Why They Left: Exit Interviews from the Diocese of Trenton

In January 2011, William Byron, S.J., wrote a much discussed article for America making the case for "exit interviews" of lapsed Catholics. Bishop David O'Connell of the Diocese of Trenton was intrigued by the idea, and commissioned Fr. Byron and Charles Zech of Villanova University to conduct just such a study of former parishioners of the Trenton diocese. The results, which were announced last week at the Catholic University of America, will be published in the April 30 issue of America. Here we present an advanced look at the article:

It is no secret that increasing numbers of baptized Catholics in the United States never or rarely attend Sunday Mass. In the late fall of 2011, we asked some of them a simple question: Why? At the request of Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., of Trenton, N.J., we surveyed nearly 300 nonchurchgoing Catholics in his diocese.


We got in touch with registered parishioners who are no longer showing up by placing articles in the secular and diocesan press, as well as notices in parish bulletins and requests for contact information from pastors. The survey was also offered in Spanish, sent to all the parishes with Spanish-language  populations and advertised in a Spanish-language newspaper.

Through these methods, we established confidential contact with Catholics ranging in age from 16 to 90, with a mean and median age of 53. Ninety-five percent of the respondents were White/Caucasian; 2.1 percent were Hispanic; and 63 percent were female. Through Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management, each participant received by regular mail or e-mail a brief set of questions inviting open-end responses. This article highlights those responses.

An overwhelming number of respondents told us they had left both their parish and the church. About a quarter said they had separated themselves from the parish, but still considered themselves to be Catholic. One respondent wrote: “I separated my family from the Catholic Church and turned to an alternate religion for a while and then returned knowing I had the right religion but the wrong people running it.” Several chose to specify that they separated themselves from “the hierarchy.”

A fair amount of ambivalence was exhibited in response to our question whether separation was a conscious decision or not. Relatively few indicated that they simply “drifted away.”

One 23-year-old female said, “I felt deceived and undervalued by the church. I didn’t understand certain things and found no mentors within the church. I just stopped going because my community of friends and family were no longer in the church.” Another woman wrote, “I tried different Catholic churches in the area because I just didn’t seem to be getting anything out of the Mass, especially the homily.” Another person said, “I stopped going regularly because the homilies were so empty. And whenever the church wanted to raise money, they dropped the homily and talked money.” There were many complaints about the quality of homilies as well as poor music at Mass.

Read the rest here.

Tim Reidy

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Jim McCrea
6 years 8 months ago
I went from being a Roman to American to parish-based Catholic and now am a very happy "Roaming" Catholic.  It's healthy not to be angry all the time about being subject to so much unmitigated narcissistic authoritarian clerical nonsense.
ed gleason
6 years 8 months ago
Greeters with smiles. Then, more Pastor Greeters with smiles.
Juan Lino
6 years 8 months ago
I'd like to read the full report and share it with my pastor.
Vince Killoran
6 years 8 months ago
David's wish for more quantative data isn't a bad one but this Villanova suvey was in fact"professional." It seems as if they conducted a qualitative survey and the coded the open-ended responses.
6 years 8 months ago
One outcome ought to be we ned less pastors who think they aare the voivce of God about everything in their local community.
This report should be read in all seminaries perhaps.
Amy Ho-Ohn
6 years 8 months ago
A good estimate of the survey's comprehensiveness and accuracy could be made by counting the number of respondents who said things like, "I stopped going to mass because there was snow in my driveway and I like reading the newspaper better than shoveling." 
William Atkinson
6 years 8 months ago
We did this years ago, during centennial celebrations, and post Vaticann II, predominently the answer was that the church was not up to date with their beliefs and faith (Theology) and that they were no longer community orientated, moving pastors and priests ever few years, no longer idenity with church, (not wearing clerics or habits), that church professionals did not want to identify with or as catholics,  even hiding churches away from and out of sight of community.  Bishops not outstanding in community, a lot of folks wondered why American church has not grown with population growth, in 1950 there were 306 diocese, today, population has quadrupled and yet whole areas of couintry still have same diocese, in reality there should be about 1500 diocese.   Its way time for church to grow, all of western united states dosn't even have a cardinal, catholic hospitals closing, catholic schools are still in decline, priesthood and convents are in total disarray,   This is primary area of needed growth, church seems to appear to be hanging on by a thread.   Bishops need to start ordaining priest, even if a few turn out to be bad apples.  Stop running scared and evangilise communities, permote catholism instead of hidding their faith under a rock.   Start teaching the ways of Jesus, and less old testament.    Catholics are Chistians not Jews.  Out with the old and in with the new.
Open the doors and let the people back in (all the peoples) remember Christ came for everybody, not just the elete.
Mike Evans
6 years 8 months ago
Perhaps this study will spark deeper analysis and further study as well as awareness among bishops of how critical each pastoral appointment can be. Somewhat disturbing is the average survey age of 53 while our pews seem to be empty of people from 15 to 40 yrs of age. Also unaddressed are the huge numbers of foreign born clergy from non-english speaking countries being used to bolster an enormous shortage of native born (male, celibate) clergy. Parish closings, school closings, lack of wide spread input into diocesan decisions all are problematic. Many parishes still do not have functioning Finance Committees or Pastoral Councils. And many of the church's operations remain cloaked in secrecy. It has been rumored that financial misconduct revelations will far exceed clergy abuse issues in the near future. And what of our very young? They seem to be absent in droves.
Richard Smith
6 years 8 months ago
I find this somewhat interesting - but, in the end, there's noting here many of us who stay have felt or thought at one time or another.  And, yet, we stay.  What I would find far more interesting is why those who choose to stay do so.
Katherine McEwen
6 years 8 months ago

