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'Recovering Catholics' reveal spiritual journeys
According to a 2008 poll, 31% of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24% describe themselves as Catholic.
June 19th, 2012
09:36 AM ET

'Recovering Catholics' reveal spiritual journeys

By Jim Spellman, CNN

Denver (CNN) - Kristen Kelly was raised Roman Catholic, attended Catholic elementary school and considered herself a good Catholic, but when she was 21-years-old that changed.

“A coworker asked me if I believe in Jesus Christ,” she says.

Despite spending her entire life in the Roman Catholic Church she couldn’t answer the question.

“I never really got exposed to Christ," she says. "It was more about Mary and the Church and a condemnation of everything I was doing wrong.”

She looked at her coworker and saw someone who appeared to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and decided that was what she wanted. She said this prayer:

“Jesus I accept that you are my lord and savior, and I ask you to come into my life.”

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And from that moment Kelly, now 41 and living in Florida, considered herself born-again, and an ex-Catholic.

“I like to call us recovering Catholics,” she says with a laugh.

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religious Life and Public Life, 31% of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24% now describe themselves as Catholic. Read the study (PDF).

That means about 1 in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a denomination they would be bigger than Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians.

The total U.S. Catholic population has remained at about 24%, as immigrants have filled the pews the ex-Catholics have left behind.

Video: Why do some Catholic outsiders remain inside the flock?  

Kathleen Cummings , associate director at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame, says that some people leave the Catholic Church after a defining event like the priest abuse scandals or because of a disagreement with the Church over social issues, but most leave because they feel their needs are not being met.

“They are not experiencing something that fulfills them spiritually,” Cummings says.

Church supporters are urging wayward Catholics to return to the fold. For example, Catholics Come Home, a nonprofit lay organization formed in 1997, has been putting out the welcome mat via the media.

The group has an interactive website www.Catholicscomehome.org and airs what it calls “evangomercials” on radio and television. The group says that since 2008 more than 350,000 people have “come home” to the Catholic Church through their campaign.

Tom Peterson, president of Catholics Come Home, says some worshipers who've returned to the Catholic Church report leaving because they had disagreements with church officials or had divorced and feared they wouldn’t be welcome. But, he says, the majority never really gave up on the Church.

“They just drifted away and life got too busy," Peterson says. "Most say they didn’t dislike the Church, nor were they opposed to the Church teachings.

“An overwhelming majority of returnees tell our diocesan partners that they came home to the Catholic Church, 'because you invited me,'" he says.

But it may not be so simple to lure back ex-Catholics like Matt Rowe, a 35-year-old married father of two living in Denver. Rowe attended 16 years of Catholic School in Illinois and attended a Catholic university.

But by the end of college, Rowe was adrift. He found himself disagreeing with the Church on everything from the role of women to the concept of original sin and what he saw as the Catholic Church’s dependence on guilt as a motivating factor.

Rowe gave up on religion for most of his 20s but never stopped believing in God. When he got married and had kids, he started feeling a void in his life.

“I wanted my kids to grow up in a religion, but not Catholicism,” he says.

After “church-hopping” for a few years, Rowe ended up at Pathways Wash Park, a multidenominational Christian church in Denver.

After years of feeling disconnected in the Catholic Church where he says sermons rarely connected to his life, he has finally found the connection he has been looking for at Pathways.

“I wanted spirituality. I wanted God. I wanted all those points to go back to what I’m dealing with today,” Rowe says.

Fred Viarrial, 59, grew up as an altar boy at St. Leo’s in Denver. Six days a week he donned his cassock and worked the 6 a.m. Mass.

“Books or bells. You are ringing the bells or moving the books for the priests,” Viarrial says.

But as he grew up he began questioning elements of Catholicism. One day, when Viarrial was somewhere between age 10 and 12, he had something especially embarrassing to confess, so he trekked over to a Spanish language parish where he was unknown.

“The priest pulled me out and spanked me on the spot,” Viarrial says with a laugh. “That got me to question this whole thing of confession.”

When he was just 14 the precocious teenager went so far as to schedule an appointment with Denver ‘s then-Archbishop James Casey to discuss his doubts.

“I took a two-page list of questions starting with the Hail Mary. I wanted to find them in the Bible, their origin … where is that in the Bible?”

Viarrial says the archbishop humored him but ultimately did not answer his questions.

He still believed in God, but was losing faith in the Church.

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By his 20s he was searching for a new church and ended up at Arvada Covenant Church, an evangelical congregation in a Denver suburb.

At Arvada Covenant he says the focus is on a personal relationship with Jesus and that his questions about his faith and the Bible are not met with derision, but with a search for answers through Bible study.

He has found a home at Arvada Covenant, but says he holds no grudge against the Catholic Church and still feels echoes of his Catholic upbringing in his faith today.

