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. Christopher Rowland

    I returned to the Church after many years away. I was attracted back by the Church's vast intellectual prowess (if that makes you snicker then spend some time reading the great Catholic Theologians.
    There are some things that the Catholic Church teaches are wrong that I disagreed with... I thought they were fine. As I eliminated them from my life I became gradually happier. I grew tired of my liberal political heroes... I realized their ideas, like gay marriage, a woman's 'right' to kill her unborn children... and even their economic ideas were in general vacuous and don't lead to authentic happiness.
    I came to realize that it was my own desire to continue doing things that were wrong which lead me to a foolish indignation at being told what to do by the Church.
    And I realized that Jesus, too, asked people to do things that were difficult, that they became indignant about: preaching against divorce... preaching against attachment to wealth and riches... preaching against condemning others (and it's CNN and all these liberals who constantly run around ready to condemn anyone they can- look at what they did to Zimemrman well before all the facts were in).
    If Jesus' teachings were so easy and so delightful to everyone they wouldn't have nailed him to the cross.
    So the Church is full of flaws in it's members and leadership, and there are good people inside and outside the Church. But I love the church and am delighted to have come back to it. You are all welcome here, if you come with an open heart and humility.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • BobZemko

      No, you mean "put your mind on reverse" and come back to the church.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • plucky

      But do you still believe in a supernatural being? Do you believe he had a flesh-and-blood son from a virgin? Do you believe he walked on water? Do you believe he died and was resurrected?

      The catholic church may make you happy, but there are secular philosophers out there that can give you the same moral input you need, without the false baggage that comes with a religion.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Brad

      If you recognize that there are things wrong with the Roman Catholic Church, are you satisfied that you have the means to help bring about change in it?

      March 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  2. At Least Trying

    One more thing, the articles focusing on those who are leaving the church. Perhaps it is good that these Catholics, who are not really Catholic in belief, (but cradle Catholics who know nothing about the faith) just leave. The article fails to say the many people who are converting to Catholicm from these Ecclesistical Communities are converting because their search for the truth will lead them to the Catholic Church. They learn to love and live like a Christian in the non denominational churches, but when they really begin to study their teachings and where they come from, or when they realize that they want more knowledge and history of why their church preaches the way they do...they will return to the Catholic Chruch. Whether they like it or not, We are their Root, their ancestor, their beginning. The level of people leaving the church certainly has a lower understanding of basic Christianity than the level of people entering the church!

    March 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  3. Jaded

    I was raised Catholic and was very involved in the church in grade school and high school. My problems stem from the lack of community. Of course every church is different, but I've belonged to 3 different Catholic churches, and 9 times out of 10 I would walk in, sit in the pew, be bored through mass because it didn't relate to me, say the same prayers over and over without any meaning, and walk out having only said "good morning" to a few people. At my current non-denominational church I can't walk 5 feet without having 5 people stop and ask me about my family, my health, my job, etc. They truly care. My beliefs haven't changed – I still worship the same God. I just do it with people who help me try to grow in my faith. That's why I'll never go back.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  4. Colin in Florida

    To ajk68: You said "inerrant and unchanging word of God."

    But what is that word? 90% of the stuff Catholics do and believe in has been made-up over the centuries. Don't believe me? Ok, answer me this; Where does god say that women can't be priests? Where does it say that nuns must dress as they did what, 1500 years ago? Where does it say that the pope cannot make mistakes (as was decreed by Pius 12th in 1950)?

    March 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • dont agree but its there

      Timothy 2:12

      March 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  5. Cafeteria Catholic

    Occasionally, but usually they tend to migrate to another denomination, religion or atheism. Catholics, on the other hand, pretty much adhere to the rule.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  6. ken reed

    Protons have mass? I didn't even know they are Catholic.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  7. cathos

    cnn is again feeding the cnn-resident atheists and anti-catholics with this article. way to go.
    if you're searching for truth and have faith to the church that Jesus Christ founded, then those 7 reasons are way too shallow.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Jeff

      Peter founded the church...

      March 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • cathos

      Jesus gave Peter the authority

      March 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  8. Martha

    Some Catholics who have left the church may feel at home in The Episcopal church. The liturgy is very very similar, but we ordain women and gay priests and are not so strict as to be exclusive. I feel Jesus accepted everyone and believe that is the way each denomination should be. It is important to maintain your faith whatever your denomination is. It is whatever seems to bring you closer to God that you should support. (And yes, I firmly believe there is a God). I know I sure didn't create the universe. It's all I can do to run my own life. Peace be with you all.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  9. ken reed

    We moved into our present house in 1959, knowing it was in a predominantly Catholic subdivision. For the first time in our lives, we made close friends with Catholics. We found them to be great neighbors from the get-go, and in time, good and reliable friends. Just good people. Our kids played with their kids, and many friendships at that level remain to this day. Our neighbors had large families - six, seven, eight and even nine kids. In the 1960's, the pill came out. We were too embarrassed to ask, but soon noticed there were no more pregnancies. The parents are for the most part still loyal Catholics, but most of the youngsters seem to have left the church. I still cherish our Catholic friends and neighbors, and choose not to ask why.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  10. adolf hitler

    catholics r gay

    end of discussion

    March 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  11. JC in Jacksonville

    I am Catholic and I am gay. I don't really give a damn what the Church thinks of it. I don't attend Mass because I know I am not welcome in the congregation of hypocrites and passers of judgment. Ultimately I will stand in front of my Lord and let him judge me on the merits of my heart and the deeds of my life. And after the judgment when the Lord asks me what I did with my life, I will say I spent it with "him".

