We’ve seen many theories at Pray Tell for why Catholics leave their Church.
Some claims are obviously a projection of the writers’ biases, such as: “I don’t like the vernacular liturgy/the missal of Paul VI/guitar and clown Masses, and I know this is what drove everyone away.” The response is predictable: Do you have any data? The counter-response is predictable: look at the data – Mass attendance and church membership began plunging in the 1960s, just when the new liturgy came in. And then someone asks why the numbers got worse under John Paul II, and even worse under Benedict XVI. And then we bat around the post quam ergo propter quam logical fallacy for a while.
Now we have some data.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life tells us that one out of every ten Americans is an ex-Catholic. One of three people who were raised Catholic no longer identifies as Catholic.
Why do they leave? According to the study, 71% of now-Protestant ex-Catholics say that their spiritual needs were not being met in Catholicism. 32% say they were dissatisfied with the atmosphere at worship services. Of those now unaffiliated with religion, 43% of the ex-Catholics say their spiritual needs were not being met, with 26% dissatisfied with the atmosphere at worship services.
How many left Catholicism because it drifted too far from traditional practices such as Latin Mass? 11% of those ex-Catholics who are now Protestant, and 8% of those ex-Catholcis who are now unaffiliated. Put another way, of the one in three cradle Catholics no longer Catholic, this is a bit less than 3 or 4 % of all the Catholics we started with. That’s not nothing, and we believe in Someone who said something about going after one sheep in a hundred. But it’s not a huge group of people. Larger by far are those who say that their spiritual needs were not met at Catholic worship, obviously for other reasons.
Doctrinal concerns, such as teachings on birth control or homosexuality, are significant issues, but not nearly as significant as the spiritual and liturgical issues mentioned above.
Fr. Thomas Reese SJ has trenchant commentary in “The hidden exodus: Catholics becoming Protestants” in the print edition of the current issue of the National Catholic Reporter:
First, those who are leaving the [Catholic] church for Protestant churches are more interested in spiritual nourishment than doctrinal issues. Tinkering with the wording of the creed at Mass is not going to help. No one except the Vatican and the bishops care whether Jesus is “one in being” with the Father or “consubstantial” with the Father. That the hierarchy thinks this is important shows how out of it they are.
While the hierarchy worries about literal translations of the Latin text, people are longing for liturgies that touch the heart and emotions. More creativity with the liturgy is needed, and that means more flexibility must be allowed. If you build it, they will come; if you do not, they will find it elsewhere. The changes that will go into effect this Advent will make matters worse, not better.
UPDATE: Now it’s up at the NCR site – here.