The number of people who have left the Catholic church is huge.
We all have heard stories about why people leave. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has put hard numbers on the anecdotal evidence: One out of every 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a separate denomination, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States, after Catholics and Baptists. One of three people who were raised Catholic no longer identifies as Catholic.
Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why. But the U.S. bishops have never devoted any time at their national meetings to discussing the exodus. Nor have they spent a dime trying to find out why it is happening.
Thankfully, although the U.S. bishops have not supported research on people who have left the church, the Pew Center has.
Why do people leave the Catholic church to become Protestant? Liberal Catholics will tell you that Catholics are leaving because they disagree with the church’s teaching on birth control, women priests, divorce, the bishops’ interference in American politics, etc. Conservatives blame Vatican II, liberal priests and nuns, a permissive culture and the church’s social justice agenda.
There are many lessons that we can learn from the Pew data, but I will focus on only three.
First, those who are leaving the church for Protestant churches are more interested in spiritual nourishment than doctrinal issues. Tinkering with the wording of the creed at Mass is not going to help. No one except the Vatican and the bishops cares whether Jesus is “one in being” with the Father or “consubstantial” with the Father. That the hierarchy thinks this is important shows how out of it they are.
Second, thanks to Pope Pius XII, Catholic scripture scholars have had decades to produce the best thinking on scripture in the world. That Catholics are leaving to join evangelical churches because of the church teaching on the Bible is a disgrace. Too few homilists explain the scriptures to their people. Few Catholics read the Bible.
The church needs a massive Bible education program. The church needs to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is more important than memorizing the catechism. If we could get Catholics to read the Sunday scripture readings each week before they come to Mass, it would be revolutionary. If you do not read and pray the scriptures, you are not an adult Christian. Catholics who become evangelicals understand this.
Finally, the Pew data shows that two-thirds of Catholics who become Protestants do so before they reach the age of 24. The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence over the complaints of fuddy-duddies and rubrical purists.
- Thomas Reese
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The hidden exodus: Catholics becoming Protestants (NCR Online)
khrawling (Flickr CC 2.0)