Lost Sheep

A religious seeker who found her home in the Catholic Church, Flannery OConnor once noted that stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements, and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.

For American Catholics these days, the stories told by the statistics often can be troubling. A recent and much-publicized study by the respected Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, titled U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, has reported that fully one-third of native-born American Catholics have left the church of their baptism. While the percentage of Catholics in the United States has remained steady in recent decades at close to 25 percent (and the total number of Catholics has soared from 45.6 million in 1965 to 64.4 million in 2007), these numbers have been buttressed by continuing immigration from Latin American and other Catholic populations. For example, Latinos now represent 45 percent of all U.S. Catholics aged 18 to 29 years. Ten percent of Americans are former Catholics, a population that by itself could make up one of the largest religious denominations in the United States. The church continues to receive new members, long a source of intellectual ferment and cultural vitality, but those raised in another denomination or religion number only 2.6 percent of current Catholics. For reasons not always clear, the church in the United States is suffering an exodus of the faithful unprecedented in its history.


Though much of the mainstream media coverage of the report focused on Catholic losses, the Pew survey reported similarly shocking statistics for Protestant denominations, particularly for the mainline Protestant churches once dominant in American religious life. If one includes switching among different Protestant denominations, around 44 percent of adult Americans now belong to a church different from the one in which they were raised. Half of all Protestants in the United States now identify themselves as evangelical.

In one sense, this religious mobility is a typical expression of our nations religious culture; Americans, particularly Protestants, have always been more accepting of fluidity among Christian denominations than other, more religiously homogenous nations. In the case of current and former Catholics, this phenomenon also has much to do with the continuing entrance of Catholics into the American cultural and economic mainstream. The heirs of an immigrant church have moved in the past half-century out of insular cultural enclaves and achieved financial and cultural acceptance in American society. This trend has been noted by pollsters and cultural critics for years, with its ultimate ramifications unclear but still significant. Suddenly Catholicism in the United States finds itself assailed not by the bigotries of ages past but by the indifference of our current milieu. Have we reached the point where American Catholics are just like everybody else, where Catholicism is nothing more than a high church option in a broad spectrum of Christian religious choices?

While many former Catholics have since found a home in another denomination or religion, around half now describe themselves as unaffiliated, which suggests the troubling thought that a primary reason for their exodus might not have been anger at the institutional church or the oft-cited desire for a more personal or emotional experience of faith, but simple apathy. (Most unaffiliated respondents chose not to describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, but said their religious affiliation was nothing in particular.) A number of Catholics, it seems, have left not because they do not believe, but because they dont care.

If we believe that statistics do not define Christian life, but stories do, what is to be done? It will be difficult if not impossible to find consensus on the proper steps needed to confront these losses, but at a minimum it is clear that methods of catechesis need to be rethought. The dismaying evidence that one out of three Catholics no longer participates in the sacramental life of the church is proof enough of catechetical failure in the past two generations. Church leaders should also re-evaluate programs for adult faith formation, heeding the call of John Paul II for a new evangelization of formerly Christian but increasingly secularized cultures. When one out of every four Americans between 18 and 29 says he or she has no religious affiliation at all, it is clear that the de-Christianization so visible in recent decades in Western Europe is also quietly taking place in the United States. These troubling numbers also suggest that the church in the United States needs to focus less on internecine squabbles over Catholic identity and more on outreach and concern for the many who have simply walked away. Which one of you, Jesus asks in Lk 15:4, having 100 sheep, and having lost one of them, does not leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost one until he finds it?

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Matthew Dunn
10 years 9 months ago
It would have been more appropriate to end the article with Our Lord's question in Luke 18:8: "However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" Apparently, not.
10 years 9 months ago
After reading this editorial I am stunned that the Catholic Church still does not understand the reasons for their faithful leaving their church. The faithful in the pews continue to leave because of the continued hypocrisy, lies, and deceit that are woven into the institutional church. As a victim and survivor of clergy sexual abuse I am offended at the suggestion that Catholics who have left the church "don't care". The institutional church still does not comprehend the pain that it has caused so many countless members of their flock. I assure you people want to come back, it pains them to be seperated from the faith of their childhood. But many have come to the conclusion that their church does not live the Gospels of Jesus Christ, and yet you continue to scorn people who search for a personal relationship with Christ away from the institutional church. The moral hypocrisy is too much for many to take anymore. Start living the Gospel that you preach and your faithful will come back in droves.
10 years 9 months ago
How do we find those lost sheep? Are we so busy examining our crooks that we don’t see them and what they need? And how many more sheep do we lose before we figure out what to do and how to do it? I teach theology at the high school level. Many days, I feel like a voice in the wilderness. While waiting for others to finish a morality test, a young woman pulled out her Teen Vogue magazine and began to gush over pictures of “hot” guys. The culture of immorality speaks loudly to our young people. So what do we do about it? In your editorial, you remarked “a number of Catholics, it seems, have left not because they do not believe, but because they don’t care.” In an educational setting, students stop caring when teachers are ineffective. The blank stares come as the teacher drones on and on and on and on and then, yes, they DO stop caring. A de-Christianized culture drives us to be even more effective than we have been in the past. We cannot presume that the Eucharist will magically speak for itself and that pabulum from the pulpit will satisfy. In 1982, the US bishops called for a renewal of homiletics. It is almost painful to read the document “Fulfilled in Your Hearing”. What happened? Where did that vision go? What can preaching be? Where do we find an effective answer? Preaching is connection: Spirit to spirit, heart to heart, life experience to life experience. Jesus preached the message of the gospel in the words of the people. Stories. Parables. Healings. Miracles. Chastisements. The look in his eyes. The touch in his hands. The cadence of his voice. Whatever it took to get the message across, that’s what he did. Preaching is broader than a ten-minute homily at a Sunday liturgy. It can make us laugh. Preaching is an encounter with God. It can make us cry. Preaching touches people all the way to their toes. It can make us dance. Preaching is solidarity. On this ragtag journey together, preaching can be a small act of kindness or a fiery maelstrom of words. Preaching binds us together in community. Preacher-ing comes in all shapes and sizes, from the exuberant “amen” of the first communicant to the arthritic ancient who struggles to raise an arm during the Our Father. The majority of adult education comes through preaching. Though the laity do speak to each other through example, week after week in the Sunday liturgy, we ask - is there a message from the Lord? If not, where should we go? If we graded the average Catholic Sunday homily, it would generously receive a B- to C-. People flock to hear the occasional preacher who preaches a B+. “Wow, isn’t he good?” Then along comes the fundamentalist preacher with a feel good message that stirs their socks and feeds their souls and why should they go back to eating round wafers with no salt when they can get saltines with flavor? People in our Church are frustrated. All they ask for is a ten-minute word that inspires and music that hums in their heads on Monday. Can’t we at least do that? We as a Church can do better. Whatever it takes to put the message of the gospel into the words of the people, we should do it. The distant bleating of the sheep must drive us to do so.
Pam Coster
10 years 9 months ago
We must live into the documents of the Church and make adult formation primary in our parishes. It is our most critical task. Many people are searching but are not finding their spiritual home in Catholic parishes. As the liturgy is the primary means of reaching adults, the seminaries have the responsibility to prepare priests who can preach effectively and work collaboratively with the laity to provide deeper formation experiences for those who seek them.
10 years 9 months ago
On the basis of stories being more relevant than statistics I would offer my own story. I am well aware of the many arguments against my current situation and I have no problem with what I consider rejection on the grounds of 'not following the rules'. I became a Catholic aged 19 from a nominal Church of England background. I fell in love with Catholicism (rather than God), its rites, rituals and community. I needed that feeling of belonging. After three years I was allowed to train as a priest (that should never have been allowed, really, at so tender a point of growth) and was in formation for three years. I left because I was struggling so much interiorly, particularly with my sexuality. In the ensuing years (I am now approaching 62) I remained a practising Catholic on and off (mostly on) and have worked for a Catholic organisation for the last 23 years. I am no longer a Catholic and ceased practising some five years ago, and these are the (my) reasons, as faulty as they undoubtedly are: As a homosexual I am no longer prepared to put up with being described as "intrinsically disordered" even with the present Pope's attachment of "but deeply respected". I know and know of good and holy priests who are gay and who hide the fact because of the homophobia exhibited by the heirarchical church. I cannot begin to describe the immense sadness I have about this. I have encountered a degree of hypocricy which is mind numbing ... where people are 'ennobled' with Catholic honours in return for money (Simony?) and welcomed into the Church despite being clearly in favour of, and without public renunciation of abortion and illegal war (Blair). I have witnessed and experienced a local (UK) Church heirarchy which is utterly uncaring with (innocent) priests and lay people falsely accused of abusing others and one which is prepared to completely ignore human, pastoral care of these people. Indeed, the UK heirarchy resemble more the CEOs of large companies than those charged with the care of souls. I have lost a great deal. I know my reasons can be refuted and argued against but they express a real story ... not a statistic.
