April 30, 2021


Why Catholics are leaving

Welcome, new Catholics who were received into the full communion of the Church on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil. We’re glad that you have followed God’s call to join us in the Church. Sadly, many of our brothers and sisters in faith at this time have chosen instead to walk away from our family of faith.

The number of Catholics in the United States has continued to decline during recent years. For every convert who has been coming into the Church, about four are leaving. Besides that, the number of Catholics who are getting married in the Church fell from 352,458 in 1965 to 125,916 in 2016. And it keeps falling.

The number of priests has also fallen for the past six decades, mainly because older priests are retiring faster than new priests are being ordained. Many priests are coming from Asia and Africa to minister in the U.S., but our priests are still being overworked.

Fewer Catholics are attending Mass on weekends. According to Villanova University’s Center for Church Management, only about 21% of U.S. Catholics were attending Mass on Saturday evenings or on Sundays before the COVID-19 pandemic. We don’t know how many of them will return to their parishes when the pandemic ends.

Catholic schools have been severely affected. According to the National Catholic Education Association, U.S. Catholic school enrollment declined by 111,000 students last year, the largest decrease in 50 years. A total of 209 Catholic schools closed or consolidated last year as well.

With fewer Catholics going to Mass and fewer children attending our schools, is it any wonder that we are losing members? Polls show that former Catholics tend to leave the Church in their early teens, and the exodus continues as they get older and are more and more influenced by the secular values of our society.

Even those who remain Catholic frequently disagree with some of the Church’s teachings. Cohabitation instead of marriage, which until fairly recently was also frowned upon by society, is now considered acceptable by 65% of those who call themselves Catholic, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll. Another Pew Research Center study in 2019 reported that 60% of U.S. Catholics have been sufficiently influenced by society’s values to approve of same-sex marriage.

This almost always indicates that many have made no attempt to learn why the Church teaches what it does. They just believe that the Church is too strict. Studies have shown that young people associate the Catholic Church with conservative views, which they often don’t share.

Other Christian faiths have also experienced these problems. The number of “nones”—those who say they practice no religion—has exploded and is now larger than any of the Protestant denominations. A 2019 Gallup poll reported that 70% of Americans attended church regularly in 1999, with that number falling to 50% by 2018.

We know the problem—Catholics are leaving the Church—but the solution is illusive. Changing some teachings to correspond to the views of society doesn’t seem to work. Many mainline Protestant denominations have tried this, and they’re losing members at a higher rate than the Catholic Church is. Or are people leaving the Catholic Church because they perceive that it has already changed its teachings?

It has been said by some that “Catholic” means “here comes everybody” because everyone can be a member—all races and people of all political viewpoints.

The teachings of the Church do not fit into one political category or another. They are consistent in teaching love of God and neighbor, and that we are all created in the image of God and therefore of inestimable worth from conception to natural death. In terms of American politics, that means that the Church opposes not only abortion but also euthanasia and the death penalty, and that it opposes racism and supports efforts to help the poor and migrants.

Renowned novelist Mary Gordon was so intrigued by that fact that she wrote a book called What Kind of Catholic Are You? She described it in the Jesuit magazine America: “I have come up with a series of couples, with each member of the couple saying that her or his ideas stem from his or her Catholicism—except that the ideas are diametrically opposed. So I link Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert, Nancy Pelosi and Kellyanne Conway, Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh, Paul Farmer and Robert R. Redfield, Anna Quindlen and Ross Douthat, Rachel Maddow and Laura Ingraham.”

Christ died for all, and he founded a Church for all. The solution to the Church’s problems is evangelization—by all of us. It’s up to each one of us to fill our churches.

—John F. Fink

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