Slowing the Exodus: Catholic leaders face challenges their predecessors could not fathom.

A national survey in 2008 by the Pew Forum got America’s Catholic clergy and lay leaders talking. It found that a third of Americans who were raised Catholic had left the church. One in 10 Americans was an ex-Catholic. Ex-Catholics outnumbered converts to Catholicism four to one.

In March 2009 the national American Religious Identification Survey found that between 1990 and 2008 the church’s flock fell from 26.2 percent to 25.1 percent of the total U.S. population, even though roughly half of all immigrants to the United States were Catholic.


The March 2008 Pew survey also found that only 41 percent of all Catholics attend Mass weekly; only 57 percent consider religion important in their lives; only 44 percent believe that abortion should be prohibited in most or all cases; and only 35 percent oppose the death penalty.

Ex-Catholics and lapsed Catholics are a twin reality that cannot be attributed simply to changes in American culture. Many Americans now favor self-styled “spirituality” over “religion.” Old, religion-rooted moral codes are often mocked or worse by the nation’s secular elites.

Still, from sea to shining sea, over the last few decades many Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal churches have boomed with new members, new ministries, new megachurches and new multimedia outlets that reach millions here and abroad.

Cathedral-building American Catholics used to know how to do all that, and more. Despite anti-Catholic laws and a hostile culture featuring Know Nothings, 19th- and early 20th-century Catholic leaders created America’s parish-anchored religious communities. They mastered their own faith-testing times by sympathetically and successively sharing in real-life struggles faced by immigrant, Mass-going Catholic masses, underpaid Catholic urban workers and emerging Catholic suburban middle-class families.

From scratch they built entire Catholic elementary school systems, high schools and universities. Like today’s Catholic leaders, they had their intermittent intramural squabbles over doctrine, politics, finances and ethnic identities; but in public, if not always in private, they normally sounded united on essentials and generally remained charitable toward one another.

Today’s American Catholic leaders, both clergy and lay, face challenges their earliest predecessors could not fathom. And for all the criticism Catholic bishops routinely receive, both just and unjust, most do their big executive jobs pretty well.

Still, today’s church is running on institutional fumes and atrophying affinities. No organization, sacred or otherwise, can stem or reverse decline if massive membership and loyalty losses go on for decades. Missing from church leaders’ diagnoses and responses to the crisis is any overarching empirical reality principle.

For instance, over 80 percent of young adult Catholics attend non-Catholic colleges and universities. There are more Catholic undergraduates at Philadelphia’s nonsectarian University of Pennsylvania, for example, than at most of Philadelphia’s Catholic colleges and universities.

So is each diocese rushing Catholic campus ministers to secular colleges and universities, where most college-age Catholics reside—robust outreach operations led by talented religious, bolstered by lay ministers and teeming with spiritual formation and service-learning activities that bring the pro-life, pro-family and pro-poor catechism to life for young adult Catholics? No.

Well, maybe an apostolic team from each of the 28 Jesuit universities is readying to jet in to each nearby secular school? Nope.

The hottest debates over Catholics and education are instead about how “Catholic” this or that Catholic college truly is and whether to allow pro-choice speakers on Catholic campuses.

A December 2008 Pew survey reported that Catholics, by more than three-to-one, think that “behaving like Jesus” and other “actions,” rather than just “relationship with Jesus” and other “beliefs,” determine “who obtains eternal life.”

Amen, I say. And faith-motivated actions, not beliefs or public battles over beliefs, will also determine whether, a generation hence, Catholics figure more or less prominently on the American religious landscape than they do today.