    March 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • calvin taylor


      March 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Slovensko

      Wont let me post bible verses? what the crap.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  12. nonsense

    ALL religion is nothing more than the opportunity to explain/understand that which our current level of technology can not. As we become increasingly able to answer questions regarding health, our existence, etc., reliance on faith is no longer necessary. However, since it appears unlikely that we will ever truly understand what happens at the time of death, a certain amount of this reliance will persist.

    For those who disagree, I recommend you pray to the God of Sun for good weather tomorrow instead of clicking on the Weather Channel.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Patti

      Excellent response!

      March 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  13. Calcommuter

    #8. The majority of people think for themselves and do not rely on a made up imaginary friend to talk to before you go to bed. We have mastered fire and electricity and know it doesnt come from some guy in a robe on a cloud. Those dots in the sky do not scare us and earth wasnt formed in a day.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  14. Ray

    It surprises me that the belief in the Christian concept of "hell" is not mentioned.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  15. Joe

    My top seven reasons for leaving the Catholic church: Mandy, Mary, Susan, Kris, Michelle, Patti & Sharon! But I was only a teenager.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Just wouldn't put out?

      March 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  16. Cafeteria Catholic

    Catholics: A relgious organization where you can choose which doctrines to believe in and follow and still insist you're an adherent

    March 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Wouldn't that define ALL Christians?

      March 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  17. HabTheory

    I now belong to the "Church of the Duck". I feed the ferral and injured animals. I tutor kids for free. I do interesting presentations to the senior groups (I am a senior myself). I help the local Vietnam veteran who has major issues still. I donate my barely used clothes and shoes to the tornado victims. I try to treat everyone with kindness and I obey the law. . Christ didn't say, "Listen to the priest when he finishes molesting the children". He said, "Feed my sheep." Sheep humans, straight, gay, Christan,Jewish, Muslim, Buddist, atheist, whatever. That is my religion.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  18. Emilio GT

    The reason may people give for not being catholic anymore, sounds similar to me as If I said that I no longer believe in nature, because I have polled a group of people and the big majority agreed that we should not age and should stay forever young, and this nature thing seems to ignore our pleads and adapt to what the majority of us wishes, and really aging is so medieval. At the end both truth and nature are not decided by majority votes or opinion polls.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Truth isn't decided by a contradictory, immoral anceint text, either.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  19. At Least Trying

    Hey Fellow Catholics, It's true we need to ask our church to minister to us better. I'm not asking for our ancient traditions to be taken away, just better interpretted to us. We need to be catechised properly and more thoroughly so we can be better apologist, and live closer to God's teachings. I'm sure with this many ex Catholics leaving the church, a GREAT majority of them had NO IDEA what they were leaving. It saddens me to think that their faith was stolen away from them by these terrible pedophile priest...I pray they focus on the church's message and teachings and come back to reclaim the faith that was taken away from them. It truly is unfortunate that people are either dazzled by the facade or disgusted by the messengers, cause the true meaning, (the main dish, if you will) is the message, and the message and teaching have remained true since they were spoken 2000 years ago! To all you in Ecclisiatical Communities outside of Mother Church, you can speak ill about the Catholic church all you want, but we both know that you would not exist had it not been for the church's teachings...Spin it any way you like, the Bible you waive at us, is the abridged version, dare I say incomplete version of the one we GAVE you. Other than the orthox churchs of Eastern Europe (who, by the way we consider Catholic in teaching and faith) there were NO OTHER Christians out there but CATHOLICS. So if you need to hear the message of GOD in a flashier way with better singers and dancers, no problem! But stop beating up Catholics who enjoy the history, tradition and ritual of the church. We understand that all the Catholic ritual has a meaning, but it in no way takes away from the teachings and message..if anything it is there to enhance them. Again, fellow Catholics, It is time to press the church to better catechise! IT IS OUR RESPONSIBLITY TO ASK FOR BETTER PRIEST AND BETTER EDUCATORS!

    March 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • plucky

      I'm tired of catholics talking about faith like it is a good thing to have. There is nothing in your life, and I mean nothing, that you take totally on faith except the belief in your supernatural gods (father, son, holy spirit, devil, etc). It would be called gullibility in any other aspect of your lives, and it is not a good thing!

      March 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  20. Turtleguy

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:27 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.