'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. HenryB

    And not a word about doing right for others. And I thought that my former Catholic Church had that as one of its primary social mission. No longer! Now they go the way of the looney evangelicals and the prosperity Christians. What a shame.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  2. lililotus345

    If only I had a dime for every person that tells me "I was raised a Catholic , BUT...." I'd probably be rich. I was also raised as a catholic and struggles with it for some time , my parents also sent me to a private Christian school but it all pushed me away from religion.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Jeff from Columbus

      And, apparently, for every one of those "I was raised a Catholic, but" there is "I wasn't raised a Catholic, but I decided to join". Otherwise, how else to explain that the number of Catholics has held steady and hasn't gone down?

      June 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • sam

      Immigrants coming in, Jeff. Poor hispanic people that were brainwashed long ago.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • John P

      Yes – Hispanic immigration, in part. Also, the fecundity rate within the Catholic Church is higher than average so they tend to repopulate their pews.
      Some good news though; Hispanics are using birth control at a much greater rate and they are also not as intimidated by the church so some are falling away. As any group or individual becomes more enlightened, educated, sane, well – there is a strong tendency to leave the church and I do not equivocate when I say that this is a very, very good thing.

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

    Don't believe all these bitter comments...I had a fiance that told me she would get married in a Church and that would be the last day she ever went to Church period, that it was a joke to her. I said then why get married in a Church by a Priest at all? She said for the pictures, but agreed and then suggested a beach. I said I will only get married in a Church by a Priest. She didn't have an answer for that one and was the only person who didn't see that engagement ending. All that arrogance turned to tears.

    Don't believe these angry comments on here...these people are just trying to convince themselves of something. It's a type of bully. Total BS.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      I come across ignorant bigots in denial like you quite often.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Journeyman

      Denial?...for what?...being myself? Go away.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Journeyman

      People always hate people who stand up for what they believe in. Old as time.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • sam

      So you knew so little about her before getting engaged? You didn't even realize she wasn't as religious as you? You are super observant and must be awesome to date! I'll bet you're a hottie too.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Journeyman

      I'm an asshole.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  4. Glad I'll Be Left Behind

    It's the age of information. People don't have to believe what they hear based on geographical location anymore... they can research it themselves online. But really, come on. Once you discovered Santa was a fraud, everyone (thing) else should have gone up for question... including the big G. Thank you Holy Bible for showing me the ways of Atheism.

    The more knowledge spread, the less likely fairy tales will stick around.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  5. Bishop Bullpucky

    Every Catholic I grew up with is now agnostic.

    I have known several people who've said that a priest either molested them or tried to molest them.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  6. SconnieGuz

    How can any of you buy these conmen's fairy tales any longer?

    June 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  7. Jeff from Columbus

    How can someone say they spent 21 years in the Catholic Church but was never exposed to Christ?? EVERY MASS is a celebration of the Eucharist! Catholics receive the body and blood of CHRIST at every mass! There's a crucifix of Jesus hanging above EVERY altar in EVERY Catholic Church.

    There's some legitimate criticisms of the Catholic Church – but this is one of the most bizarre criticisms I've ever heard.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • irene

      OK – That crucifix thing is just macabre. Do you realize that the symbol of your religion is a guy being impaled? As an ex-Catholic, I find this (and many other things about Christianity) disturbing. Why would religion focus on the death and not the rebirth as the symbol of their faith?

      June 19, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Tom

      Irene, it's the reason of his death, not the death itself.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • sam

      They were too busy being...'exposed'...to something else.


      June 19, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Primewonk

      If the Romans had used the guillotine 2000 years ago, would we have giant razors in churches, on steeples, and hanging around necks and ears?

      June 19, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  8. d

    The Catholic Church existed first before the Bible. The Catholic Church compiled the Bible based on its teaching.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  9. BK

    Isn't it just a bit obvious? The Catholic church leadership is full of outright monsters who protect child molesters while excommunicating people for trivial crimes (like being molested). If Jesus were on Earth today, he'd hang his head in shame at them... then vomit.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  10. Mike

    What is the point of this story...to say that some people fall away from the faiith? Can't the same be said of other denominations as well? Does sound a bit like the same old broken record about what some Catholics fail to understand about the faith....

    June 19, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • ohgran

      Fail to understand? Or do they all too well understand the failures on the part of the Catholic Church today?

      June 19, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  11. Joe

    I would never put any weight on a CNN story, where in America, media portrays itself untouchable by its First Amendment right to free speech.

    The catholic Religoun isn't to be debated by Americans who can't balance a check book, or vote into a political system that is no longer representative by "In God We Trust".

    June 19, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • sam

      Pray tell, where are you from, Joe?

