Vanishing Catholics

According to recent demographic surveys, it seems there are presently 30 million people in the U.S. who identify themselves as “former Catholics.” That figure is both surprising, and, for Catholics, disheartening.


Over the past 50 years or so, a profound change, other than that effected by Vatican II, has taken place in the Catholic Church. It might be described as the phenomenon of “vanishing Catholics.” The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, has identified four major challenges facing the Church today. First on his list is the exodus of young adults from the Church.  According to recent demographic surveys, it seems there are presently 30 million people in the U.S. who identify themselves as “former Catholics.” That figure is both surprising, and, for Catholics, disheartening. It represents a little less than 10 percent of the total population of this country. It also means that had those persons remained Catholic, approximately one in three Americans would be identified as Catholic. Only two religious groups represent a larger percentage of the U.S. population: Protestants (cumulatively) and current Catholics.

This phenomenon is disheartening not only for bishops and priests, but also for faithful Catholics generally. Many older Catholics are saddened at the sight of their children and grandchildren abandoning the Church.

Questions naturally arise. What has caused such a massive defection? How might one account for this phenomenon? It hardly seems possible that any single factor could explain a phenomenon of such magnitude. Various reasons for people leaving the Church are well-known.  Many of them have been operative from the earliest times of Christianity. In his first letter to Timothy, St. Paul reminds him that “The Spirit has explicitly said that during the last times some will desert the faith and pay attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines …” (1 Tm 4:1-7).  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of dissensions and divisions among the faithful (1 Cor 1:10-16).

From the first centuries up to modern times, there have been doctrinal differences (heresies) which led to great numbers separating themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. Many others have left the Church for what can be described as practical reasons, rather than doctrinal differences.

Among the latter, there are many who separated themselves from the Church because of marriage problems. There are those who left because they became greatly dissatisfied with inadequate preaching, uninviting liturgy, and minimal hospitality in their parishes. It seems worth noting that expecting church attendance and public worship to be therapeutically satisfying often leads to disappointment and eventual alienation.

Not a few have left the Church because of real or perceived mistreatment by bishops or pastors. Reactions have a way of becoming overreactions. An overreaction to clericalism and paternalism in the Church resulted in autonomy becoming absolute. Evelyn Underhill offered a helpful analogy in this regard. She likened the Church to the Post Office. Both provide an essential service, but it is always possible to find an incompetent and annoying clerk behind the counter.  Persons who expect all representatives of the Church to live up to the ideals proposed by the Church will typically become disillusioned and leave. Persons with such expectations would have left the Church of the Holy Apostles.

Most recently, a cause for many leaving the Church is the scandal of clergy sexual abuse. This has been a stumbling block not only for those directly affected, but for Catholics generally.  Because of the questionable role played by a number of bishops, their moral authority is diminished. The time when bishops could command is past. Now, they can only hope to persuade and invite. Loyalty to bishops had been widely identified with loyalty to the Church. As the former loyalty diminished, so did the latter.

Clearly there are times when the Church is more of an obstacle than a help to faith.  At Vatican II, the Council Fathers pointed out that the Church is always in danger of concealing, rather than revealing, the authentic features of Christ. Often enough, members of the Church’s leadership have been guilty of a sin typical of many religious teachers—namely, being more concerned about preservation of their authority than about the truth.

While specific reasons can be cited, it is helpful to recognize several underlying attitudes that are operative. (1) There is an anti-dogmatic spirit which is suspicious of the Church’s emphasis on fidelity to traditional teachings. (2) There is the widespread belief that one can be free to ignore, deny, or minimize one or more received doctrines without feeling compelled to break with the Church. (3) There is also the belief that, guided by their own conscience, regardless of how that matches—or fails to match—generally accepted Catholic teaching, persons can develop their own understanding of what it means to be Catholic. Someone has coined a phrase that describes persons with those attitudes, calling them “cafeteria Catholics,” i.e., those who pick and choose what to accept of official Catholic teaching and ignore the rest.

Two questions arise in the face of the phenomenon of “vanishing Catholics.”  One question is of a more theological and ecclesial level: are those departed to be considered heretics or schismatics? A second question arises at the practical level: how can those who have left be reunited with the Church? Regarding the first question, it is worth noting that, while speaking of dissension and division among the faithful, and of separation from the community of believers, the New Testament does not make a distinction between heresy and schism. Since the definition of the Pope’s primacy of jurisdiction, it is difficult to see how there can be a schism that is not a heresy.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§2089), heresy “is the obstinate, post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or it is, likewise, an obstinate doubt concerning the same.” Schism is “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff, or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” The Theological Dictionary, compiled by Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, defines heresy as “primarily an error in matters of faith. The heretic takes a truth out of the organic whole, which is the faith, and because he looks at it in isolation, misunderstands it, or else denies a dogma.”  “Schism occurs when a baptized person refuses to be subject to the Pope, or to live in communion with the members of the Church, who are subject to the Pope.”

