'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 Guerriero

    I am a Roman Catholic but like a friend who is Catholic told me "I am disappointed in the Catholic Church but not in Christ. Those concepts of love, compassion, forgiveness and utlimate union with the Creator hurt no one if applied. The desire to do good and to get out of your own ego's way give us insight and hopefully a desire to do better. Even if it is really a world only obtained by belief it is well worth the journey. No matter what people say, I am good person, I don't need church, its all a fantasy, without the belief in an ultimate good the only one who stands between you and what you want is the local police department.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Rationalist

      "without the belief in an ultimate good the only one who stands between you and what you want is the local police department."

      Empathy allows me to see that my actions have consequences and repercussions in my life and the lives of others. Just as I would not want pain/harshness inflicted upon me, I recognize that others similarly do not desire that sort of treatment. This idea of the "golden rule" has been around for as long as societies have organized and recorded their ideas and is a swell foundation for a moral code. Recognizing that organizing into a society where we establish laws based on mutual respect and welfare allows us all to benefit rather than a few flourishing at the expense of the many is a god-free rationale for a society based upon that moral code.

      I do not need to believe in a greater good or a god. I just need to recognize that acting in a mutually beneficial and cooperative manner will enrich everyone's life, my own included.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  2. Gypsy

    I was born into a Catholic family and, at my parents' insistence, went to church and bible school. It is because I have actually read the bible cover to cover and studied it extensively that I am an atheist today. Religion is nothing more than a collection of myths and fables.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Omar

      if you really STUDIED your bible you would see that all has been predicted by prophecy to show its authenticity. Perhaps you should try looking into books of Daniel and Revelation to see how short of time we actually have.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Red Cardinal

      Dear Gypsy ...... What a pity you think about religion in such narrow terms ...... Are you not limiting yourself just a little ...... You seem to denounce religion as myth .......... It's not all myth. .... It can be very entertaining .... And very earthy .........
      You need a bit of myth to keep people spellbound ....... You are free to see yourself ....... Immersed in the myth. That is why we are human ..... Freedom to choose ..... Even the not so rational approach ........ Even atheists fantasise and indulge in just a touch of mythology ....l.....

      June 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  3. Omar

    The catholic church is the Harlot mentioned in the book of revelation. She changed Gods law and has taught the world to be disobedient. Tranagression of the law is sin and sinners will be punished. The 7th day (Sabbath) is the Seal of the living God. The 1st day (Sunday Sabbath) is the Mark of the Beast. it really is THAt simple. Come out of her my people so that you do not partake on the plagues which will befall her.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • EJB

      How's life in 1518? Got indoor plumbing yet?

      June 19, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • BobZemko

      Thanks for a great laugh, EJB.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  4. eric calderone

    Many of those who leave the Catholic Church do so because they are unaware of what the Church teaches. The Church teaches that Jesus Christ is our Redeemer and the only way to Salvation. Mary as the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, is to be honored but not to be worshipped. Only God is worshipped.

    Yes, a personal relationship with Jesus is vital and many parishes do not emphasize this. However, the Church is made up of fallible human beings. Their failings do not obviate the fact the Jesus established this Church as the Christian Church.

    While many protestant sects are big on the emotional element as a motivator, the content of their teachings contains erroneous human interpretations. The bible is only one source of God's teachings. There is also Sacred Tradition–the way the Church from the beginning has done things and has taught God's Truth, but has never saw it necessary to write it down as Scripture. And, the third basis of Christian Teaching is the Magisterium of the Church–its teaching authority, carried out by ordained senior Clergy.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • BobZemko

      Then where does it say that clergy touching little boys is OK?

      June 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  5. "militant" catholics

    go. its not like you are going to be less of a christian, just not a church. we can be christian and not have a church.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • JohnnyC

      Not according to Matthew 16:18. Christ founded a Church and promised the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. That Church became the Catholic Church and if Christ was who he said he was, then the Catholic Church ain't going anywhere until the end of time.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  6. Just Claims, No Truth


    That's fine. Lightning is true ... as long as it's micro-lightning. Both static electricity from my sock on the carpet and lightning are electricity. But there is absolutely no evidence for lightning being caused by socks.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  7. Non-Theist

    EVERY house of worship fears people who think for themselves.

