'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. BlackDynamiteNYC

    And banging kids has nothing to do with it......

    June 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Catholic priests and coaches have a lot in common: They have the power to get you into heaven or on the starting line-up.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  2. SAC

    I hope someone in the Catholic Hierarchy is listening: the problem is with you, not us. Most Catholics want to practice their faith in the true spirit of Christ. But we're not pushovers and after years of giving you a pass, you're getting called to account.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  3. Horus

    awwww, it looks like some Catholic folks here got there widdle feelings hurt by a CNN article......boo hoo. Maybe if you didn't base your lives around conjecture and tradition while ignoring certain realisms then others might take you seriously.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • CMoses

      No, but we would like to see CNN provide a balanced look once in awhile. You would think that with 24% of the population describing themselves as Catholic that maybe 24% of the articles on Catholicism on CNN might actually paint the Church in a decent light rather than article after article talking about the negatives. Where's the interview with a returning Catholic explaining why they came back to the Church? Why does the headline always have to highlight CNN's attack on Catholicism? That's what Catholics are responding to.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Horus

      Perhaps you only see the negative in articles?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  4. columbus

    I don't think Catholicism is inherently bad, the problem is the centralization of power, the Vatican, which has ultimate control from the pulpit to doctrine. Too much of the Vatican's doctrine has been built from the middle ages when wealth and power was the goal of leadership of that time (still is to this day?) there was rampant corruption throughout the church and controlling the populace was the goal of those in power, what better way than to use people's spiritual beliefs. It's far past the time to take a historical perspective of where the religion is going, make contemporary changes, and still obey the tenets of Christianity. Given the history of the Vatican, and recent responses to challenges made to it, it doesn't seem likely to happen in our lifetime.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  5. Get Real

    Let’s see a similar article on Muslims and Islam, OH WAIT, we can’t do that, it wouldn’t be politically correct and we might offend someone. You want to see pedophile’s and mistreatment of women, take a look at these animals.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Get Real

      FYI – This poster is one of the other @Get Reals, in case anyone is keeping track... and why screen names are dicey here.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  6. Bob

    How many of your kids have to be molested before you say "Enough?" It would be one thing if the church was making a strong effort to fix the problem, but instead they're protecting the child rapists.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Get Real

      So that's EVERY priest? By that standard all liberals must be idiots!

      June 19, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  7. Freethinker

    I'm so glad I escaped Catholicism. It's poison for the mind. It's poison for society. I've seen the evil it propagates. And I discovered that most religion is just about the same.

    The Catholic church is power-hungry and money-grubbing. The priesthood is corrupt. And on top of that, EVERYTHING they preach is a lie. Religion is a fairy tale. The Bible is a myth, just like any other myth.

    I'm an atheist and a Unitarian Universalist now. I attend a pagan-themed UU congregation. I enjoy the community and ritual, and I appreciate the acceptance of free thinking and the lack of a God-dogma (or ANY dogma). Secular humanism is the core of what I believe. I find awe in the natural world.

    It's my fondest hope that people free themselves from religion... especially ones like Catholicism.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • TexasCentrist

      Your comments on religion are right on the mark. People should realize how damaging religious has been throughout history and still is today. Believing baseless dogma is bad enough, but to act violently in the name of that dogma is what religion instills. In addition, the afterlife is what really matters, not corporeal life. So much for protecting the earth. It's hard to believe anyone believing in the supernatural in this day and age.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • CMoses

      How ironic that you find awe in the natural world. Where do you think it came from? A big explosion and random chance??? Stop and think about the mathematical probability that everything that needed to happen in order for life to exist as it does on Earth occurred exactly as it needed to by pure chance.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Horus

      CMoses – Pocket watch theory? Nope...you display part of the human condition – people need to see organization even when there is none. That's why folks see "jesus" in a frying pan, or a water stain on the wall, or in the clouds. There is an absolute possiblity of random events....

      June 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • CMoses

      Horus, basic atomic theory on which atoms become compounds and cellular theory display a level of intense bonding laws and organization without which even the most basic life would be impossible. This organization isn't something people made up in a creative writing class to explain life. It exists, and without a fundamental organization in place, it would be impossible to study scientifically. It doesn't matter how basic you look at things, there is still an underlying organization that determines it all.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • jamesmadison

      >Where do you think it came from? A big explosion and random chance???

      And you think some random dude (with mass even before mass existed) got bored one day and decided he'd do all this? Come on, don't insult his knowledge of probability and statistics when you don't have anything to stand on. Clearly, those with sound understanding of probability understand some things that you don't. Namely, that yes, there is indeed a concrete probability that we did come from a bang and random chance. With billions upon billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars with their own solar systems and orbiting bodies, it is very probable that life formed within one of the 100billion*100billion plus solar systems. Insulting science without understanding anything about it is as worthless as an armchair quarterback.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      cmoses, what is the mathmatical probabllity that a magic being created all of this?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • CMoses

      There has to be a "first cause".

      June 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • CMoses

      @jamesmadison, I'm not even talking about the chances of our galaxy having the right conditions to support life versus others. I'm talking about the atomic laws of polarity and attraction without which none of those galaxies would even exist. The very fundamental laws of matter.

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


      So you propose a first cause, and I take it this first cause is eternal since otherwise you would be advocating for an infinite regress. So then why couldn't matter and energy have always existed, because as far as we know, it's impossible to destroy or create either of them. Answering a mystery with another mystery that hasn't even been proven to exist is useless posturing.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  8. Jeff

    1st timothy

    4:1 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
    4:2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
    4:3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
    4:4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:

    23:9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

    I can go on and on and on.

    The day i left the catholic church was when i asked them about not allowing marring, no fish firdays and showed them the scripture. There answer was tradition is more important than Gods word. Witch they say is set in stone. But the pope can change at a moments notice

    10:25 And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him.
    10:26 But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man.

    Ask you preacher and see what he says. The Catholic church is not a christian church they are church ran by a group of men headed by the pope. Ask questions. Open your bible and study. I wish you luck on your journey to find God.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • pennylane

      THANK YOU SO MUCH....I was raised a Catholic and as I grew up I began to question and challenge the church, I got a similar response...tradition...I believe in God and Christ as the Savior..I've been married for 30 years and I refused to marry in the church I couldn't in good faith except and follow their "traditions"...til this day I cringe at their "traditions"...

      June 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • sam

      Here come the requisite bible quotes...

      June 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • jim

      These same men pieced together the book you're quoting...

      June 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  9. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    The challenges facing the Catholic church are nothing new. A centrally mandated dogma caused (some would say inspired) the protestant reformation.

    People leave the Catholic church because:
    1. They realize religion is work of fiction created by humans ... or
    2. They become tired of being force-fed dogma

    The flip side of (2) is that people shop for religion like they would for shoes. It's no longer about faith – its lifestyle. People joining megachurches are no different spritually than new-agers who borrow bits of Hinduism, Taoism and Paganism and call themselves "spiritual but not religious". Megachurches offer gyms and day care as differentiators in the sales process.

    There are a couple of consequences of this:
    1. The protestant churches struggle with a desire for "orthodoxy" v. individual interpretation of scripture. They have an ident.ty crisis and the result is hypocrisy. Either you interpret the bible for yourself, or someone does it for you. This is the great paradox of protestantism (except perhaps for Lutherans and Episcopals/Anglicans == Catholic-Lite).
    2. The sense of weltschmerz people feel when they miss the comfort of the old rituals that at a mininum causes buyer's remorse, or even a reconsideration of their choice

    June 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  10. PrimeNumber

    “I never really got exposed to Christ," she (Kristen Kelley) says. "It was more about Mary and the Church and a condemnation of everything I was doing wrong.” I've been a Catholic in the Bible Belt for almost sixty years. I always understood the message to be about Jesus Christ. The moon gets all its light from the Sun. Likewise, Mary gets her light from the Son. As for condemnation? (Yawwnnnnnn). Masses of humans operate on the lowest level of moral motivation. The church is like civil authority. People won't behave unless they are threatened with punishment.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      I would agree. I find Catholicism to be more focused on the Gospels than Evangelical Protestantism which continues to have a big hang-over from Leviticus, despite their appropriation of the "Christian" brand. I don't understand anyone who calls themselves a Christian, yet perfers the lessons of the old testament to the teachings of Christ.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • We know the truth...

