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William J. ByronJanuary 03, 2011

Ever since Larry Bossidy, a former C.E.O. of Allied Signal and the Honeywell Corporation, raised the question of conducting interviews with lapsed Catholics, I have been giving it a lot of thought. Mr. Bossidy is a devout Catholic and the co-author (with Ram Charan) of a bestselling book, Execution, which Bossidy likes to explain is about effective management in business, not about capital punishment. He addressed a meeting of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management a couple of years ago and pointed out that if businesses were losing customers at the rate the Catholic Church in the United States is losing members, someone would surely be conducting exit interviews. His observation was prompted by data on declining church attendance released by the Pew Research Center.

Immigration, largely Hispanic, is still shoring up the aggregate numbers for the Catholic Church in the United States, but there has been a dramatic decline in Sunday Mass attendance and church life among U.S.-born Catholics, not to mention the drift of Hispanic Catholics toward Pentecostal sects.

The church in America must face the fact that it has failed to communicate the Good News cheerfully and effectively to a population adrift on a sea of materialism and under constant attack from the forces of secularism, not to mention the diabolical powers that are at work in our world.

An exit interview, if used creatively, could help church leaders discover ways of welcoming back those who have left, even as it helps leaders find ways to strengthen the current worshipping community. This interview could also help identify what else might need to be taught to those called to positions of parish leadership. The church would have nothing to lose by initiating exit interviews.

As a long-time writer of a biweekly column called “Looking Around” for Catholic News Service, I devoted a recent column to the exit interview idea and was inundated with responses from readers. Many indicated that they had been waiting to be asked why they left. The high response rate is all the more unusual because the column appears only in diocesan newspapers around the country. Evidently, respondents who claim to be no longer “in the boat” are still keeping in touch. Many of my respondents identified themselves as older persons.

I asked: Does anyone know why the ranks are thinning at Catholic weekend worship? There are several obstacles to finding out. First, pastors and bishops tend not to think like business executives, so the practice of conducting exit interviews is not likely to occur to them. Second, no one is sure how to reach those Catholics who are no longer in the pews. Third, we do not know precisely what to ask. This is not to say, however, that the problem cannot be investigated.

What Should We Ask?

Back in 1971, John N. Kotre conducted a study of 100 young Catholic adults. Fifty of these, by their own definition, were still in the church; 50 were not. All were graduates of Catholic colleges; all were enrolled at the time of the interviews in graduate school at either the University of Chicago or Northwestern University. Kotre published the results of the study in a book that has been reissued under the title The View From the Border: Why Catholics Leave the Church and Why They Stay (Aldine Transaction, 2009). It contains a 400-item questionnaire that could be helpful to anyone interested in designing a briefer survey instrument that could be useful now.

Assuming that it is possible to connect with those who are not showing up on Sundays, here are seven starter questions one could pose:

• Why have you stopped attending Sunday Mass regularly?

• Are there any changes your parish might make that would prompt you to return?

• Are there any doctrinal issues that trouble you?

• Does your pastor or anyone on the parish staff know you by name?

• Are you in a mixed-religion marriage?

• Do your children go to church?

• Did you ever really consider yourself to be a member of a parish community?

The point is to find a way to elicit honest answers to open-ended questions aimed at identifying specific Catholic doctrines or practices that may have been factors in the break. I presume that there may be misunderstandings of doctrine that require attention. Whether the respondent is male or female is relevant, as is an assessment of how the respondent regards the status of women in the church. The quality of preaching and the worship environment are also important factors that encourage or discourage attendance and participation. So what do those who no longer show up think about those elements of Catholic worship? If a person has stopped going to Mass, he or she is separated from reception of the Eucharist. Hence, it would be important for the church to find a way to re-educate (or, perhaps, educate for the first time) those who have left about the centrality of the Eucharist in Catholic life.

A good exit interviewer can find ways to detect secular political influences, as well as social class considerations, that might influence the decision to leave a Catholic worshipping community. Lay expertise in designing and implementing an exit-interview schedule is surely needed, along with a commitment on the part of parish and diocesan authorities to use it.

In the absence of good data, church leaders might be accused of sleepwalking into the future or walking with eyes and ears closed to those they want to serve.

What Readers Told Me

One reader of my column agreed that information gained from exit interviews might help in the training of parish leaders. He wrote: “We need top-line leadership—leaders who can think like business executives since they are running multimillion-dollar organizations. Tell them to read The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki (former marketing head of Apple Inc.) and the book that guided me through very tough times in telecommunications, namely, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, by John C. Maxwell.”

A woman who described herself as a “human resources manager and very well informed about the benefits of doing exit interviews,” said: “I just recently turned 50, and I can tell you that I am pretty much the teenager in my parish. Most of my friends have abandoned their faith. You hit the nail on the head! I wish the Vatican would listen.”

Another woman who identified herself as “a cradle Catholic, educated exclusively in Catholic schools, married to a practicing Catholic, raised five children in the faith, taught C.C.D., was involved in the marriage preparation program in our parish—in short, one of the active practitioners of the faith,” said she had opted out because of “the recent church teaching on end-of-life issues; the moving, instead of removing, of priests and bishops involved in the molestation of children; the headstrong opposition to the use of condoms in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS; and the absence of any priest I can talk to.” She added: “I’ve stopped going to Mass because I can’t in good conscience say the Creed, as I don’t think this is a ‘holy’ church, and I don’t feel I can receive the Eucharist under these circumstances.”

“Exit interviews for departing Catholics or those just not attending Mass is a nice thought,” said a 69-year-old retired businessman, “but it is obvious to me that there are two reasons for the drop in Mass attendance and withdrawal of financial support: (1) the pedophile issue and (2) the exclusion of women and married men from the priesthood.”

“I miss the Catholic church I grew up with,” said a woman who once wanted to speak to a priest but was unable to explain precisely why to the person who answered the rectory telephone. “When you figure out what is wrong, give us a call,” she remembers the receptionist telling her many years ago. “Needless to say, I did not call back.” She recounted other bad experiences with her local parish and noted with a tone of regret: “Our priests used to walk the neighborhoods and stop and talk with the children, the teenagers and families. Back then, the clergy had time to talk with you about God.”

“Why did I leave?” wrote a retired business executive with experience on his parish council. “It’s simple. Dealing with the top-down organizational structure was like trying to change the direction of a bulldozer heading right at me. It was frightening, suffocating and frustrating. It went against my natural tendency to get involved in real change. I gave up on it like thousands of people have given up their right to vote.”

Another retiree, who recently re-read (approvingly) the documents of the Second Vatican Council, recalled his past experience at work of an organizational shift that did not meet its desired objective because “the leadership focused on the new thing but lost focus on the good old thing.”

“I am on the knife edge between staying and leaving the church,” he said. He offered these reasons: “(1) I no longer trust the management; (2) I have no way of influencing the selection or change of a priest or bishop; (3) the clergy sex abuse scandal continues to grow; and (4) the continuing lawsuits continue to drain my spirit.”

Is It Too Late?

“Personally, I think exit interviews are too late,” remarked a former military man. “The church can find plenty of ideas from those still in the pews.” As for himself, he wrote: “I only go to Mass to punch my ‘stay-out-of-hell-for-another-week’ card. I don’t celebrate the Mass; I endure it.”

Deploring the absence of any feedback mechanism to hear from the voiceless laity, another senior citizen suggested that the church should have a uniform job description for the parish priest. “How can you run any organization,” he asks, “when each leader brings with him his own set of rules?” In the absence of a published job description, he argues, the parishioners will have their own separate perceptions of the role of the priest. “No priest can live up to each perception; nor should every priest be free to create his own job description.”

“Aren’t you sorry you asked?” said one of the above respondents at the end of her e-mail message to me. Not at all. I just wish I could improve the organizational acoustics in the church so that leaders could hear what the people of God want to say. Leaders must try to discern the presence of the Spirit in what laypeople are saying and find the pastoral courage it will take to implement necessary change.

In 2010 the decennial U.S. census was conducted, and the term “census enumerator” became familiar in news stories. I wonder if dioceses could or would enlist and train volunteers to follow a uniform set of questions and conduct telephone interviews with persons who self-identify as no longer “in” the church. With expert lay assistance, the diocese would have to design the questionnaire and engage the parishes to find telephone numbers or e-mail addresses of those willing to participate. Then the diocese, again with lay help, would have to figure out how best to respond to the data it collects.

