In “On Their Way Out,” (1/3) William J. Byron, S.J., applying a business management principle, suggested that it would be profitable to interview people who are leaving the church in order to learn what is driving so many away. America received an unusually high number of replies, particularly on its Web site. The following is a representative selection from those letters, edited and condensed for space.
I’ve considered leaving many times: when I have to fill out questionnaires, as if I were a common criminal, in order to work with children, because some priests can’t control themselves; when a bishop suggests that dissenters not receive Communion; when a nun is excommunicated for making a difficult bioethical decision necessary to save a woman’s life; when women aspiring to the priesthood are linked with sexual abusers as guilty of a “grave delict”; when at each election I’m handed a diocesan voting guide which might as well be stamped “Vote Republican.”
But I remain, because the priests in my parish don’t think respectful dissent is a sin and do think that social sins like racism and war-making are more important than masturbation and condom use.
Eucharist Lived, Not Rationed
I left in 2004 when a few bishops declared that John Kerry and anyone who voted for him should not receive Holy Communion because of his pro-choice position on abortion. I personally believe that abortion is just about the worst thing any woman can do to herself and her unborn child, but the audacity of Catholic bishops interfering in presidential elections by politicizing the Eucharist was the last straw. Around that time I attended a funeral in an Episcopal church and heard the priest say, “In the Episcopal Church all baptized Christians can receive the Eucharist.” After an eight-day retreat, I began to receive the Eucharist in that church and continue to do so today. In politics I’m an independent and refuse to allow anyone to diminish my ability to hear the Gospel or deprive me of the “peace of Christ.” The Eucharist is a sacrament to be lived, not rationed or used as a weapon.
Eileen M. Ford
It Never Happened
In the 1950s and until the mid-’60s, the abbot of the Trappist monastery I had entered in 1959 was recruiting barely legal colts for his stable. Boys 17 to 23, considered too young by the order’s standards elsewhere, often became the abbot’s lovers. He was discreet and dropped them as they got older, but eventually there was a row over how the place was governed. In 1964 a team of abbots came to investigate, and four of us went together to tell what we had seen and heard. We signed notarized affidavits after being promised immunity from retaliation, assured that the Congregation for Religious was monitoring the investigation and guaranteed our immunity.
The investigators thanked us for sticking our necks out, fired the abbot and his friends at once and brought in a new superior. But within a year the whistleblowers were separately told that we had never had an authentic calling to the monastic life, and one-by-one advised to leave because we had a problem with authority and were ill-suited for the tranquil discipline of monasticism. One had been in the order for 18 years, another for 30.
Six weeks later at a family dinner attended by a prominent foreign Jesuit and a monsignor, my aunt asked why I had left. When I told the group, the Jesuit erupted in rage. “It never happened,” he shouted. “I forbid you to ever say it happened. Or even to believe that it happened.” I swore that night I would never again allow myself to be humiliated and silenced. My parents took the Jesuit’s side, and they and their cronies treated me as an enemy of the church for the rest of their lives.
No Old Age Apathy Here
A striking feature of the articulate comments appearing on the America Web site is the number from readers in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Some have thoughtfully and painfully gone, some are in the process, and some are staying in spite of what they know. These are not the young nonparticipants usually heard about with lamentation or criticism in the news. These have lived with the church in parishes and dioceses, and with the Vatican as it went through its legalistic Latin stage, its Vatican II stage, and its current reform of the reform, child-abuse-cover-up stage. Those worrying about “apathy” among the “lapsed” ignore the overwhelming reality in front of them. Passion is the opposite of apathy. It is found in the remarkable abundance of those who might be expected to have cooled down a bit with the wisdom of age.
New Liturgy, More Losses
Father Byron’s article has a note of despair in it that I share. A while ago I left the church for three years. It was ridiculously easy. You just stop. At the time I had just fulfilled a term on the parish council, was active in local politics and had taught C.C.D. classes. In short, I was known. No one, cleric or lay, approached me in any way. Perhaps it was because my wife continued to attend Mass, and she kept the weekly envelopes coming in. If those stop, you get noticed. I’m back thanks to a wonderful priest I met in Seattle. I’m in a different parish and again alive.
But we are about to launch a new liturgy that will have only one effect—more losses. The reasons for leaving in Father Byron’s article will remain. Losses will continue, if not accelerate. And the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults seems more aimed at weeding out all but the most committed. We continue to bleed but inhibit new blood.
The arrival of a new parish priest has made me a stranger in my church. He has established an ultra-retro-orthodox liturgy and says the Latin Mass every day. When he is not available to say Mass in English, he abolished the word and Communion ceremony and substituted prayer and the rosary. The fact that few attend and the daily churchgoers no longer see one another does not trouble him. The furniture has been rearranged and the lace “edging” of the alb now begins at the hip. The choir has had to learn plainchant, the parish council has been abolished, the priest’s sermons dwell on minutiae, indulgences, priestly authority and 16th-century martyrs—never on Scripture. Mass-going, with his flamboyance, is painful. He refuses to meet with other Christian clergy, asserts his “otherness” by wearing his biretta and cassock even while shopping on Main Street. Why do I stay? I’m over 70, love the other parishioners, fear causing scandal if I go to the Anglican church and have no car to drive to another Catholic parish. But I am on the brink.
Hanging on by the Fingertips
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 that espouses the Vatican II reforms and offers liturgies that meet all age groups. One dear friend in Florida saw everything changed when the bishop, a law and order man, moved in a former Episcopal priest given to the Latin Mass and retro vestments, who delivered a rant against gays in his homily. She has fled to a small Spanish parish where she can’t stand the music, but the atmosphere is warm. She is an example of disenchanted Catholics hanging on by their fingertips. I worry about my children and grandchildren.
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
To Leave Is to Search
I am an 82-year-old former priest who left after 16 years of priestly and academic ministry. No one asked me why, and only my wife and my Jesuit spiritual director know the reasons. The failure in church leadership today is the effect of their not wanting to know the reasons. Reasons are disturbing, but the comfortable must be disturbed—and the disturbed comforted—if our church is to change and thrive. Since the Reformation and Enlightenment, the leadership has put Christian doctrine and practice in the deep freeze and dogmatized what should be mere policy. Exit interviews would disclose the irrelevancy of the Liturgy of the Word, especially the homily, and that religious education, including seminaries, is academic but not transformative of the heart. Those who drift away are searching for what they cannot find here—a personal relationship with God.
James J. Flynn
I’m Still Here
I am the researcher identified in Father Byron’s article as author of a 1971 study on why Catholics leave the church. I was a Jesuit seminarian for six years but had problems with the Catholic tradition. Three years ago, during a recitation of the Creed at Mass, I found myself saying, “I’m not a Catholic anymore.” I couldn’t keep mumbling my way through the Creed. It was not about the way shown by Jesus. My journey brought me to a small Anabaptist group of Mennonites and Brethren. The only creed was, “Continue the work of Jesus.” I wept. But when I returned on a Sunday to my Catholic church, I wept again. I am now both Catholic and Anabaptist.
What keeps me apart from the church? The bishops are always in the room with you. What keeps me a part of the church? My local parish, the contemplative tradition (Merton, Rohr, Keating), the “new story” people (Teilhard, Berry), the witness of women religious. My favorite Catholic recollection is an empty, dark church with a flickering red light.
Ann Arbor, Mich.