    You are condemned to Hell if you question any of God's (arbitrary) rules, because he loves you? Great scam. Pay now for eternal 'salvation'.

    The Catholic Church is the biggest, most powerful organization in the world, does not pay taxes (in the US) and corrupts everything it touches. A few token good acts here and there, but the huge amounts of money it collects and uses for political influence is breathtaking.

    Enjoy your spiritual journey, but make sure you pay the spiritual piper for the 'guidance' first...

    June 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  8. another ex-Cath

    I grew up Catholic, went to the Catholic school and that whole cliche. I really wanted to be a priest, but can't because I'm a girl. I left in college after several other profound theological disagreements. Even if they did somehow 'miraculously' grant gender equality (and focus more on social justice, human equality, etc), I wouldn't go back.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • BobZemko

      Do you know what "misogyny" means?

      June 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  9. JohnnyC

    Anything "they" can do to turn people away from the TRUE Church, "they" will do. It is time to flock to the Catholic Church, people. Whatever CNN and it's ilk propagandize you to do, do the exact opposite.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • BobZemko

      Yes, there are plenty of clergy ready to touch you.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  10. Matt

    I am a former catholic and I will never go back. They are too judgmental and way behind on the times. Its total BS that women can't be priests and that priests can't get married.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • jon

      All they tell you is that you are a SINNER. Get real, they just want to make you ashamed about everything, every thought, every action, etc, etc. So that they can say "Go my son and sin no more." What baloney! Who needs it?

      June 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  11. Scrappyike

    Spot on! Former Catholic here and I felt exactly the same. I do not tie myself to any one denomination or religion. Man has convoluted the meaning of being Christian. I am a follower of Jesus Christ and try to follow his teachings. Since then, I am a happier person, family has been happier and life is grand.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  12. The Dude

    Religion is the fast food of spirituality.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  13. New Gawker

    @crazyhorse just because you're ok with Priest raping little children then when they're caught shuffle them off to another state to continue raping, the rest of us in civilized society find it sickening.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • BobZemko

      Well said, New Gawker.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  14. CB

    I've been compelled to turn my back on the Catholic Church. Not because I don't believe in God. Frankly, I speak to God every day and can feel him walk with me. However, in good conscience I cannot follow a group of men that would use a beautiful instrument, namely the Bible, for hate.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  15. BobZemko

    Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • bob

      wow- that is so true!

      June 19, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  16. closet atheist

    we are the 31%

    people love to throw numbers in our face about how this country is a "christian nation"... and I'M one of the ones being counted as christian... as far as my memory goes back, i've never believed in a god

    i think this country is do for a reality check. i gaurantee that the atheist/agnostic population is under-reported(counted).

    June 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Alverant

      Yeah, people like to say this is a "christian nation" yet never explain how key values of the USA like democracy are christian considering how their bible never mentioned it and why it took over 1500 years for a democratic christian nation to be founded (why not one of those European monarchies instead?)

      June 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Steve

      Why in the closet? Do you hold public office or something? Be proud of it for Christ's sake!

      June 19, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • closet atheist

      In the closet only in certain settings. Not that religion is an acceptible work topic, but people seem to think it's an acceptible topic from time to time. My problem is this...

      I have no problem with people being religious. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I laugh to myself... but I generally respect them just the same.

      On the flip side, religious people tend not afford us the same level of respect. If I openly discussed my atheism (or even mentioned it), I'm certain I'd be branded by some as _________ (you name it... religious people tend to think pretty lowly of us simply because they don't understand)

      June 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  17. JohnnyC

    Be not deceived: the Catholic Faith is undergoing a MAJOR renaissance. Against all odds, vocations are up, the old sacred Mass is back, the Holy Spirit is aflame and the battle is joined.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • sam stone

      The Holy Spirit is a flamer? Well, that does explain things

      June 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • BobZemko

      . . . and more and more news about abuse by the clergy is coming out every day. Congratulations !!!!