      June 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Sam, Joe is obviously from Uranus.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • sam

      Hmm...must be....

      June 19, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  12. Watchtower

    ~ @Colin = Spot on, Sir!!

    June 19, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  13. thor

    I am the God Thor. If you pray to me, I will fill your life with love and light. But you have to really mean it.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Loki Laufeyson

      SHUT UP THOR!! I do what I WANT.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  14. Colin

    Hmmmm, let's do a quick quiz on Catholicism.

    The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings on the planet are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in the “afterlife” comes from the religion of:

    (a) The ancient Celts;

    (b) Bronze Age Egyptians;

    (c) Pre-Colombian Aztecs; or

    (d) Modern Catholics

    You are about 70% likely to believe the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with only one man, one woman and a talking snake if you are:

    (a) a reptile handler who has severe mental issues;

    (b) a five year old boy who just read a fairytale;

    (c) a scientific fraud; or

    (d) a Catholic

    I believe that an all-knowing being, powerful enough to create the entire cosmos and its billions of galaxies, watches me have $ex to make sure I don't do anything "naughty" like protect myself from disease with a condom. I am

    (a) A victim of child molestation

    (b) A r.ape victim trying to recover

    (c) A mental patient with paranoid delusions

    (d) A Catholic

    I have convinced myself that gay $ex is a choice and not genetic, but then have no explanation as to why only gay people have ho.mo$exual urges. I am

    (a) A gifted psychologist

    (b) A well respected geneticist

    (c) A highly educated sociologist

    (d) A Catholic with the remarkable ability to ignore inconvenient facts.

    I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am

    (a) a delusional schizophrenic;

    (b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly

    (c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or

    (d) your average Catholic

    Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:

    (a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;

    (b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;

    (c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or

    (d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.

    The only discipline known to often cause people to kill others they have never met and/or to commit suicide in its furtherance is:

    (a) Architecture;

    (b) Philosophy;

    (c) Archeology; or

    (d) Religion

    What is it that most differentiates science and all other intellectual disciplines from Catholicism:

    (a) Catholicism tells people not only what they should believe, but what they MUST believe under threat of “burning in hell” or other of divine retribution, whereas science, economics, medicine etc. has no “sacred cows” in terms of doctrine and go where the evidence leads them;

    (b) Catholicism can make a statement, such as “God is comprised of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, and be totally immune from experimentation and challenge, whereas science can only make factual assertions when supported by considerable evidence;

    (c) Science and the scientific method is universal and consistent all over the World whereas Catholicism is regional and a person’s Catholicism, no matter how deeply held, is clearly nothing more than geographical upbringing; or

    (d) All of the above.

    If I am found wandering the streets flagellating myself, wading into a filth river, mutilating my child’s genitals or kneeling down in a church believing that a being is somehow reading my inner thoughts and prayers, I am likely driven by:

    (a) a deep psychiatric issue;

    (b) an irrational fear or phobia;

    (c) a severe mental degeneration caused by years of drug abuse; or

    (d) my religious belief.

    Who am I? I don’t pay any taxes. I never have. Any money my organization earns is tax free and my own salary is also tax free, at the federal, state and local level. Despite contributing nothing to society, but still enjoying all its benefits, I feel I have the right to tell others what to do. I am

    (a) A sleazy Wall Street banker

    (b) A mafia boss

    (c) A drug pusher; or

    (d) A Catholic Priest

    What do the following authors all have in common – Jean Paul Sartre, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, and Blaise Pascal:

    (a) They are among the most gifted writers the World has known;

    (b) They concentrated on opposing dogma and opening the human mind and spirit to the wonders of free thought and intellectual freedom;

    (c) They were intimidated by the Catholic Church and put on the Church’s list of prohibited authors; or

    (d) All of the above.

    The AIDS epidemic will kill tens of millions in poor African and South American countries before we defeat it. Condoms are an effective way to curtail its spread. As the Pope still has significant influence over the less educated masses in these parts of the World, he has exercised this power by:

    (a) Using some of the Vatican’s incomprehensible wealth to educate these vulnerable people on health family planning and condom use;

    (b) Supporting government programs that distribute condoms to high risk groups;

    (c) Using its myriad of churches in these regions as “boots on the ground” to distribute condoms; or

    (d) Scaring people into NOT using condoms, based upon his disdainful and aloof view that it is better that a person die than go against the Vatican’s position on contraceptive use.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • BobFromPA

      Wow that was pretty good!

      June 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • DaveinCincy

      ahhh yes..The intollerance from the liberal buffoons strike again. For every article written about people leaving the church, we could have an article for someone coming to the Church. But hey...whatever supports your intollerant point of view.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Name*larobra

      Colin-Your quiz is hilarious. Thanks for the laugh! Also, thank you for using correct spelling and grammar. You can thank the nuns for that!