“It’s like a spiritual tattoo that you receive as a kid," Viarrial says. "Those roots don’t ever disappear, you just better try to understand them.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Colorado • Faith

soundoff (2,511 Responses)
  1. Russ

    I am an ex Catholic. When I was in college, many years ago, I talked to my priest for two hours to get answers to all my questions. Basically, it came down to this. You have to believe and follow all the teachings of the Church, and rulings of the Pope, or you can't call yourself a Catholic. End of story. You can confess your "failings", but then it also becomes becomes an issue of how much you have to confess. If you find yourself not believing in confession, birth control, the non ordination of women, the acceptance of gays, or other major teachings, you should ask yourself if you belong there?
    Also, consider this. Basically, the Catholic Church has not changed in centuries. It has changed the mass from latin to English, and Nuns don't have to wear the Black habit, but there have basically been no substantial changes. When Martin Luther posted his 99 Thesis, the Church had an opportunity to change. It never did. Instead, you got the Protestant Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition, and Kings executing non believers. Nothing has changed within the Church. And, if you believe that the individual is central in the Catholic Church, think again. It is about The Church and the members are supposed to follow, upon pain of everlasting hell.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Berk

      Meanwhile, amongst evangelicals, if you dare to go off the anti-gay, anti-evolution, rapture-ready playbook you're not considered a "real" Christian anymore either. So, it's the same really in both conservative camps.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  2. abcdxyz

    Sorry–I joined the Catholic church 4 years ago after going through RCIA. I loved the Mass and the church I was involved with. I left after the bishops went crazy this winter and decided that they would decide what laws they would follow and which they would not. Even more than I want to be a Catholic, I want to live in a secular society. It's not an issue of contraception (the church is and has been wrong about contraception), it is an issue of the rule of law. Now the bishops have announced their "Fortnight for Freedom," because their religious liberty is being interfered with, and they have begun persecuting the nuns, who actually do the work of Christ. What a bunch of B S it all is!

    June 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  3. Kimi

    I too, was raised and educated in the Catholilc Church. I always had my questions as a kid but you dare not ask them for fear of being punished. Everything you did was wrong. Our bodies was supposed to made in the image and likeness of God but yet they taught you to hate it. The church was the law in the early centuries and rules were made to control the people. The Church Is man controlling through fear, the fires of hell. They preached thou shalt not kill, thus the Holy Wars, in the name of God. How contradictory can you get? Even today there are wars going on in the name of God. ALL organized religion is a bunch of baloney. The Indians had it right. Worship a higher being, love and respect the earth and all it's goodness. I have chosen to follow the simplicity and beauty of the how the American Indian worshipped.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • BobZemko

      Apparently the clergy abusing little kids was not considered wrong.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  4. Brian

    I don't like the way the Catholic church seems to recreate the "curtain" which use to separate man from God. Jesus tore down the curtain that separated us from him by becoming one of us on a cross. This is why it is called good news. It is the very point of the gospel, the fact that everyone who believes in Jesus can have full access to God. There doesn't need to be an intermediary who listens to you confess in a booth because Jesus is the Final Intermediary for all mankind.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • terra inconito

      the pope and his cohots hide their dirty linen behind that curtain

      June 19, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Delusions 3:15

      You're about 1/2 way there. "Don't listen to that man behind the curtain".

      June 19, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Russ

      Most people the world over believe they can talk directly to God. They don't need Jesus, Mary, or a Saint, to act as their lawyer. I believe that whole construct, and confession, was established so the Church could hear what people were thinking, thus have control over them.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  5. terra inconito

    The RC church is a medivel throwback, utilizing tactics of fear (of god? why should anyone fear a loving god?) and intimidation to control both the the clerics and the layity. While preaching humility, chasity, and poverty, it goes ahead and commits the sin of pride, sins of the flesh, and flaunts its wealth while millions of its followers go hungry. The Vatican is a currupt buracractic state with no real purpose.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Berk

      The evangelical / fundamentalist Christian communities have their share of backwards thinking and scandal too, you know?

      June 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  6. Ice Water

    Ya know when someone asks: "What is your religion?" I used to respond with 'Catholic' then I would pause in my head and wonder..... What does being Catholic really mean? Now I answer with: "Not religious, just spiritual..." Religion is a way for people to dump their sad feelings and fosters a form of belief that our problems are greater than ourselves and that we are incapable of fixing them. I call it sophisticated ignorance... Love yourself enough to do no harm to others and kill them with kindness.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • The GOP need to pack up and leave

      I tell people I'm a Pastafarian.

