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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. onestarman

    There have been Certain Individuals who have INJURED the Catholic Church. One might consider the BORGIA and MEDICI Popes. The Office of the Current Pope – when he was a Cardinal – Was from 1542 when created until 1905 when renamed referred to as THE INQUISITION. Some Popes have been called ANTI-POPE. That is what we have TODAY. The Entire CHURCH is NOT Evil – Just those raised as NAZIS – Like the Pope and all the Child Molesters.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  2. The Church

    Haha where is that in Bible? Church existed first before the Bible (at least the New Testament).
    The Church chose those selection of Bible from its interpretation in the first place.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  3. Butterfly Rose

    For those who say there is no God....what if you are wrong?
    At least be open to the possibility that there is something more...........
    The Church, as are all churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are full of imperfect human beings. We make mistakes. The key is what do we do with the mistakes? Do we learn from them? Do we try and make things better? Do we make an effort to not make the same mistakes over and over?
    We seem to always want to destroy that which we do not understand or that gets in the way of our own temporal pleasure. Is there another way? I'm betting on the Creator to have a better way.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Pascal's Gambit was refuted long ago.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  4. nc_writer

    A better question might be – should I stay out of should I come back?

    As I've grown older, I've learned quite a bit from the mistakes of my youth. The Church is a good place to be. It is flawed, yes, because Man is flawed. Religion is like a choir, many different voices, but ultimately saying the same thing; God is our King. Be kind to others, even (and especially) those who you disagree with. It isn't a bad position to come from...

    June 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  5. Russ

    This discussion just proves how indoctrinated some people are.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  6. kme

    Catholicism: come for the abuse, stay for the donuts!

    June 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  7. sortakinda

    Count on CNN for the latest news--from 2008!!! Can't find any newer tripe?

    June 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  8. Juliet

    Raised a Catholic, and now a Born Again Christian since 1981, for the reason Religion is a Cult, a Man Made Organization that regulates Pay, Pray and Obey Rules! As a Born-Again Christina there is no middleman in-between me and the Lord, my relationship is direct with Christ! As a Catholic, I was never taught the Bible, just told that if I did not accomplish the Seven Sacraments I would go to hell or Purgatory, what a shame! Yes each year Catholics are leaving the Church, and for several reasons!

    June 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Juliet, you were never a good Catholic. Good luck being born again.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • sam

      sortakinda, you're sortakinda a bitch.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  9. Russ

    If you are already a good person, you don't need the Catholic Church. The Church was created to save the souls of the "bad" people.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  10. sortakinda

    More anti-Catholic blather. Thank you CNN. Even the atheists must get sick of this nonsense. 31% of Americans were raised Catholic but only 24% describe themselves as being Catholic. Is that 24% of the population or 24% of the 31%? It makes no difference if everyone in the world abandoned the faith. It is what YOU do. Do YOU have good enough excuses for leading a godless life?

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

      Don't worry, next week it'll be something aout mormons again.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  11. Mike

    Every church in this country owes something to the Catholic church!! Do your research. Everything you do at church is so Catholic!

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

      Go tell that to the Muslims and Jews.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  12. marymary

    A 2008 study? Really?

    June 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  13. Quick question here...

    As a strong Catholic who is of service to the community on a regular basis, loves the faith, respects other's rights to have their faiths as well, and – yes – has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I would love to see CNN's belief blog write a story about the positive of the Catholic faith, instead of always reading about the people that have left and the problems people have with the Church. Just sayin.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Your dog is ma

      Right? CNN has done several recent articles on the church but none are fair reporting at all. Totally biased.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  14. Just another Ex-Catholic

    The Catholic Church doesn't care. That's the biggest problem it has. It isn't concerned with the feelings of its followers or with actually following the teachings of Jesus. As an American, I suspect they don't really care about America in general as the majority of Catholics are European/Latin. Just another disappointing religion that doesn't actually practice what is preached.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  15. Marie

    This is fascinating. I too "grew up Catholic" but I am now attending a non-denominational megachurch, and I love it. Both of my parents who grew up Catholic abandoned the Catholic Church as well, and are just now reconsidering Christianity as a whole in their forties and fifties. The Catholic church has done a lot of damage – I don't know if they will ever be able to recover from it.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  16. Geraldo

    The Catholic Church is the largest donator or goods and services on the globe. Take them away and a lot of people starve, are not clothed, etc. This is often overlooked

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

      I totally agree. Unfortunately, CNN will never tell this to their viewers.

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

      Something else would move in to fill the gap.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • dan

      that's a lie

      June 19, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • MK

      And where do they get all of that money, Geraldo? And how many more people could they feed if they hadn't thrown it into building all-marble and gold churches?

      June 19, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Your dog is ma

      It's true. CNN has done several stories and it's never pointed out that they do so much.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • way down south

      About 2/3 of the funding comes from the government (MY tax dollars), while they are tax-exempt to boot.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  17. SconnieGuz

    Why should any of us care what any of you believe? Not a single one of you delusional religious freaks anywhere on the planet can prove a lick of any of it. Religion needs to be abolished worldwide and no rules should be made based on what people's imaginary friend says.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Just another Ex-Catholic

      way to wow us with your intelligence.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • SconnieGuz

      Way to wow us with your stupidity

      June 19, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  18. Jean

    I fall in this category of people, raised Catholic but have since denounced my religion. Around junior high I had a hard time with the concept of hell and how a God who supposedly loves all his children could condemn anyone to hell indefinitely... over time I stopped believing in the religion entirely. Not to say there aren't some good stuff to live by, Jesus (whom I believe to be a fictional or extremely played up character) had some good teachings.

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

      Completely agree.

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

      Jean,
      I think you mhave a misunderstanding of what the Church teaches. God gives everyone the free will to choose to do right or wrong. If you freely choose to commit sin and are not sorry, you have condemned yourself.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  19. logan5

    I really feel sorry for these people who find the courage to abandon Catholicism only to adopt a different version of the same man made myth. They can spin it all they want but Christianity is still a religion. What's really sad is people trick themselves into thinking they are Christian because they love Christ when the truth is nearly all claim Christianity because they are afraid of hell and because they fear no living forever. It's all based on fear and that's the secret to how these belief systems have managed to endure for so long.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  20. Peas Be With You

    The question is not why so many catholics are leaving, but why any of them would want to stay.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:18 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.