I'm glad the bishop of Trenton had the guts to commission (or allow) a survey and exit interviews of why people leave the church. I'm currently an Episcopalian who formally left the Church 18 years ago, although I've been a member of my current parish for 20 years. As I've reflected on why I left, I've come up with the following reasons:
1) I spiritually starved to death in the last Catholic parish I belonged to;
2) I never felt that I was valued as a whole human being; non-Catholic Christians seem to be better at affirming wholeness;
3) experience of an inappropriate relationship with a priest.
However, I am still intrigued with Catholicism. Even though I've left the formal Church, I still value the richness of what Catholic Christianity offers.
And something else the Catholic Church needs to really observe and study is its influence on the rest of Christianity right now. My parish offers centering prayer, for instance. Programs like Cursillo have become staples (or were) in other denominations. Cross-pollination in liturgical music-Richard Proulx (now deceased) comes to mind. The whole broad areas of spirituality, social action and outreach, and liturgy. Catholicism is having such an impact, both negatively AND positively.
Also, the Church REALLY needs to examine its whole clerical structure-from who's eligible for ordination, to selection and education of seminarians, to formation of the whole man (absolutely integrating his sexuality into his being), to cleaning up the Augean stables of sexual abuse. Realistically, it'll be awhile before married men and women are ordained priests.
Lastly, even though the Church seems to be in such crisis over sexual abuse world wide, how does this current crisis fit into the long history of the Church? Is this exposure of root rot another episode in the cycle of health, decline into corruption and reinvigoration through the Holy Spirit AND people inspired by the Holy Spirit to conversion and healing? Where are the historians in all this? We need their input right about now to perhaps give some balance to the current crisis.

Bill Taylor
6 years 8 months ago
As a retired priest, I have to struggle with my own feelings of cynicism and alienation.  While my generation felt called to be the servants of the people of God, the younger generation of priests seems to be more preoccupation with liturgical celebration and their status as priests.  For instance, a former priest just came to my diocese to give a day of reflection on Social Justice.  He has vast experience in the field and huge wisdom to share.  But the younger Anglo priests boycotted him because he was a former priest. 

For the last fory years, I have watched two popes dismantle Vatican II.  Somehow the current malaise in the Church is the fault of Vatican II, even though Pope John Paul made sure it did not flourish.  The Church we have is his church, and the Church of Benedict XVI. 

I attend Mass with the Folks very often.  Week after week, I watch a well-meaning priest with no language skills preside over the liturgy.  He is a kind, pleasant man.  But his sermon is a waste of time and he has no skill as a celebrant.  This particular Sunday, the choir was also way off its stride.  Usually they rescue what is an uninspiring experience, but the whole Mass experience left me with a stomach ache.   I found myself why the people were coming back.  The secret, of course, is the Eucharist.  But it seems a sin to provide the people with a less than mediocre spiritual experience.  

The pastor, who is in charge of more than three thousand families, has so much on his mind he cannot even imagine how to make things better.   And so we lurch on to a spiritual death.  
Jim McCrea
6 years 8 months ago
David @ #14:  "It will pass, -"  You are most likely correct.

That is what the unelected unrepresentative powers-that-be are counting on.  Those remaining more and more tend to be the "go along and get along" types of Catholics.  They don't get too upset about too much so long as it doesn't impact them directly and personally.

Show up weekly, get the ticket punched, and then rush out of the parking lot for brunch.  The rest of the time they make "prudential" judgements about things such as birth control, abortion, homosexuality, etc.

Until and unless these people come to a point that they can no longer "take it," they will prove their Ontological Betters correct.

The 11th commandment is this:  Thou Shalt NOT Fund Fools and Fiends.  If you do you deserve what you get.
Michael Barberi
6 years 8 months ago
My wife went to Catholic elementary and high school. She is an angel sent down from heaven for me. If I ask her why she does not go to church, she gives me an earfull....the church is run by old celibate men who have no idea about marriage  and sex yet they tell us what is moral and immoral. Homilies are dry and repetitive and lack any sense of direction for Catholics to grow spiritually. Most messages are abstract. They lack the particular to deal with moral dilemma and conflict that is caused by the many teachings of the Church. The divorced and remarried (50% of Catholics) are disenfrancized. Seropositive couples cannot use a condom and a woman whose life is threatened by another pregnancy cannot take the pill or be sterilized. Couples who have fertility problems cannot bear children through in vitro fertilization, and a pregnant mother whose life is threatened by the fetus cannot be saved by an abortion even if the fetus cannot survive under any circumstances. Rome is walled off from reality. This is just for starters...and she is correct.

If the hierarchy was serious about the opinons and beliefs of its membership, the USCCB should sponsor a national survey conducted by an independent organization such as Gallup in colaboration with a cross section of Catholic theological experts. In the 1970s-early 1980s a large regional survey was conducted, I believe by a priest in the mid-west. The conclusions were presented to the USCCB but the bishops did nothing because this would have meant change. 

There reason we have not seen such surveys is because the Church does not want to know the truth and the negative. In the end, they will know the solution but will not act because to act will mean changes in ecclesiology. The church is caught in a distorted narrative that blinds them to the truth. This does not meant that the church does not do good things. It means that the cancer affecting its body and head will get worse if nothing is done about it.

Father Taylor said it best when he rightly asserted that JP II and Benedict XVI dismantled Vatican II. Ever since the publication of Humanae Vitae the Church has been profoundly divided and in a crisis of truth. 

Jim McCrea
6 years 8 months ago
" - all of western united states dosn't even have a cardinal -"

Oh, did Roger Mahony die?

I think you really meant a cardinal in an active ordinary position.


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