Peter Steinfels on Catholic Attrition

Powerful stuff, and required reading, from Peter Steinfels over at Commonweal on the leave-taking of Catholics from their church. 

Why have I spent so much time on those of Catholic upbringing who have left the church? First, because the numbers are not trivial, to put it mildly. “Catholicism,” the Pew study found, “has lost more people to other religions or to no religion at all than any other single religious group.” In American Grace, their new study of religious polarization and pluralism, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell quote a member of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Acton, Massachusetts, where it is estimated that former Catholics make up nearly half the congregation. “If it weren’t for people leaving the Catholic Church,” he said, “the Episcopal Church would have died a long time ago in America.” (See William A. Galston, "Getting Along.")


Second, these numbers are not only not trivial—they are not just numbers. They are our siblings, our cousins, nieces and nephews, our friends, neighbors, classmates, and students, our children and grandchildren, even in some cases our parents.

Third, this pattern of loss may well be the wave of the future. Faltering Catholic religious education, declining Mass attendance rates among adolescents, drops in what younger people report about the importance of religion in their lives are the advance signs of generational loss. Unlike the familiar drift from faith of individuals, which may correct itself over the course of a life, the shift of a generation will be felt for decades. And from preboomers to millennials, each generation of young Americans has taken greater distance from organized religion.

Read the rest here.

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8 years 3 months ago
Like I said before, this is the death of liberal Catholicism, not of the Church. 

Traditional orders and parishes are thriving because they offer couter-cultural witness to Christ and the true reverential and sacramental nature of Catholicism.  Liberal parishes offer, in my experience, bad music, bad liturgy and a social message that is no different from the dying mainline protestant churches or any other form-less secular, liberal organization.

I suggest that liberal priests and parishes start following Benedict's lead if they want the young to be interested - we want to be the salt of the earth, the militant church - not some rehashed, warmed-over sentimental liberal dogma that dominats our increasingly dysfunctional society at large.
8 years 3 months ago
I have been noticing this trend for quite some time.  And I see it within my extended family.  When I reflect on what factors are to blame I conclude:  ''All of the above.''  It's very complicated.  I also ask myself, ''Why do we even worry about it?''  Do we really care about the salvation of those souls?  Or is it something else? 

All have free will given by God to choose.  People are excercising that free will.  For those who choose to persevere in practicing the Catholic faith, which, I believe, is the faith and Church founded by Jesus Christ, our leaders should provide the best possible opportunities for worship, education, and outreach.  For those outside the fold, we must always invite, not coerce.  If, what Christ's Church offers is attractive, people will come.
Peter Lakeonovich
8 years 3 months ago

You are absolutely correct.

We know this about the Church from the Dogmatic Constitution on the the Church, Lumen Gentium:

"That that messianic people, although it does not actually include all men, and at times may look like a small flock, is nonetheless a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race. Established by Christ as a communion of life, charity and truth, it is also used by Him as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth."

Sometimes the Church (in this case the Church in the U.S.) will resemble a small flock because only a small flock has remained faithful. 

This does not mean we do not mourn the loss of our neighbors, but it does confirm that the need to stay faithful, to remain ready for our Master's return so that we may open the door when he knocks.

We have to forget all the psycho-babble mentioned in the article, and renew ourselves in Christ and make ourselves holy.
8 years 3 months ago
Comments like Mr. Joyce's attacking the "liberal" Catholics only serve to enhance the drift.
Mr. Steinfels has been a serious, informed.  and objective commentator on Church matters for many years and continues his excllent work at Fordham .
Fr. Martin does well to raise the issue that should be a matte rof deep concern across every level of the Church - an issue not susceptible to easy answers.
Thomas Piatak
8 years 3 months ago
Catechesis is vitally important.  Frankly, Catholic catechesis collapsed in this country in the '70s and '80s.  As a result, too many Catholics received a religious education that failed to impart even minimal knowledge of the Faith.

One area we see this is the ignorance of Catholic teaching on the Real Presence, as described in another recent post here.  This ties in with those leaving Catholicism for what they see as better worship, as noted in the Steinfels article.  It is to be expected that Protestant churches will often do a better job at imparting a sense of community in their worship; they have been focusing on that, and on preaching, since the Reformation.  However, none of those Protestant communities have the sacrifice of the Mass.  That difference used to make enormous difference to Catholics.  But how many of those Catholics leaving the Church for "better worship" elsewhere even know what the Mass is? 
Peter Lakeonovich
8 years 3 months ago

You would like to believe there are no easy answers, but Jesus, as we know from St. Thomas Aquinas, is absolute simplicity.