      All hail the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  7. Colin

    Hopefully all the catholics will realize the church is an intellectual imposter and leave religion alltogether.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  8. post theist

    Religion and the belief in god is becoming more and more obsolete as time goes on. And that is a fact that I find very welcome.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • BobZemko

      I look forward to the day when extremists stop flying planes into buildings or drinking purple Kool-Aid.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  9. Pedo

    Because churches are for pedos and dumb people.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  10. BostonCatholic

    I didn't leave the Church, it left me. The Church doesn't care about social justice or the poor (look at the lashing the nuns got). All the Church seems to care about is restricting abortion, shuffling and protecting pedophiles and catering to the wealthy. I'll never understand how Newt Gingrich was welcomed into the Church. He skipped the CCD classes which I took and that's where I learned about putting "Jesus, Others, Yourself" in that order. Somehow Newt is a serial adulterer (adultery used to be a cardinal sin) and he has it all ass-backwards. Yet he is a good Catholic. Even Peggy Noonan doesn't call him out on it, yet she acts as if she speaks for American Catholics. As someone who served as an altar boy and attended mass religiously (not just on Christmas and Easter) I'm done. And that Cardinal Law was whisked away before he could face charges was a disgrace. Don't get me started about the murders of Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols. I will never forget 12/30/94 and the Church's silence and complicity.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  11. Emily

    I love articles that seek out the absolutely extremes and write like it's the norm. Having a relationship with Jesus is a two way street–you both have to put a little bit in.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • OOO

      Problem is, Jesus never keeps his end of the bargain. 🙂

      June 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Well, considering that Jesus is a figment of the imagination, that explains why so many folks are leaving – they finally got tired of talking to themselves.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • terra inconito

      If you leave the RC church-and others for that matter-out of the picture, the relationship between us and JC is much more personal.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Leo

      How does one have a relationship with someone who is dead, who is not around, and never talks back in clear language? You have a relationship with Jesus in exactly the same way that my 7 year-old has a relationship with his invisible bear.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • JC

      The man from Galilee does us no favors, and so we do none for him.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  12. Mike in WI

    Look at all religious leaders and followers of ANY FAITH and look at how they live. Many live luxurious lifestyles (expensive home(s), luxury cars, etc.) And look at how many people in this world (including the U.S.) are starving! 'Nuff said'!

    June 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • realist

      Nobody is starving in the U.S. unless it is their own choice you liberal moron.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • terra inconito

      Realist, you are dumb as they come.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • JC

      What realist is suggesting is a very Republican point of view. Suffering people deserve to be suffering. How quaint; how very Jonathan Edwards; and I don't mean the modern incarnation.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  13. An Ex-Catholic

    I'm 17 years old and decided to part ways from the RCC. After taking my history classes in school, so much had been revealed and I went on to do my own research. The usury, abuses, and Purgatory was enough for me to walk out those doors and never look back. Don't you think it's a sin to base a church off of lies and bribes? The whole aura of the church is just not a comforting sensation. I NEEDED a spiritual revival and spiritual fulfillment that was not being given to me through Catholicism. My spiritual being was uplifted through finding and developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, since he is the way to Our Father God.

    I believe that when a person can clear their minds of what the church (and which seems to be only the RCC) tries to force down people's throats. People need to see and most importantly FEEL the love of Jesus Christ and the mercy of God, not try to live a certain way, do everything the church is telling them do, yet do not know how to love and appreciate God and his workings. Love for God is not a religion, but rather a connection that is deeply vital to our spiritual beings, which fuels our physical beings.

    Now, this is not to spark a debate with those who are faithful to the RCC, but this is just what I had experienced.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Ryan

      I studied history and I think you should research the Catholic rebuttals to some of these arguments against the Church first. I was in the same situation as you as a teenager, but something kept me with the Church there were still some things that felt right, and I eventually decided to study our faith more closely so I could defend the things that I felt were right, and eventually I discovered most of the arguments are wrong based on biases and misunderstandings. Purgatory isn't a corrupt teaching, in the Bible you will find references to prayers for the dead if there is no hope for them then why would we be directed to pray for them by God. There are other reasons as well I won't get into. But, I suggest you read Catholicism For Dummies. It may sound insulting already being a Catholic but I know for myself I grew up with a poor understanding of our faith and this book is a good start at explaining all our beliefs we don't completely understand.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  14. Mainstream

    We atheists would like all you ex-catholics (and ex-christians, ex-muslims, ex-mormans, ex-whatevers) to take the next logical step in your lives and consider the much more likely scenerio. There is no god and therefore, no religion at all is necessary.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  15. JOHN

    My problem with Catholicism (also 16 yrs of Catholic education) is not with the Catholic(i.e. Christian) faith; it is with the Catholic church's belief that THE CHURCH IS THE FAITH. The reformation among other things, has shown that this is NOT TRUE. A relationship with God is not dependent upon bureaucracy. The most ardent defenders of the Catholic Church tend to believe in the magisterium ratherthan the actual faith. Enjoy the Kool-Aid.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Ryan

