Dropout Catholics

Along with most priests, I scan the obituaries in the daily newspaper every morning to see if anyone has died whose wake or funeral I possibly should attend. It is such a habit that if I am in another city I look for the obituaries.

It is interesting, and unsettling, to see the many names of people with Hispanic, Irish, Italian or Polish names who are being buried with Protestant ceremonies, or without any religious ceremony whatsoever.

Of course, nothing guarantees that a given person once was a Catholic, but the indication is strong if the surname clearly is Irish, if the surviving siblings are Michael, Patrick, Bridget and Margaret Mary, if the deceased went to St. Paul of the Cross Elementary School and Rex Mundi High School and if he and his wife were married in Our Lady of Lourdes Church.

These scans of obituaries hardly constitute a scientifically worthy assessment of dropouts from the Church, but they surely fall in line with professional studies. The flight from the Catholic Church is staggering.

Reasons for leaving the Catholic Church are many. A sensational case from American political history is that of prominent South Carolina politician James Francis Byrnes. He eventually held more governmental positions than any other American: congressman, U.S. senator, governor, secretary of state, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and head of several federal agencies.

Byrnes dreamed of being president of the United States. In 1928, Catholic Alfred E. Smith carried South Carolina with a breathtaking 90 percent of the vote, but he lost dismally at the national level. After that defeat, Byrnes is said to have concluded that no Catholic could be elected to the White House, so he joined his wife’s Episcopal Church. (He never reached his goal, of course.)

Millions of other Catholics leave or fade away from the Church for other less spectacular reasons. Probably less often now than years ago, the issue is a Catholic’s marriage to a non-Catholic. Events, such as the clergy sex abuse scandal, take a mighty toll. At times, doctrines of the Church are problems for people. At times, the difficulty is with a priest. It is said that the Yugoslav Communist dictator, Joszip Tito, left the Church as a teenager when a priest slapped him after Tito dropped a cruet when serving Mass. It does not make sense anymore than if I said that a local traffic policeman was rude to me so I am moving to another city. But the action of a priest can hurt people very deeply.

So can the action of Catholic laypeople. Once a man in a hospital bed told me that he had been reared a Catholic, had been married to a Catholic, had been the father of three Catholic children, when the world came apart with the deaths in an automobile crash of his wife and children. Other circumstances entered his life. Few in his parish noticed. A neighbor introduced him to the nearby Protestant church. Gradually more and more he began to go to this Protestant church, was warmly welcomed, and the rest is history. “In my Catholic parish,” the man told me, “I found an awful lot of Catholics but not many Christians.” It was a sad indictment, but I got the message.

Frankly, Catholics do not have the best reputation for personally ministering to fellow parishioners in emotional need, despite the fact — happily and readily admitted — that many Good Samaritans people our parishes.

Speaking more broadly, the extensive number of Catholics immigrants arriving in the United States presents a challenge. Are they greeted with open arms in our parishes? Are their needs and instincts understood? Will they drift away? Whose fault will it be? 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.