On the contrary, when Jesus tells us to give up everything and follow Him, there
is n?o??? ?????c?o?m?p?l?i?c?a?t?e?d? ?a?n?s?w?e?r?.
Eugene Pagano
8 years 3 months ago
Mr. Piatak,

A bit of a clarification from one who has left the Roman Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church.  We believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist.  Even if the RC Church does not believe that the Anglican/Episcopal Eucharist is valid, we do believe that it is as valid and effective a sacrifice and communion as is the RC Mass.
Stephen SCHEWE
8 years 3 months ago
One man’s answer to Father Martin’s question:  I stayed through the 1980s, as the Vatican began appointing more conservative bishops.  I stayed through the 1990s, as these new leaders began reversing the aggiornamento.  I stayed because of my parish, one of the largest and fastest growing in our city.  We had over five hundred key volunteers, a thriving social justice ministry, terrific formation for our young people, and a strong vision which we believed came from the Holy Spirit to follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.  With the support of the pastor, two of our parishioners founded an innovative program that trained lay preachers for our parish and for rural dioceses which were losing their clergy.  We sponsored a program for the development of lay leaders for the Church.  We thought of our parish as an island of peace, vibrancy, and stability in a growing sea of reaction.  I stayed through the Scandal, and for three years after our pastor retired, even after the new priest and his new staff began remaking our parish in the image of what he thought the bishop wanted.  I left at 49 after discerning that I needed to find a religious community where I didn’t leave every liturgy feeling angry, sad, or both.  The conservative Catholic leadership had become entrenched, and I believed it would continue to move the Church at every level towards reconciliation with groups like the unregenerate SSPX, and away from the promise of Vatican II.  Faced with questions about these changes, the new pastor of my parish actually encouraged people who weren’t content with “pray, pay, and obey” to leave.  He’s a good man whose highest value appears to be obedience.
With many friends still in the Catholic Church; I try to encourage the ones who stay, many of whom remain angry and despairing. I still appreciate much of what the Church offers to the world, including what the Jesuits offer through America Magazine.  Like Eugene, I’ve found a home for the past four years in the Episcopal Church.  While not a perfect church (we’re human, after all!), it offers a more inclusive “tent,” even with the conservative defections, albeit in a much smaller boat.  Last weekend, the Catholic archbishop in my city announced a consolidation to shrink the diocese from 213 parishes to 192, with 58 other parishes entering into clusters or targeted for future consolidation.   I look around at all the former Catholics who worship with me every Sunday (probably 40% of the congregation), and wonder what the Catholic Church would be like if there were even a few leaders like the ones appointed during the time of Archbishop Jadot to foster a full expression of what it means to be Catholic.
Michael Kelly
8 years 3 months ago
From "Confident Catholicism" by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.:
             I have been long of the opinion that the great aberrations of the world first begin in the turmoil in the minds of the intellectual and clerical dons. They have little to do initially with the condition of the world such aberrations seek to change in the name of a higher humanist good. In 1 Timothy 4, we read: “The Spirit distinctly says that in latter times some will turn away from the faith and will heed deceitful spirits and things taught by demons through plausible liars – men with seared consciences….” Our world often seems full of “plausible liars.” “Seared consciences” are in the daily news.
             The fact is, though, Catholicism is confident. It knows about sin and its effects, so it is not overly surprised to meet them, especially among its own. That is the whole point of redemption. But there is an order in things; they do fit together. Almost every day this becomes clearer. The suspicion that it might just be true is the real root of hatred for Catholicism in the modern world.
Ashley Green
8 years 3 months ago
I think part of the reason for the distressing rate of attrition among young Catholics has to do with some of the unintended consequences that resulted from Vatican II.  I believe that the Council itself, and the documents and pastoral direction that ensued from it, were holy and good.  However, one of the unintended messages that got passed down to the generations of Catholics who came of age in the aftermath of Vatican II was that there is nothing particulaly unique about being Catholic, nothing much of substance to diffeerentiate between Catholocism and most of the various Protestant denominations other than an elaborate history, tradition and organizational structure, to go along with a lot of archaic  doctrine, all of which a sincere Christian could do just as well without.  When I began teaching cathechism classes in 2002, the literature that I was given to use as a basis for catechesis was appallingly vague as to what Catholics believe and why they believe it.  It was mostly about teaching the children that being a nice person is better than being a not so nice person.  Given this environment, why should Catholic children choose to remain in the Church when they have been taught from the very beginning (whether tacitly or implicitly) that whether or not one remains Catholic is not particularly important so long as they are basically decent people?  Just in case there is any misunderstanding with what I have written, I understand that being good and decent to our fellow human beings is vitally important, but the call to holiness and Christian perfection is something infinitely deeper and more demanding than basic decency.
Peter Lakeonovich
8 years 3 months ago
Fr. Martin,