If there is no official interest at the parish or diocesan level for taking a page from the business world and employing exit interviews, one has to wonder about the quality of both diocesan and parochial leadership.

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13 years 6 months ago
Father Byron, some of the responses could lead to a higher retention rate if a pastor is willing - creating a more hospitable parish staff, for example, less boring homilies, etc.  But, those changes will not bring back those with serious disagreement with some Catholic doctrine - I am among those.  I lived with the dissonance for more than 50 years as an active, practicing Catholic due to believing in primacy of conscience - until I came to see that some of these doctrines are the root cause of some of the terrible harm that has been done by the church to innocent people - be they child victims of priests, protected by bishops who have yet to be called to accountability by the pope, or AIDS victims in Africa, etc.  Distorted church understanding and teachings about  human sexuality, about women, and about its own self-defined understanding of "authority" have created grave institutional sins.  Since there is no mechanism in the church for the voices of the laity to be heard, no way for those in the pews to work for change, no way for the people of God to participate in the formulation of teachings-the church ignores Newman's exhortation that the hierarchy "consult the faithful on matters of doctrine"-, it became a moral issue - stay and enable a hierarchy and teachings that cause real harm to real people, or leave the church.  Conscience compelled me to leave.  Some may be lured back by better parish functioning, but those of us who have left due to profound disagreement with doctrine and teachings cannot come back unless those change - and it will take hundreds of years for that to occur.
13 years 6 months ago
I am a 68 year old female raised in a very conservative dogmatic pre-vaticanII area of Minnesota.  I remember our family priest (who did travel around and talk to people) belaboring the point of how college education seems to cause people to loose their faith.  True to a point, in that in college you learn how to think for yourself.  The Dogma and Doctrine does not at all make one more spiritual, which is what religion is all about....liturgy and traditions should facilitate a closer communion with God and with each other.  
I dropped out in my 20's and came back to church in my 30's into the Episcopal tradition because of the ability to utilize reason and still be a Christian.  I also learned how uplifting good liturgy can be.  I learned that sermons/homilies of the gospel can be made relevant to the 21st century without having to take the message literally.  
I have read and studied extensively availing myself of much that is taught in seminary.  I am amazed how clergy can go to seminary and learn what I know they learn and then come out and stand in the pulpit and say in a literal sense that "Jesus died for your sins" and that "salvation is only for those who accept Jesus".  Blows my mind.  Fact; Jesus was killed by the Romans for agitating the populace.  He is probably in a bone heap somewhere.  Fact; it is impossible that Jesus was born of a virgin or that his decomposed body was raised from the dead.  That being the case, how do you use the mythology of virgin birth and resurrection to teach a message for today and have it reach everyone in the pews.  
Most people I know who no longer go to church of any type are those who have not invested the time to reconcile faith with reason.  It is time consuming and troubling to do so.  A quick answer to disenfranchised mainstream Christians is the mega-church with the feel-good message and hype-music....My guess is this is a phase for many and eventually they drop from that too.
To me today, the Catholic Church is way out of touch.  The position on birth control is immoral, the position on women is immoral, the position on gays is immoral.  How can I call myself that which represents everything that is immoral to me.  I could never call myself a Catholic again, but respect those that hang in there and try to make it better.  An American Catholic Church is not the answer...been there done that, it is called Protestantism. I love America Magazine because of it's thinkers on social issues and that it is not heavy into dogma and doctrine.  To me Faith is not what you believe, it is what you DO.  I am more than happy to participate in a survey.
13 years 6 months ago
I forgot one thing - you refer to "lapsed" Catholics - which seems to imply a passive reason for no longer going to mass - laziness or boredone or whatever.  This is certainly true of many former Catholics. However, many of us did not "lapse" in our practice - we made a deliberate choice to leave.  The term "lapsed" is a not an accurate description (but, "fallen away" is even worse!).
13 years 6 months ago
It looks like one could create a good survey just by reading this article.  Issues of conscience, poor management (especially in matters of clerical discipline and accountability), insensitive responses from clergy and staff-these represent the core of many reasons that people leave.  As a hospice Chaplain, I encounter numerous people who, at the margins of life, seek the solace that only the sacraments of healing and Eucharist can provide. But when I ask if they are members of a parish, the almost-universal answer is "no"-and for all the reasons enumerated in this article, especially those of conscience and insensitive treatment at the hands of clergy and professional staff.

I understand that the present Pope has been quoted as saying he would be content with a smaller, "more faithful" Church.  My sense is that he will get his wish, certainly as it applies to Western Europeans and Euro-Americans, ironically the group about whom he seems to be most concerned.  But what he will have is a Roman Catholic Church, rather than a Roman Catholic one.  For a lot of folks raised in the early years following Vatican II, that's a critical difference.
ed gleason
13 years 6 months ago
Why not stress just the Creed and the Eucharist and forgiveness .. A big Tent Catholicism..as for the 'action'.. praxis part of the Church.... just say preferential option for the poor. This part of the Church is still getting the attention and it attracts. It worked very well in the first 300 years of the Way. here is a short video of the Way..

Patricia Marshall
13 years 6 months ago
Thank you for William Byrne for opening the discussion.  I was a lapsed Catholic until 2000 when with the Grace of God I was called to reconcile with the Church.  It took a personal tragedy and loss of a job to make me realize I needed the help of God.  I have never blamed the Catholic Church or anyone in it for my straying away.  I was responsible for the decision to remain unfaithful.  Since being  back in Communion with the Church, I take time to learn more about the Church Christ founded and entrusted to St. Peter and the Apostles. Many miraculous things are happening in the Church, we need only to read and explore what is going on.  We must remain faithful as we are all sinners with no exception but are all part of the Body of Christ.  We care about those who chose not to participate and pray for their return. We even pray for them at our Masses. Look only to the Gospel of Jesus our Shepherd who goes out always to look for the lost sheep.
A lapsed Catholic who is every day grateful to God for giving me the Grace to see and return home.
Perhaps a followup article is needed of the wonderful resources available to adult Catholics to learn more about the Catholic Church, its rich history and paths to take to come home. Read the remarkable stories of the Saints and their appreciation of the Sacraments Christ left us to feed us on our journey Home in Heaven.

Fernán Jaramillo
13 years 6 months ago
Being Catholic and going to mass are not quite the same.  Who can endure the bad liturgy, unendurably bad music and brain deadening string of cliches that pass for a homily?  Perhaps someone  with a military discipline and that ain't me!
Carolyn McCarthy
13 years 6 months ago
why do they leave?? possibly the arrogance of the clergy-or maybe the greed and disreguard for the "flock" or maybe the Bishops behaving like Emperors-maybe just out and out G.A.P greed-arrogance and power hungry-and then the pediophiles-who needs more of a reason to leave the H.R.C-
Rosalie Krajci
13 years 6 months ago

I would like to reprint a letter I sent last year to our diocesan newspaper (Rochester, NY). The only problem is that we lay people who love Christ, the Gospel and the church, are utterly powerless - i.e., unauthorized - to make changes.

The October issue of Catholic Courier hascatalogued what has increasingly dismayed many of us in the diocese: the closing or clustering of churches; priests spread thin; dwindling attendance at Masses; Catholic schools folding.
If a secular business saw such a decline in meeting its goals (profitability), it would need to radically alter its strategies. Yet, the church-as-institution seems to continue conducting business as usual.

Here are a few ideas for a new strategy:
  • Priests.  Let priests do what only ordained priests can do. Let’s not waste their unique calling by having them tend to the business of running facilities and personnel. Hire competent lay persons to do that. Let our priests be truly pastors and spiritual leaders.

  • Laity. Engage and encourage the laity to follow our priestly vocation, bestowed as a privilege for all baptized Christians. Let us be partners in Christ with our priests.

  • Vocations. Let us train our priests and lay leaders how to recognize the seed of vocation in our young people. A practiced eye can spot such youngsters immediately and offer them tactful support and information.

  • Build Community. Establish coordinators of ministries. The parish coordinator would recruit and organize parishioners to serve in various ministries, publicizing their work so that the community knows “how these Christians love one another.”

  • Pro-Active Support for Life. While the church forbids abortion, let us take steps to assist pregnant mothers in distress.