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Leonard Villa
9 years 9 months ago
Mr. Di Iulio gives assent to the following: A December 2008 Pew survey reported that Catholics, by more than three-to-one, think that “behaving like Jesus” and other “actions,” rather than just “relationship with Jesus” and other “beliefs,” determine “who obtains eternal life.” Part of the context of this statement was to pooh-pooh concerns of Catholics over the Catholicity of Catholic colleges. The implication is that if you are concerned about this and make an issue of things like the orthodoxy of Catholic colleges you are not behaving like Jesus. This is a false dichotomy. The only way a person can behave like Jesus is to have a relationship with Him because He gives the power to do so. Without Him the person can do nothing. Moreover the truth, hence the concern for orthodoxy, is the basis for all behavior like Jesus according to Jesus' own teaching. The notion/implication that you can act like Jesus without Jesus is a tenet of today's secular society, which rejects orthodox Christianity. Only a foolhardy person would base his/her eternity on a secular creed without reference to the Person of Jesus, His truth/commandments, and His Church.
Mary Ellen Carroll
9 years 9 months ago
One of the biggest tragedies is that we as a Church are doing precious little to help teens in high school grow in the understanding of their faith. Compared to main line Protestant Churches and mega churches who use many resources to keep their teens connected, we seem to be totally indifferent to our teens. This is the fault of parishes, bishops and parents who all think that teens can coast along on what they have been taught before Confirmation. As a Church we need to wake up and join the 21st century and help high school age teens know they are important enough to invest our resources in. Catholic schools are too expensive for the majority of families, parishes are where the money and resources need to go to reach the teens. We also need to spend money on the education of future youth ministers, catechists for teens and then paying them a decent living. This is expensive but the cost of not doing anything is one of the reasons why so many adult are uneducated in their faith and may, in part, explain the mass exodus. The time to act is now!
Christopher Mulcahy
9 years 9 months ago
I concur with Lucius and wish to add this: it is rare that I hear a sermon that conveys an urgency to comprehend the core doctrinal beliefs of the Catholic Church. "Hey, just love your neighbor and be nice. All are welcome. Let's not be judgmental. Look at it from your neighbor's point of view." All that other stuff is just angels dancing on the head of a pin, right? Sadly, our clergy are not convincing us that we are embarrassingly ignorant of our faith, or that we urgently need to learn why there is, for example, an essential difference between the Church's teaching on abortion and its teaching on capital punishment. Or that a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. Or that the Mass is . . .
Stephen Wilson
9 years 9 months ago
The responsibility to young adults is to bring them forward into a world that is much larger than the doctines and dogmas of their faith. Free choice of will requires the ability to discern those choices. Please don't confuse Catholic colleges and universities with seminaries. And, as Mary Carroll points out, too many Catholics fail their children at the point in life in which they need their guidance the most. I will forever be thankful for the sacrifices my parents made for my Catholic school education.
Jim McCrea
9 years 9 months ago
"Catholicism is engaged in a long, historical conversation, and we all are invited by Jesus to join that conversation. While participating in that conversation, we must understand the need for new knowledge, new insights, and new connections. It is not enough to conserve: non basta conservare." Adapted from an article (A core curriculum that works) by David O’Brien in Commonweal, 3/14/08 Catholic used to mean universal. Now it means a type of Christian institution that has become narrow in its thinking, closed to the Spirit, unable to recognize the richness of diversity or the beauty of creation. Catholic Christian is a type of Christian. Christianity is what we have in common with many other types of Christians. Catholic is only an adjective describing Christian. Roman Catholic (another defining adjective of Christian) many times refers to those Catholics stuck in old wineskins, in narrow vision and thinking. Catholic Christian in the original sense of the term is one who is ecumenical, open, all-embracing of race, of language, of new insights, of cultures (multi-dimensional).
9 years 9 months ago
That is some really powerful stuff my friend! And of course you could apply the same logic to the Priesthood. Instead of praying harder or blaming parents, the Church needs to face the reality and take some action, ANY ACTION!, to make progress. The answers are out there and we're neglecting our responsibility.
John Andersen
9 years 9 months ago
Peace and Good. Regarding our relationship with the Lord, and following His example: The Gospel for tomorrow, 8th May, begins 'Believe in God and believe also in me' (John 14:1) The Latin American Bishops' Document from Aparecida, in 2007, writes of five fundamental aspects in the process of the formation of missionary disciples (Christians)( No.278): . the personal encounter with Christ . conversion . discipleship, with sacramental life and permanent catechesis . communion and fraternal life . mission All begins, and depends, on our experiencing faith as a personal encounter with Christ.
9 years 9 months ago
