Empty Pews: More Reasons

Rather than update my already-long post from Wednesday, here’s another take on reasons why Catholics leave the Church. The Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, has released the results of a survey of disaffected Catholics, and the reasons given for leaving–while no surprise–are interesting in the ways in which they overlap, and the ways in which they don’t, Rachel Held Evans’s list of reasons why evangelical Christians leave their churches and the Catholics Come Home organization’s list of reasons Catholics come back. According to the news story in the Star-Ledger,

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.

I give Trenton Bishop David O’Connell major courage props for commissioning the survey, which he did in response to a suggestion by William Byron, SJ, in America last year, that bishops might learn a lot from “exit interviews” conducted with Catholics who leave. Bishop O’Connell not only took the dare, he gave Byron the job of exit interviewer. The study, conducted through Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management and co-authored by Charles Zech, was presented yesterday at a conference on Lapsed Catholics at The Catholic University of America. The National Catholic Reporter interviewed Bishop O’Connell by email before running their story on the survey, and his comments add dimension to the Star-Ledger‘s coverage.

Bishop O’Connell cited his concern over Trenton’s declining October count (the average number of Catholics attending weekly Mass during the month of October, which most dioceses use as a typical month), a trend reflected in many US dioceses. What I liked hearing was the Trenton Diocese’s intention to use the results of the survey to guide outreach to the disaffected, as well as to improve communication of Church teachings and invite questions and conversations before people get fed up enough to leave. I also liked hearing that other dioceses are interested in carrying out similar exercises.

It would be easy for Church leaders to dismiss the gripes of those who’ve left as “incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial,” as D.A. Hamilton Burger used to snort on the old Perry Mason show. Many will do that dismissing in the comboxes, I’m sure–based, if nothing else, on the fact that it was the Reporter that ran with this story first. It would also be easy for dioceses to assume they know the reasons why people are leaving, and base outreach efforts on those projections, or to design outreach to the disaffected on “entrance interviews” with converts who see all kinds of reasons to be in love with the Church. That’s a failing I find in the Catholics Come Home approach, sometimes. So I look forward to seeing how the “exit interviews” shape the future of Trenton’s efforts to refill the pews.

In the end, I was interested to see that the study authors named catechesis on the centrality of the Eucharist as a critical missing piece. Catholics Come Home named hunger for the Eucharist as the number one reason why lapsed Catholics return to the Church, and it was at the top of my reversion list, too. “If only 25 percent or less of our Catholics are participating in the Eucharist regularly, I think we have a serious concern,” Bishop O’Connell told the NCR. “We need to engage our Catholics in such a way that we see the Eucharist as . . . a necessary part of who we are in the Church.”

How will we do that? I say will, not can, because I’m convinced that unless and until we reignite a sense of Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ, people will find all kinds of reasons to leave the pews empty.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/diaryofawimpycatholic/ Big Max Lindenman

    I was hungry for the Eucharist once. For a while, through my second summer in the Church, I communed daily. But around that time, I started hearing so much about who should present themselves for Communion and who shouldn't that your Wonder Bread started looking more and more like Persephone's pomegranate. Barely touch the stuff now. The Eucharist has served the Church as her major attraction almost from the very beginning. If three-quarters of Catholics aren't buying it, I doubt there's much anyone can do to make them buy it. The bishops may just have to resign themselves to serving a smaller but purer Church.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06767838116702355734 Joanne K. McPortland

    You know I'm always sorry to hear you say that, and I still think it's a case of your excommunicating the Church for not living up to your standards, rather than the other way around. But I'll accept your assertion that there's nothing anybody can do to lure you back to the table–which doesn't mean I'll stop praying.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/diaryofawimpycatholic/2012/03/trayvon-martin-white-boy-privilege-and-me/ Big Max Lindenman

    Go right ahead. But as far as the bishops are concerned, the problem's much bigger than just me. Expecting people not only to accept a very odd theological concept, but also to sacrifice their moral and intellectual autonomy for it, is a pretty tall order. For many people, the World, capital "W," is an exciting place. It never surprised me in the least that so many people choose it over the Church. What does surprise me is that the bishops are surprised.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06767838116702355734 Joanne K. McPortland

    Well, we have very different ideas of what constitutes odd theological concepts. (I mean, all theological concepts are odd, I guess, but I don't see what's odder about the Eucharist than, say, any number of other foundational faith concepts, in any number of faiths. Faith itself would probably be the oddity.) And I don't believe I'm being asked to sacrifice my moral and intellectual autonomy for the Eucharist; that would be a very odd thing indeed for a God who created that autonomy to require. Assent of will is not the same thing as lobotomy, surely? As for Church and World, you know I find the former pretty exciting (perhaps it's the lobotomy) and don't feel the latter has to be forsworn, just transformed. But that's me. [Really good to volley with you, though I'm sure I'm losing. :) ]

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/diaryofawimpycatholic/2012/03/trayvon-martin-white-boy-privilege-and-me/ Big Max Lindenman

    Don't misunderstand me — I'm not singling out transubstantiation for oddness. I'd say the same thing about reincarnation or reformed Egyptian hieroglyphs engraved in golden tablets. You just happen not to be talking about either.You're right that assent of will is not a lobotomy. That's why the bishops ought not to be surprised when people DON'T assent. I'm sure you do find the Church exciting and transformative — if you didn't, you wouldn't be able to write so well about it. But, well, you're exceptional in a lot of ways, aren't you? I would never expect the vast run of people to find in the Church what you've found. Earlier you wrote I was excommunicating the Church for not living up to my standards. I'd put it a little differently. To my way of thinking, what I'm doing is placing myself beyond coercion. If I'm not asking anything from the Church, then the Church can't deny me anything. Once free from leverage, my relationship to the Church — whether I obey or not — becomes strictly a matter of personal choice.Also, NOT communing is one of the Catholic layperson's few inalienable rights. A priest can deny me Communion; what he can't do is chase me up the aisle screaming, "Body of –GET BACK HERE, YOU, AND TAKE YOUR SACRAMENT!"

  • Anonymous

    God can't force anyone into heaven, either.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I thought this was kind of an astonishing statement from Big Max: "I would never expect the vast run of people to find in the Church what you've found." I may just be misreading it, but there's something disturbingly elitist in that. Quite obviously, throughout the history of the church, a vast run of people found all those things and possibly more: poor, simple, "ignorant" people, as well as wealthy, worldly, "enlightened" people. The question is: what changed? It can't simply be the post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment habit of Doubt Uber Alles. Something like the Eucharist can survive the rigors of questioning and doubt. Have we simply lost our will to explain the faith correctly, or have people lost the will to understand and accept hard truths?PS: It's not the Trenton Star-Ledger. Technically, it's the Newark Star-Ledger, but it's just called the "Star-Ledger". I used to work for it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06767838116702355734 Joanne K. McPortland

    Thanks for the correction, Thomas. And don't be disturbed by Big Max. He and I have been unpacking this thing for a long time and we sometimes fall into a kind of shorthand that leaves out the nuances. We're all trying to ask the questions you're asking, and wrestling with the language in which to do so. Personally, I think you might be on to something with a failure of will on both sides, but I think it's less about reluctance to teach correctly or to accept hard truths as it is a failure to invite or to be invited into mystery, which is never as neat as legalists would prefer nor as comfortable as the world would like. That, to me, is the challenge of the New Evangelization.


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