March 25, 2011


Why people leave the Church

We don’t understand how anyone can stop being a Catholic. How can they give up the sacraments, especially the Eucharist? Don’t they realize what we Catholics have, and how important our faith is for the salvation of our souls?

Nevertheless, Catholics leave the Church every day. We are all familiar with the surveys that show that former Catholics would comprise the second largest religious denomination if they all banded together.

Some in the secular media seem to take special delight in saying that someone is a former Catholic, was raised as a Catholic or is a “recovering Catholic.” In our materialistic and secularist society, some try and paint a picture that it’s just not “cool” to be a Catholic.

Why do people leave the Church? We should know the answer to that question so we can do something about it.

A few years ago, Larry Bossidy addressed a meeting of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. A former chief executive officer of a major corporation, he said that if businesses were losing customers at the rate the Church is losing members, those companies would be conducting exit interviews to find out why.

That intrigued Jesuit Father William J. Byron. He is a former president of The Catholic University of America, and currently a professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He also writes a column for Catholic News Service that is syndicated to diocesan newspapers.

Father Byron wrote about the exit interview idea in one of his columns, and was inundated with responses from readers. He found it interesting that, since the column appears only in diocesan newspapers, respondents who claimed to have left the Church were still keeping in touch.

He then wrote about this experience for America magazine. The magazine reported that it received an unusually high number of replies to the article, particularly on its website. All this indicates that many former Catholics would like to tell us why they are no longer Catholics.

However, exit interviews can go only so far. Just as businesses can’t always get customers back as a result of such interviews, neither can the Catholic Church get those people back who absolutely disagree with what the Church teaches or who are too upset with what has happened in the Church recently.

The way that the Church handled the clergy sex abuse scandal is an example of the latter. Many of those who responded to Father Byron or to America pointed to that scandal as the reason they left.

Another Jesuit priest, Father Raymond G. Helmick, said in his recently published book Living Catholic Faith in a Contentious Age that this crisis is “of Reformation size. It touches the fundamentals of order and authority in the Church.”

We believe that, under Pope Benedict XVI’s leadership, the Church is continuing to address this issue effectively, but we understand that many people doubt that. Nevertheless, we believe that people who are leaving the Church because of the human failings of some of its priests and bishops are only hurting themselves.

Respondents also said they left because of the perceived sexism they find in the Church since women cannot be priests. The fact that women hold more leadership positions in the Church than they do in businesses or the professions apparently doesn’t count.

The lack of married priests is a different matter. The Church could change this discipline, but it is not inclined to do so. But is this important enough to leave the Church for? Apparently, it is for some people.

Other responses show how profoundly the entertainment media have influenced some people, who leave because they think the Church is too narrow minded when it forbids sexual activity to anyone but married couples. Some people disagree with the Church about premarital sex and homosexual activity.

It has been only during recent generations that large numbers of people disagreed with the Church on these issues. We must continue to try and show these people how the Church’s teachings on these matters are designed to help us lead truly happy lives.

Then there are the life issues. People say they leave the Church because of its teachings about abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research.

In many cases, though, people just slowly drift away from the Church. We can do something about them. We must encourage them to return.

And we must continue to pray for all who have left the Church, and give them positive examples, filled with hope and vitality, of what it means to be a Catholic in today’s world.

—John F. Fink

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