      June 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • CB

      This is the problem with religion in America. Reread your post. Your words ring of the rhetoric of war. Christianity is a religion of love and acceptance, or at least I believe that was Jesus' original intent. The Church's current leaders have perverted His words and teaching beyond measure.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • JohnnyC

      Sam, one of the few sins Christ said would not be forgiven is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. You may want to rethink your comment.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • JohnnyC

      CB, we are at war. The New Testament is replete with references to spiritual warfare. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." That is why the Catholic Church has been, and will always be, under attack. The devil's greatest trick has been in the modern age to use the media and other implements to convince people there is no war on, and that there is no real battle between good and evil. The only decision we have to make is which side we are on.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Alverant

      It's called freedom of speech. If your god is against it, then your god is is a tyrrant that should be deposed not worshipped.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • JohnnyC

      Alverant, quite the contrary. The Catholic Faith recognizes our free will. We can exercise it however we choose. It is a gift from God. However, we are invited to eternal life by living according to God's plan.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • recovering catholic

      "Be not deceived"? Why is it that bible thumpers – even the catholic ones – feel a need to speak in pseudo-biblical babble? Huh? Why? Do they think it lends some sort of authoritative tone to their words? Just sounds stupid to me.

      June 20, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  18. allenwoll

    Sure, I believe in a Creator - But NOT the popular conception, "God". . As far as THIS universe is concerned, THAT one is NOT minding His store - He is TOO BUSY doing Godly things ELSEWHERE ! !

    In what OTHER way can the horrendous misery of SO MANY in THIS existence possibly be explained ? ?

    June 19, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  19. letsgomets2012!

    That bunch has sold out the inner city kids by shutting down the parochial schools - the Catholic high school in those cities were the only respite from the mean streets and horrible public schools where you learn zip. Plus the sports programs could not be beat - and we all know sports has saved many a kid from getting in trouble.:)

    They also don't care about the molestations - and granted, that's in every religion, not just the Catholic Church - but I don't like how it was handled.

    I am also divorced and am tired of feeling like a tenth class citizen, merely because I have a marriage that ended. Even in Biblical times there were divorces. They were tough to get, most likely, because the arranged marriages were legal contrcts, but they happened nontheless, even if they were rare.

    All of this made me give up ont he Catholics. I'm still looking for a religion; I am leaning toward something Eastern in belief.:)

    June 19, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • letsgomets2012!

      Instead of keeping the building warm for a bunch of kids behind on the tuition, it is much easier - and PROFITABLE - to shut the school down and lease it to the state to open another damn charter school. The archdiocese makes a small fortune that way.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  20. JohnnyC

    CNN and other mainstream media sources are under the control of a Luciferian cabal. Laugh it up while you have the chance. The world is being divided into the sheep and the goats. Keep mocking the Church Christ founded. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Word.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • sam stone

      Good for you. Get a good set of kneepads

      June 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • awasis

      Oh please. The old "you'll be sorry" nonsense to make you feel better about your belief. We have all been waiting 2000 years for this Jesus to come back. Guess what you've been stood up.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • miketofdal

      Good. Serve and be quiet about it...as instructed in your bible.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • another ex-Cath

      We are totally fine with you doing that, dude. Just as long as you don't try to make the rest of us join you.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • BobZemko

      Please, gawd, I SINCERELY hope you have not nor plan on procreating.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • tyler

      Listen to how you talk... This is why I hate religion but not god. IF our creator was this judgmental and split the world in half based on who sucked up and gave him the most money, I wouldnt want to be apart of that in my after life. The best people i know are the ones that dont go to church every sunday, or even go at all. They donate their time and help out inner city children because they want too. Most of the people i know that are "bible thumpers" make other people feel bad about themselves for not going to church and go back to reading the bible. They try to make people feel bad and then they dont do anything with the community. They just believe that if they give money and go to church every sunday they are going to " the kingdom" My belief is that god would dislike most of the people who "follow" him.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • recovering catholic

      There's that damn pseudo-biblical babble again. "Luciferian cabal"??? ROFL

      June 20, 2012 at 1:28 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.