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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. Dan

    Hmmm. What could be causing all these catholics to jump ship? Could it be the pedophile priests AND MORE IMPORTANTLY the practice by the church hiearchy to cover for them and move them to other churches where they can continue their abuse of their congregation's children and trust? Naw, can't be that. Gotta be the fault of those atheists leading them away with their crazy talk of science and evoluation (sarcasm).

    June 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • MK

      Dan is the Man.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  2. Uncle Bob

    The Catholic Church is nothing more than a criminal organization with a tax exemption. The whole organization should be disbanded.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • pEvanB

      Thank you Bob now go take a nap you need one Mr grumpy pants

      June 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Uncle Bob

      Get off my lawn you damned fool kids. And I'm keeping your football!

      June 19, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • closet atheist

      grumpy pants is 100% right

      June 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  3. ninjakun

    I agree with all the non believers here. This is not a speech. No time for it although I'd like to write pages and pages about this so called "Church" and their so called "followers". Colin in his second post, nailed it. You made it clear. THERE IS NO GOD. God is simply an invention of the mind due to human incapacity to solve problems on their own, the incapacity to find answer to questions and the incapacity to cope with reality. Let's leave it there...

    June 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  4. kendallpeak

    The Church is full of truth, light, and joy. Seeing the comments of atheist shows any observer how lacking they are in these attributes. If only one atheist heres this, there will be celebration in heaven. Throw out your fear and false pride, be truly brave and admit your error, and your life will turn to joy and God again.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Actually, the Church is full of child molesters, kidnappers and misogynists – that's why I left in the first place. Thanks for the passive aggressive threat though, that was nice of you.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Uncle Bob

      Child molesters and having mafia members buried at the Vatican suggests your love of the "church" is misplaced.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Kool Aid

      I am cool and refreshing. Drink me every day.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • MK

      I have never had so much light, truth and joy since I left the catholic church.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Jim

      The Vatican chastises Nuns for not spending enough time protesting gays and abortion and too much time helping the poor.

      Says a lot about what the really cares about.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Mensaman

      Organized religion leaves you with untruths, fear, anxiety and confusion. It's a racket. Athiests might be wrong in that they are sure God doesn't exist. How does either side know the truth? That is the ignorance you hold.
      Find the joy, contentment and wonder of those who do not know. The Agnostics. Those intelligent people who learn as we go and question all along the way, who's truth is in hard scientific fact and firm evidence. Those are the "blessed" people in this world. They don't need fairy tales or nihilism.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • kendallpeak

      Mensaman, what the atheist and agnostic doesn't consider is that the theist may have an active relationship with God. He doesn't believe as one may believe there is a pea under that shell, but he believes due to relationship. In short, if there is no God, then most of man has been extremely delusional throughout history. This is illogical.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  5. Renait

    The Catholic church doesn't care if people leave. They don't care if millions of people leave. They are not in the business of pleasing their membership. They are in the business of telling their membership to shut up and do as you're told. Anyone who doesn't like it is free to go. They don't care at all.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  6. Famous

    The only faith that makes sense to me is Agnostic. Anyone who claims to know more about the supposed afterlife is a fraud.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Agnosticism is not a position between atheist and theism. (A)gnosticism pertains to knowledge, (a)theism to belief – there is a difference and they are not mutually exclusive. One can be an agnostic atheist for example.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  7. Karim

    Why does CNN never post any articles on Islam in their Belief Blog?

    June 19, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Patrick

      Because they are afraid they might lose their heads.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Because no one is interested in a 3rd world dirty religion for dogs.

      Amen.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Joe

      Because then instead of 3000 comments slamming Christianity, you'd get 3000 comments slamming Islam. That would make CNN look more like a mouthpiece for the Right wing. CNN has an undeclared war against Christianity, or any other topic which the GOP and their Fox news mouthpiece would support. So they purposely post articles which demean, trivialize, or sensationalize the religion. This is common knowledge though.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Reginal Dwight

      Because Islam is a false religion that inspires antiquated and evil habits...like most other organized religions.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Hey Zeus!

      They do. Just not as many.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  8. Butterfly Rose

    It is never easy to adhere to the Catholic faith. This is the principal reason so many Catholics stray from the Church. We all want to "feel" something and often faith is simply being obedient whether we "feel" anything or not.
    No one is going to hell unless God judges him worthy of it whether or not you are Catholic, Jewish, or non-denominational or whatever. What is important is that we all celebrate our similarities and try and be good people. I think God expects more of Catholics because He has given us so much more. Our traditions, our creed, our way of living. I am a convert to Catholicism and in the past 40 years I have found no reason to abandon what, for me at least, is the way.
    Lastly, perhaps those who have left the Catholic Church should sit in on a few RCIA classes. It's not a hell and damnation course for sure. It's more like a time to discuss, openly, what the Church is and what it means to call oneself Catholic. In our world today, we are faced with so many "prove its" and "science based" and the cultural immorality that is prevalent in media and schools. The Catholic Church is a refuge that takes one back to the why of it all, the origin of life itself, and what the Creator wishes for us. It grounds us and creates order from chaos.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • 9isme