  • Liturgy for the Many. Offer weekday Masses or Communion Services at places and times convenient to today’s workers. Noon and/or 5 o’clock Masses downtown; services at the Mall.

Our 12-year-old Savior ambitiously sought to be about his Father’s business. Surely, with two thousand years and the Holy Spirit behind us, we can save our Father’s business from bankruptcy.
Michael Olson
13 years 6 months ago
Quite frankly, I find that many lay people who are Catholics and many others who never were Catholics are far more aware of the important issues having to do with their relationship to God than most of the clergy dare to think they are.  People who find that in the Catholic Church there is no discussion of these issues, again quite frankly, just don't discuss them within "Church approved groups".  Some choose to remain Catholics and some do not. Others who are students of spiritual matters, some Christians and some not, find no reason to seek to become Catholics and all of the above choose their way without any qualms of conscience.

Believers, over the centuries, have had and continue to have interesting and very informative spiritual  experiences which are not even acceptable for discussion within the Catholic Church.

There are many many books out there that illustrate my points here.  One small paperback
book,  SACRED ENCOUNTERS with Jesus by G.Scott Sparrow, Ed.D., punlished by Thomas More, from Ave Maria Press, Inc. 208 pages, is an interesting example.  Jesus has been showing up in people's lives and they are writing about these surprising encounters.

Another interesting document which raises a lot of important questions, reaching back to ancient times as well as contemporary issues,  can be found at the link below.


Generally, I think the Catholic Church should keep an open mind, learn more and fear less.
Patricia Coppolino
13 years 6 months ago
I am a 51 year old "Cradle Catholic," one of 5 kids raised in a family that went to church every Sunday with parents who made sure we received our sacraments growing up.  I am the only one that still attends Mass regularly.  I've been active in my church, in music ministry and teaching CCD.  And yet I'm on the cusp of leaving as well, for a variety of reasons.

I find Church teaching on gays and women to be immoral, and do not want my son taught that a loving God considers only unmarried, straight men worthy of invoking His presence at Mass.  I find the Church response to the pedophile scandal immoral as well - first moving, rather than removing priests, and later insisting that it is all a media-driven conspiracy to undermine Church authority.

In particular I find the politicization of the Church totally unacceptable.  I never thought I would see the American bishops oppose providing health care for all - the most shameful homily I've ever heard a Catholic priest give came in the fall of 2009, when he incited parishioners to contact legislators urging them to vote "no" on health care.  In opposing health care reform, the bishops have, in my view, forfeited their moral leadership.

Year after year I've listened to the local bishop and priests tell Catholics that abortion is the most important moral issue facing the country and that it must be the primary factor in deciding how to cast our votes in elections.  Yet in the 13 years I attended Mass at the local Cathedral, there was not a single special collection devoted to crisis pregnancy centers - not a diaper or jar of baby food was collected.  This supposed "priority" also merited no mention in the yearly pleas for contributions to the bishop's Lenten appeal.  Moreover, when our bishop decided to undertake a special fundraising effort, it was not to support crisis pregnancy services, but to build himself a fancy mansion to live in next to the Cathedral. What was that moral priority again?  These bishops will throw women out of the church for saving a mother's life (Bishop Olmstead), threaten to withhold communion from pro-choice politicians, and make a show of praying the rosary outside of abortion clinics, they will not lift a finger to help women and babies in need, even urging legislators to deny them access to health care.  The hypocrisy is nauseating.

The growing emphasis on the Church as institution, rather than the Church as a teacher of Christ, is also a problem.  I find that the Church is more closed and inward looking, teaching a faith that can exist only within the church walls, rather than in the wider world - Christ's message was to "go and make disciples of all nations," not, "build walls between yourself and the world."

I also find the growing emphasis on grandeur and finery among the Church hierarchy - ermine cloaks, crowns, lace vestments - a complete contradiction of the Christ who dressed in the simplicity of a Galilean peasant and who was only dressed in fine robes and a "crown" by his tormentors to mock him.

And, given all of the legitimate issues facing the Church in the world, Rome decides that monkeying with the English translation of the Mass is the most important thing it has to do.  Is God any less present in the Mass as it is now?  Will this new translation improve the "pipeline" to the Divine?  Then why bother, if not simply to assert Roman authority?  Latin was used in the early centuries of the Church not because it had any special divine significance, but because it was the spoken language of the believers in Rome (assuming they translated the scriptures correctly from the Greek and Hebrew to begin with).  This insistence on strict translation of the Latin suggests that the Mass is little more than a magical incantation (see Harry Potter) - say it "correctly," and poof, Jesus appears; say it "incorrectly," and He withholds His presence.

My family and I do still attend Mass regularly, for now, but only because there is a nearby Jesuit parish that emphasizes the Gospel teachings of Christ, rather than the institutional Church.  We will see what the future brings.  

Christopher Downey
13 years 6 months ago
I do believe most of your readers are educated people, but when it comes to Church teachings and doctrine, most seem to be quite ignorant. For example, it seems that not one person understands the Church's position on human sexuality. They seem to make their decisions based on pure emotion rather than serious intellectual inquiry, and this poses a serious problem when discussing complex issues. Secondly, I believe that when Church teachings conflict with one's personal belief, the "conscience clause" is invoked. A well formed conscience begins with a proper understanding of the issue at hand, and it is apparent that most who have responded to this article, either don't have such knowledge, or reject such knowledge because it flies in the face of their preconceived notions regarding a particular issue. Also, I detect an amazing amount of arrogance and egoism among the respondents as well, whcih certainly will blind someone from ever having that proper knowledge that is necessary for authentic conscience formation
Mark Davenport
13 years 6 months ago
This is a very good article and the comments are quite interesting.  Pat C, you really said a lot here.  Try not to get too discouraged.  The Church needs more people like you. I am lucky because I belong to a good parish and am active in my parish but some of the things going on in the Church are troubling.  I remember a couple of years ago I was upset to find out that the priest that taught me Religion in high school was a sexual predator.  I talked to a priest (who was involved in a support group) and told him that this was upsetting to me.  I told him how this priest took a 13-year old to Florida and abused the kid.  The priest said to me, "Well the kid was committing mortal sins too."  I was stunned at this comment and disagreed with the priest.  The priest didn't like what I had to say and told me never to speak to him again.  But it did make me realize that with an attitude like this, no wonder people leave the Church. 
Patricia Coppolino
13 years 6 months ago
To Mareczku - thank you very much for your words of encouragement.  And, wow! It is a testament to the strength of your faith that the words of that priest didn't send you running for the exits.

To Chris - I will be the first to admit that I don't understand Church teaching on sexuality, because it is contradictory and irrational.  On the one hand, the Church acknowledges that sexuality is a gift of God, fully a part of the total dignity of the human person.  On the other hand, it is only to be expressed in the creation of children within marriage.  On the other hand, there is no prohibition (to my knowledge) of continued sexual activity between a married man and woman after menopause, when a woman can no longer bear children.  Nor is there any prohibition on marriage or sexual activity between a man and a woman when one or both are medically incapable of producing children.  So there seems to be some recognition (supposedly) that sexual activity can be "merely" an expression of love.  On the other hand, homosexual activity is prohibited because it cannot result in children; nor is it permitted as an expression of love between committed partners, thereby denying the fullness of human dignity that God created in gays and lesbians.  On the other hand, we have the pope's statement that male prostitutes can use condoms.  I ran out of "hands," Chris, and I still don't see how this makes any sense at all.

Also to Chris:  I will also admit to egoism and arrogance as these are fully human failings.  But I would also submit that my failings don't hold a candle to the egoism and arrogance of the Church hierarchy, who seem more intent on returning the Church to medieval times than in teaching the Gospel of Christ.  They exhibit a smug assurance in their status as successors of St. Peter.  However, to paraphrase Jesus, I'm sure God could raise of successors of St. Peter from the very stones of the ground.
Christopher Downey
13 years 6 months ago
Pat - you have precisely illustrated my frustration with the majority of the faithful: a severe lack of catechesis. So, perhaps we need a better way to navigate through the Church's "irrationality" regarding
human sexuality, may I suggest John Paul II's "Theology of the Body"? It's a masterful collection of his Wednesday audiences from the early days of his pontificate. Also, Christopher West has written very accessible commentaries on his writings.
Ronald Powaski
13 years 6 months ago
I was struck by the recent (November 23, 2010) article in the New York Times which referred to a study that revealed that one-third of Americans born and baptized Catholic have left that church.

