'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. MK

    "...began questioning elements of Catholicism"

    How can you not question them? They make no sense.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  2. Aezel

    They molested little kids and then tried to cover it up and allow it to continue. There is no "response" to that, what could it be? The only truly appropriate thing would be for the entire RCC to disband in shame and admit they are one of the most corrupt organizations to ever exist in the history of mankind.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Bob from Pittsburgh

      that is exactly when I stopped drinking the coolaid

      June 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • lori

      So many people focus on the sins and crimes of individuals. Many organizations have/had may individuals committing the same crimes and still cover it up. Teachers within public schools and teacher's unions have committed the same crimes continually. Check out http://loveourchildrenusa.wordpress.com/ for examples from recent years. Notice I didn't blame the whole public school system? The schools are trying to find a way to stop it. Teachers can't be alone with kids. Teachers can't hug a crying child for fear of accusation. In the Catholic Church there are regulations and rules and hoops to jump through just to volunteer to help at Bible Camp for a couple hours. I wish people would actually have to courage to find out what the true teachings of the Catholic Church were before they criticized the whole faith for the acts of individuals.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  3. KMW

    The Roman Catholic Church is here to stay (thank you Jesus) and I will remain a Catholic. No one forces you to be a Catholic so feel free to join one of the many Protestant religions. Good luck and be happy. We will not miss you.

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

      Have fun when the ship finally goes down – which is going to happen soon – VERY soon.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • BobZemko

      Do the pedophile clergymen say "Thank you, Jesus" before they touch little boys?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Joe

      That is exactly the WRONG message to deliver as a Catholic. Many conservatives (well all people actually) also make this huge error believing that their faith is the one true faith. I'm a Catholic but base my beliefs and actions not so much as the Church Incorporated but rather on what would Jesus do. I think even HE face palms daily thinking "you guys got it all wrong ... it's all very easy and I spelled it out for you". Bottom line, do you believe that Jesus was sent by god, do you believe his teachings. do you follow his examples? There is no "perfect" christian church ..you need to find one that fits your needs, be tolerant of people who believe otherwise and just try to be a good citizen of humanity...worthy of whatever awaits us after our time here on earth.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • KMW


      When will people start being tolerant of the Roman Catholic Church?

      June 19, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  4. Ian

    I don't believe in Jesus Christ, or God, or any of that mysticism. But, I have a burning desire to participate in a community that holds itself to the standards that Catholicism used to represent. A religion that preaches "tolerance" has no meaning, and is of no use. Islam is looking more and more appealing with the passage of time.

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

      So you admit that their "standards" were all made-up bull***t but somehow it was a good thing to abide by them anyway.

      You need a psychologist, not religion.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  5. lori

    I'm a practicing Catholic and not afraid to say so.If you really want to know what the beliefs of the Catholic faith are don't listen to the media. The website has excellent info. http://www.matthewkelly.org/be-the-difference/americas-rediscovering-catholicism

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

      Does it cover the BILLIONS of dollars the church has had to pay for sodomizing innocent children?

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

      We don't need to listen to the media. The OFFICIAL PUBLIC RECORDS, detailing the stories of the THOUSANDS of children who molested in this den of SATAN, speak for themselves.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • BobZemko

      Oh, please, cite MORE websites that will do my thinking for me, too !!!!!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • lori

      People are people. There are good and bad people in every group. Everyone has made good decisions and bad. We learn from the mistakes. People within the Catholic Church sinned and made mistakes in dealing with the sinners. Those same actions happen all the time in schools and other organizations. The crimes and wrong responses are not isolated to the Catholic Church. You also have to remember, many of these awful situations that have come to light happened during a time when society itself looked the other way. Society's view and reaction to these crimes have changed and so has the Church's. I teach religious ed and help at our local parish. There are more rules and guidelines and hoops everyone has to jump through nowadays in order to even volunteer. Now, stop focusing on the actions of individuals and have the courage to find out what the Catholic Church really teaches before you criticize it. You may be pleasantly surprised. Christ, Love, Acceptance, Charity.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • lori

      Bob, if you're willing to read one website for info are you not willing to read another? It's good to read both sides. You may realize you don't know everything you think you do. Are you afraid you may find something you agree with?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  6. We know the truth...

    Morality is doing what's right no matter what you're told...
    Religion is doing what you're told no matter what's right.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  7. SheilaKA

    It's so painful to see people lose their sense of belonging because of other people's failings. I was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran. Talk about laying on the guilt! I feel sorry for Martin Luther. He was REALLY hard on himself. I spent my college years not going to church much. At age 24 I was confirmed into the Catholic Church. I sought God and that is where I found my home. Contrary to what some of the people in this article experienced, I found Catholicism quite liberating. There are so many people who are raised Catholic and never had an opportunity to come to a mature, adult faith. They have only the immature view of their childhood; the basic instruction and a list of "rules". Before coming to the Catholic Church I spent a few years studying the history, theology and development of the Church. I am one of those people who has to know WHY intellectually before I can pledge my heart. Then there is prayer; you can't maintain in faith without daily time with God. As a Catholic, I feel the pain of the sins, mistakes, insensitivity and human stupidity that is part of the Church...but that is just it: human beings make up the body of the Faithful. We have to work to do better, but just because some people do terrible things does not diminish my love of Jesus and his Church. No, I'm not Mary's greatest devotee; I wasn't raised with that tradition. However, I understand her role and that of the community of saints. She is not God, nor are the Saints. Confession? Oh, I have a HARD time with that one...even with the nice name (Sacrament of Reconciliation). Seems it must be easier if you started doing it as a young child. Fortunately, neither of these things is a requisite for salvation. We have a lot of sacramentals...signs of faith like holy water, the stations of the cross, praying with a rosary, etc. While they enrich our tradition, they are not necessary for salvation. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. To have eternal life with Him, we need only accept his gift and, though we can never do it perfectly, let his Word work in our lives...

    June 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  8. mickey1313

    Theistic belief is counter to all forms of logic. I can't say with certainty that no al powerful being exists, but logic would dictate that it cared his we acted it would make direct contact. Why would an all powerful being (1) allow the pain sickness and disparity for good people. (2) care about worship, which seems megalomanic, and unnecessary. Live a good life, be kind and just and that should be enough. But theists don't think that being good is enough. They all say you will burn if you doing script christ, that is my problem with them

    June 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Bob from Pittsburgh

      I gave up my imaginary friend a long time ago,,

      June 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  9. Mark

    The Catholic church WANTS people out who don't march in time and toe the line. The conservative elements see this as a purification. Guess what? It's working. People are leaving in droves. Don't complain about what you set in motion, Opus Dei.

    I was a bit ahead of the curve, "dropping out" in about 1984. It took me years to figure out why. The ultimate reason was that the clergy is completely out of touch with the laity. How can they give any reasonable advice about marriage difficulties or child rearing when they are prohibited from doing these things?

    June 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  10. dowdotica

    i did my 12 step for recovering catholics. Here's where i wound up. no man or women should wear the cloth(s) of any one religion for as vast as the universe is God's many forms are so much more vast. one should walk God's earth humble, do unto others as you would have done to you. its all so simple, just be good to one another. tragically? the world hides behind religious cloth. touting the good word and yet on the same day they go to church they turn around and live a hypocritical life!

    June 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  11. MOJO


    The Catholic Church has already imploded. I guess all the $ paid out to the children who were molested by priests is taking its toll. To be a part of an organization that is notorious for aiding and abetting child molesters is a sin. To say that almighty God is behind this church is blasphemy. WAKE UP; the Catholic Church is the leader of false religion.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  12. The GOP need to pack up and leave

    Did anyone ever think that Jesus took an opportunity to become important and not just be a stonecutter like his dad?

    He and John the Baptist (if John the Baptist existed) were cousins. It's possible that Jesus was closer to John than he was to his own brothers and sisters (they're named in Mark). John was getting some local power by being a preacher out beyond the outskirts of the cities, and Jesus probably helped him. When John was killed, Jesus, by virtue of being his cousin, took over John's 'ministry.' He was suddenly important and people came to listen to him just like people do to any preacher today.

    Jesus preached against the Roman Empire, but he tried to do it in a way that wasn't going to get him killed. Then he started getting bolder. When he rode into Jerusalem on a white donkey? He was thumbing his nose at the Roman governors who would come riding into town on a white stallion. People were in on the 'let's all make fun of Rome' bandwagon which is why they threw palms in front of Jesus.

    Then, when the Romans got wind of this insulting behavior, they had to stop Jesus. Naturally, the local churches and synagogues wanted to stay in business and not have the Romans shut them down so they pretty much collaborated with the Romans. Jesus was caught and tried. He probably got 5 minutes before Pilate and was only one person in a log succession that day of people being tried in front of Pilate. Pilate was told that Jesus insulted the Romans, so he was crucified which was a favorite type of execution for the Romans.