      The Church believes it's the teacher nothing more and if it had not been for the Church's authority against dangerous heresies like Albigensianism which taught people that all the physical world is evil and caused people to starve themselves.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • JC

      @Ryan: As opposed to dangerous heresies like the Sun does not, in fact, revolve around the Earth? Or how about the heresy of polyphony? For more than a thousand years, the Catholic Church and its spin-offs preached that the world was evil and pain and suffering and get used to it. To save souls of those brave individuals who were not convinced, they would then burn them at the stake, usually after torture. Nice folks, those Dominicans. Domine Canis, by the way; hounds of God.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  16. Matt

    I am just tired of CNN pushing the left's agenda. They attack religion, and consistently try to portray a message that religion is a gimmick and that those aligned with it are being taken for a ride or part of the "problem". I, like so many brave men and women before me, will say goodbye to CNN once and for all!

    June 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • AZ Wildcat

      Sorry, but this country has had enough hatred and perversion foisted on it in the name of "God".

      June 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Delusions 3:15

      promises, promises. You'll be back. You know it.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • The GOP need to pack up and leave

      I get really tired of Faux News being the propaganda machine for the righties.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Bob

      How about a course in reading comprehension. This article was specifically about the Catholic church; NOT religion in general!

      June 19, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  17. cnnmembuh

    Jesus was an historical figure. You can choose to believe the stories written about him in the Gospel or not, but there is historical basis for his life and teachings. And for my money, the New Testament provides a pretty solid basis for decent living.

    Why are so many people seemingly intimidated by the Catholic church? There is so much venom out there. Yes, the church is comprised of men who have been at times very flawed. But the vast majority of priests are among the finest people one could ever wish to meet.

    For those who keep mocking believers with comments about "invisible friends", ponder the universe for a moment. Your limited capacity to wrap your mind around the concept of infinity or eternity should give you some pause to consider that some things will forever remain a mystery to you. Why not explore a more meaningful connection with something that transcends this life?

    June 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Delusions 3:15

      Cosmology is EXACTLY what drove many atheists to their position. Your "wonder", is my "fractal".

      June 19, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'cnnmembuh' contains instances of the Appeal to Ignorance fallacy and the Begging the Question fallacy.

      http://www.fallacyfiles.org/glossary.html

      June 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Leo

      How can one have a "meaningful" relationship with someone who is invisible, doesn't speak back, and has given zero evidence of existing? This is a shallow claim. It's the same claim that a child gives with why his invisible friend is the best friend ever! Because they have such a great relationship.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Jonas

      @Delusions – You worship hairdressers?

      June 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  18. Danny

    I find it great and amusing how those who trash on Jesus and his Word only confirm what is written even more. LOVE IT!

    June 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Like!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Thinker

      Please explain.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • BobZemko

      Sounds like what the followers of Jim Jones thought before they drank the purple Flavor-Aid.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Reasonably

      As opposed to those who further hate and bigotry in his name? Whoohoo!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Danny

      Ill let Scripture explain: "The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit [which is obtained when a life TRUELY trusts and accepts Jesus]. 1 Corinthians 2:14

      June 19, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Thinker

      What I got out of that was: If you are not touched by the spirit of god you cannot understand the things of god and consider them foolish, therfore you should accept god.

      I am honestly still trying to wrap my head around how that makes sence. Though I guess that does explain your post though.

      It just seems a bit strange to say that if one doesn't have faith one will precieve the faithful as foolish, therefore be faithful.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  19. tyler

    The most judgmental people I have ever known were old time Catholics. Their belief is "Ill give money every sunday and im going to have a great after life! Right after I make some people feel bad about themselves." I dont go to church because i dont believe in it. I believe that there is a god though. I've been to countless churches trying to prove myself wrong, and all i get is judgement and a feeling of wasted time when I leave. The Catholic church was the worst. I donate my time to the inner city and help people out as much as I can. To them, I was still going to hell because i didnt donate money and didnt go every sunday. I did more to help people and to create happier lives outside of that church than any of the people in the church, but I guess im still going to hell. IF there is a God, he wont be taking his suck-ups that dont do anything to help the community, he will take people that actually do something with their lives and that are nice to people.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Nope – the Pope and God want your money...or ELSE!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      What a ridiculous one dimensional portrayal. I'm sad for you if you never met a devout Catholic

      June 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Thinker

      Remember! Our God made us in his image! Also, you are a horrible sinful creature that does not deserver heaven. BUT!!! We can get you there for the low low price of only.....
      But WAIT! Theres more! You also need to follow these special rules and we'll throuw in a free heavenly toga!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  20. Reasonably

    Our cult is better than your cult. Just ask us!

    June 19, 2012 at 1:49 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.