How come?

I can only speak for myself, an American baptized and raised as a Catholic who has left the church.

My first step in that direction was in reaction to the church’s stand on birth control, that is, one that condemns the use of contraceptives. Having tried the “rhythm method” in the sixties, my wife and I produced three children in our first five years of marriage.

While I love and am very proud of my children, who are now parents themselves, my wife and I realized that we could not afford to continue producing children at that pace. Rhythm was out and contraception, condemned by the Church, was in.

I recall confessing that “sin” to a priest. He responded, “why are you using contraceptives?” I angrily replied, “Because I can’t afford to support more children!” He said nothing.

It was a kyros for me: the first time I stood up to a teaching of the Church, at the age of 25, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in my pocket, and on my way toward earning a Ph.D. (in history). But I was a product of Catholic education: grade school, high school, and college. And I had been thoroughly indoctrinated and frightened by what I then believed was the possibility that I would go to hell if I deviated from the teachings of the church.

Fortunately, I broadened my education over several decades through exposure to the ideas of other religions, as well as philosophers, historians, and scientists, both social and physical.

Perhaps the most significant of these was the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, another American who had left the Catholic Church. Campbell emphasized that religion is a cultural phenomenon. (I already knew from exposure to history that it is a political phenomenon as well.)

Campbell illustrated this maxim by explaining why women are relegated to a position of subordination relative to men in the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three are patriarchal religions, whose sacred scriptures, written by men, emphasize the superior status of men over women. It helps to explain why, for example, women are denied the priesthood in the Catholic Church.

More important, Campbell taught that we are not spiritually mature until we ourselves are the ultimate authority on spiritual matters. Achieving this status, of course, is an enormous responsibility, which in my case, came only after years of study and experience.

But I must say that the obvious irrationality of more than a few of the church’s teachings—on birth control, abortion, homosexuals, to mention only a few—made my enlightenment easier. The hypocrisy of church leaders in applying its teachings—the pedophile cover up, to mention only one example—made it self-evident that the leaders of the Catholic Church are morally irrelevant.

I now find it ironic, and amusing, that after all these years, the current pope now proclaims that in select cases, such as those involving male prostitutes, condom use might be a step toward acting responsibly to reduce “the risk of infection.”

I realized years ago, well before my break with the Church, that an institution that does not permit its priests to marry, relegates women to an inferior status, denounces materialism yet is led by a leader who lives in a palace and vacations in a castle, and is incapable of taking a morally acceptable, let alone logical, stand on the use of contraceptives, among other issues, does not deserve much attention. I am guessing that most Americans Catholics, current as well as past members of the Church, would agree.

Christopher Downey
13 years 6 months ago
No Doc Po - many of us younger Catholics who have actually taken the time to learn, pray, and discern do not agree with you. But it's not a matter of disagreement; it's a matter of education and I can only hope and pray that you are open-minded enough to study the Church's positions on these complex issues.
Bill Parks
13 years 6 months ago
I think the Catholic Church has to change some of its age-old man made traditions and revert back to Jesus teachings and His example in New Testament times:

1) Jesus chose 11 married men out of 12 as apostles. Therefore, the church has to have the same proportion of married men as priests namely 92% married and only 8% single instead of almost 100% single. Until the church follows Christ's example and acts like Him, I can't take the single male dominated system (many of them gay). Of course I realize there are many fine priests but still that is not enough! I can't take the discrimination against married men - many married lay people are so very intelligent and have such fine leadership qualities. It's wrong for the church not to empower them and hog all the leadership and decision making away from the laity.

2)  Jesus described the kind of leadership He wanted: In Mark 10:42-44 Jesus spoke about church leadership (Today's New International Version) 42 Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  

I hardly believe today's bishops or even the pope's life style meets Jesus' (God's) humble standard of leadership. Sadly, they do not want to change and they want to keep owning rights that belong to parishioners. They are confused and want to remain in this state of confusion as the church membership and number of priests decline because of the negative climate described in this brief commentary.

3) I want a more conservative church on social issues - more outspoken opposition to A) abortion, B) increase in homosexuality and 3) concentration of wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the working poor and dwindling middle class.
Mary Wood
13 years 6 months ago
The advent of a new parish priest has made me feel a stranger in my church.  He has established an ultra-retro orthotoxic liturgy by saying a Latin Mass with all the trimmings every day.  In his first three days in the parish he abolished the weekday Liturgy of Word and Communion, and substituted Morning Prayer and Rosary when  he is not available to say an English Mass at some stage of the day.  The fact that these exercises do not draw attenders does not seem to trouble him.  The changed regime means that the "weekday folk" no longer see each other on a regular basis, but why should he be aware of that?

The sanctuary and church furniture have all been re-arranged; the parish vestments are no longer in use and the lace "edging" to the alb begins at the top of the hip line!  The choir has been asked to learn to sing plainchant for at least one Sunday Mass each month and the old, trusted MC who learned with difficulty to accept the liturgical changes post-Vatican 2 but did assimilate them, has now resigned with a broken heart.  The Parish Pastoral Council has been abolished.

His sermons are predominantly concerned with liturgical and canonical minutiae (including indulgences!) sacerdotal authority and the witness of the Catholic martyrs at the hands of the 16th Century reformers.  They are virtually never on Scripture.  Mass going with all his posturing flamboyance and skewering of the English text is a painful experience.  He refuses all connection with the other Christian clergy in town, and blatantly asserts his "otherness" by always wearing his soutane and biretta even when shopping in the main street.  This is a cause of wonder and mirth to my non-Catholic friends!

So what has kept me thus far?  Partly my age - 70+ - and a very genuine love for other parishioners.  Legalism.  Fear of giving scandal if I take serious part in a local Anglican church.  I have no car so no means of attending Mass in a Catholic church elsewhere, or I'd have gone in his first week.  But I'm on the brink, and badly needing nourishment from my church-going.  It won't be forthcoming from this man.  So is my option to be "forth-going?"  Why not?
Elaine Tannesen
13 years 6 months ago
As the church moves in the direction of top-down fundamentalism, one wonders if the hierarchy even cares about our reasons for leaving.  This article raises the challenge of listening, really listening to the concerns of the laity.  We can eloquently communicate the reasons for leaving the church but, would it do any good? If you think you have all the answers to the multiplicity of life's issues, why bother listening?  The arrogance of love it or leave it catholicism is in direct contradiction to the welcoming compassion of Jesus. It appears that we are becoming a leaner, meaner church and there are those who rejoice in this direction.
ed gleason
13 years 6 months ago
These are sad posts above  and knowing so many with the same stance where do we laity go? In my city with many parishes it is easy to go where one feels nourished. But what about the many  Mary Woodhouses stuck in small one church towns?.. Why not have  some of the lay leaders, religious sisters and married deacons , retired /resigned priests step up and establish in home Domestic churches? gathering of laity, shared Eucharistic prayers.. Let the 'smaller leaner' crowd who are chasing the many away, have their 'dream' come more quickly. One great advantage in the present meltdown is that the older Vatican II Catholic women and men will always  reject the 'babuska church' that the Russian Orthodox church became. We saw VatII and know what Church should and can be.  Can't we all see the meltdown coming on? Let the new shoots start breaking through because we need to see the signs of springtime and not be discouraged any more by just seeing dead leaves.   
Kay Satterfield
13 years 6 months ago
Many people have mentioned that the voice of the laity is not heard by leadership. The reason I started posting on this site several months ago was for that exact reason.  As agonizing as it is for me as a private person to say something publicly I am tired of being part of the silent majority.  I also trusted "America" and the jesuit community.   I think "America" tries to be that voice as best it can.   I have clung to the magazine myself at times as giving voice to the concerns of most thinking Catholics.  

For young persons who are enthusiastically indoctrinated in Church teaching I can say that life will hit you hard someday and though the Church is a good guide it might be that you have to make a decision of conscious.  That is also allowed by "Our Church" through Vatican II.  The church is not just there to keep us in line but mainly to 'be there' for those who are suffering like Jesus in the garden. Until you have experienced this kind of deep suffering you need to be careful of putting yourself in the judgement seat.  

