Catholic Deconversions: More Topical Than Ever

Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked in his famous prison letters about his gratitude for life among prisoners who were not pious, noting his surprise at what life was like with them. In a very different context, I too have found compelling the "desacralized" spaces of secular culture. In rock culture, especially in the ecologies of bars or rock halls, musicians professional and amateur, recording studios, roadies, and fans, there is a range of spiritual identifications, but a substantial amount of independence from received religious traditions. This culture has been a school for "deconversion," a process that is now the focus of emerging scholarship in practical theology. Deconversion is the poor cousin to conversion. Whereas most of our theological attention and evangelical effort aims at conversion, scholars are beginning to suggest that the ways in which people leave faith/religious/spiritual practices behind is as worthy of study as the ways in which a new faith/religion/spirituality is taken up. Exit can be its own theological phenomenon.

In my most recent book, Witness to Dispossession, my final chapter argues that a critical awareness of how power functions in Catholicism in particular and in Christianity in general is more than enough warrant for the commencement of deconversion, and for theological study of this process through which so many people pass. All of this is on my mind as I talk with students and colleagues about how they are dealing with the Catholic implosion with which we are faced. Two recent blog posts have been particularly striking to me. Speaking to Catholic deconversions are: Kate Henley Averett at the "From the Pews in the Back" blog; and Jessica Coblentz at her personal blog. This kind of material is going to make many Catholics uncomfortable. But as John Barbour argued in an early work in this genre (Versions of Deconversion, University Press of Virginia, 1994), Christian theology stands in need of deconversion narratives, not only as mournful signposts, but as material for helping Christianity take the full measure of itself.


Tom Beaudoin

New York City, United States

Cross-posted to Rock and Theology

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Beth Cioffoletti
8 years ago
btw, Julius, I have identified myself as a zen-catholic for some time now.
Kate Smith
8 years ago
I sat with my bishop about six years ago when he said to me that it would be okay to leave the Catholic church.   He brought it up, that it might be a way to healing.
I was sexually assaulted by a Jesuit priest - and then a decade later I had nightmares about going to mass, about something else being in the cup at communion.   Being a smart girl with a ton of academic achievements, this way my brain was working was very hard to handle.   It was way too ridiculous.    It really wrecked my sense of being in the world and it forever changed me.
And my bishop said it would be okay to leave, bringing that up himself.
I knew that would be too hard for me - a decision like that.  So, I did what is okay for my Catholic generation and still call myself Catholic but don't often step inside a church building.  
I also know the final chapter isn't written yet - and I like that.   I spend a lot of time in a very rural place, and across a dirt road there is a weather beaten lovely statue of Mary that someone placed in a field there many years ago and didnt take when they left.  So when I go out for walks with my German shepherd we stop on the dirt road and talk to Mary.... 
Henry Vincent
8 years ago

I agree that ''way too many Catholics are born into and generally go through the motions...'' But that discussion would take us far away from the article at hand but you can send me an e-mail if you want to have it (just click on my name and my e-mail appears.)

But that's not the reason I am writing. The reason I am writing is because your last sentence - ''There are entirely too many former Catholics to give strength to the claim the Catholicism is The Way. It is A way, but far from The way.'' - is misleading.

It is Christ that claimed to be the Way and the Church simply claims that She is His body. This claim is not based on the number of adherents but on both historical and theological factors.

I am sure you will agree that it's important to be as clear and precise as possible when describing the claims another makes.


