'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. Kia

    The history of the Catholic Church and their dealings in politics and Wars....Wars that kill people....ok....Catholicscomebackhome.com.....No Thanks...You know why the Diocese cannot answer spiritual questions or satisfy peoples spriritual need...it is because they want to keep people in darkness...Dont be afraid to research...you will find that history tells how the Church executed those who attempted to read the Bible....

    June 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  2. Brian

    Yap 70+ million of us in this country. Athiest and gays s$uck it!!!

    June 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • sam

      Thanks for your awesome christian words.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Primewonk

      And folks wonder why we hold theists in such low regard.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  3. Klaatu

    Why does god makes us fart and poop?

    June 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  4. Colin

    The core problem is, we have stopped teaching prayer in school. School prayer should be MANDATORY, and occurr in the following manner:

    Upon entry into high school, each child “adopts” a wounded veteran or other person who has a visible and incurable condition, such as a lost leg, arm or eye. Each day the children pray to God that the person recover their lost appendage.

    Five years later, at their graduation, prayer can put up or shut up. We parade the injured people through the graduation ceremony so the children can see the results of their 5 solid years of constant prayer to the Christian god. Just how many limbs, eyes or ears do you think will have re-grown? And why are you so sure of that? Does God hate amputees? Why does he always have to hide his medical miracles inside the body of the sick, where things are less medically certain?

    The doubtless, consistent and universal failure of their prayers will help the students understand:

    (i) that there is no god listening and that praying is a futile exercise when the results can REALLY be tested;

    (ii) the frailties of their religious leaders as they scurry for excuses –“god won’t be tested”, “god moves in mysterious ways,” “perhaps the people have been healed spiritually”, etc;

    (iii) the weakness of human nature (and a basic lesson in politics) as the religious right moves to shut the experiments down; and, most importantly

    (iv) how fvcking ludicrous it is to believe that a Bronze Age sky-fairy invented by Palestinian goat herders reads your mind and alters what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to suit your whims.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  5. JJ-Catholic

    Those who have left Catholic Church are missing a point. They should understand, if they like it or not, that we are at war. Jesus leads one side and his supporting troops are Mother Mary and all saints. Other side is led by the devil. (By the way this battle is already won by Jesus and we have a choice to be either part of the winning team or looser).

    Understanding the life of Mother Mary and all saints should bring us closer to Jesus, the captain. I am saying this because their whole life is nothing but a life in union with Jesus and God. A life lived in perfect love of Jesus.

    This is what the Catholic Church is perching. Being a Catholic and one is failing to understand this reality is either not paying attention or trying to find excuses.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Klaatu

      Well said Christian Taaliban!

      June 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Trumpy

      Yes, yes. It's all a big war. you are all "soldiers" for you particular god.

      I don't see how that mindset could ever cause trouble in the world...

      June 19, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • LL

      I agree.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  6. isolate

    I attended Catholic schools and went through all the Catholic rituals in the 1940s and '50s only as long as I lived under my parents' roof. I firmly believed all the fairy tales the nuns taught us until about 7th grade. But not long after that I read the KJV of the Bible (strictly forbidden in that era) and begun digging into what lay behind the church's dogma and read histories of the church written by independents. Religion is still one of my hobbies, and I've read the scriptures of all the major movements and many of the minor ones, like Swedenborgianism. Yet in all this time I've never found one that had the least appeal to me.

    I find it fascinating that so many people staunchly believe so many different things across the globe, most of them founded on mythology from millennia ago when people "knew" that there were supernatural beings all around them who took an interest in human life (Homer's Iliad is a great example.). I lead a upstanding life without the need for a Big Guy in the Sky or concepts like sin, or guilt caused by a mythical Canaanite couple in an imaginary Garden of Eden.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  7. Mac

    Typical anti catholicism. Typical Protestant bigotry.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Dennis

      I didn't even know there was protestant bigotry.

      How's that youth-nazi pope working out for you?

      June 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  8. PJ

    "I have a little penis/It's small and kind of gray/ And when it's hard and ready/ With penis I shall play! Oh penis, penis, penis..."- Bene the Boy Bonker, Pope Pokin' The Pork

    June 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  9. PJ

    If it weren't for wonderful parishes like this most would be empty. Fortunately most Priests agree with the people (apart from abortion). The leadership is so out of touch with the people they have to be ignored.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • TheThinker

      I have found all priests that I have met personally have agreed with Christ's instruction is more "do love and enjoy" versus "don't sin this way, don't sin that way". Unfortunately many of my brother and sister Catholics believe that religion is about "knowing what we're supposed to hate". But for every one of them there are 12 Catholics who are tollerant/cool/whatever-it's-called-these-days. And we strive to constantly preach the Gospel of Jesus, sometimes even using words.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  10. Holy Roller

    prolapsed.ne had a funny article on the "eye" of god and Catholicism!