I don't think there is any perfect church.  The church is about the people. I have to focus on that.  It's in the people and the sacraments that we find Christ.  I think most religious, priests and nuns, deacons and laity working in ministry are trying to support God's people.  We,the laity, have to hope and pray for right change.  St. Therese of Lisieux made it part of her ministry to pray for priests.  I think Rosalie had some good suggestions that I hope are listened to.  
Linda Pfeifer
13 years 6 months ago
Asking the church to listen to the faithful, whether it be an exit interview or some other venue, is an excellent idea! I am 61 years old and have always attended Mass and practiced my faith - not because I always find it spiritually uplifting, but because it is the only church that faithfully adheres to what Jesus taught.

However, there are many things I am unhappy about. The church has shifted to the right, and those of us with a social conscience are often made to feel like the black sheep. Most of these issues have been raised by others, such as the exclusion of women and married men from priesthood, the emphasis on abortion to the exclusion of social justice issues, etc. I especially resent the way that some of our nuns are treated by the hierarchy, usually because they are speaking out. I read that a nun was recently excommunicated for allowing an abortion at a Catholic hospital in order to save the mother. Apparently we now value the life of a fetus MORE than any other life.

The issue of Hispanics leaving the church is an important one. At our parish we have a Hispanic assistant pastor and a Hispanic ministry, but I sense a very non-welcoming attitude from some of the Anglo parrishioners, who are in the majority.   An attitude of "Send the illegals all back to Mexico." is not Christian. I believe some Hispanics are leaving in order to form their own churches, where they feel more welcome. I have visited many undocumented Hispanics through my work with our St. Vincent de Paul group and they are hard-working, lovely people with a strong faith, who come here to find a better life for their children. They are often taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers who know they can not complain to authorities if they don't get paid for their labor.The church needs to work toward a more humane and reasonable immigration policy, but we have largely been silent. We also need to hear sermons that would encourage us to be more compassionate toward immigrants, to appreciate what they bring to our church, and to see them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Jack Barry
13 years 6 months ago

My first reaction was to try to find my list written when I recently asked myself what my main reasons were for avoiding the Church in which I had been baptized, educated, and grown up.  Then, I realized that it was pointless.   Bloggers talk to bloggers without noticeable effect.  The church leadership that has presided over the decades of Exodus 2 continues to repel with increasing vigor as if on a lonely island.  The indignant certitude of the remaining stalwarts in the pews who can read the minds and consciences of any who may disagree with them doesn't help the re-evangelizing.  

"Lapsed" are the easy targets.  There might be more to learn from those who have been alienated, ignored, deliberately insulted, or explicitly rejected.  Some hints of these can be found above. 

What are the values reflected by church honors for Law, Sodano, McCormack, Mahony, Maciel, Danneels, ….(long list)?

Among the bishops, what is being taught by Nienstadt ("100% Catholic", non-gay), the two who sued a priestly sex abuse victim until the day they found out he was financially bankrupt, Olmstedt ("authority" first, not life), and the campaigns against health-care for millions of non-Catholics and against statute-of-limitation changes to benefit sexual abuse victims?  

What do we learn from the hypocrisy of Benedict XVI's declarations on celibacy (mandatory option), married clergy (yes and no), clerical homosexuality (incompatible), priestly sex abuse (unimaginable surprise after 30 years), etc.?    A reasonably thorough examination of the associated doctrine, traditions, and history serves to emphasize the authoritative incoherence and illogic.   The Pope's odd focus on AIDS and Catholic male prostitutes rather than on innocent spouses and priests that he needs who are dying from the same disease was striking. 

Recent developments continue hierarchical behavior that has been going on for years.   Why would anyone want to be associated with an organization that chooses and honors self-perpetuating leadership to sanctify, teach, and govern with the values they repeatedly show?  
Jim McCrea
13 years 6 months ago

There are still good parishes that foster involved Catholicism for the laity by treating them as adults and letting them do what they are best suited to do.

Here is one of them, and I wouldn't be still hanging on by the skin of my teeth if I hadn't found this place:  www.mhr.org.  It's in San Francisco and I don't even live there, or in the Archdioces of San Francisco.

Jim McCrea
13 years 6 months ago
Chris:  you represent so well the naivete of some many of the young:  " - many of us younger Catholics who have actually taken the time to learn, pray, and discern -"

A great many of us have LIVED the church's position on complex issues and have found them deficient in so very many ways.

Come back and preach to us once you have had the chance to LIVE through the reality that will ultimately shine through your rose-colored glasses.  We hope you survive as well as so many of us have and are still committed to some form of Catholicism.
Ed Kardas
13 years 6 months ago
I have unofficially left the Church, but attend Mass on Sunday's because it makes my wife happy.  In the 1990's I was deeply committed, a seminarian, and a member of a religious order.  After 2001 I never attended a Mass again until I married.

The reason I left was a result of the behavior of a significant percentage of the clergy I encountered.  Some were involved in pedophilia, others were turning a blind eye, some were even covering for those involved.  I was sued by a one of the members of my religious order for libel, slander, and defamation, for going public with what I knew.  The case was dismissed when the order found out that even more would become public if the case were to be continued.

One pedophile priest I reported to my religious superiors is now in prison, not because of their actions, but in spite of them.  They did nothing to stop him, rather they attempted to protect him.  They instead persecuted me for speaking the truth; and breaking the unwritten rule, "never snitch on a brother religious."  He is in prison today only because the civil authorities issued a warrant for his arrest; then he was tried and convicted.   

These were "religious" men who knew the difference between right and wrong, and chose to do wrong.  Most lay people have no idea what's going on within the secret world of the Church.  There are clearly two levels, what is really occurring inside the Church, and what is put out for public consumption.  When a public statement is made by a bishop or the pope, involving clergy sexual abuse, I find it impossible to determine if it is true.  I am convinced that they are mixing truth with lies, in an effort to confuse the lay People of God.  My experience within the Church has taught me that when it come to pedophilia, what one learns from the media is in fact much worse in reality.  The Church is effective at suppressing and filtering the truth.

The current Pope recently stated that in the 1970s "...pedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children." This statement may be true, but is secular in origin, and morally shocking. The Church claims that that was the thinking of the time; and even if it was, is She now trying to use it to defend the actions of Her priest's, and the non-actions of Her bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome?  She would have been better off seeking the moral opinion of a 10 year old boy. JP II appears to have placed more importance upon protecting the image of the Church than protecting the little ones of God.  History, once it is reveled, will provide us with the truth.

I once believed that Mother Church was my moral compass.  Her compass was pointing in the wrong direction. That is the reason I have left the Church, but still embrace the teachings of Jesus Christ, and the guidance of my own conscience.


Christopher Downey
13 years 6 months ago
Jim - I may be young, but that doesn't mean I have not "LIVED" as you put it.  What I find interesting is that the majority of people who post here are the disgruntled baby-boomers who seem to be perpetually unhappy with the Church, the hierarchy, and ultimately themselves.  If this is indeed the age of the laity, then should it not be incumbent upon the laity to conduct intellectual inquiry into the philosophical underpinnings of Church teachings rather than whine about them?  Is there one person on this blog who can speak intellectually about the male only priesthood, human sexuality, and the other issues many just love to complain about?  The 60's are over - you were not right about most things, and now many of you just want to impose your unhappiness on the next generation(s).  But what really upsets me is that there are just so many whiners who love to cast stones without EVER studying why the Church teaches what it teaches.  And as far as quoting Jesus, he gave His authority to the Church, and, yes, while the Church is run by fallible men, the moral teachings of the Church are under guidance of the Spirit (Matt. 16:8 & John 14:16-18).  So, we should listen to the Church and try to understand the wisdom she has to give us - "He who listens to you listens to me" (Luke 10:16).  The problem with many people that I can see on this blog is that most seem to be incapable of listening to anyone except their own whiny voice.  And as far as conscience goes, perhaps what presupposes conscience formation is seriously consideration of those authoritative resources Catholic's have access to; and the primary source is the Magisterium of the Church.  So, is it too much to ask many people to consult their Catechism before ignorantly opining on the social issue du jour that upsets them??  I'm really not an angry person, but some of these comments just elicit such a negative response, that I can't contain myself! 
Jack Barry
13 years 5 months ago
Chris - 
Waiting to see the evidence I'm sure you are planning to provide to support your assertions about others brings to mind advice common in old philosophy studies: 
"gratis asseritur, gratis negatur."
Robert Harrison
13 years 5 months ago

Being an older Catholic who was taught by the sisters up through the eighth grade, I have never seriously considered leaving the Church and its sacraments. However, I am greatly saddened by the things I see going on in the Church today. The nuns turned out young Catholics with a bed-rock understanding of their faith, but that is not being accomplished in the Catholic schools today. Religion is not being taught thoroughly in the parishes.

