man in my eyes as I watch how much he has changed and keeps trying to improve. He went from having a selfish bone to a man that volunteers regularly. If your priest will not help you. Then go find another Catholic parish or go visit the bishop.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  11. Vertebrate Catholic

    I find it interesting that 86% of respondents (those who abandoned the Church) believe a Catholic “can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church." Since this view is completely incompatible with authentic Catholicism, one could make the case that the vast majority of people who leave the Church were never authentically Catholic in the first place. May as well make it official. Hopefully they'll find their way to the Church for real someday.

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

      No thanks, they just need to have a personal relationship with Christ, not strive to be a catholic because it seems that being a good catholic conflicts with having a spiritual relationship with Christ. Read your bible...good day

      March 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Jim

      I think you are misinterpreting this part. It was a seperate study that found this. Therefore it was among still practicing catholics. Many of these catholics thought that they could have beliefs that fall outside some of the church' doctrines and still be good and faithful catholics. I have heard this used as the term "McDonald's Catholics" where they pick and choose what is important and what they value off the church's religious beliefs. I feel this is not much different in other religions. Many people have their own thoughts and beliefs and not every single one of those align with church. I imagine many peoples thoughts and opinions do not always jive with that of their employer's yet they are not chastized for disagreeing with some of the business tenants.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  12. Jim

    I became a Catholic 6 years ago at the age of 55. I do so after many years of being a "non practicing Christian".

    Human beings are "grievance collectors" and it is easy to find fault with any large organization simply because it is made up of people. I joined the Church to build on my relationship with my Creator. I joined the Church to learn how to live in a state of compassion and forgiveness.

    When one studies religion, consciousness, man's ego , the emptiness of materialism and the false promises of liberalism.....one eventually sees that no one can change the world but we will be truly happier and healthier if we "go within " to seek answers.

    One of the best lines I can share to the folks who are unhappy with this Church or any church....is....

    Resign as your own teacher for you have been badly taught.

    Jesus is the best teacher possible for a deeply troubled world and He is alive and well in the Catholic Church ...and in all of His followers. His love exists in all of us whether we believe in Him or not.

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

      Well said. I remember at mass one year after the parishioners were grumbling about a priest they didn't like, another priest commenting that if your faith depends on one person, you have a real problem. Your relationship should be with God–a priest is just a facilitator.

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

      Well said JIM

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

      Well said brother. Amen and God bless.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Hello

      a priest is a god salesman.... money hungry greedy b–tards

      March 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Nemesis

      Why do we NEED a facilitator to establish a relatiionship with god anyway? Also, notice that the thrust of the article is NOT about one's relationship with god, it's about people's relatiionship with the Catholic CHURCH. There's a HUGE difference there.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  13. palintwit

    President Santorum will make it mandatory to attend church at least once a week. He will see to it that we get more of the baby jesus in both our professional and personal lives.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • kevin, illinois

      The same one ricky bobby prays to at mealtime?

      March 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Hello

      Santorum and others need to read Caesar's Messiah and get the real info on the Roman myth they follow.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  14. Jason

    This is what I don't get, "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.""

    What's wrong with these people? Why would anyone want to be a part of a church that does not share their same conscience? Why would anyone who partakes in what the church deems unfit, still be a part of the church? The relationship between man and God, and conscience, is what is sacred. The idea that the church is that relationship is the chief barrier to spirituality.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son

      Tradition (not to mention religion) makes slaves of men.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • typeg98

      Jason – Can the same be said about your political views compared to the country in which you live? I am an American but I do not agree toatally with the US political stance across a wide range of topics. There are alot of aspects of the US that I deem "unfit" yet I am still a part of it – and proud to be an American. I see no difference with this analogy and your argument of being a Catholic yet not totally agreeing with the church.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son

      Thank you for proving my point sir.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Knock it off, ya troll. Use your own name or shut up.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  15. MyTrueView

    We have to be clear of one thing... if you expect when all the people (other than cleergy) in the world are becoming more and more sinful, only the cleargy not to be, it is not a practical thing I guess.. Cleargy are also human and it is the human nature to commit sin.. If we point out to others sin and use that as a scape goat to walk away from God would it be correct? Would'nt it be a reson we use these type of stories to justyfy our leaving faith or the church and to covering our guilt?...
    We are all human even the cleargy and we toegether trying to do what God has comanded which could be done only with
    God's help... Therefore we should not worry or try to put to right what others do... We have to do our part only being faithful to God and if everyone else do the same this world will be a better place... The sinfull will have to pay the price for their sin... but if we are NOT sinful as them....why should we fall to the sin of judging them and fall to even more sin by accusing the church.... Remeber even the desiples Jesus chose had people who denied him and betrayed him.... but church exsisted for 2000 long years what Jesus established through Peter who denied him... and it is only the Catholic church which has this tradition.. therefore we are only wasting our time of accusing the cleargy... we have all what we need in the scriptures and even if a sinful priest hold the mass it does not realy matter coz when the priest WILL have to answer God of his actions we only have to answer God ONLY for our actions...