Jim McCrea
8 years ago
It’s interesting that the term “deconversion” is used.
That presumes that there was a conversion to begin with.   Way too many Catholics are born into and generally go through the motions of cultural, comfortable churchianity. 
Once they think they have a “crisis of faith” they are really having a moment of truth in their lives.  Some can persevere and find a way of accommodating whatever they had to whatever they can find.  Some even convert to Christianity in its Catholic form.  Others discover religious honesty for the first time in their live and begin the journey are a lot of wasted years.
There are entirely too many former Catholics to give strength to the claim the Catholicism is The Way.  It is A way, but far from The way.
Jim McCrea
8 years ago
That s/b " - AFTER a lot of wasted years."
Julius-Kei Kato
8 years ago
Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Tom. It's fascinating. I guess I'll make this one of my research projects in the near future.
Thinking about this matter in a very preliminary way, I cannot help but associate it with some forms of hybridity. Hybridity is sometimes used to describe experiences in which someone acquires a new identity due to certain circumstances (being uprooted and moving to a new place, immigration, becoming part of a new culture, etc.). After having used the category of hybridity in my graduate work, I've come to the conclusion that the hybridity that I've just described above means, on the one hand, that one acquires a new identity; on the other hand, it doesn't mean that one loses one's older identity completely. Hence, we have the phenomenon of hyphenated identities such as Japanese-American in the cultural field. I think that something similar happens in the faith identity field. Nowadays, we find people who are identifying themselves as Buddhist-Christian (cf. e.g. Paul Knitter's ''without Buddha I could not be Christian). 
I understand the hurt and anger that can lead someone to ''deconvert'' (in this case) from Catholicism. Seen in another way, however, there is a sense that one can never totally lose one's Catholicism even if one wants to walk away from the very dysfunctional institution that purports to represent it, or one may acquire a new faith identity or even an identity which is not anymore characterized by faith. Since a faith identity such as Catholicism is arguably larger than the narrow parameters that certain guardians of orthodoxy make it to be, I'm hoping that it is big enough to hold such hybrid identities.  Just a thought ...
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years ago
Was it D. Bonhoeffer who said that the "religon" of the future would be finding the sacred in the secular?  I will have to look up the particular passage and report back.
8 years ago
Yes, sadly I read Kate Averett and her comments blog and hear all them leaving in tears. I'M too old to leave [to whom would we go Lord?]  My fear is that with so many of the bright lights leaving will I and mine be left with those 'small ones'  who truely wish for 'a smaller purer Church'. Luckily the smaller/purer kind are a very small number in my inner city parish but to be left with only them and some wonderful babuskas is not my idea of a joyful ending.  Keep the faith's not give or take  
James Lindsay
8 years ago
My observations is that deconversion shows there was no real converstion in the first place or that it is a temporary phenomenon that lasts only until one has a child and realizes that the Church can be helpful in forming that child's conscience. Some return to the Church while others find another denomination that fits their needs. Quite a few members of the Episcopal Church are dissatisfied former Catholics.
Henry Vincent
8 years ago
It saddened me so much to read this post, not just because they’ve temporarily left, but because they have been cheated out of the Beauty and Joy of following Christ by whoever taught them the Faith. The more I meet other Catholics, the more I am amazed and grateful to the Franciscan priest who taught me the Faith. Moreover, Christ has called me to follow Him in an ecclesial lay movement in the Church (Communion and Liberation) that has built upon and enhanced the foundation that Christ gave me through the priest who taught me.

And so, based on my experience and what I have been taught and studied on my own, at heart, Catholic Christianity isn’t things to do, or laws to honor, but a Presence to be amazed by, a Presence to think about, a Presence you can talk to, a Presence to beg: a Presence. So, it’s a You that dominates, not things!

Think back to the experience that the Apostles had: the apostles were struck and attracted by a You that was present, by a You that ate and drank with them, by a You whose hair did things because there was wind, by a You that they put on the cross. It’s this You which is the meaning of history and the reason for the Church.

So why do I stay in the Church? Because that You comes to me through the flesh of those people – some that I don’t even like!

I pray that Kate and all my brothers in sisters in Christ will experience the joy and freedom that I have experienced since my conversion.


8 years ago
Tom -

Is ''deconversion'' just a fancy name for people leaving the Church, or does it refer to a special form of leaving, e.g., finding a different faith or leaving after having previously converted? It's not clear in your post.

I'm fascinated by all of the talk on this blog suggesting that the Church should change based upon an increasingly secular society and political pressure. I just don't get how a morality given by God could be subject to the whims of the masses. If we are talking about moral relativism, aren't we then, by definition, talking about something that is not Catholic or even Christian?


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