Another problem is that the priesthood and the hierarchy are held dubious esteem by most Catholics today. Seeing what I have seen in my archdiocese over the past thirty years, I would not hesitate to dissuade my son if he came to me and said he wanted to study for the priesthood.

If he was a good priest set on taking care of the parishioners in his care, I know he would soon be a marked as a “troublemaker” in the archdiocese for publicly standing up for what is right. If he decided to mind his own business and go with the program, he would lose all self respect and soon become an uncaring robot. No, this is not the life I would want for my son. I think most Catholic fathers look at it the same way under the present conditions. 

13 years 5 months ago
Chris, I ignored your first self-congratulatory post, but you have now written at least two or three posts that contribute nothing to the discussion - instead you simply attack others. Not only do you attack others, these attacks are based on assumptions you have made with no foundation in fact.  I have read the posts here - you assume (while knowing nothing of the educational and intellectual backgrounds of other posters) that you are the only one here who has studied church teachings and can carry on "an intellectual" discussion of them.  You are wrong in my case, and I suspect your are very wrong in the cases of the other posters also. While it is your right to disagree, you should perhaps re-read your posts and do a little reflecting on your motives, and why you choose to react the way you do.  These posts do not address the issues and questions raised by Father Byron - rather the posts are mostly smug diatribes against those who replied to the article - briefly summarizing reasons for leaving by those who have left and those who may leave - they address the questions raised in the article, Unfortunately your posts also demonstrate the special arrogance that commonly afflicts most of us when we are young.  The passage of another two or three decades will probably remedy that fault, however.
Szymon Moldenhawer
13 years 5 months ago

If you are interested in more professional analysis what is happening there two great recent publication

reat summary what is happening in American Churches today  _ American Grace


and prediction what will be the outcome. in world religion general

All in were heading toward readjustment but in two generation it will work itself out.
Christopher Downey
13 years 5 months ago
Hi Anne - I should probably pause before I write, but I am hoplessly kneejerk!  I guess I am just frustrated because I believe in the Church and love the Church, and while the Church isn't perfect as far as governance goes, her teachings are sound.  And I hate to see people walking away from something that was historically founded by Christ based on - what I can see - negative experiences resulting from bad actions of some.  So, I admit I was out of line by criticizing everyone here, and I sincerely apologize.  But at the same time, if someone is going to criticize the Church for the teachings on the life and sexuality issues, I would rather see the argument spelled out rather than just heaving bombs - that, to me, is counterproductive and doesn't encourage real dialogue.
Patricia Coppolino
13 years 5 months ago

The problem with your argument, Chris, is that the reasoning is circular.  One’s conscience formation is dependent upon acceptance of the teachings of the magisterium; but conscientious objection to the teachings of the magisterium is impossible because one cannot, in good conscience, object to the teachings of the magisterium.  It boils down to, “don’t question what we tell you, even when it is irrational.”

Meaningful theology has to be based upon the reality of what God actually created, rather than the reality we wish He had created.  Developing the theology first and then trying to pound the reality into it is like trying to fit the proverbial round peg into the square hole.  Yet that is what the Church has done, time and again, denying the reality that the Earth revolves around the Sun, denying the reality that evolution is God’s plan for creation, and persecuting those like Galileo and Teilhard who point out that they are wrong.  The reality is that God created women as the equal of men and that God created homosexuality as well as heterosexuality.  To deny these realities is to substitute human judgment for God’s judgment.

You and those like you may succeed in tossing an entire generation of Catholics out of the Church – I’ve heard that sentiment expressed many times.  But before you do a victory lap, consider how much poorer the Church will be for it.  After Vatican II, the Church alienated an entire generation of Catholics by doing away with the Latin Mass and more traditional practices that many found a beautiful and prayerful expression of their faith.  The Church was wrong to do so, and suffered greatly for it.  It would be wrong for those who would now “reform the reforms” to repeat that mistake.
Mike Evans
13 years 5 months ago
A significant number have left the church due to problems with their treatment after being divorced and wanting to remarry. The annulment process takes from 18 to 24 months, is arbitrary and unyielding, and in the end, unjust and humiliating. Divorce, like abortion, has become the unforgiveable sin, and not worthy of pastoral care. Until we actively welcome back all who have suffered through broken relationships, we will never resemble the vision of Jesus who came to serve and not to be served.
Robert Harrison
13 years 5 months ago
My dear Chris!  I admire your firm stand in defense of the Church and the Magisterium. However, you failed to point out that the Magisterium is not considered without error, and never was. Only those parts of the Magisterium that have been proclaimed by Church Councils or "from the chair of Peter" are considered without error.

There have been many things proclaimed in the Magisterium that are considered, in the light of history, grave errors such as:  the burning of witches in the Middle Ages, the Inquisition, the damning of Galileo's  scientific evidence that the earth rotated around the sun and not visa versa. Then, there was the papal bull three years after the end of the American Civil war declaring that in some circumstances, slavery was justifiable.

The problem today is that the Church permits its bishops to transfer sick pedophile priest from parish to parish, paying no attention to the fact that a crime has been committed against a citizen by another citizen which is against the law. "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's."  In the face of Christ's command, the bishops have illegally usurped the power of Caesar thus making themselves culpable of crime.

Rome has not addressed this.  They have played for time hoping it will go away.  They seem to pay no attention to the right and wrong of it. They feel compelled to protect Church assets.

The question of married priests has not been addressed. Married priests work well in the Orthodox Church and all the other rites loyal to Rome. It is only the Roman rite that has this unhealthy practice. St. Paul wrote concerning celibacy:  "He that can take it then let him take it."  He said nothing about a good man being barred from the priesthood because he was married. In fact, there is strong evidence that all the twelve apostles were married with the exception of St. John.

Around 450 AD, the Church had approximately 1,500 female deacons. Then the Church decided to exclude them and only ordain male deacons. The Orthodox churches have continued to have female deacons to this day.

The question of birth control is another burning issue the Church refuses to address. The present dogma concerning the presence of a human soul at conception was adopted only a little over 200 years ago.  It was put forth by two theologians teaching in Rome.  In light of modern science this is really questionable. We Catholics believe that abortion is wrong because it stands in God's way for procreation.  If a person takes a "morning after" pill it is not murder as some will have you believe. It is a mortal sin for a Catholic because it impedes God's will, but it is not murder. The planting of the soul in the fetus is a completely different issue. The Church should study this seriously in the light of modern science. They have refused to do so.

As it stands now, if a Catholic doesn't believe that the human soul is present at the time of conception he may do so. Though it is part of the present Magisterium, it has not been proclaimed as dogma from the Chair of Peter or by a Church Council.  A national study was made by the federal government 30 years ago revealing that roughly 85% of American Catholic woman had practiced birth control at one time or another. But you will be hard pressed to find a priest that will tell you it is a mortal sin because they really don't believe that.  Still, it is considered to be one by the present Magisterium.  

Mark Davenport
13 years 5 months ago
Note to Pat C.  That priest that talked to me was no big deal.  If being taught Religion for 3 years by a self-absorbed narcissist who unbeknownst to me was also a sexual predator did not drive me from the Church then that other priest surely would not.  I did find it annoying to be looked down on by both of these men.  Thankfully I have also known many wonderful and faithful priests who have been good role models and an inspiration to me. 
Jeffery Fox
13 years 5 months ago

After reading the comments I prefer to consider the faithful that have stayed. As Mother Teresa commented we are not called to be successful but to be faithful. I am certain that like St. Francis and all the saints, the faithful are not all satisfied with the state of the church but instead look within to see the changes they long to see. With humility I see the anguish and the difficulty of those that leave but also realize the greater effort of doing the hard work of staying and remaining faithful.

