Lapsed Catholics weigh in on why they left Church

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University estimates that there are currently approximately 32 million adults in the United States who were raised Catholic but have ceased to identify themselves as a member of the Church. A recent survey of lapsed and former Catholics in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, conducted by researchers at Benedictine University, offers new insights into why some Catholics stop attending Mass or leave the faith all together.

In their report “Joy and Grievance in an American Diocese,” the researchers indicate they targeted “those who had lapsed or drifted from the Church and are currently inactive in a diocesan parish.” The study also includes a survey of active Catholics for comparison.

By the numbers

These surveys did not use random sampling and fall short of being scientific polls. The authors note that the “results may not generalize to all inactive or active Catholics in the diocese.” The inactive Catholic survey was conducted online with invitations to respond published in the local news media, in advertisements and in Church publications such as the diocesan newspaper and parish bulletins.

A total of 940 individuals went to the website to take the inactive Catholic survey; of these 575 answered questions. The diocese estimates there are 145,189 parish-affiliated Catholics in Springfield.

This approach yielded a sample that appears to reflect most closely the news-attentive population of the diocese. Fifty-eight percent of respondents are age 50 or older, 39 percent have attended graduate school or have a graduate degree (only about 12 percent of the U.S. population over age 25 have a graduate degree), and 65 percent had attended a Mass in the year before being surveyed.

Only six percent of respondents are between the ages of 18 and 24. This is remarkable as the Pew Research Center and CARA surveys of Catholics and former Catholics using random sampling indicate that most who leave the Faith do so before reaching the age of 18 or between the ages of 18 to 24. Pew’s “Faith in Flux” survey, one of the most extensive studies ever conducted about why people leave the faith they were raised in, estimates that among former Catholics nationally “only one-fifth who are now unaffiliated (21 percent) and one-third who are now Protestant (34 percent) departed after turning age 24.”

Recently fallen away

Pew, CARA and other media researchers have consistently shown that news attention among Millennials (those born between 1982 and 2002) in the United States is significantly lower than those of older generations. Few in this generation who have lapsed or left were likely aware of the survey and were very unlikely to respond to a card left in a pew they have not sat in for years.

Even though the survey likely missed the largest segment of the “former Catholic” population in this area, it is still very useful. This study, more than any other I have seen, was able to tap the “angry Catholic.” Its method of recruiting respondents successfully motivated the older, news-attentive former Catholics who are likely the most aware of events occurring in the Church.

Most of the inactive respondents are quite close to their decision to lapse or leave; two-thirds of them are a member of a parish and/or attended Mass in the last year. Because this population is much smaller than that of younger Catholics who drift away, we don’t know as much about them from national studies.

Pew’s study showed that Catholics who become unaffiliated are most likely to indicate they gradually drifted away from their childhood faith (71 percent). Among those becoming Protestants, the most common reasons for leaving were that their spiritual needs were not met in the Catholic Church (71 percent) and that they found a religion they liked more (70 percent). By comparison, the Springfield survey of inactive Catholics found four major reasons for leaving: dissatisfaction with Church doctrine (e.g., birth control, ordination of women, civil marriage after divorce, fertility treatments and same-sex marriage), losing interest in the Faith and Mass, Church scandals or feeling unwelcome or judged by the Church.

Importance of community

The study includes responses to open-ended questions about decisions to leave. One example that spans several areas of dissatisfaction is: “My daughter came out to me as gay, and I went through a divorce after 28 years of marriage. The Church doesn’t want either one of us.”

Thirty percent of respondents reported that they were uncomfortable with “the feeling of community in their congregation.” By comparison, the study’s survey of active Catholics noted that the sense of community was one of the most important reasons for attending Mass at their parish. This is highly consistent with CARA’s in-pew surveys nationally that also find that a sense of welcome and community is the most common thing that attracts and keeps people active in parish life.

If there is anything that this study and other studies of Mass-attending Catholics can teach the Church, it is that parish community is the most important element of parish life. If parishioners do not feel welcome, you can expect to have fewer parishioners soon. Anything that is unwelcoming or judgmental is likely to turn people away from your parish and the Faith.

The Springfield survey of active Catholics also found that respondents wanted their priests to be more welcoming and approachable. They felt that these priests personally reaching out to inactive Catholics would likely do the most good. The survey does not provide good marks for how the clergy are currently approaching their ministry. The study’s authors note, “Parish priests or pastors were the most frequently given responses for what parishioners liked least about their parish.”

Solvable problem

One final note of caution: Respondents may also have included some who have never been Catholic but who dislike the Church. There is an active community of these individuals online who can be found in the comments section of any major news story about the Church or in the replies to Pope Francis tweets. Invitations to the survey were made in the general news media, and I would imagine there are some who found their way to the survey as a way to protest a church they’ve never been a part of.

Even with the few methodological challenges noted here, the Springfield study is important. It best reflects the raw emotions of older Catholics who have recently stopped attending Mass or left the Faith all together. It provides a window into what an “exit interview” of adult former Catholics might look like. We often miss this in national, random sample surveys where many formerly Catholic respondents left the Faith long ago — even in their teen years — and are quite distant in time and emotion from that decision.

This study further confirms that one of the Church’s biggest problems is something that is entirely solvable. A handshake, a smile, an invitation, a “glad you are here” are much more important than many priests seem to realize. As Pope Francis has shown, there is a pastoral way to approach Church doctrine with Catholics. There is another way that leads to former Catholics.

Mark M. Gray is a senior research associate for the Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate.