Why They Left: Exit interviews shed light on empty pews
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 non-churchgoing 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, posting notices in parish bulletins and asking pastors for contact information. 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-ended 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 woman 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 about poor music at Mass.
The scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of minors by clergy was mentioned often. One man said that what did it for him was “the bishop’s refusal to list pedophile priests on the diocesan Web site and his non-support of the effort to lift the statute of limitations for bringing sexual abuses cases forward in the courts.”
To Prompt a Return
We also asked, “Are there any changes your parish might make that would prompt you to return?” Respondents clearly welcomed the opportunity to express their opinions. We found no easily discernible trend in their replies, but their generally positive tone suggests the wisdom of finding ways for all Catholics to post their views somehow “on the record,” with an assurance that they will be heard. Here are just a few of the many replies this question drew:
“Be accepting of divorced and remarried congregants.”
“I’m looking for more spiritual guidance and a longer sermon.”
“Return to a more consultative and transparent approach.”
“Change the liberal-progressive political slant to a more conservative, work-ethic atmosphere.”
“Make the homilies more relevant; eliminate the extreme conservative haranguing.”
“Provide childcare and a children’s ministry.”
“Give us an outwardly loving, kind, Christian Catholic priest/pastor.”
Our question about whether or not their pastor was “approachable or welcoming” drew a number of warm and positive answers. About half of the respondents, however, were not enthusiastically supportive of their pastors. Where pastors and parishes were named, we gave that information to the bishop and recommended that he deal with the issues privately and avoid unnecessary public embarrassment when he goes public with our report. Words like “arrogant,” “distant,” “aloof” and “insensitive” appeared often enough to suggest that attention must be paid to evidence of “clericalism” in the diocese.
Most respondents were positive or neutral in response to our question about the approachability of parish staff. There were sufficient reports of bad experiences over the parish telephone, however, to suggest that attention should be paid to courtesy and improved “customer relations.”
By a margin of about two to one, respondents reported that they did at one time consider themselves to be part of a parish community. On the negative side, here are two interesting replies elicited by this question:
“As much as I wanted to get involved and expand my faith, there were no clear avenues to do that. So it was just a place to attend Mass. And because attending Mass was a guilt-ridden obligation, I was always alone in a crowd where I knew no one and no one knew me.”
“I did not experience community in the sense that I knew people just from going to church. The ones I knew, I knew them outside of church. No one misses the fact that we stopped going. No one has called from the parish, even though we were regular attendees and envelope users!”
We asked, “Are there any religious beliefs or practices specific to the Catholic Church that trouble you? Here is a sampling of what we heard:
“Yes, the church’s view on gays, same-sex marriage, women as priests and priests not marrying, to name a few.”
“Pedophile priests and brothers.”
“Hypocrisy, history of discrimination against women, anti-gay stance, unwelcoming attitude.”
“The stance on divorce.”
“Bishops covering up child abuse and transferring offending priests to other parishes.”
“Yes, I cannot comprehend transubstantiation, and I cannot see why we have to confess our sins to a priest.” (Many others mentioned confession.)
“I think the church should focus its efforts on poverty, war and healthcare.”
“It’s all about money; that’s why we left” (from a married couple, age 44).
“The primary reason why I left the church is that divorced and remarried persons are not welcome; they are viewed as adulterous sinners.”
“Overemphasis on abortion.” (This was mentioned by many, who think abortion is wrong but overemphasized to the exclusion of other social concerns.)
“I feel the church should stay out of politics; it should certainly not threaten politicians.”
“The Catholic Church as a whole is ritualistic and cold. I do not get the sense of family and community that I get from another faith community. I get the feeling that God is judgmental and harsh, unforgiving and unyielding.”
“I am troubled by what appears to be the Catholic Church’s seemingly insatiable demand for money. You can attend Mass every week, but if you are not putting money in your envelope, you can lose your ‘in parish’ status and even your ability to receive letters that are needed to be godparents, etc.”
“It’s all about the priests. The leadership of the church does not seem to understand that we do not care about priests. They live an upper-middle-class lifestyle and are completely disconnected from reality. And yet they think they can preach to us. End the clericalism and people like me may listen to the church again.” (Others mentioned priestly “pomposity,” “distance,” “aloofness.”)
It should be noted that most respondents said no to our question about any “bad experiences” they may have had with any person officially associated with the church. Mention was made, however, of bad experiences in the confessional; refusals by parish staff to permit eulogies at funerals; denial of the privilege of being a godparent at a relative’s baptism; verbal, emotional and physical abuse in Catholic elementary school; denial of permission for a religiously mixed marriage in the parish church. In one case the parish priest “refused to go to the cemetery to bury my 9-year-old son because it was not a Catholic cemetery.” Several respondents noted that they were victims of sexual abuse by clergy.