13 years 5 months ago
Chris,  I appreciate your sincerity and your passion.  What you need to think about is that others are equally sincere, equally passionate, and equally or even better educated on church teachings, and in the history, cultures, science that were the seedbeds of these teachings, than are you, so dismissing them as uneducated, or unwilling to study church teachings as you have etc, is an arrogant assumption.  Thank you for realizing that.  That is where you trip up, so maybe your future attempts to defend your own beliefs won't become mired down in attacks on the beliefs of others - a far more productive course of action.

 Unfortunately a comments forum is not a good place to debate teachings - what I have studied - in great depth and breadth, what I have lived (yes, despite your reply to the poster above, life experience does teach us a lot, as you will discover), and everything else that contributed to the long, slow process that finally led me out of the church - cannot be described in a short paragraph.  Reading between the lines of the posts of others here reveals much the same.  There is not one poster here who left for shallow reasons - all have struggled because they loved the church.  However, as with a dysfunctional family, sometimes we have to distance ourselves from those we love in order not to enable the dysfunction.

  As much as you fervently believe that anyone who reads Theology of the Body or Christopher West will have to reach the same conclusion you have as to the validity of the arguments, that is not always the case. Many reach the opposite conclusion - frankly, the more I read, the more horrified I became. The more I studied church teachings, and the roots of church teachings, and the original documents ranging from early desert fathers, early fathers like Jerome, through Augustine, Aquinas, etc,  including study of the Greek (pagan, as we know) philosophers whose ideas underpin much of Catholic church teaching, especially that of natural law, the more I understood where these ideas orginated before being cemented in stone as "truth" simply because these ideas permeated western christian thought for centuries, without necessarily being "Truth",  the greater my despair at what I was learning.

You may wish to broaden your mind, and understanding of those who leave the church, by studying the writings of "dissenting" theologians (many dissenters in Catholic history were canonized in later centuries), that you study history, sociology, science etc of the times in which the scriptures were written, and those of the great thinkers of the early church (brilliant, but also products of their own eras and cultures, with all the prejudices and mis-information prevalent in them showing up in their thought processes - a totally understandable thing, but one which must be taken into account), the Greek philosophers, etc.  Finally, you may want to avail yourself of some spiritual writers - ranging from Meister Eckhardt to Merton to Anthony DeMello. 

I went against my better judgment in writing this comment - this is not a debate forum. However, because your reponse to my earlier comment t did seem to be well-meant and sincere, I hope that I have returned the favor by being a bit more forthcoming with you about the reasons I have left the Roman Catholic church (I am now a member of an Episcopal parish).

Peace to you in your journey of discovery!
Nancy Nugent
13 years 5 months ago

What a great article!  Father Byron's remarks about the need for exit interviews completely adhere to the findings I have conducted on why hierarchies have such difficulties navigating change - in the midst of a changing environment, they forget their main objective - supporting their members in execution of the mission. 

In military hierarchies, we would understand this to mean that a Commander establishes "command and control" through the issuing of commands or orders and then establishing controls to ensure that execution.  The meaning of "control," however, is not to exert power over a person or situation, but to listen to and provide for the needs of the subordinates in execution of the mission.

In the Church today, our mission is to preach the good news - the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Meanwhile, we have priests and bishops who are very good at describing that good news in terms of Church teachings on rules and norms. We have greater difficulty in being able to communicate the good news in that the grace of Jesus Christ helps us to follow those teachings - because they are all done in love.  We, as the Church, have difficulty in providing its adherents with the tools and resources they need to follow Christ.  They don't necessarily need more rules but they do need to experience the love and forgiveness and mercy of Christ through direct experiences of prayer and through their fellow members in the Church.

Current doctrine on roles and responsibilities within the Church may thus require clarification and modification in light of the Church’s greater dependence upon the active participation of the laity to carry out that essential mission of evangelization.  Greater integration of our spirituality and prayer in structures, norms, and ways of approaching theology and catechesis would assist those working in parishes and in other Catholic associated organizations. 

Since the Second Vatican Council, we as the Church have lost a common framework on how to approach our Catholic faith.  This could be regained if the Church were willing to take on risks with increasing its collaboration with the laity and on finding out in more direct approaches what were the needs of its people.

Unfortunately, Church policies neither have kept up with the changes, nor is there the institutional recognition or agreement on a way ahead.  The current incentives and culture of most parishes and other Church structures tend toward the avoidance of risk, which is the most necessary element in this dynamic, changing environment. Through increased collaboration with the laity, and with a more direct approach to understanding the needs of those who have left or are remaining in the Church pews, the Church may be able to reach out better to those who do need the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.  In that way, the Church could be restored and reinvigorated for the challenges of the future. 


13 years 5 months ago
I am confused; why would the church need to conduct exit iterviews? Isn't it obvious why Catholics are leaving?  American Catholics have made it very, very clear for a long time that they were basically fed up with the church heirachy's position on a range of issues that seem completely out of step with their (our) own experiences and their own convictions. 

This reminds me of couples who divorce. One spouse (the wife usually) tells her spouse for years and years that she is unhappy. Nothing changes and eventually she files for divorce. Then the husband is shocked, truly shocked that the marriage is over.  This is sort of like the Catholic laity and the institutional Church. The laity has made it abundantly clear for, well decades, that they are unhappy in this relationship. They want changes.  Nothing changes and when they leave the church, the church authorities seem shocked. Truly shocked.

How can this possibly be? Can someone explain to me why the Catholic leadership is shocked that the pews are emptying out?  Catholics have been warning them for years that they are fed up.

Is it too late for the Catholic Church? Yes, it is.  And this breaks my heart.

In addition to the rank ridiculousness we are forced to endure - condom controversies, birth control nonesense, the rape of children and the church's protection of the rapists, the recent business in Arizona with the hospital and the so-called "abortion" - Catholics must also endure the very thin talent in the pulpit. Frankly, it is not just a priest shortage but the paucity of talent that drives people out. People want to be inspired, to learn, to think, to pray, to feel that their spiritual leader is exactly that - a spiritual leader. Sadly, a lot of parish priests are pretty weak in that department. They are going through the motions as much as the congregation. They seem to be phoning it in.

Finally, I would like an article from the Jesuits attached  to America magazine as to why Catholics should stay or if they have left why should they return? In particular, what is in it for women? I ask this in all seriousness. Not to be a smart aleck, I really want to know.  I can (and do) remain true to nearly all of my Roman Catholic beliefs and worship with my family at an Episcopal Church.
Brian McMillen
13 years 5 months ago
The Catholic Church teaches that my son is deranged because he is a homosexual. The Church pursues policies designed to increase the number of abortions by forcing safe medical procedures into a black market. It supports politicians that are aiding and abetting the rape and pillage of America by corporations. About 2 weeks before the 2004 election, my pastor from the pulpit and knowing that an IRS agent was sitting in the pews announced that it was the responsibility of every good Catholic to vote Republican. There was no way that I could ever vote for the minions of Satan. My wife and I have not been back except for funerals and weddings of friends. We prayed and decided that we had to stay on a path with Jesus and let the Church wander in the wilderness without us.

There is your exit interview.
Anil Wang
13 years 5 months ago
Chris, as an old timer, I'd like to lend my support. To all those who say Chris will "grow out of his faith", let me ask you to read G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, in particular the paragraph on the chapter "The Ethics of Elfland", included here:

I left the Church after grade school. Actually, it would be inaccurate to say I left, it was more I stopped going to mass since it was just ritual and God was everywhere. I was so poorly catechized that I thought that Jesus, Mary, Immanual, Lourdes, and Fatima were all just plain folk that were devoted to God. I was so out of religion that I though Billy Graham was just another priest. I didn't even know that Jesus was God.

I married a Presbyterian, and then began studying the faith either to reject it or embrace it, since if it's true, it changes everything and there is no area of life that isn't affected. We're not talking about something optional...We're talking about the very fabric of reality itself. As good as the scholarship is in the Reformed tradition is, it was still lacking and still rationalized scriptures it wanted to ignore. The Church Fathers (i.e. the writings of the early christians who sat at the feet of the apostles) I was lead to the Anglican Tradition. Truth was here....but it was still being distorted to fit the times. If something is true, it is true forever and cannot be changed by anyone at any time since we have to be servants of the truth since we're just a speck of dust in the vast universe. I was lead to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Here was truth without qualification. The Coptic Church (which broke off 400 years after Christ) was essentially the same as the Eastern Orthodox Church, so it was not an innovation. Additions were made to the declared doctrines, but nothing that couldn't be found in the writings of the early Christians. Nothing was was declared to be a doctrine has ever been changed. If it had, it would not be from God.

