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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

soundoff (1,757 Responses)
  1. Not a holy roller

    The church would like women to be in the dark ages again.
    Another reason is their stance on abortion.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  2. rox

    opps I meant to say Tatiana I couldn't agree with you more!!! lol....

    Tony--Who knows....but we chose not to make up stories to explain it

    March 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  3. Pat

    Turtleguy, you hit the nail on the head.....thanks for the post!

    March 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  4. GiGi

    Wow. The ignorance about the Catholic Church on this forum is astounding. Almost every negative thing stated is untrue. But, that is exactly what evil wants – for us to be ignorant. The Catholic Church IS the MOST biblical, MOST inclusive, MOST JESUS-ORIENTED, and MOST giving and helpful organization. Period. Please watch where you get your (mis)informaiton about the church. False history and false accusations abound when a person does not want to live according to God.
    I am a divorced Catholic woman. Annullments are free to all. We put women on pedastals and they have an important role in the church. It takes a long time to study (3-4 years) the history of Christianity, but it is worth it. The Catholic Church is the home for everyone. There are MANY articles out there about why people ARE Catholic and would never leave the church. Read those articles to get a fair and balanced view.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      "Annullments are free to all."

      I thought lying was a sin? You're either lying or your grasp of the catholic teaching on annullments is SEVERELY lacking.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Patti

      I I guess that explains the abundance of women popes and priests

      March 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • mrbelvedere

      Gigi, you need your own education about the church. Hoarding funds while crying about poverty around the world, protecting felonious priests, encouraging immoral politics, and hatred of gay people are all facts about this church that would make Jesus cry.

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

    I married a Catholic and attended the Catholic church for 10 years. After we were married I wanted to be Baptized. I wanted to receive communion and be a church member. I was told I could not until I took Catholic classes every week for a year. I had a small child, but put aside time to do this. After several months I soon found that my questions were never answered. Confused, I stopped the classes. It is odd that I can walk into any church in my city and they would gladly baptize and accept me. Why does the Catholic church make this hard? It is so simple and I found Jesus another way, with another Church.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  6. Yolanda

    I feel sorry for you "Tatiana Covington" and pray that God will have mercy on your soul for all that you just posted because your wrong.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • rox

      Really? I thought "God" was all loving....I hope one day sanity kicks in

      March 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  7. Edward

    It appears the reasons are basically I want to do and believe what I want and if the Catholic Church doesn't agree goodbye. In a society where most want to do anything they wish – well that is the reason they are not "religious". Nothing a religion can do about that – they are not politicans that can change based on polls.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  8. Patti

    Doesn't Catholicism have the honor of being the only religion with survivors of abuse groups?

    March 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  9. Not a good Catholic, but still trying

    I think CNN (and most commenters here) miss the point. Pope Benedict said before his election to the Papacy that the Church would become stronger and have a more vibrant witness if those who dissent from the teaching of the Church, or reject the Church and its structure in toto would leave. Thanks to those who are doing so, and may others follow them

    March 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • plucky

      Man, are you a "glass half full" person.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  10. Alger Dave

    Obviously the church needs to better educate their flock about these issues. Most religious beliefs are grounded in scripture (or should be), and many on this list above are no different. How the church interprets that scripture is important, but at the very least they need to let their congregants know why they take these stands.
    And for the rest of you – take a philosophy or logic class at your local college before you spout philosophically bankrupt arguments like 'God doesn't exist'. Get educated about why that argument doesn't work so the rest of us don't get hand cramps trying to educate you for free.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • TR6

      @Alger Dave:” before you spout philosophically bankrupt arguments like 'God doesn't exist'.”

      Ok Mr. philosophy explain why that is a bankrupt argument and then present evidence for why it is false

      March 30, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  11. BobZemko

    Jesus, save me from your followers.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  12. Uncle Dave

    Atheists are just jealous because Christians have Christmas and Easter. But, never fear, the Atheist holiday is coming up this Sunday ... April First. Enjoy

    March 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • NUMBNUT

      Thank you, I will.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • squeekbo

      Really? You just stole those holidays from the various pagan cultures before you.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • TR6

      Having escaped from the living death that is Christianity every day since then has been a holiday

      March 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  13. dave

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

    that depends on where you are. my priest have no problem telling us that he likes democrats and dislikes republicans. and I'm sure a good part of the parishioners vote democrat in elections.

    4. Uninspiring homilies on Sundays

    that's probably more important reason. the homilies I've heard are either boring/uninspiring or ambiguous on teaching. some priests think their role is just to say mass and not much else.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  14. hippypoet

    the real number one reason is its a pile of bs

    March 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  15. Lewis Keseberg

    Hmmm ... no one answered that they didn't like the taste of Jesus-meat? I love me some flesh, but I understand it doesn't agree with everyone.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  16. O.T.

    Another CNN negative article about Christianity. Not surprising at all.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • NUMBNUT

      It's about people leaving the Catholic church. The article says nothing negative toward "Christianity".

      March 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • CMoses

      Yeah, I'm glad it's not just me noticing the constant flow of anti-Catholic editorials lately.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • vic

      Yeah, you rite!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      March 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  17. MariaGoretti88

    I don't find any of these to be legitimate reasons to leave the Church, but it confirms what I've known in my mind for many years: Those in the Church need to stop pushing people away and making them feel like crap for not believing, not understanding something, or not being ready to change.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  18. jochu

    Where are the women? This forum appears to be closed to wo
    men.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  19. Tony

    #1 I can understand. The others are excuses for people too lazy/unwilling to make the hard choices necessary to be a living Christian.

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

      The hardest chioce of all would be to lie to myself and pretend that I believe in all that stuff without any evidence at all.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Snow

      what hard choices? other than believing in BS fairy tales and stories with zero evidence to back them

      March 30, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  20. Tatiana Covington

    The real reason is that most of them know that catholicism is just as big a pile of silly fantasy and arrant nonsense as are all the others.

    There is no salvation. There is no life after death. No heaven, no hell, no god, no devil.

    Simple as that.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Tony

      Who created the universe?

      March 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • rox

      Tony-I couldnt agree with you more

      March 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Reality

      o Think infinity and recycling with the Big Bang expansion followed by the shrinking reversal called the Gib Gnab and recycling back to the Big Bang repeating the process on and on forever. Human life and Earth are simply a minute part of this cha-otic, sto-cha-stic, expanding, shrinking process disappearing in five billion years with the burn out of the Sun and maybe returning in another five billion years with different life forms but still subject to the va-ga-ries of its local star.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • plucky

      Tony,
      Why does there have to be a who? Answer that first.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Snow

      I am not arrogant enough or stupid enough to say that I know who created the universe.. unlike the simpletons who just say "god"... But I can say that people are researching how universe is created and eventually we will know

      March 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Patti

      Tony, I have a few words for you big bang theory.

      March 30, 2012 at 5:00 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.