Why they leave: former Catholics explain — UPDATED

This story first broke in the New Jersey press last week, but is now getting more attention.  The report below is in this morning’s USA TODAY:

As part of a survey to understand why they have stopped attending Mass, a few hundred Catholics were asked what issues they would raise if they could speak to the bishop for five minutes.

The bishop would have gotten an earful.

Their reasons ranged from the personal (“the pastor who crowned himself king and looks down on all”) to the political (“eliminate the extreme conservative haranguing”) to the doctrinal (“don’t spend so much time on issues like homosexuality and birth control”).

In addition, they said, they didn’t like the church’s handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal and were upset that divorced and remarried Catholics are unwelcome at Mass.

The findings, based on responses to a survey in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., are included in a report presented March 22 at the “Lapsed Catholics” conference at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Conducted by Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management, the survey, called “Empty Pews,” asked Catholics in the Trenton Diocese a series of questions about church doctrine and parish life to better understand why they are staying home.

While the study was restricted to one diocese, chances are the responses could come from just about anywhere in the U.S., where a 2007 report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found one-third of Americans were raised Catholic but one-third of those had left the church.

Or, as Villanova’s Charles Zech put it, “These are issues that affect the whole church.”

The responses can be divided into two categories, said Zech, who co-authored the study and is director of the Villanova center. In one category are “the things that can’t change but that we can do a better job explaining.” The other category, he said “are some things that aren’t difficult to fix.”

Zech and the Rev. William Byron, professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, conducted the survey of 298 parishioners who have stopped attending Mass.

Almost two-thirds of the respondents were female, and the median age was 53, two facts that Zech finds troubling. “That’s a critical demographic. If we’re losing the 53-year-old women, we risk losing their children and their grandchildren,” he said.

About a quarter of the respondents said they still consider themselves Catholic despite not attending Mass. About half offered negative comments about their parish priests, whom they described as “arrogant,” “distant” and “insensitive.”

“One respondent said, ‘Ask a question and you get a rule, you don’t get a “let’s sit down and talk about it” response,'” Zech said. “They feel no one is willing to explain things to them.”

Read more.

And for another take, check out what Joanne McPortland, a revert, is thinking.

UPDATE: America magazine has just posted — weeks in advance — an online edition of a more detailed analysis:

We also asked: “Are there any changes your parish might make that would prompt you to return?” Respondents clearly welcomed the opportunity to express their opinions. We found no easily discernible trend in their replies, but their generally positive tone suggests the wisdom of finding ways for all Catholics to post their views somehow “on the record,” with an assurance that  they will be heard. Here are just a few of the many replies this question drew:

“Be accepting of divorced and remarried congregants.”

“I’m looking for more spiritual guidance and a longer sermon.”

“Return to a more consultative and transparent approach.”

“Change the liberal-progressive political slant to a more conservative, work-ethic atmosphere.”

“Make the homilies more relevant; eliminate the extreme conservative haranguing.”

“Provide childcare and a children’s ministry.”

“Give us an outwardly loving, kind, Christian Catholic  priest/pastor.”

Our question about whether or not their pastor was “approachable or welcoming” drew a number of warm and positive answers. About half of the respondents, however, were not enthusiastically supportive of their pastors. Where pastors and parishes were named, we gave that information to the bishop and recommended that he deal with the issues privately and avoid unnecessary public embarrassment when he goes public with our report. Words like “arrogant,” “distant,” “aloof,” and “insensitive” appeared often enough to suggest that attention must be paid to evidence of “clericalism” in the diocese.

Most respondents were positive or neutral in response to our question about the approachability of parish staff. There were sufficient reports of bad experiences over the parish telephone, however, to suggest that attention should be paid to courtesy and improved “customer relations.”

By a margin of about two-to-one, respondents reported that they did at one time consider themselves to be part of a parish community. On the negative side, here are two interesting replies elicited by this question:

“As much as I wanted to get involved and expand my faith, there were no clear avenues to do that. So it was just a place to attend Mass. And because attending Mass was a guilt-ridden obligation, I was always alone in a crowd where I knew no one and no one knew me.”

“I did not experience community in the sense that I knew people just from going to church. The ones I knew, I knew them outside of church. No one misses the fact that we stopped going. No one has called from the parish even though we were regular attendees and envelope users!”

There’s much more.  Do read it.

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