      "People won't behave unless they are threatened with punishment."

      Stunningly naive... Atheists have the lowest crime rate when compared with the major religions... People who have the ability to think for ourselves don't need mindless fairy tales to live productive lives. Why do you??

      June 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Horus

      So you can admit that religions throughout time were conjured up to create civility? btw I disagree with your assertion. People would still do good things without the fear of "punishment". In fact the basics of our laws (killing, stealing) more likely come from early groups of people that realized their survival was more likely if they worked together, rather than kill each other.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  11. Shaggy

    Maybe it's because the Catholic Church tells you how awful you are, fondles your kids, tells their nuns to keep their mouth shuts, and then asks for money out of you even though they are one of the oldest and wealthiest organizations on the planet. Even if you want to believe in a fairy tale about eternal life and magic zombies, you don't need to put up with that.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  12. docame

    Come home...give up the myth of the man in the sky and come home to reality.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • PrimeNumber

      Before you extend this invitation, make sure your experience includes all of reality.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • todd in DC

      He is not a "man in the sky". He is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and don't you forget it.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  13. Tryclyde

    Was raised Catholic but have since shied away due to the ultra-conservative views. Unfortunately, the Church is stuck in the stone age. I follow all of the teachings of the Gospels, but I just can't agree with the modern-day beliefs of Catholicism.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      You speak of being Catholicism as being "stuck in the stone age" and having "modern-day beliefs".

      Pick one!

      I would argue that the doctrine is at least consistent. You might choose to disagree with it, but it's certainly not faddish.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  14. Blake

    I have never understood Catholics, their beliefs tend to stray from God's inspired word, the Bible. I can find nothing in the Bible that supports a priest forgiving sins?? We should be praying to God for forgiveness where we have failed him. Also the worship of Mary to a certain extent is off base. Everyone should pick up their Bible and read what God expects of us and stop doing something because someone else does or a lot of other people do.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • TeeMiller

      Then he breathed on them and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men's sins, they are forgiven them. If you hold them bound, they are held bound." John 20:22-23.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      So why do you need a church at all. Surely your copy of the Bible is enough for you?

      June 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • jim

      Good idea I picked it up and now I'm waiting for Sunday to stone anyone that is working!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Pest

      "Don't believe the nonsense made up by Catholics. Believe the nonsense made up by those who wrote the Bible."

      June 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • CMoses

      @Blake, there's a difference between worship and reverence. As a virgin about to married, Mary was faced with the reality of being shunned, ridiculed, outcast, shamed, and having her husband "divorce her quietly" because of her pregnancy, yet when faced with all of this, her only response to God was complete and total submission to His will.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • recovering catholic

      "....and stop doing something because someone else does or a lot of other people do...."

      Pot, kettle. Kettle, pot.

      June 20, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  15. berg

    This was a good piece. I am an ex-Catholic and born again Christian and left the church for exactly the reasons outlined in the article. What is missing from the modern Catholic church is teaching people about the Bible and how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Chist. If they focused more on that and less on tradition, and worship of Mary, the saints and the Pope, they would be much better off.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • dnick47

      I left the Church as well. But Mary is never worshipped nor has anything like worship of Mary ever been condoned but there is a sizeable cult which believe that she can get things done when the Father and the Son say, "no," – sort of like when we were kinds, use mom to get to dad: that worked sometimes but the cult of Mary is a no go from the get go.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • OTOH


      I left too, but how much more of a "personal relationship with Jesus" can you have than to supposedly have him actually enter your body in Communion?!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Catholic from NOLA

      I have been a life long Catholic and can say that I have an incredible relationship with Jesus Christ. I don't, nor have I ever, worshipped Mary or the Saints or the Pope. I honor Mary as the Mother of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (just as I honor all mothers). Every – let me repeat that – EVERY part of our Mass is bible-based.