    March 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • There never was a god

      spoken like a true brainwashed person, gj guy, way to drink the kool aid, btw do you think its awesome to systematically eff young boys? because ultimately youre supporting it.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • cyn507

      clergy. it's clergy. has it occured to you that many have left the church but haven't left g-d? myself included. i don't need clergy to tell me right from wrong, i don't need them to absolve me of my sin. i can have a relationship w/g-d w/out the interference of the church. all they want is my money, all while rejecting my beliefs. well, i'm keeping my money and rejecting their beliefs. and guess what? g-d still loves me, just as much as he does you and/or the clergy, just as much as he does my neighbor's dog. we're all special. that's what catholics dont get. they're no more important to g-d than anyone/anything on the planet.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  16. Tim

    Since Jesus himself picked a woman, Mary Magdalene, to head his church upon his death, who are the Catholics to say that his choice was wrong?

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

      You are making some untenable leaps about Mary Magdalene there.

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

      Do your homework nut.

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

      While I don't agree with Tim, I think most Catholics and Christians in general need to "do their homework" as well. Seriously, there is zero evidence that supports the assumption that God even exists. All that is known about Christianity has been derived from the words of humans. Humans wrote the bible, and humans are the ones that spread the faith. It makes zero sense that a God would just select a small population to speak to (indirectly, I might add), and then never say a single thing ever again. The Catholic Church is a government by itself, and has created the Seven Sacraments to coerce their followers into obediance.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • john

      He picked Peter, you have been reading too much Dan Brown.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Stan Lee says waht the Hulk does because he made him up.

      The author calls the tune.

      Whoever makes up the God calls the tunes

      March 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Hello

      read Caesar's Messiah to learn what a "mary" and a "magdalene" really are... it is not what you have been programed to believe. Not even close.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  17. Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son

    You forgot education and the resulting realization they were duped into believing a fairytale by their parents and priests.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Look, moron, I don't care what you post, but stop doing so under my screen name.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  18. Sam Yaza

    No sh.it

    indecently all the reasons above are the reason whey people have been flocking to Pagan religions well them and the love for Life and the Earth

    their living religions a faith surrounding the Death is is hard to keep alive when the quality of life improves

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

      I have no idea what you said!

      March 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • relmfoxdale

      "indecently"? Do tell.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  19. T.S. Rood

    What a disappointing series of posts. Is this really the highest level of discourse any of you are capable of? As a Catholic with advanced degrees from an elite university, I would have welcomed honest debate on the points raised in this article. Instead, I see nothing but gutter sniping and playground bullying.
    Personally, as we approach the Great Feasts of Good Friday and Easter, remembrances of God's willingness to suffer completely and even die to redeem all of humanity, demonstrating the highest possible form of love, I feel only pity for the lot of you. I hope that all of you someday come to know God's love and that you treat all of your fellow brothers and sisters on this Earth with awareness of that love.
    When you are ready to put aside childish things and reason courteously with someone whom may not see things in the same way as you do, I'll be happy to chat with you.

    March 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son

      Your failure was looking for a high level of discourse on the internet and a news blog. Where did you say you got those elite degrees? Lol When you are ready to put aside childish things we will welcome you to Atheism.

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

      Your last name says it all T.S.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • J De Donato

      Blah, blah, blah......zzzzzzzzzzzz. Minimizing others opinions, thats the catlick chuch for you. St Anthony's church in Passaic, NJ would love this guy, conformity based on fear. Are the blinders all in place panel? Do you agree that beatings, humiliation and threats are a way to raise children in schools? Oh father, now that the new nuns will be here for our new school, what will they need? Nothing but the best of everything!, he exclaims. Greed, arrogance and insensitivity. The plunder of the working class, thats the way to get on the good side of the rich, aloof church.
      If you don't want to hear others that have legitimate beefs against the catlick church, get out of the kitchen.
      You sound like a good little catlick, your entrance into heaven is assured...

      March 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • really?

      no thanks. your belief is based in a book that I don't believe in. Let's debate Aesop. Let's debate Winnie the Pooh. The basis for your discussion is irrelevent to life as I experience it.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • mightaswellbe

      Burning at the stake, How loving is that?

      March 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Hello

      read Caesar's Messiah to learn why the christian myth was created and by whom.... it is a JOKE!

      March 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • eagle eye

      We don't have the highest level of discourse that you have Mr. elite, or your ink on paper degrees. One feast is greater than another? These rituals mean nothing. Does this include the animals you kill for the graveyard of your belly? Suffering is a human thing brought about by our bad deeds and our fogetfullness of where we came from. There is no death or suffering of the creator. Do you think he makes mistakes. He has set everything in motion and all is in order. You do not need to pity anyone Mr. egotist just get your own house in order and clean the mind mud off that pearl within so it can shine with it's true luster. You can not just think you have love for it only comes with God's grace.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  20. sqeptiq

    Instead of thinking of reasons why I left the church, I find myself trying to think of reasons why I would WANT to be part of the church and I come up dry.

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

      Great–Christ spits the lukewarm from his mouth.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Sra. Julia

      So do I, what benefit would I receive by staying ? I can't think of any and the more inmoral acts that come to light the less I want to be a part of a community that supports this organisation. I am not stupid I know I'm being used and abused for me it is over. I walking out and taking my purse with me ......

      March 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • There never was a god

      lol i really dont want to be in christs mouth, i prefer the back door

      March 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son

      @ Blaise
      Jebus chewed dip? Well that certainly explains a lot about him and the bible belt.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:44 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.