In answer to your question posed in your comments, here is why people are leaving, and here is real required reading (from Archbishop Chaput):

"If our people no longer know their faith, or its obligations of discipleship, or its call to mission - then we leaders, clergy, parents and teachers have no one to blame but ourselves. We need to confess that, and we need to fix it. For too many of us, Christianity is not a filial relationship with the living God, but a habit and an inheritance. We’ve become tepid in our beliefs and naive about the world.  We’ve lost our evangelical zeal. And we’ve failed in passing on our faith to the next generation."

"We need to really believe what we claim to believe. We need to stop calling ourselves “Catholic” if we don’t stand with the Church in her teachings – all of them.  But if we really are Catholic, or at least if we want to be, then we need to act like it with obedience and zeal and a fire for Jesus Christ in our hearts.  God gave us the faith in order to share it.  This takes courage. It takes a deliberate dismantling of our own vanity.  When we do that, the Church is strong. When we don’t, she grows weak. It’s that simple."
8 years 3 months ago
My experience with mass is consistent with what Brett Joyce says.  If you want to see who the mass caters to, look at all of the old people and women in the congregation.  Homilies, when they are given instead of pleas for money by guest speakers, are often poorly written and hard to follow.

Aside from my the fact that most chruch music performances are mediocre at best, most people do not sing in church.  Thus, since most of the congregation's part of the mass is now sung, most people barely participate in the mass.  How can you feel a part of something that you hardly participate in?
Thomas Piatak
8 years 3 months ago
Mr. Pagano,

This is from the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church:

From Article 28:  Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.

From Article 29:  The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.

From Article 31:  The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.

Of course, all of this is contrary to Catholic theology on the Mass and the Real Presence.  The early Anglicans denied the sacrificial nature of the Mass, which is one of the reasons Leo XIII declared Anglican orders to be null and void:

William Kurtz
8 years 3 months ago
I would recommend checking out the Oct. 17 Los Angeles Times article by Putnam and Campbell about how political posturing is a major reason why many young people are turning their backs on churches in general, not just the Catholic Church. The tone of many of our current crop of ayatollahs, er, bishops, seems to be one of raising their voices because people weren't listening to them. Is the answer to stock churches with Charles Coughlins, following the lead of bishops who envy James Dobson and confuse Limbaugh and Beck scripts with sermons? I doubt it.                       
Michael Cremin
8 years 3 months ago
I think people leave the church for a variety of reasons. First, as Professor Putnam noted in one of his previous books (Bowling Alone) Americans are less likely now than at any other time in our nation's history-and especially after the WWII generation-to belong to anything. There simply isn't enough time: longer working hours, longer commutes, two working parents, more television watching, etc. Our society has changed, and our uses of time have changed as well. Many members of my family, especially those with young families, tell me that on Sunday, they just want to relax. Bringing young children to mass-as I can attest!-is not in the least bit relaxing.

Likewise, in an age of instant gratification and almost measureless choices, people find mass boring. I'm not saying that it is boring, I am saying that-for people used to fiber optic internet connections, Facebook, Netflix movies playing on their phones, and 482 cable channels- sitting for 45 minutes and listening to mass is boring. The music is often dreadful. The preaching can be equally pointless. If you don't have some sort of emotional or spiritual connection to the's not a lot of fun.

