Exit Interviews

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.

Almost Leaving

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.

Anita Garrick

Arlington, Va.

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

Rockport, Mass.

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.

John Cavanagh

Plymouth, N.H.

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.

Jack Barry

Columbus, Md.

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.

Harry DeMaio

Cincinnati, Ohio


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.

Mary Woodhouse

Atlanta, Ga.

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.

Winifred Holloway

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

Spokane, Wash.

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.

John Kotre

Ann Arbor, Mich.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike Evans
7 years 11 months ago
Wow! It is hard not to be inspired by all of the responses above. So many people deeply wounded by the church and some of its pastors and leaders. So little compassion for the human condition and the suffering people endure. Like John Kotre, I have been inspired by members of the Mennonite tradition who came on their own dime to our community to help us rebuild after a tragic wild land fire destroyed over 250 homes. They were believers and doers, cheefully giving of themselves and showing all of us what Jesus himself might do. I came very close to joining up.
7 years 11 months ago
Thought provoking.
Deb Zabloudil
7 years 11 months ago
I am in awe of the stories they share and can understand the pain.
Mona Villarrubia
7 years 11 months ago

Passing a church as mass let out last Sunday, I turned to my husband and said, “I just want you to know, I don’t want a Catholic funeral.” I was as surprised as he was; I didn’t realize I had made a final decision. But I had, I have.

I taught high school theology for 27 years and I have a divinity degree and a Masters in Religious Education. After the behavior of Cardinal George, ignoring his own review board recommendations and thereby enabling the rape of three young boys, I could no longer defend my church to my students. I didn't want to lie; I couldn't tell the truth. They didn't deserve my anger and my cynicism at a time in their lives when they were struggling to discover their own spirituality. Luckily for them, teenagers don't read newspapers or watch the evening news. But I didn't want to be the one to disillusion them. I remembered how my faith had sustained me through a very difficult home life. 

I now work in a Reform Synagogue with a female rabbi and I am just beginning to truly grieve my loss of my religion.

Joan Fry
7 years 11 months ago
Reading these letters has made me more thankful than ever that I have been blessed with good priests in the various parishes to which I've belonged.  I am the widow of an Ordained Deacon, who was born and raised a Catholic.  My husband was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, but became a Catholic shortly before we were married.   Vatican ll was, in my estimation, the best thing that ever happened to the Church in my 88 years.  As the mother of six children, however, it breaks my heart that some of my children no longer practice their Catholic faith.  My only daughter now belongs to the Independant Catholic church, where her pastor is a woman.  She was extremely active in her Roman Catholic parish but left it because of the Bishop removing her pastor over a misunderstanding.  He was reinstated as a priest after several years, but was not given the parish he had served for so many years.  When the heirarchy behaves in this manner, is it any wonder we are losing so many?  Thankfully, I have several dear friends who are Vatican ll priests, and I do NOT look forward to the changes coming in the Liturgy, come Advent.
David Smith
7 years 11 months ago
From your selection of the nearly two hundred comments, it would seem that nearly all who left or almost left were what's usually called "liberals", unable to bear a stifling conservatism in the American church.  As I recall, the reasons were rather more varied than that:

Mary Wood
7 years 11 months ago
I saw this quoted somewhere; it's allegedly a comment of Sr Joan Chittister's, but I cannot vouch for that attribution.  However, it resonates with me and, I suspect, with many others.

"But at the same time, there comes a time when you are too tired of trying to be heard in a place like the church where no one wants to hear you. Then, you walk out of it, past it, beyond it. And often, invisibly. They think you're still there, because your body is, but your heart is long gone and your spirit free. I know." 
Robert Asselin
7 years 11 months ago
Good idea, as usual, from Fr. Byron.  We need a lot more dialog within the Church, and I mean among us all. One of my many favorite priests in DC opens each liturgy with a resounding, “Hello, Church!”

Information gathered from those who have stopped attending liturgy could be used as a basis for parish-based dialogs, along with information from those like myself who continue participating on why they are doing so, what good they enjoy.  Building on the positive (appreciative inquiry) is often an easier place to start.  Off the top of my head, I would list:

  • Contact with God and His people in the liturgy, other sacraments, and parish-based activities.

  • The gifts of the Holy Spirit obtained though the above.

  • Knowing many, many dedicated and good priests, religious and members of the Church.

  • Just read Psalm 23 today. Peace, confidence, being loved.

7 years 11 months ago

Re. It Never Happened: After reading this account by John Cavanagh giving his reason for leaving the Church one is forced to ask "Could this be a true tale? How responsibly did William Byron and AMERICA check out the tale?" Words like "barely legal colts for his stable" and "the Jesuit erupted in rage" and "my parents and their cronies" suggest to me an embittered and destuctive personality. Of course, if the story is true the bitterness is understandable. But it's such an horrific tale I have to question it. To me it sounds more like the fabrication of one who has been hurt and is striking back to hurt the institution and people (even his parents) he feels betrayed him. All these authority figures - even his father and mother - turning against him!? Makes one wonder.

Doug Myler
7 years 10 months ago
You stated that the letters in "Exit Interviews" were representative of the letters received.  That seems rather odd since only one letter was from a Catholic west of the Missippi River.  I realize that many states west of the great river have small Catholic populations.  Still, there are some states with large Catholic populations, such as Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, and California.  Also, some with pockets of high Catholic density, such as St. Louis, in Missouri.  
Angela Marczewski
7 years 10 months ago
What sad stories! But I am not surprised-I hear similar accounts every day in my work as a hospital chaplain. And, surprisingly, most of the stories I hear are from elderly individuals-people in their 70's, 80's, and 90's-not from the youth or young adults that so many think of as responsible for the population downturn in the church. Most of the people I see have left the church gradually over the course of many years and most have not experienced any singular or particularly tragic event or trauma that caused them to leave. They simply drifted away because they were unable to find what they needed in the way of spiritual nourishment from the church they grew up in; the gap between the "official" church (read "the hierarchy") is viewed as so large that people do not even attempt to bridge it. They see the life that they have lived and their human experiences as so far from the understanding of the clergy that they are "on their own" so to speak. They would not even attempt to try to find understanding in the Church-and forget about the Sacrament of Reconciliation! There is no way many of them would ever consider telling a priest their deepest, darkest secrets.  On the positive side, however, these individuals often have a strong faith in God; they turn to God in their distress, and they feel God's presence-they just don't feel they need the Church or its representatives to mediate the relationship. This is, perhaps, the saddest story of all. How have we as a church failed so many people? Are we our own worst enemy? Or is this phenomenon the work of the Holy Spirit trying to teach us that God is present to all people regardless of church affiliation and doesn't really need the Church to reach them or touch their hearts?


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