Rarely do I hear Catholic commentators and apologists admit that the Catholic Church in America is losing people/communicants in very large numbers. The reasons for this exodus are complicated and rarely discussed by Catholics, the very Christians who ought to be profoundly concerned. Popular Catholic ministries use radio, television and the Internet to rally the faithful to “come home” and to better understand how important the church is to living faith. This is done in several prominent ways, some that even misrepresent Protestant evangelicalism in order to make the point that the Catholic apologist desires to make. Long ago I decided that such polemical attacks, launched routinely on both sides, served little or no purpose in actually helping Christians get to Jesus in real faith and obedience. AS I read the New Testament it seems to me that this ought to be the goal of all Christians and churches.
The common thread in popular Catholic explanations for this exodus is personal experience. Until recently there was very little social scientific research into the actual reasons people had for leaving the Catholic Church. Now we have growing evidence of reasons for these numbers, numbers not simply based on stories and anecdotes.
One out of every ten Americans is an ex-Catholic. If these people formed a separate denomination they would become the third largest denomination in the U.S. after Catholics and Baptists. One of three people who was raised a Roman Catholic no longer self-identifies as a Roman Catholic. But the U. S. Catholic bishops have not spent a single dime trying to understand “why” this has been happening. Now, the reasons can be studied thanks to some serious research done by the Pew Center on Religion.
This data shows that ex-Catholics can be divided into two major groups: the now unaffiliated and Protestants. The numbers are almost split evenly, thus half of those who leave the Catholic Church become Protestant. (If you listen to popular Catholic radio and television you would think that the largest numbers of those who leave are going from Protestant to Catholic but the evidence does not support this claim at all.)
Again, I have no horse in a race here. I am concerned, as most of you know, for the whole of the church thus I take no delight in the problems that American Catholics face. I do, however, wish that more Catholics would address their own household rather than spend time attacking others. (I know, evangelicals do the same thing but that doesn’t make it right either way if you are still with me to this point.)
So why do these Catholics become Protestants? Do they leave because they disagree with the Catholic teaching on birth control, women priests, divorce, etc.? No, and this is where everyone of us ought to take a deep breath, stop the various attacks and pray for all of Christ’s flock. The primary reason Catholics leave their church is that their spiritual needs are not being met. Read that statement again. 71% said this was their reason in the Pew Research. Simply put, the Catholic Church has failed to give its people a deeply satisfying spiritual experience. Put another way the evidence indicates that doctrine has very little to do with why a person chooses a congregation. The real reason is rooted in a growing and maturing spiritual experience.
There is a lot more that can be learned from this research. I encourage all my Catholic readers to study this with an open mind and heart. I encourage Protestants to not gloat in any way. I can give you compelling evidence for why we fail in many different ways that are bringing about huge losses in our own ranks. The honest truth is that the whole of Christ’s flock should own up to the real problems that we face as we live during a time of massive spiritual declension in the church. This is unprecedented, at least in our lifetime.
Read this article and you will get a fuller picture of what this research tells us and why it really matters to Catholics who love their church.