Keith West
10 years 9 months ago
Reluctantly I joined the statistics referenced in this article & became one of the ex-Catholics who left the Church to find something that was missing. I am an adult convert, baptized over 30 years ago, married to a cradle Catholic & attempting to raise 17-year old daughters who attended parochial schools K-9. We attended Mass weekly at the Cathedral & while I loved the liturgy my wife & daughter behaved like little kids, impatient with the sermons, oblivious to the sacraments & in general not getting anything out of the service. When a crises with our daughter lead us to question everything in our lives we did the predictable thing & turned to God for help. We desperately needed spiritual healing & help but for our family the weekly mass was a desert wasteland of foreign priests who whose accents were incomprehensible or a rote sermon that did not speak to our situation or a plea for money or anything but what we needed. Despite the mandate to preach the Gospel we rarely heard any sermon that evenly vaguely connected to the readings & if it did then it was completely disconnected from our lives. I knew we needed something but whatever it was could not be found in our beautiful Cathedral. Leaving behind a long history – my first confession, our wedding, my daughter’s baptism & middle school – I searched my soul for answers. My sister had attended a non-denominational church 25 miles from our house a few years ago. We had gone with her once & I was put off by what I termed “Christianity-lite”. What was their stance on abortion? How about pre-marital sex? Sin? Redemption? All of the big questions seemed to be glossed over & replaced by a feel-good message. I was not impressed although my wife & daughter loved it. We had to go somewhere so I decided we would take a chance & return to this church. If it didn’t work out we would continue to look until we found something. That was over a year ago. I don’t remember exactly what was said but something spoke to my heart & to my wife & daughter. It was not a new-age feel good message but the word of God, directed at our present-day circumstances. I’m not sure how this is happening but every Sunday for over a year when the senior pastor speaks he has something to say directly to the situation that we are in at that exact moment. The only explanation I can come up with is that he is preaching the Gospel & it is something that is always relevant, always current, always meaningful & something we always need to hear. My best friend visited recently & spoke of her parents living in a Catholic retirement home – part assisted living & part nursing home – in Philadelphia. They have daily rosary services, stations of the Cross & of course daily Mass. It sounded like heaven on earth for older Catholics. I truly miss the Cathedral, the liturgy, the Mass & the sacraments but I am being fed spiritually at this new church. Maybe one day we will return to the Cathedral but for now we are getting what we need for our souls at a church I used to call “Christianity-lite”. Maybe even a “lite” version of the Gospel is better than empty words & rituals. I miss the Church but they don’t speak to my situation & they certainly don’t speak to the youth. My daughter has gone down some difficult roads in the past 2 years but she actually likes attending the youth service at our new church! Through the music, the youth ministers & through the timeless message of Jesus & His love they are reaching the young kids in amazing numbers. They do not bring judgment but rather unconditional love. It brings tears to my eyes when I see the teenagers singing “church” songs or I see the young men & women of Buckhead raising their hands & singing in church. It gives me hope that God is very much alive & His work is being done by people outside of the Catholic Church. “But what if the salt has lost its flavor?” The Catholic must answer that question if it is to stop the loss of it
10 years 9 months ago
LOST SHEEP, MORE DEADLY SINS, ACCOUNTABILITY AND TRANSPARENCY? One of the most glaring and dissonant notes about the institutional Roman Catholic Church's report released on Friday, March 7, as "part of an annual review the American bishops commissioned in 2002 as the abuse crisis consumed the church," is that as an organization it still persists in its opposition to any changes in the civil statutes that would attempt to hold all sexual predators of our children responsible for their actions not just its own clergymen. The main reason given by state Catholic Conferences is that it amounts to "Catholic bashing." Does anyone wonder, then, as to the reasons for the exodus of believers? Now another Vatican official has put his foot in his mouth in an example of the tried and true policy, "Do as I say not as I do." This time it is one Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, who said in an interview published Sunday by the Vatican's daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, that "Church authorities had reacted with 'rigorous measures' to child abuse scandals within the clergy, but he also claimed that the issue had been excessively emphasized by the media." Really? Monsignor says so therefore it must be true? In the United States,Canada, Ireland, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, etc. etc., etc? A case in point is the recent withdrawal of Maryland HB 858 by its primary sponsor Delegate Eric Bromwell was done under extreme pressure by groups adamantly opposed to legislation whose time has come. is a point in fact. There is a need to change Maryland's inadequate childhood sexual abuse statutes for the protection of everyone. It is as simple and as profound as that. It is a glaring need, one that should be obvious to all those concerned with the welfare and protection of children. Maryland's archaic civil statutes have been among the most ineffective in the nation, allowing little time for civil action in older cases. The history of enabling in regard to known sexual predators is appalling, unconscionable and immoral. It points to the fact that church leadership failed to even address its sexual abuse problem until decades of cover-up were first exposed in the Archdiocese of Boston, ground zero for the Catholic Church in the United States. Boston Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney, an exemplary product of at least sixteen years of catholic school education, ordered the release of all records and files on credibly accused pedophile priests in Boston early on while pastors in churches across the United States were being told not to worry because their diocese had no such problem. This is tragic and it speaks to the skewered value we as a society place on children, especially those victims of childhood sexual abuse. As members of a community of believers, the people of God - We say we are concerned with the rights of the unborn. We say we are concerned with the trafficking of persons. We say we are concerned about the protection of the human rights of immigrants, legal or illegal. But while we may take the moral high ground on these issues, many of us ignore the victims of childhood sexual abuse who are right in front of us and instead talk about greedy lawyers, complain about how unfair it is to hold individuals accountable for their past sins and crimes, make inflammatory statements about the anti-catholic attitudes of anyone who would suggest accountability and the bias of just about every newspaper in the country, calling down God's eternal wrath on them from time to time. None of this does much to address the problem. In fact, statements made by church leadership in Maryland that HB 858 would have unfairly punished the Catholic Church by forcing it to put millions of dollars toward litigation while hampering its ability to do charitable work is patently untrue and no documentary evidence has been produced to support such am outrageous claim. What can be documente
10 years 9 months ago
I read the article and all the posted comments. In my mind the key lies in challenging people with the tough teachings of Jesus. We have become too afraid of turning people off. The bishops are attempting to get back to the source--Jesus Christ, but I'm not sure if their proposed catechetical framework will accomplish that aim. The clearest indication of the disease lies in a lack of sacramental life. For many the encounter with Christ isn't happening. The blame is always easier to lay upon the institution than the individual, but how is the individual preparing to receive the sacraments? What is the preparation for Mass like? How is the individual's prayer life? There have been many danger signs throughout the 20th century but looming largest is the continued dissent from Humanae Vitae. On this 40th anniversary of a very controversial encyclical I believe the Church should feed its sheep with this truth. There were many who abandoned Jesus' difficult words (e.g. John 6--the Eucharist) but He continued to proclaim the truth. I'm not concerned about the numbers as much as I am with the failure to challenge with God's Word. The job at hand is to call for repentance. We are sinners, we are all in need of Jesus' healing. It is not about the individual or the institution. All of us need to seek Jesus, determine His will, then pick up our cross and follow. BE NOT AFRAID.
10 years 9 months ago
I like the editors' closing remarks on 'internecine squabbles over Catholic identity'. Too many Catholic publications contain page after page of sarcastic tirades against Catholics who do not belong to the writer's own category (traditionalist or liberal or whatever). All very tiresome. Happily, 'America' provides welcome relief...