    Then, his followers turned the small cult which is what his ministry was and blew it out of proportion because they hated Rome and wanted them gone.

    Religion is basically taking a story and turning it into some kind of legendary behemoth in order to gain power for whatever reason.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  13. "militant" catholics

    I agree that the church does a pretty poor job of teaching. My dad left the church because they used to do the whole thing in latin, except for the part about money, that was in english. And they posted the names of people that paid/didn't pay. Early catholic church didn't think people were smart enough to read the bible. they tied one to a post, but they didn't really think that people were smart enough to interpret it.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • "militant" catholics

      most of the new testament is letters to churches. so, even christ had problems with them.

      June 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  14. Squeezebox

    There's nothing in the Catholic religion forbidding you to have a personal relationship with Jesus. It's just that the church doesn't beat you over the head with it like the Protestants do. As far as the Bible is concerned, people are encouraged, but not required to read it for themselves. We do insist that people don't try to interpret it without help from the clergy. It's the interpretation of scripture that caused the schism in the first place.

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

      EXACTLY. Once people thought for themselves, everything just spun out of control, didn't it?

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

      That's rich, pedophile priests (knowingly transferred, time and time again) helping parishioners interpret the bible.

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

      Having clergy help explain the bible, doesn't preclude you from thinking for yourself, however to take it in context. The bible is a translation upon translations. A lot of changes were done to make it more artistically appealing. To really understand the bible, you need to understand it in a Historical context, And the mindsets of the time parts were expected to be written.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Angela Birch

      So it is fine to read the book but heaven help you if you dare think about it.. I don't believe I have ever heard a more cynical explaination of Catholicism than the the church doesn't object to their followers having a spiritual relationship with God.So what are the believers supposed to be worshipping, if not God? IT seems to me that the church wants believes to worship the church and it's intensly fallible clergy. The clergy will tell you how to think, will do your thinking for you. This association of fallible human beings, with their ever changing rules and beliefs has set itself up as an arbiter of morals and values despite a long long history of these same cynical men engaging in every thing from murder to incest to child abuse. These are the people that God has vouchsafed to arrange the intrepatation of the Bible?? People from the Borgias to the sellers of indulgenses to the enthusiastic 400 year reign of the Inquisition to the child abuse scandal, these are the people that Christ has chosen to intrpet the Bible? WOW!! I am so glad I don't believe.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  15. Patti

    The reason the Catholic church is able to stay in existence is because there are people still willing to support an organization that transfers pedophiles, is blatantly chauvinistic and despite hypocritical cries for religious freedom, wants to FORCE THEIR beliefs on everyone else. Leave the church so the pews are as empty and hollow as the souls of their leaders.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  16. Ricky

    I'm sure some of them are turning into a more backward mentality (born agains), but others are evolving and no longer believe in fairy tales.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  17. rosehips

    It's really quite easy to explain. You tried to indoctrinate me. You lied to me. You didn't like my questions. You don't let nuns get married. You don't let priests get married. You won't let me marry a non-Catholic in your church. You won't allow women to be priests. You don't allow birth control!

    Whoever would stay in a church like that has less tolerance than I.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  18. James

    why are people leaving? Because liberal think tanks are contnueing to take christ out of our everyday lives, and joke media sites continue to attack the catholic church and put seeds of doubt. go attack some other religion, maybe your ratings might actually go up.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Madtown

      Absolutely. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with people just thinking for themselves.

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

      Or maybe more people are thinking for themselves now.

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

      I'm sure that covering up pedophilia has nothing to do with it, either !!!!!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  19. Thomas Harrop

    If the Catholics want to be a church, that's fine. If they want to be a corporation and operate as a business, that's fine, too. Just let them start paying taxes like everyone else. They are tax exempt because they are a church. They are not supposed to be involved in our government. I hope someone will make them choose.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Mike

      For profit segments of any organization are required to pay taxes, even churches.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  20. bp

    The notion that faith in Christ is to be rewarded by an eternity of bliss, while a dependence upon reason, observation and experience merits everlasting pain, is too absurd for refutation, and can be relieved only by that unhappy mixture of insanity and ignorance, called "faith." – Robert Green Ingersoll

    June 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • blake

      The notion that Christianity is devoid of reason, observation, and experience is superficial and foolish. Many of the great scientists and intellects through the centuries have been devout Christians. Some of most stupid and lacking in character people I encounter are those that embrace a view of reality that rejects God.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:01 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.