Why Do Some People Leave the Church?

It seems like you cannot attend a meeting today without someone bringing up or complaining about the fact that many Catholics are leaving the Catholic Church for one reason or another, with most of them heading to evangelical non-denominational churches. At a recent deanery meeting someone mentioned that, within five years, many Catholics who leave the Church for non-denominational churches eventually end up leaving those churches for nothing and thus end all connections with organized religion.

Catholics Come Home Program

I am proud that there has been a strong effort recently to reach out to fallen-away Catholics. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, we have participated in the “Catholics Come Home Program,” which included television commercials, billboards, and the encouragement of parish-developed evangelization programs. I see the Year of Faith proclaimed by Benedict XVI as yet another positive attempt to fire up Catholics about their own faith and thus help the new evangelization.

As I reflect on what my role as a Catholic priest is and should be in all of this, my mind keeps going back to a news article I read three years ago. The article talked about how beer companies were pooling their resources and coming together to advertise against the wine industry. It seemed that the beer companies had discovered that their primary competition was no longer each other. Rather, they were losing more customers because more people had begun to drink a glass of wine instead of a can of beer to relax or to enjoy a good time.

A Person of Faith or No Faith

This news story makes me wonder. Maybe it is not the evangelical non-denominational churches that are our greatest competition. Maybe our greatest threat is simply the fact that more people are not seeing the value of being people of faith. What then is the reason or reasons that people are turning away not only from the Catholic Church but also from all organized religion in general? For the answer to that question, may I direct you to the second chapter of Father Benedict Groeschel’s book Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones: Spiritual Answers to Psychological Questions.

In the second chapter, titled “Unbelief, Doubts and Faith,” Father Groeschel begins to address the issue of unbelief with the following words, “Positive unbelief is somewhat voluntary. It is a decision not to believe, not to accept God. It may even be the result of some connivance with the powers of darkness.” The direct influence of the evil one, Father Groeschel goes on to say, is not the only cause for unbelief in the world today. “But unbelief is by no means the result solely of a malign force outside the human mind.” He goes forward to point out six choices people make that can lead them to be persons of belief or unbelief — people of faith or people of no faith.

The first reason concerns secularism. “Secularism” is one of those words that I have heard often, yet I find that people have a hard time defining it. Father Groeschel gives secularism a very simple and profound definition: treating one’s faith as recreational or seeing faith as a luxury. Faith therefore becomes something practiced only when one has time for it. Our modern world tells us that faith is not a necessity, but rather “just a little luxury of civilization which some might enjoy.” We know, however, from our own experience that true faith must permeate every aspect of our life and is not something we do only on Sunday mornings. I would suggest that secularism is one of the biggest reasons people leave the Catholic Church.

The second reason for leaving the faith, Father Groeschel called “silly religion.” I refer to it as “ego-based faith.” The people who practice silly religion practice their faith not to develop a relationship with God but rather to receive the esteem of others. Father Groeschel points out, “Their faith has been truncated by self-seeking, a lack of trust, and fear of making a real commitment to God.” Ultimately people who practice silly religion or ego-based faith will fall away because Jesus tells all of his followers that we will be persecuted and when this persecution comes they fall away because they are no longer receiving the praise of others.

For the third reason why some people fall away, Father Groeschel reaches into history and gives new meaning to the term “simony.” The term “simony” in medieval history was a heresy where a bishop would bribe a pope for a better church office or diocese. This ultimately led to a bishop being the bishop of two or more dioceses at the same time. Father Groeschel defines “simony” in our times in this way: “Many misjudge religious people because of the bad example they have witnessed.” How many times have we heard people say “I don’t go to Church, Father, because the whole building is filled with hypocrites,” “I don’t like Father so and so,” or “I don’t like Bishop so and so.” They have forgotten the sublime truth that St. Augustine taught us: “The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.” Therefore, simony for me is when a person places too much emphasis on any one human person in the Church; instead of their faith being about Jesus Christ, they allow the bad examples of other people to drive them away from a relationship with God.

The fourth reason according to Father Groeschel is what he calls “immature faith.” He defines it as: “There is another, more important and subtle reason for the loss of faith, which involves the struggle to grow beyond the image of God formed in childhood and firmly rooted in the psyche. The faith of a child or a teenager is very much entwined with unconscious elements of the personality. As a person grows, faith and its perception must grow too. This is often a painful process.”

Many False Notions of God

Father Robert Barron in his Catholicism series echoes this idea when he starts off one of his sections by saying that he agrees with most atheists. He then goes on to explain the many false notions that atheists have about God and how he would not believe in those types of gods. As people of true faith, we have come to understand that God is more than we can imagine. We need to eventually shed the images of God as merciless judge, God as blind to our problems, etc.

The fifth reason some leave the Catholic Church and give up on the gift of faith totally is a refusal to face one’s doubts head on. Father Groeschel has this to say about doubt: “Almost every believer must deal at times with doubt, which is the surfacing of the underlying unbelief of fallen man. Sometimes doubts are aimed at the core of a belief — at the existence and person of God. Or they may focus on the mystery of salvation and the divinity of Christ. They may involve the apostolic mandate of the Church, a particular doctrine like the Eucharist, or the spiritual significance of the Mother of God. It makes little difference since any doubt, even a particular one, can cause great conflict about all that is revealed. . . . By definition doubt is a state of suspended judgment. One does not know whether to affirm or deny something, especially to oneself. The sources of doubt include all the causes of loss of faith we have already discussed. Like unbelief, doubt can arise from secularism, bad example, personal conflicts of growth and self-deception.”

The final reason some people fall away is called “arrogance of intellect.” Arrogance of intellect is simply the idea that myself as an individual or a group of people are on the same level or above as God. This is not a case of the Church being against science but rather it is more about us thinking we know more than our Creator.

When Pope Benedict XVI last came to the United States, I watched many television shows with young college-age Catholics telling people that they were members of the Church because they realized that the Church was eventually going to change its teachings on this or that point. I could not help but feel sorry for each of them because the Church has been around for close to 2,000 years and is guided by the Holy Spirit and not by popular opinion.

How then are we to address these six issues if they are leading our people away from God? How are we as shepherds to lead the lost sheep back? I do not have the complete answer to those questions. I do believe that a good place to start is to attack these six areas: secularism, silly religion/ego based faith, simony, immature faith, doubts, and arrogance of intellect. We must always do so with a shepherd’s love and a firm reliance that we too need God’s grace. Otherwise, we will find ourselves practicing one of these six behavior/choices and that would be dangerous to our salvation. TP 

Father Pastorius is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.