Andrew Russell
10 years 9 months ago
Re. “Lost Sheep” editorial 3-17-08 Who Lost the Sheep? Dear Editors, I was disappointed by your unfounded conclusion that the decline in religious participation represented in the Pew Forum study “is proof enough of catechetical failure in the past two generations.” (“Lost Sheep,” 3-17-08) It is a failure of leadership to assign blame instead of encouraging solutions. Moreover, it does not follow from the research that catechetical methods are to blame for the decline in religious participation. Evangelical and non-denominational communities, who are increasing their membership, are using methods developed in Catholic catechetical programs such as the RCIA and youth ministry. What these communities do differently is outreach, evangelization, and mystagogy. The decline in participation in mainstream churches and ecclesial communities is a cultural phenomenon brought on by many factors. The approach that John Paul II suggested was a new evangelization, not a new catechesis. Your admonition against internecine squabbles over Catholic identity should have been reflected in a reluctance to assign blame, and accuracy in analyzing the study. Your unfounded prejudice against catechesis of the past two generations is unjust. Andrew J. Russell Director of Religious Education St. Mary and St. Joseph Parishes Appleton Wisconsin
10 years 9 months ago
I am a cradle Catholic, raised with 12 years of Catholic school education, having worked in the church as a liturgist and musician for 19 years. I now work in worship and music ministries in the large Presbyterian church near my home, and have worked here 12 years. I am embarrassed to say that the Presbyterians - who hired and accepted me as Catholic - had to show me my own spiritual isolation and ignorance before I could clearly see my own quiet -- and erroneous -- belief that I somehow was more graced because of the denomination of my faith. They taught me to be a better Catholic, because they required of me an emotional and spiritual honesty and vulnerability that my own church, while espousing, never really taught. They never asked me to change to their faith, but they expected me to live up to mine, and in the process, taught me to be willing to be challenged, engaged and loved. Because of them, my Catholic faith moved from my head to my heart - and that is when I began to see the heartache of our church. I believe that the Catholic church is losing its fire for Christ, replacing it with self-importance and increased legalism. It cannot talk openly and lovingly with its gay, or divorced, or mentally ill, or single-parent, or elderly, or even its merely bored members. It claims to accept the marginalized, but always, always with conditions. It refuses to enter into true and balanced communication with other Christian denominations, expecting them to admit to a deficiency of faith that cannot be proved. It spends its time defending itself instead of the Gospel, guarding its history and traditions, and calling that "keeping the faith" instead of what it really is - keeping the status quo. And there are enough Protestant denominations out there who have experienced the self-satisfied righteousness of the parishioner who is so comfortable being a Sunday Catholic they have no time or interest in being a daily Christian. I love what the Catholic church is based on - the scriptural depth and passion that gave rise to its beginnings and faith to its people. But I see that faith made more manifest now in the people who have left it. When I had major surgery last year, it was my Presbyterian friends who made dinners, picked up my workload and continued it for me, who visited me in the hospital and prayed with me at 5:00pm on the morning of the operation. Not one person in my own parish sent a card. When people in this Presbyterian church have family issues, there are counselors to help them. When they need help finding answers, the pastors guide them not only to scripture but to professionals who can walk alongside them. When this church started its capital campaign, it included in its plans the building of a haven for orphaned children in Rwanda, and is sending teachers to train staff there. When the teenagers of this church are ready to be confirmed, they also are ready to go on missions to Mexico, Guatamala, and South Africa. And when I as a Catholic married a Lutheran, it was this Presbyterian church that opened its doors to us, gave us premarital counseling that addressed the hard issues, prayed with us, and demanded that we declare and understand the solemnity of the vows we took. One of my three brothers is deeply committed to the Catholic church. Because of his commitment to the church, he boycotted the wedding and refuses to get to know my husband, who is a committed and caring Christian man, growing in faith every day. My brother will only accept the marriage if and when the Catholic church blesses it, will not acknowlege my married life, and yet, tells me he loves me. I believe he does, in fact. It is a conditional type of love, modeled to him from the pulpit, and he learned it very well indeed. The Catholic church has to get off the altar, out of the pews and into the world, not to reprimand it, or teach it or defend itself against it, but to engage it, challenge it, and embrace it. The Cathol
10 years 9 months ago
I don't have a big, long personal account to offer here -- although I easily could. I don't know what the answer is. I just want to note the divergence between all the Catholic Church's talk in the past 15-20 years about evangelization and how little of it the Church actually does. This has long puzzled me, because I have wanted to get involved in my diocese and my community. But announced efforts are dropped before going anywhere. My theory is that though the Church knows it should be doing evangelization, it is afraid that integrating new people into the mix will conflict with its desire to keep things under control: "Who are all these passionate new people who are so demanding?" I love the church and the pope, but I'm afraid that the desire of the hierarchy to keep everything buttoned down at all costs prevents them from really putting their heart and soul into evangelization, which clearly in this day and age will take new and innovative (if not radical) approaches to be successful. This is just one facet of what's clearly a very complicated and mult-faceted problem. I just wish the U.S. Church, and my own diocese of Springfield, Mass., would actually try to do something about the decline. Fallen away Catholics are indeed our lost sheep.