      One thing that often surprises is that disenchanted Catholics don't look at other parishes, Newman Centers at universities, etc. Each parish has a different character based on it's history, size, current pastor, languages spoken, age of parishioners and more. You can 'shop around' your diocese.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Reginal Dwight

      The lack of a Biblical foundation for many of the Catholic tenets is a more likely reason for the mass exodus. The position of Mary, celibacy, male only priests. All man-made doctrines that have not stood the test of time or reason.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Mensaman

      You do realize that the catholic origin of life is a made up fantasy. I would think most people would like their lives and foundations to be based on facts and truth rather than the fantasy of faith.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  9. Mike

    The explanantion for all your thought could be easily explained by Quran.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Reginal Dwight

      I use the pages of the Qur'an to wipe myself in the bathroom.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  10. clubschadenfreude

    Each Christian sect is sure that they and only they have the "truth". To have a woman decide that she rather have a "personal relationship" with an imaginary being rather than the old line of the Catholic church is like a child saying that they like the Tooth Fairy better than Santa Claus.

    It is amusing to watch adults argue on who has the best imaginary friend and all have absolutely no evidence for such things. Muslims are sure that Allah is the only right way, Catholics think that their saints intervene, and Calvinists are sure that they and only they are the predestined ones, while prosperity Protestants are sure that their god who supposedly preached seperation from wealth and the world wants them to have the biggest SUV in existence. You're all silly.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Greg

      Read Max Weber's thoughts on the Protestant work ethic. I'm Agnostic, but Protestants have the Predestination have some merit. If you read about John Robinson and the Pilgrims you will see that he didn't claim to know all the answers. Predestination is very similar to genetic predisposition.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  11. Dick

    Things are too good and materialistic for Americans. Religion and morality are not "popular". Watch when they're on their deathbed. Oh save me. Save me. Convenience is the popular religion. Abortion, Recreational drugs, Divorces, Single parent families, Infidelity reighs supreme right? You idiots are destroying this society and the train coming at you in the tunnel is the results of all of this B.S. and it's the next generation. I'm not the one making it that way. YOU ARE.
    Being Catholic is not being in a cafeteria. It's hard. Probably too hard for the malcontents who write in on this subject.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • clubschadenfreude

      and when you're on your deathbed and wondering why all of the things the church promised never came to pass? I'd rather ignore Pascal's wager and enjoy my life, finding my own purpose and helping others rather than greedily expecting a magical afterlife.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • sam

      You appear to have picked the right handle to post under. And you don't know much about Americans, so shut it.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Hey Zeus!

      Is your last name Head by chance?

      June 19, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  12. KATE

    Probably cause the seculars only survey their fruity buddies instead of the general population...

    June 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Yeah, the PEW research group is a secret gay atheist cabal.

      Thor forbid your ignorant butt did an iota of research.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  13. Mike

    Mr. Deacon – I totally agree with you. What a one sided report. Devout Catholics like myself thank God every day for his one true church. It is a blessing to be Catholic. Most of you will never know the truth. The Catholic church is still a billion strong helping millions every day in so many ways. No church on this planet can make this claim. The person mention earlier in this paragraph said she didn't know Jesus. I should've stopped reading at that point. The Catholic church was founded my Christ's main apostle Peter. We are all about Jesus!!! It's sad to read such hatred about my church but like a true Catholic, I can only pray and forgive those who hate.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • MK

      "one true church". There's the problem right there. When you start thinking your way is the only way, this idea starts wars.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Interested48

      "Most of you will never know the truth." That's the biggest problem with religion. Each one claims to have the truth. So which one is it? I left the Catholic Church years ago because I decided that no organization was going to control my life. I have a brain and I intend to use it based on my own experiences and understanding. The church always encouraged me to read and learn and that's exactly how I learned that religion is based on myth and not fact. Nothing wrong with myth – just don't try and proclaim it as fact.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Topaz

      Amen, Mike. It is so refreshing, as a Catholic myself, to see someone in support of our great faith. We are, as a faith, being subjected to fearsome negativity and hate. I pray for those who feel they have to slander and hate those of us who believe as we do. I only hope and pray for the future of our great nation.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Reginald Dwight

      The persistent diddling of young boys by priests kinda puts a dent in your one true faith thing, huh?

      June 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Topaz

      No, Reginald. It has been blown so out of proportion, the priest scandal. No, it shouldn't have happened, but it is less than 1% of priests worldwide that have done these crimes. Look at all the teachers, coaches, and other Protestant faith ministers here in the States who have committed such crimes and worse as well. Don't let the sins of a very few taint the rest of the Catholic faithful. Unfortunately, this sort of thing has been around in every field, only until recently has it been exploded and exploited (to some extent) in the eyes of the almighty media. We hear everything that happens. I am by no means justifying the abuse, but don't just center in on the minute percentage when it encompasses so many others outside the Catholic Church. So, in answer to your question, no, my faith is still very much in tact, for I believe and worship Christ, not the priesthood.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  14. 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!