Finally, being a Christian in general, and being a Catholic in particular, is hard. There are obligations, choices, responsibilities. People don't like that. Perhaps they never have, but as we enter into a 'post-Christian' society, the social pressure to uphold the moral tennets of Christianity have never been weaker. Why stress out about co-habitation if you can just say "I'm spiritual but not religious" and go about your business? Catholicism is easy to ignore because we are no longer emeshed in a Christian-dominated culture. Likewise, it's embarassing, with all of the negative press the Church gets (and generates herself) to tell people that you are Catholic. Nearly all of the people I work with are areligious liberals or people who have abandoned the Church for a variety of reasons. It's easier to keep quiet.

I left the Church for 18 years, and had to (re)educate myself about what it's all about. I love going to mass, and I am raising my children to be Catholic, but I am in a minority among my family and friends.
8 years 3 months ago
Father, I think it merely takes time for these changes to turn around the deconstruction of Catholicism that has happened over the past 40+ years.  Time to learn the basics of the mass, to rebuild the foundations.

Benedict's trip to the UK is a perfect example of a secular, watered-down Christianity suddenly being struck by the grace of a traditional mass, or of Eucharistic adoration or of the counter-cultural teaching of the Church.  Everyone expected disaster - but what occurred was an awakening to things we had forgotten but we know are true.  This is happening slowly in the US, as well.
8 years 3 months ago
I know little about Evangelical Christianity, but I do know from engaging some of them in online discussions over the years that they are very well versed in their religion.  Take them on and you'll lose every time. 

Like Michael Reilly, I constructively left the church and returned only after educating myself on the underlying explanations of Her teachings.  Part of the secularization of our society includes an emphasis on education, replacing religion with science.  CCD classes and homilies, in my experience, teach virtually nothing about why we believe, let alone what we believe; how the church is much more than a visit to church every Sunday; how what the Church teaches improves society; what distinguishes us from the Protestants; why we are the One True Church. 

Secular tolerance, touchy-feely goodness, and secular education will win out every time over a "because we say so" message seemingly mean, intolerant, unreasonable, and too hard, by an uninformed flock.  But before they can become educated, they have to be drawn back into the pews.  This Christmas might be a good time to start.
Vince Killoran
8 years 3 months ago
Wow-some very long replies!  Brevity can be virtuous, you know.

I'm struck by how many people don't really engage in Steinfels' argument or the social science evidence out their. Did you actually read the essay? There's a tendency on this blog to go straight to the personal anecdote/opinion. This doesn't make for a high quality blog.
Peter Lakeonovich
8 years 3 months ago

What can do any of the arguments or social science evidence have to offer?

As if the Church could offer the faithful anything but Jesus Christ.
Vince Killoran
8 years 3 months ago
How about the actual reason(s) people are leaving?  Instead of a rush to judgement, let's take a look at the evidence.
Vince Killoran
8 years 3 months ago
I'm happy to read and engaged in these blogs (I fear I do so far too much-are we becoming "blog hogs"?).

In a way you more than the others do reply to Steinfels' piece, but an overly long entry that references the Spartans and James Joyce seems pretty tangential to the Pew research and Steinfels' points, especially about the role of the hierarchy and importance of Hispanic Catholics.  I think a lot of bloggers to this site read a few key words to an entry and they go off on their own soap box (or pulpit, whatever).
8 years 3 months ago
Dear Vince -

A couple of points:

1.  Perhaps we should let Pew conduct a survey on what constitutes a ''high quality'' blog.  Anecdotally, I would say that the more comments, the higher the quality.  Another (Tim Reidy?) might say that the more conversions to paying subscribers, the higher the quality.  So, as they say, physician, heal thyself.

2.  I read the whole piece.  It started with an anecdote from the writer that was remarkably close to the survey's results.  It ended with conclusions from the author (after the plugs to his book) that were consistent with many of the conclusions drawn from the commenters here.  Moreover, the sampling errors that he spent time writing about, were errors in which the attrition rate was underestimated, which is kind of ironic, because most of the anecdotal comments here that you find so invaluable expressed a keen awareness, despite the lack of a statistically significant sample size, of the attrition issue.

3.  Attrition is probably THE most important issue in the Church today.  It warrants strong opinions and long commentary.  The writer of the present piece calls for more representative samples of peoples' issues with the Church.  Well, they're here. Perhaps the Church should spend some time reading the blogs instead of relying on Pew surveys where response bias is built-in to the process.