      June 19, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Tom

      Your questions, while funny, are based on false assumptions.

      Catholicism does not teach the existence of a God who is constantly watching, intervening, taking notes, and making sure people don't step out in front of a bus.

      There is no mortal existence that is infallible... this includes the church.

      And, it is quite obvious that you don't know any priests other than the ones you hear about in the news if you believe they do not contribute to society.

      And, the ultimate question: what is faith? Faith is believing in something that cannot be proven. The things in life that can be proven don't require faith – so don't deride people of faith because what they believe cannot be proven by science.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • HenryB

      Inconvenient but full of merit.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Tom

      Wow, so much hate and misinformation in one one post I don't even know where to begin or even try. I'll just say that rather than blindly bashing something of which you obviously know or understand very little about, you might take the time to have rational conversations with people you may disagree with. You might learn something. You also might realize that the vast majority of those of us with "deep psychiatric issues" (your words) have no problem at all with atheistic beliefs (and they are beliefs – you are choosing to believe the universe sprang from nothingness, which is no less absurd than a benevolent creator). I have many close relatives – brothers and nephews – who are atheists and we have awesome conversations without being demeaning to each other amd still respecting each others beliefs. For the record, many of us all believe in evolution, that the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, and many of us are, gasp! scientists! Check your stereotypes at the door next time and seek to understand and maybe learn something. I suspect you won't, but we will still pray for you and love you anyway, because that's what we're all about, not the outrageous claims you are making in your post. The single greatest thing we are taught as Catholics is to love, unconditionally. Have a great day and maybe put all of that energy into something constructive – it's easy to tear something down, try building something positive instead.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • HenryB


      It is so interesting that these "religious" people just believe in something for which there is no proof but then deride science for being a theory. Clowns.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • HenryB


      If you are so disappointed by Colin's hate then why waste your time? The reason people like Colin say what they say is because today's Christians so easily preach their hate and anger at those who are unlike them and then you, as the one who loves, says nothing to call these so-called "Christians" out. But let a Colin open his "mouth" and you are right there all pious and defensive. Where were you and your kind when all those evangelicals talk poorly about others? Nowhere to be found except now. If you and your kind said nothing then, then kindly keep your mouth closed now.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Tom

      @HenryB – I realize you were responding to the first Tom, but he said nothng about deriding science. The Catholic church has a rich scientific heritage, and also doesn't teach that evolution is incorrect. Some religions do, but not Catholicism.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Tom

      @HenryB – Sorry, but I didn't read all 1000+ posts or I would have given them a hard time as well. I didn't feel my post was pious (I'm anything but – I'm a sinner just like everyone), and if came across that way to you I apologize. I'm simply trying to encourage a rational discourse rather than name calling.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Tom (the second)

      Let me just say there are too many Tom's in this conversation. I'm the first Tom, and I actually believe in much of the science that's produced today.

      Like Tom said, check your stereotypes at the door. Faith and Science can and often do coexist.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Somehow I doubt Bruno agrees with the catholic church having a rich scientific heritage.

      Plus, if they value science so much, why do they ignore all the science on sèxual orientation?

      June 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  15. Tom

    What is the purpose of this article?

    June 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  16. FraterT

    "agents of the Church kidnapped and effectively sold thousands of Spanish, Irish, Australian and American children from the 1940s to as recently as 1987."

    Wow. A source on this claim please? I'm going to guess that "kidnapped and sold" are being applied rather liberally and snidely here?

    June 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  17. Jeremy

    Run away – run far away from all religion.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  18. Dudemon

    I left because they are selling the adult version of Santa Clause and acting like A s s holes.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • DaveinCincy

      go back to hitting your bong "dudemon"

      June 19, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  19. Rachel

    This article fails to mention the fact that the Catholic Church recently re-translated the mass so now I have no idea what the words are. So much for "tradition" and 28 years of being a Catholic!

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

      Apparently it wasn't explained properly to you that the original translation was incorrect and was "modified" to appeal to the 1960s culture. The current translation more closely follows the original Greek and Latin, so that we (the US) are finally celebrating the same mass as the rest of the world.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  20. Josh

    Ohh CNN. Everyone knows you're anti-Christian, but couldn't you have at least found a study that isn't 4 years old? Nice try, anyway.

    June 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Burbank

      You must be pro-brainwashing. Glassy eyed Christian zombies ready to attack anyone that doesn't march in lock-step to the dysfuntional teachings.

      June 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • DaveinCincy

      @burbon- last I checked it was the intollerant atheists throwing up bill boards, and suing to stop saying "God Bless America". Talk about pushing their way of thinking........

      June 19, 2012 at 3:15 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.