    June 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  11. Rein

    The papacy is infallable, and his holiness the Pope stands in the place of St. Peter– the rock upon which Jesus built his church. The so-called scandals involve incidents that never occurred– other than in the minds of those seeking to slander and malign the body of Christ on earth. Question these truths, and you risk purgatory if not hell! Pray the rosary,and say no to birth control.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • BobFromPA

      The exact reason I left the Catholic church. Don't believe as I do and go to hell! So much for a loving Jesus and God, at least in the eyes of Catholics.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • skytag

      You poor, sad little brainwashed person. Reality is clearly not your happy place.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • TheThinker

      @BobFromPA: sigh. Nowhere does the Church profess "do as I say or go to Hell". Just to bring you up to the 20th Century on the Gregorian Calendar (Pope Gregory commissioned Copernicus to create a more accurate calendar)... The Church does not profess that human life is the only intelligent life in the Universe, does not teach hatred towards nations, races, or preferences, and it DOES teach that we (all people) are children of God to be treated with love and respect.

      ... just sayin.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  12. Chris

    Wow ... this article sure stirred up a hornet's nest, eh?

    First, in the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I am a recent convert to the Roman Catholic Church. I was Episcopal, and made the change after much research on my own part. This comes after spending most of my adult life turning my back on religion completely.

    I don't understand how some are saying that they didn't have the focus on Christ in the Catholic Church. I have found more focus on Christ in the Catholic faith than I have ever experienced previously. What other faith does one actually believe that, during communion, you are taking Christ within you?

    The only other comment I have to make is to those who are badmouthing all religions who express a faith in Christ and in God. Note that not all atheists fall into this category, so I am not painting with the broadest of brushes. However, to those of you who demean us who believe in Christ, say we have wasted our lives in worship, or feel we are any less intelligent because we believe in Him ... I have only two points to make:

    1. If we who believe in the salvation of Christ, practice our faith, and live according to His word are wrong and you are correct, then what have we truly lost? We have made an effort to live good lives, to love our fellow men and women and to do right by others. By your beliefs, when we die we simply cease. We certainly won't be conscious of what we are missing out on.

    2. If we who believe are correct, and one must accept Christ to be rewarded in eternity while those who reject Him will be punished for eternity ... then God help you.

    I'm praying for all of you, whether you like it or not. 😉

    June 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Holy Roller

      I'm praying you visit prolapsed.net and see the eye of God.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • rich

      Thanks for your prayers and to you I say...welcome home!

      June 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • OOO

      You have heard of Pascal's wager, no? If not, look it up.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Chris

      I am not a closed-minded person, and I attempted to visit prolapsed.net as you suggested ... however the site has been suspended.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Chris

      Thank you, Rich. I am beyond blessed and happy to be here. 🙂

      June 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Chris

      And yes, OOO, I have indeed.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Madtown

      2. If we who believe are correct, and one must accept Christ to be rewarded in eternity while those who reject Him will be punished for eternity
      What if I'm a human being(creation of God) born into a primitive tribe that lives in the South American rain forest? I'll never hear of Jesus Christ, so cannot possibly accept him. What will happen to me? And, I'm confused, if God gave only 1 way to salvation, how come he didn't let us know about it? We are just as human as you are. You are no more special than are we.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • BRC

      Honest question, so here's an honest answer. Yes, you have lost something, you've lost free will, and your ability to reason. Faith in a Christian religion despite the obvious fallacies is a rejection of your own ability to think. That's not a good think. What's more, many of us do not believe that religions actually cause you to live a good life (they certainly don't cause you to live a life in teh image of Jesus), most of their time now is spent telling people how they're wrong, and what they can't do, because it says so in their book. A good life would not take away the ability of LGBT people to marry because they don't agree with it, and a good life would allow peopple to control their own bodies and lives, because only they can trully know what is best for them.

      As for the scenario if we the atheists are wrong? The "God" of the Christian Bible is a tempermental impetious tyrant, who created a giant and farm, and then gets mad and roasts the ants when they don't say thank you. I would never act to appease a being such as that, in life or death, if that means I burn, then I do it proudly, but I'm pretty confident that there either is no god, or the gods there are are NOTHING like what religions of today think.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Texas

      Not bashing or anything...but so are you saying that if someone leads a good life, helps others, doesn't commit crimes, is a genuinely good person...if they either don't believe in religion or are a different religion..and Christianity happens to be true then all those good people are going to hell? That doesn't make sense to me because then Billions of good people have / will be going to hell

      June 19, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • rich

      there are so many good questions asked on here by the unbelievers. If you truely are searching for the answers, why not see what the church (inspired by the Holy Spirit) has to say on the matter. check out catholic dot com or the coming home network. they both have forums for people with open minds who are searching for the truth.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Madtown

      they both have forums for people with open minds who are searching for the truth.
      The truth. Ah, the lifelong conquest for truth. I believe we can't know the answers to these questions. Certainly organized religions, and their websites, don't have the answers. It's ok to not know! These are questions we just cannot answer at this time, or were never meant to answer. I guess it's normal for humans to want answers for things we question, but creating religions to serve as those answers isn't the way to "truth".