I find some of the language used today by some of my fellow catholics bewildering; for example: "on our experiencing faith as a personal encounter with Christ." John Andersen, 5/7/09 above. Just what does he MEAN? Christ does not walk the earth today; how and where does this personal encounter occur? Is holy communion meant? or is it an encounter with a needy person one helps? And "The only way a person can behave like Jesus is to have a relationship with Him because He gives the power to do so." Lucius 5/1 Relationship? How? I agree with John Diiuli; faith motivated actions are important, not all the arguments about beliefs matter most.
Anne Bartol
9 years 9 months ago
Thank you SO MUCH for the article on the Catholic exodus. The statistics are very sobering why isn’t this at the top of the American bishops’ agenda? While attending a secular university in the ‘80s, I had access to a vibrant Catholic Student Center that expanded my faith and nurtured my vocation. At the same time, the attraction of the fundamentalist sects was strong, due to their well-organized and enthusiastic outreach. Tactics included students’ going door-to-door in the dorms, organization of small-group bible studies, charity work events and socials. Why couldn’t we Catholics share our treasures – most notably the Eucharist and commitment to the poor – utilizing the same tools and enthusiasm? I am sure that many people would be interested, if proper leadership, training, and moral support were provided. Anne Bartol, osc Langhorne, PA
daisy swadesh
9 years 9 months ago
One in three Americans raised Catholic have left the Church! The loss is devastating. Mainline Christian churches are doing poorly also, Fundamentalism calls people to not think, and science demands that we ignore anything that is not material reality. And so Christianity is in crisis. Many people are choosing churches for the community they provide because our extended families and local communities are weakened. Indeed, Catholic leaders are facing challenges their predecessors wouldn't be able to fathom. And so it's interesting that Catholics three to one think that behaving like Jesus is so important. And what DID Jesus do? 2000 years ago Judaism was in a not so different crisis. Jews had always maintained the purity of the faith by staying apart from their pagan neighbors. With the Roman invasion this was no longer possible. They were as exiles, living in their own land. The "globalization" of the Mediterranean by Roman culture led to syncretization of religions; Greek philosphy challanged the Jewish worldview. Judaism could no longer sustain itself by looking only to the past and Jewish sects were arguing divisively over how to remain faithful in the face of this. And what did Jesus do? He managed to remain faithful to all the truths of the past, and yet be prophetically faithful to the future. His hidden cross was in walking the NOW that connects the past and the future. I'm a convert from atheism (1969) and one of the things that still amazes me about Christianity is the seamless connection between the two faiths-and the rootedness of Christianity in the Old Testament. I know God will help us find again the eternal truths of the faith in this time of global crisis. That's why I'm not looking around for a new faith or startlingly new interpretations. The answers are already there-just as the Songs of the Suffering Servant were there for all to read, but only Jesus could bring them to life and reveal their hidden meaning. I pray that our religious leaders will stop letting the sheep stray; that they will pick up their cross and follow Jesus so that the faithful can follow-so we can find the way to sustain the past and yet be faithful to the future.
Bernard Campbell
9 years 4 months ago
A good article, because of the challenging data.  For almost forty years,  I served the deaf Catholic community, still do.  Many years ago, I said to an associate in this ministry that, "If we have 5 Catholic adults remaining of the 700+ Catholic students we instructed, I would consider that a miracle."  The reason for the lack of success was lack of family support and local community support.  Church is community first and doctrine second.  Both depend on each other, but community is first, "the greatest of these are love."  If the family (community) is limited in their practice of their faith, then the children will often reflect this deficiency.
The past success for the Church was based on ethnicity, another word for community.  As we all know "national parishes" are disappearing.  The leadership of the Church and the community relied tremendously on national heritage, e.g., St. Patrick's Day parade in NYC (Many who march or participate in the parade do not march into or participate in Church).  But the parade sure does give the impression that the Church is as strong as ever.
In a recent book I read, the author talked about Catholics who are members but refuse to be assimilated into the Church.  They could be compared to the person who subscribes to a magazine but does not read the magazine.  The question is not, "Why are Catholics not participating?"  But the more important question to examine is the serious lack of interest in the Church: "Why are people apathetic about their Church?"
Is this apathy attributed to the decline of Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, etc?  Or did the sudden departure of many people from the clerical state impact peoples' loyalty to the Church?  Has the mainstreaming of the Catholic community into the broader community resulted in this attitude of "so what?"
Today, it seems that being Catholic can be compared to the family that hangs an American flag outside the house.  Like the American flag, religion is on the outside but not inside the house.  Religion in the lives of many people, at times can be compared to the role of a Christmas ornament on a tree.  it adds beauty, butt eventually religion like the ornament is put into a box for another year.
Why is this attitude of apathy happening?  I appreciate the article for calling attention to this challenge.  It forced me, oncer again, to give some thought to this contemporary dilemma.


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