In the course of replying to this question about “bad experiences,” a 78-year-old man said something that could serve as a guideline for the bishop in reacting to this survey. This man wrote, “Ask a question of any priest and you get a rule; you don’t get a ‘let’s sit down and talk about it’ response.” It is our hope that there will be more sitting down and talking things over in the Diocese of Trenton, and perhaps in other dioceses, as a result of this survey experience.
The Bishop’s Ear
We asked, “If you could communicate directly with the bishop, what would you like to say?” This drew a few barbs but a great deal of very helpful commentary as well. The responses may prompt the bishop to find a forum for direct one-on-one future communication between parishioners and himself. Here is a very brief sampling of what people would like to tell their bishop:
“The church should not condemn gays, but embrace them as God’s people. The church should also recognize women as equals.”
“Please find a way not to exclude me from the Catholic community” (divorced woman, 56).
“Remember that the church is not just the religious leaders but the people who sit in the pews each week. Ask more questions; listen to them, and involve them in decision-making.”
“Petition the church to expand its view on divorce” (divorced and remarried woman, 59).
“Young mothers like me need help. Have women, as well as men, as greeters at Mass; make childcare available; encourage the formation of mothers’ groups; have the homilies speak to me” (married white woman, 29, now attending a Baptist church).
“Do something about confession; have communal penance services.”
“If the Catholic Church does not change its archaic views on women, it is going to become a religion that survives on the fringe of an open-minded, progressive society.”
“Instead of making every Mass a form of humiliation for Catholics who cannot receive Communion, do something, like a private blessing at Communion time, to include everyone” (divorced and remarried woman, 64).
“I would advise the bishop to make training in public speaking mandatory for every priest. They should also be trained in how to relate their homilies to the people and inspire them.”
“You have my sympathies, Bishop; I couldn’t imagine stepping into a management situation with such glaring human resources weaknesses. Perhaps you should have your priests live together in regional centers so that they could be psychologically healthier as a result of more human interaction. Also, do something about the quality of Catholic education.”
Our survey instrument gave respondents an opportunity to “break anonymity,” if they wished, and give their contact information so that someone from the diocese could be in touch with them if they would like that to happen. To his credit, Bishop O’Connell has indicated that he personally will respond to the 25 persons who indicated that they would like to be contacted.
The vast majority of respondents said no to our question about whether they considered themselves now to be members of another faith community. Those who do consider themselves affiliated with another church spanned a wide range, including Buddhist and Jewish, on the fringe, and Lutheran, Episcopal, Baptist and Presbyterian, clustered in the middle.
There is much to be learned from all this. Considering that these responses come, by definition, from a disaffected group, it is noteworthy that their tone is overwhelmingly positive and that the respondents appreciated the opportunity to express themselves. Some of their recommendations will surely have a positive impact on diocesan life. Not surprisingly, the church’s refusal to ordain women, to allow priests to marry, to recognize same-sex marriage and to admit divorced and remarried persons to reception of the Eucharist surfaced, as did contraception and a host of questions associated with the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
Throughout our involvement with this project, we thought of the “negotiable” and “non-negotiable” issues that would be raised. All the concerns expressed will, we hope, be received with pastoral understanding. Diocesan officials are taking notice of topics that call for better explanation. As they do, we hope that they will bear in mind the comment cited by one man, who said that “every time you ask a question, you get a rule.” It is not necessary to repeat the rules; it is time to offer more reasoned arguments and better pastoral explanations of points of Catholic doctrine and practice that appear to be troubling to people in the diocese. Notable among these are the exclusion of women from ordination, the perception that persons of homosexual orientation are unwelcome in the church, the complexity of the annulment process and the barring of divorced and remarried persons from the sacraments.
In need of immediate attention is a fresh explanation of the nature of the Eucharist. Underlying all the opinions expressed by the respondents to this survey is the fact that they are, for the most part, willing to separate themselves from the celebration and reception of the Eucharist. This calls for a creative liturgical, pastoral, doctrinal and practical response. An explanation of the “Sunday obligation” as an obligation to give thanks—through sacrament and sacrifice—rather than simply to be present in church at Mass on Sunday might be helpful.
The quality of preaching needs attention, as does the image of clergy who—fairly or unfairly—are all too often seen as arrogant, distant, unavailable and uncaring. Not unrelated to the homily issue is the quality of the sound systems in churches and the difficulty congregations have understanding foreign-born clergy, often with heavy accents.
We have included only a sampling of responses in this article, but we have given Bishop O’Connell our full report and recommendations. He also has what we call a “data dump”—the complete set of all the questionnaires—which will take him on an unedited excursion through the minds of those whose bodies are no longer occupying space in the pews on Sundays.