    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 2:06 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      I never found that quoting the Bible proves the Bible. It is a circular argument that provides no evidence.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Danny

      You just proved it yourself my friend. Thank you.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • AnythingIWriteMustBeTrueBecauseItsWritten

      It is written in the book of Dawkins 2:28-34 "Then shall the bearers of false witness claiming supernatural phenomenon and worshipers of deitys fall upon the righteous with their knives and swords, tearing my people apart who did nothing but point out that their God's did not exist. They shall hurl insults and curses and angry declarations at us and attempt to kill us off for fear that they shall be shown wrong in their faith and have waited for century's for nothing, taking the lives of innocents along the way which would mean they are just cold blooded murderers if their God's are not real."

      June 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Dan

      Danny, can you please use another screen name. I don't want anyone confusing us with each other.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      "It was written in an ancient book and I was told to accept nothing else. Not accepting it makes you stupid. Look, here is a quote that proves it:

      'Not beleiving the words in this book makes you an idiot.' -P.38

      See, case closed. You are an idiot."

      It all reminds me of an annoying childhood game:

      Rule 1. – Little Johnny is always right.
      Rule 2. – If Little Joynny is ever wrong, review Rule 1.

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

      Thank you also.

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

      I think every religion has a similar clause: believers, you will be persecuted for your faith but take heed that you are right and will be rightfully rewarded by god/Saturn/Cthulhu while they are punished with damnation/isolation/death, etc.

      Pretty standard-issue cult stuff, don't you think? Nothing to be proud of.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Danny

      Keep your beliefs which I respect and I'll keep mine. I decided to follow Jesus (not the church and its rules) and my life was transformed. We shall see at the end of our days who chose right and who didnt. Good luck with your gamble and God bless. Hope down the path you turn to Jesus.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Hey Zeus!

      I don't get it.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  15. jasonbig

    should i stay or go?
    who gives a fking rat's azz!

    June 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  16. Greg

    Ex-catholics...one of the biggest sources of current atheists.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • kme

      ^THIS^

      June 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  17. Sidster

    Theres a reason cnn is sinking into the abyss..

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

      And that reason is what exactly?

      June 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • kme

      Cthulhu?

      June 19, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  18. Eastern Catholic

    From the same Pew Study: (Paints a somewhat different picture...)

    Another example of the dynamism of the American religious scene is the experience of the Catholic Church. Other surveys – such as the General Social Surveys, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago since 1972 – find that the Catholic share of the U.S. adult population has held fairly steady in recent decades at around 25%. What this apparent stability obscures, however, is the large number of people who have left the Catholic Church. Approximately one-third of the survey respondents who say they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. This means that roughly 10% of all Americans are former Catholics. These losses, however, have been partly offset by the number of people who have changed their affiliation to Catholicism (2.6% of the adult population) but more importantly by the disproportionately high number of Catholics among immigrants to the U.S. The result is that the overall percentage of the population that identifies as Catholic has remained fairly stable.

    In addition to detailing the current religious makeup of the U.S. and describing the dynamic changes in religious affiliation, the findings from the Landscape Survey also provide important clues about the future direction of religious affiliation in the U.S. By detailing the age distribution of different religious groups, for instance, the study's statistics on religion show that more than six-in-ten Americans age 70 and older (62%) are Protestant but that this number is only about four-in-ten (43%) among Americans ages 18-29. Conversely, young adults ages 18-29 are much more likely than those age 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion (25% vs. 8%). If these generational patterns persist, recent declines in the number of Protestants and growth in the size of the unaffiliated population may continue.

    Major changes in the makeup of American Catholicism also loom on the horizon. Latinos, who already account for roughly one-in-three adult Catholics overall, may account for an even larger share of U.S. Catholics in the future. For while Latinos represent roughly one-in-eight U.S. Catholics age 70 and older (12%), they account for nearly half of all Catholics ages 18-29 (45%).

    June 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Eastern Catholic

      http://religions.pewforum.org/reports

      Read for yourself...

      June 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      I'm sorry, I'm confused. A different picture to what exactly.

      It says 1 in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. That would endorse the point of the article.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  19. Sad Truth

    This article is as important as the one about Star Trek fans being of higher intelligence than their Star Wars fan counterparts...

    June 19, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      I dont get it. Go Star Wars!

      June 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Capt Kirk

      Star trek fans are way smarter! do yo usee any Light sabers or land speaders?

      June 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      No, and those are two major losses in the Star Trek universe, I feel!

      June 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • JarJar Blinks

      Meesa Don Agreeeesa!!

      June 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      You have played the Jar Jar Card... I cannot win any argument when I have to defent Jar Jar Binks. You win.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Kirk kicked God's @$$ in Star Trek V.
      Trek for the win!!!
      "What does God need with a Starship?"

      June 19, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • JarJar Blinks

      Ifin I wassunt so efin stoopida ayeuh woulda stayeda Stara Warsa Fana...

      Me guessin me maker hadda hisin ballsa cutta offa whenin heuh hadin da grandakidas, and thusa ayeuh wassuh borna...

      June 19, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • sam

      Best thread on the whole article.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  20. The Jackdaw

    Sounds like almost 1/3 give up on the dogmatic fantasy.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
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About this blog

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.