      June 19, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Chris

      Ok, a three-part response. lol 🙂

      1. To Madtown: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., para. 1260. In the case of the righteous unlearned, "It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity" and, by extension, they will attain salvation."

      2. To BRC: I have FULLY exercised free will be choosing to be a Catholic. This choice was made after careful study of history, scripture and, yes, seeking spiritual guidance. I will concede that, unfortunately, not all who call themselves Christian (no matter the faith) lead a life and set an example as they are supposed to. As for your last paragraph, and your colorful way of describing the situation ... personally I find the whole "Zombie Jesus" and "Christian cannibal vampires" thing a whole lot more humorous. 😉

      3. To Texas: Thank you for your courteous response. I'd first refer to #1 about the "righteous unlearned," for those who have not heard of Christ but lived good lives. But I would also submit this in follow-up ... those who HAVE had the opportunity to know Christ and the sacrifice He made for us all, and choose to either reject Him or simply do not believe it, will be held accountable for that.

      I do want to say to everyone that I'm not a person who points fingers at everyone else saying, "You're all going to hell!!!" A true Christian (and I am by no means a perfect example of such) tries to love their fellow man. I may speak my peace, and share my point of view ... but take no joy from the thought of ANY person going to hell. On the contrary, I pray that every man and woman somehow makes it upstairs – either by them believing in Christ or by some divine intervention from God.

      I may be a believer and a follower, but that by no means qualifies me to be your judge and CERTAINLY does not give me some great understanding of God, how he thinks or what he will do.

      Peace be with you.


      June 19, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  13. Matthew

    "Your love for the Church is well known my child, I am sure your faith will repay you in coming times."

    Kudos to anyone that knows what game that quote comes from.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • sam

      ...is that Sims Medieval?

      June 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  14. Irene

    I grew up in the Catholic Church. When I was in a Catholic grammer school....I always thought that I was going to Hell! The most God-fearing religion!! Found NO comfort in this religion. Also...the hypochracy with their teachings. The Pope lives in the Vatican....full of GOLD. Give that to all the poor people in the world...that follow ur rules of NO CONTRACEPTIVES...that r starving because they keep having children...and keep giving what little money to the Catholic Church!!! Sell that solid gold Vatican and GIVE the money to the starving children around the world!!! Oh...and HIDING all the CHILD MOLESTER PRIESTS...while condeming all others!!! Makes no sense to me....guess lots of others feel this way also!!! Left this church years ago!!!

    June 19, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • OOO

      Just goes to show why people go to religions in the first place, to find comfort. Forget about whether it is true or not. That doesn't even seem to be part of the equation.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • LL

      If you think the Catholic church is the most God-fearing, you have checked out the Protestants....

      June 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  15. lefty avenger

    75% of the people no longer believe in the Establishment of the Church as they are a means for the top 1% Aristocratic Oligarchy to maintain their power over the 99% working masses. The Church and it's outdated bigoted values no longer resonate with young open minded people. The Church is going to same way as the Congress: to a 9% approval rating.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  16. Church girl

    Great article ... wish the study was more current, but the numbers would probably be higher. Catholic churches are all about guilt and the guiltiest of all were on the altar for years .... enough said.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  17. Charles Buzbee

    You lost me with Kristin Kelly. How can someone who attends Mass and Jesus is the center of the Mass say they are not exposed to Jesus! That is the dumbest statement I have ever heard. This person is not or was never a Catholic. CNN as usual puts anything out there no matter how dumb or asinine. CNN this is why your ratings are in the toilet!!!!!!

    June 19, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  18. Joe T

    I am Catholic and have been since I was born and baptized into the Church 52 years ago. I have served on the alter since I was 6 years old and have never had anything happen or have heard of anything happening to anyone in our church ever. Seems that people only talk about abuse and scandals in the Catholic Church but it happens in other Churches and schools and alot other places. I think that the ones that have left the Church are just looking for excuses and feel guiltyand have lost God in their lives.
    Don't worry, God will judge us all in the end. The Catholic Church was the 1st Church on earth and it does lots to help the poor and other organizations of the world in many ways. The Vatican controls the finances alot of it is given to the poor and other good deads around the world. You bash the Catholic Church and now you are bashing tha Jehovah's Witnesses. Again, God will judge you, myself and all others on this earth. May God grant all peace and forgive those of you who don't believe and those who have left the Church and are talking badly of it. Peace to you all.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • NotWorth$.02

      Sorry, the Catholic church was not the first established religion. Judaism predates it by more than a millenium.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  19. Mark H.

    You get three chances at figuring this out... The Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and God. Believe if you must, for whatever reason whatsoever... just don't force your beliefs on others.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Saby

      How absurd that you think others should keep their beliefs to themselves. Why don't you follow your own advice?

      June 19, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  20. Vatican Bank fan

    Those that have art & Science do not need
    religion for the rest of ,they need religion.

    Sort of a comment by Goethe

    June 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Saby

      What a clueless generalization.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:26 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.