The Catholic Church has the same essentials, so I saw it was also truth, but I strongly sided with the Orthodox position on the few issues that divided these Churches, so the Orthodox seemed more true.

I was committed to the Eastern Orthodox Church and was about ready to start attending. I don't know what happened. At the beginning of the week I was solidly Orthodox and the end of the week I was solidly Catholic. It was grace.

You are correct. Catholics who fall away don't know their faith. If they became Orthodox or Copt, it's understandable since you need to go deep in scripture an history to distinguish them and arrive at a conclusive decision. But to go to a Protestant Church or to leave the faith entirely you can't know your faith....or you simply don't trust God and go your own way.

Most people here simply do not understand the Catholic faith. It may not be their fault. I'm personally very angry at my childhood priest who constantly compared Mary to "a woman in trouble" and Joseph as "a deadbeat dad that owned up to his responsibility" and Jesus as "a bastard" and regularly quoted secular experts as though they knew anything about the Catholic faith.

But regardless of who was to blame, the damage has been damaged will face the consequences unless they find the way to the truth, as I have and you have.

13 years 5 months ago
Anil,  I don't think anyone suggests that Chris will "grow out" of his faith in the Catholic church.  However, he may grow in maturity enough to understand that simply because others disagree with his rock-solid belief in all the Roman Catholic church teaches, it does not mean it is because they are poorly educated in the Catholic faith.  It appears that you personally did receive an almost unbelievably deficient catechesis in the Roman Catholic church's teachings and doctrine, especially as a child. However, just like Chris, you cannot assume that because YOU were poorly educated, and because YOU now believe all the church teaches, others must be ignorant of the teachings of the Roman Catholic church.  They are not. That is the false assumption Chris made, and you are falling into the same error.  As far as trusting God goes, many leave the Roman Catholic church precisely because they do trust God - it's not "going their own way," but having the courage to follow the path God has shown them.
Dominic Tomasso
13 years 5 months ago

Why I no longer go to  church. Let me count the reasons

Over 50% of the bishops in the United Stateds have been involved in the moving of sexual abusers from parish to parish.

The bishops of this country have used 3 or more billions of dollars of church funds for financial settlements and to law firms without any asccountability to their dioceses.

These same bishops have allowed thousands of sexually abusive priest to leave the ministry without having to register as sex offenders.

These same bishops that have drained billions of dollars from church funds are still in complete control of everything Catholic.

Lay Catholics do not have a vote on any council, committee or board of directors what-so-ever
, therefore the laity can not make any changes that may take away one iota of control of a bishop.

the bishops have two rules,#1 The bishops are in complete control of everything Catholic. Rule #2. When in doubt, refer to rule #1

Advocate For Bishops Accountability

Dominic Tomasso
13 years 5 months ago
Oops, one more, of soo many reasons why I do not go to church.The USCCB'S organization keep fighting any change in the Statute of Limitations. A law, that over the years has proven to protect sex abusers. Their main reason for fighting any change in the SOL. is becuse it would cost millions of more dollars to compensate victoms of sexual abuse.

Advocate For Bishops Accountability
Jack Barry
13 years 5 months ago

Anne C  -  Agreed

Anil  -  You would be correct if you said "Most people here simply do not understand the Catholic faith" in the same way.    Judging fault is often left to Whomever has the authority.
Mark Davenport
13 years 5 months ago
Profbam, the Catholic Church does not teach that gay people are deranged.  Some individual Catholics hate gay people but they are not the Church.  A lot of priests and nuns are gay.  I have to say that in 12 years of Catholic school, I never heard one word said against homosexuality or gay people.  In over 40 years of going to Mass every Sunday, I never heard one word said against homosexuality or gay people.  Gay people have made many contributions to the Catholic Church in 2000 years and surely there are many gay saints. 
Winifred Holloway
13 years 5 months ago
This article has occurred at just the right time, when so many of us are heartsick and bewildered about what has happened to our church.  And Chris, as many above have noted, it is not because we don't understand the teachings.  We were proud of our church and many of us have been active participants in the liturgical, social justice and educational life of the church.  That's why this disillusionment hurts so much.  We are not becoming the "smaller, purer church" that Pope Benedict had wished on us, but a meaner, cramped and narrower church.   My parish, at the moment, is lucky to have a religious order who espouses the Vatican ll reforms and serves us well with beautiful liturgies and attention to the needs of various age groups.  This can, and probably will, change in the near future given the dearth of priests.  One dear friend of mine who lives in Florida loved her parish, her pastor and associates, and the staff.  All changed with a new bishop.  A Law & Order man.  The long -time pastor has moved on and the new one is a former Episcopal priest really interested in the Latin Mass and the wearing of those retro vestments.  My friend, a rather traditional person and not given to advocacy for gays, was particulary turned off when the pastor did a rant against gays during his homily.  She has fled to a small Spanish parish where, she says, she can't stand the music, but the atmosphere is warm, welcoming and demonstrates kindness and acceptance.  You don't know her so you cannot share my amazement.  She is just one example of disenchanted Catholics that I know who are hanging on by their fingertips.  We don't know where this will end.  I hang on too, in faith and hope.  I worry about my children and grandchildren.  My kids were raised in the faith and are serious about its implications in the living of their lives - and they are appalled.  And Chris, it's not because they are uneducated in the faith or don't understand.  In fact, it's because they do understand, that they are appalled.
Katie Fisher
13 years 5 months ago
What interesting commentary. Great comments, Anil.

 I am probably older than Chris, but younger than many of the posters.  I have had, by most accounts, a challenging life, and more struggles than most people.

That being said, Chris makes some valid points and I wholeheartly agree with and support his sense of faith.

From my experience in RCIA, I encounter people coming into the Church and Catholics who want to know more about their faith.  I have met many a parishoner who, upon really understanding church teaching, had a newfound respect and love for Catholicism.

Does this mean that I am a blind follower?  By no means.  I too struggle with the horrific nature of the sexual abuse scandal, the church teaching on birth control, as well as other issues. 

The reason I stay in is my focus on Christ.  I have learned that humans always disappoint and sometimes dissapoint greatly.  Our church as all religions on this planet are made up of very fallible humans who will dissapoint us, fail us, make us want to run away from the pain they inflict. I have personally experienced several situations where some priests were rude, and diocesan staff were indifferent. 

However, I try to keep my "eyes on the prize" - I have never had a greater sense of God than as a Catholic, and I have had experiences with several faiths.  I could not let the insensitivity of others influence my relationship with the Church. 

I am also very lucky to be in a Jesuit parish now where I am spiritually fed.

What saddens me the most is the lack of hope and sense of despair of most of the posters.  They sense the eminent demise of the Catholic Church. 

I have hope however - but this hope is based on action.  Here are some of my suggestions:

#1 - Prayer.  I think that this church, from the laity to the priests have gotten away from prayer.  I sincerely believe that we need to pray that our leaders will listen to us.

#2 - Petition - for those of us who really care about this church, why can't we petition our leaders to have more dialog?  If enough well meaning Catholics e-mailed their bishops, who is to say what positives can happen?

We also need to make sure that there is complete transparency in terms of the sexual abuse scandal.

#3 - Dialog and understanding.  Some problems are not just problems for the Church For all the posters disagreeing with the Church's stance on homosexuality, why is it that the majority of Americans still have anti-gay view points and are opposed to gay marriage?  Respect for gay and lesbian people is an American problem, not just a Catholic Church problem.

Other problems in the church are definitly due to the fact that the Church does a very poor job explaining other teachings that are valid.  We need to have more dialog and have people who are expert at explaining church teaching in a clear and intellegent manner.

#4 - Respect - As someone "still in the pews"  I make an effort to be another face of the Catholic Church.  I greet strangers when they come to my parish for mass.  I try to treat all people with dignity and respect irregardless of race, sexual orientation, ethnicity.  For those of us still in the church, we need to reach out to all  - I think this too can go a long way to heal the church.

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