April 4, 2008


Why are so many Catholics leaving the Church?

The good news is that thousands of people became Catholics on Holy Saturday. We will report on that and list the names of the new Catholics in the parishes of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis later this month.

The bad news is that more Catholics are leaving the Church than are coming into it.

One-third of those raised as Catholics in the U.S. have left the Church of their baptism, which means that 10 percent of all Americans are now former Catholics.

The only way that Catholics continue to remain at approximately 25 percent of the population is the influx of Catholic immigrants, mainly from Latin America.

That bad news for Catholics was included in the results of interviews with 35,000 adults by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The forum released its findings, a study of all religions in the United States, on

Feb. 25 in a 148-page book it called “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” The story has been widely publicized.

The statistics about Catholics were part of the forum’s report that a whopping 44 percent of adult Americans now belong to a Church different from the one in which they were raised. Switching from one Church to another is obviously common in America.

We could, admittedly, concentrate on the positive aspects of the study, as Mark Gray did. He is a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington. He said that we shouldn’t overlook the fact that, despite the number of adults leaving, the Catholic Church continues to have a 68 percent retention rate of members who have been Catholic since childhood. That’s better than any of the mainline Protestant religions.

Latinos can also take pleasure in the results of the study because it shows that they now account for roughly one in three adult Catholics, and 45 percent of all Catholics between 18 and 29.

We can also rejoice that the study shows that only 1.6 percent of Americans are atheists, and only 2.4 percent call themselves agnostics.

Nevertheless, we find the number of former Catholics to be shocking. Not only our bishops and priests, but all of us must determine why so many adults are leaving our Church and figure out how to reverse the trend.

Part of the problem seems to be the fact that Catholics are now part of the American mainstream, and Americans have long been accustomed to people moving from one religion to another.

That, combined with the American emphasis on tolerance for people of all faith traditions, has led to the attitude that one religion is as good as another. After all, we hear, we all worship the same God so what difference does it make if we change religions?

But it does make a difference. Jesus Christ founded only one Church and that Church is the Catholic Church. Throughout history, scholars who have studied the doctrines and traditions of Christianity have come to that conclusion and have converted to Catholicism. That is still happening today.

Many Catholics, though, like most Americans, don’t pay much attention to doctrine. They go to church occasionally because they believe in God, they consider themselves to be spiritual and they pray. They were baptized in the Catholic Church, but went to public schools, and their parents didn’t insist that they attend religious education classes. They grew up knowing very little about what the Church teaches. They’re not interested in religion, and they don’t read Catholic periodicals. It’s no wonder that they consider one Church as good as another.

It’s not that many former Catholics have rejected the teachings of the Catholic Church. They’re either ignorant about what the Church teaches or they just don’t care; they’re apathetic. This is indicated by the statistic that half of former Catholics didn’t leave the Church in order to join a Protestant Church. They are no longer members of any Church. They have joined the one out of every four Americans between 18 and 29 who have no religious affiliation.

We Catholics are supposed to be evangelizers. It appears that the first place to begin evangelizing is with former Catholics.

But it would be better if we could prevent them from leaving in the first place.

—John F. Fink

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