10 years 9 months ago
Lost Sheep reflects Bunker Mentality: I'm becoming more discouraged weekly as I continue to observe the drift in the editorial and article content of America. A glaring example is the editorial "Lost Sheep" which discusses the loss of Catholics from the church as reported by the Pew Forum. In my opinion, the author dismisses the story related to Catholics trumping this by highlighting similar issues within the Protestant faiths and, the vestiges of time (culture change) therefore presenting that today's Catholics are just like Protestants relative to their commitment to faith beliefs which he then defines as "indifferent". Additionally, the author suggests that Catholics who leave the church may not be angry at the institutional church but have become "apathetic". These premises suggest that the actions of the bishops, cardinals and popes have not caused the Diaspora of the laity but, is caused by the indifference in commitment and apathetic mentality of the laity (unsupported facts). As a lay person committed to my faith and a continuing practicing Catholic, I take umbrage with the author's premise. I have surveyed and confirmed with many lay catholics that the main causes of the hemorrhaging are the "heirarchy" that project that they are above moral, civil and ethical miss-deeds,committed to sustain their political prominence rather than to their vows to spread Chrit's message and serve all people. That the heirarchy rationalizes their actions as virtuous relative to protecting the "church' is in my mind, a Bunker Mentality, and to me is supported by the "bias" reflected by the author of "Lost Sheep". He dismisses the statistics and statements to tell a story. Unfortunately, not the "whole story'.
Nicholas Clifford
10 years 9 months ago
Even more troubling than the editorial itself are some of the comments that follow it. Will they be read by those who should be hearing such things? A friend -- a highly intelligent, thoughtful man -- died recently. He had been a lifelong Catholic until a few years ago, when he left the Church at the time the sex abuse scandal was beginning, and presumably because of it. Or better, perhaps, because of the failure of the Church's leadership to address the scandal honestly and take measures to prevent similar scandals in the future. Perhaps he, and the others like him, should have been imaginative enough to realize that the Church is not simply popes, cardinals, bishops, and others like them. History shows that the reality of what Christ founded often has to be discerned behind the protective smokescreens thrown up by the leaders (Dante, for one, was famously capable of doing this). But the reasons for the confusion are clear enough when popes, bishops, cardinals, diocesan newspapers, parish priests, and others all seem to maintain that the Church is the hierarchy, and that it is somehow exempt from the behaviours that the rest of us, who are sinners, must perpetually deal with. Is the Church really interested in evangelization, one of your readers asks? If we were, we -- hierarchs and laypeople alike -- would begin by addressing honestly our own failures, and the actions we have taken, from Rome down to the local parish, that drive people away and discourage their return.
10 years 7 months ago
Some people who are being considered lost sheep: have been raised in the church,yet failed to see the next step or Christianity in practice. If only communities would spend more time focusing on what values are said to be shared instead of belittling those who have trying to offer others the very best of themselves only to be brought face to face with criticism and gossip. The ones who spend time elsewhere will tell you that they chose to come to church because it is supposed to be a safe space where people can practice their faith in peace. When we lose sight of kindnesses in church communities, we end up apathetic and if religious values are not being practiced in a place that supposedly follows them, We chose to leave overcritical summertime christian communities. When they refuse to be open to the value they supposed profess, we keep on looking for that place that practices what they preach.


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