      I believe that most Priests are good and holy men. I love our Nuns and religious brothers. Has our church made mistakes? Absolutely. Our church is doing so much to make sure the pedophilia problem ceases to exist. Pedophilia exists in schools, religions, coaching. . . . it is NOT just the Catholic Church. I am proud our Church is addressing this issue. Before you attack me on this position let me say this, I am a victim of clergy abuse. The church handled this correctly and immediately when it was reported to them in the 80's.

      Tradition is one of the things I greatly admire about my Catholic Church. Oh, by the way, I have been in an active church sponsored bible study for 17 years. So please don't say that the Catholic Church doesn't teach the bible.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  16. dnick47

    I was raised Catholic and finally ended up being a Baptist. Why? Because I could not base my faith on "miracles" or ever being good enough to measure up. Additionally, when I was growing up (1950 and 60's) Bible reading was discouraged by the Catholic Church and upon reading the Bible I saw why because most of their dogma ran counter to Scriptural truth. Fir a time I re-entered the Catholic Church (after Vaticant II) it was some better but still not there. It is still based on works (plus faith) though some "Saints" and some "miracolous events" bit the dust its still a largely mysterical experience denomination which runs counter to Scripture; finally, the continuing child abuse drama and the cover-up associated with it by the bishops, arch-bishopsm cardinals and even the pope is beyond belief and shows where the heart of the Roman Chuirch is: power and greed. I do not regret my decision to leave and I know I am not the only one by far.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Apparently you're still OK with the whole ressurection 'miracle' thing.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  17. Timothy Rigney

    The seat is vacant. Not because they don't do the Mass in Latin. Please. Get a life. But because the current poser is guilty of serious crimes and has yet to be handed over to justice.

    But just because an organization has evil or sinful members in it does not make the organization as a whole evil or sinful.
    It's the Message that matters.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  18. KMW

    When will CNN write about Jews, Muslims and Protestants leaving their religion. There are over one billion Catholics and the number is growing. This negative reporting about the Roman Catholic Church is getting very very tiring.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      When will the Catholic cult turn over their pedophiles for prosecution?

      June 19, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • UncleM

      The corruption and child abuse cover-up is getting very tiring.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • jim

      Seeing as people are signed up as kids and there is no practical way of being removed from the list your numbers are crap.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  19. Cheryl Jefferies

    When are you going to report on THIS one, CNN?

    So...NBC doctors a tape months ago in the investigation phase of the Zimmerman case. FACT.


    MSNBC completely doctors and falsifies a tape of Mitt talking about something.

    And, laughs about it.

    And, some of you still watch NBC, MSNBC, ABC (they doctored a Zimmerman tape, too), CBS, CNN and the other lap-dogs. And, believe everything they spew.

    All the lies.

    All the distortions.

    All the doctored tapes.

    All the biased clips and articles.

    All the things they read...that are written by MediaMatters.

    No wonder King Liar has his Court of Fools.

    Anyone who listens to these propaganda machines are charter members of that poor, deluded group.

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

      Well...this is the belief blog...it's not likely to show up here.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  20. jon

    The Catholic church is just all about the MONEY. That is the only reason they want to grow their "flock." Nice!

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

      Hence the condemnation of birth control.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • recovering catholic

      Even my grandfather – who was born and raised in Italy about 70 kilometers from Rome – knew that the church was all about money. He refused to go, sparking hilarious confrontations with my "Born Again Catholic" grandmother, who was convinced he was going to hell.

      June 20, 2012 at 1:39 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.