William Lindsey
8 years 3 months ago
Walter, you say, "I am no theologian; I stand to be corrected on that, but if that is so, in suddenly redefining marriage that way the church would not be true to itself, not in the Old Testament, Christ's own words in the New, nor the subsequent tradition of the church."

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I have the impression that the patriarchs of the Old Testament, who are held up to us as forefathers in our faith journey, commonly had multiple wives.  They practiced polygamy.  Read the Old Testament accounts of the life of Abraham, for instance, and this is clear.

And I may also be mistaken in this regard, but I have the additional impression that Jesus never said a word about homosexuality - and certainly not about gay marriage.

So I wonder how we can take the testimony of the Old Testament that marriage was, for a considerable period of Old Testament history, a polygamous arrangement in which one man had several wives, and the silence of Jesus, and move to your conclusion that there's some unambiguous defintion of marriage in our scriptures that the church would be rejecting if it "redefined marriage."

The biblical evidence seems to point very strongly in the opposite direction.
Vince Killoran
8 years 3 months ago
Steinfels' piece focuses on the place of both the bishops and Hispanics, something I didn't think anyone pursued in the blog.

Not all comments are created equally.  Many of the ones that appear above are fly-by-the-seat-of-the pants observations.  More like scoldings, really, from Catholics who don't seem particularly worried about attrition.  Rather, they embrace the notion of a smaller Church marked by ultramontanism.

I'd love to get more information from you on how the Pew research is biased, but only if it is a scholarly critique not whining about how polls in general are bogus or that the Pew people have it in for Catholics. In any case, I am intrigued by your suggestions that the hierarchy take up the reading of blogs to obtain the "sensus fidelium."  First stop: the National Catholic Reporter website!
8 years 3 months ago
Vince -

I'm sure you would find an audience here to discuss the bishops' role and Catholic Hispanics had you posted a comment on that section of the piece.  Father Martin tickles us with his selected sections, hoping that some will delve deeper; but many of us here, I presume, are busy people who don't always have the time to read a lengthy piece, but feel compelled to take on the topic as summarized by Father Martin (Note that the bishops and Hispanics weren't, but could have been, mentioned by Father).  It's understandable, and given that the whole article is not cut and pasted within the blog, I would even say expected.

That attrition is not a problem is a fair position in response to the post; no less worthy than any other comment.  Indeed, maybe that's the bishops' position!

I'm just a guy who sits in the pew every Sunday, wondering where all the men and younger people are, trying to figure out how to make mass relevant and appealing to my squirming kids, so I'm probably not your best opponent in a scholarly discussion on polling. 

I'm sure there's plenty of information online to support my claim that any poll that asks subjective questions is subject to poll-creator bias, or at the very least, a series of answers that are not true reflections of the poll-takers' states of mind.  For example, I think most people would be reluctant to admit that one of the reasons they don't go to mass is because it's BORING and that "they get nothing out of it." Too pedestrian a response for a Pew survey.  They'll feel better about themselves if they give more learned, PC answers, such as their disagreement with how the Church treats women, its teaching on homosexuality, or the supposed Papal infallability.  "How often do you go to church" is a great question to which a bunch of bogus answers from Catholic guilt or distorted memory will be given.

You can laugh about blogs as a source of Catholic sentiment, but the Internet is the only place where one can have true anonymity and not have to worry about how others will expect him to answer or how people will judge him.
Jeffrey Connors
8 years 3 months ago
I agree with Vince.  Most of the comments being entered here aren't dealing with the research being cited by Steinfels.

It seems to me that two of the points being made by Steinfels that are most relevant to the discussion here are these:

1) Very few, whether now unaffiliated or now Protestant, complained that Catholicism had drifted too far from traditional practices.


2) Between 1969 and 1973 ... the percentage of Americans believing that premarital sex was “not wrong” doubled from just 24 percent to 47 percent—an astonishing change in four years—and then continued rising to 62 percent in 1982.

My catechesis spanned both the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar periods.  My own personal opinion is that it wasn't Vatican II that fractured the Church, but Humanae Vitae in '68.  Not so much for the birth control issue in and of itself, but for what it did to the laity's perception of the hierarchy.

I'm inclined to agree with what the author John Casey maintained in his recent book After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.  Before 1968, most Catholics were afraid that they would go to Hell if they didn't do what the hierarchy told them to do... By the end of 1972, nobody was afraid of going to Hell at all.


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