In any case, given the variety of reasons for people leaving the Church, the degree of separation, and especially assuming good will on the part of those leaving, it is difficult to classify them as heretics or schismatics. Church authorities have the right and the duty to take measures against heresy and schism when those become evident. Clear denial of a dogma cannot be tolerated. But between this and a purely private, material heresy, there are many shades. Not every challenge to accepted theology is heretical. There are many partial non-identifications that endanger faith and unity but do not rise to the level of schism. Nor does every act of disobedience to human laws in the Church imply schism.

While speculative questions about heresy and schism are significant and need to be addressed, they pale in comparison to the practical question of how those departed can be reunited with the Church. That question is as complex as are the reasons for people leaving the Church. That question is further complicated when one addresses the question of the underlying attitudes that are operative.

Obviously, the Church must work at removing any obstacles to reunion. With Vatican II, that work was begun. The Council recognized the Church is semper reformanda, always needing to be reformed. The actual return of individuals requires something more than an adjustment in Church practices or new programs. It is a matter of God touching the individual with his grace.

A final question that can prove troubling is how the massive defection from the Church is to be reconciled with God’s providence. This is simply one of many instances in which we are challenged to believe in an omnipotent God, who is also a loving, provident Father. Providence is not an occasional, intrusive, manipulative presence, but one that is with us both in tragedy and in joy, in the joy that consists not so much in the absence of suffering, as in the awareness of God’s presence. To find the strength to experience calmly the difficulties and trials that come into our lives is a tremendous challenge. If, however, we are able to do that, every event can be “providential.” In a sermon on the feast of the Ascension, Pope Leo the Great said: “For those who abandon themselves to God’s providential love, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, and charity does not grow cold.”

There can be a very subtle, almost imperceptible temptation to think we know better than God how things should be. We can be like the naive little girl, who, in her prayers, told God that if she were in God’s place, she would make the world better. And God replied: “That is exactly what you should be doing.”


Fr. William P. Clark, OMI About Fr. William P. Clark, OMI

Fr. William P. Clark, OMI, earned graduate degrees in philosophy and theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He took additional coursework at the Catholic University of America, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Minnesota. He taught at the Oblate Major Seminary, Lewis University, in Romeoville, Illinois, and at St. Joseph Theological Institute in South Africa. He served as academic vice president at Lewis University, as president at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), as director at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, and as director of the Missionary Association. He is currently semi-retired, and doing occasional preaching for parish missions and retreats.


  1. Avatar Amy Seyfried says:

    I would be interested in seeing recent statistics for conversions — for people entering the Catholic Church. Are they also increasing?

    • Hello Amy. Here is a part of a blog article I did on this issue:
      The Church would be shrinking, were it not for immigration. Those who have left the Church (over 10% of the American population are now “former Catholics”!) outnumber those who have become Catholic (2.6% of American adults come into the Church), by a margin of nearly four to one. Only the immigration of Catholics has kept the Church in America from diminishing year by year. Evangelical groups, meanwhile, are zealously working with the immigrant population to attract, to convert and to keep them satisfied in a non-Catholic form of Christianity.

      The whole blog article can be read at:

      There is a link in the article to the source: a Pew Forum study.

  2. Avatar Bill Bannon says:

    Very good article though I think the sex abuse period was more pivotal and undermined not just the Bishops but the Pope’s office where we saw no zeal from any Pope in fighting for children until 2002 which was 17 years after the Louisiana case was in national papers and it was on a nation wide tv magazine show on a major network. I can remember the female anchor, Diane Sawyer, on that show chasing a silent priest to his car in the 1980’s. Then other cases dribbled out from time to time thereafter. The Catholic system that is…produced no famous hero for children that the public knew of at the highest offices….whether Cardinals or Pope. Christ drove out money changers from the temple precinct reserved for gentile prayer and He did it in minutes or seconds not decades. The contrast between Christ therein and Popes herein was too great. You needed an education in the history of papal foibles in order to lessen your vulnerability to this temptation to write off the office as one of not being vicar of Christ. Many did not have that education but thought rather that Popes are perfect….the implication of not dogma but of many Catholic zealots in those years. Pope Francis oddly enough is unwittingly correcting that school of thought because his priorities are different than his two predecessors to a degree that matters to some not all. And let’s remember, the abuse scandal cost $2 billion plus which didn’t encourage future attendance with its expected future donations among the lightly educated ranks who felt the magisterium was constantly impeccable and infallible in morals…again despite real dogma to the contrary.

    • Avatar Stilbelieve says:

      Seventeen years from the year 2002 is 1985. !985 was when I first heard of a group called SLAM which stood for Stronger Legislation Against Molesters of children. I worked in a CA State Legislator’s District Office. Up until that time, sexual molestation of children was treated as a psychological matter. Priests were sent to counseling and then were moved elsewhere. SLAM presented recent studies showing that such counseling really didn’t help, and they were advocating to criminalize such behavior of any adult. By 1990, sexual molestation became criminalized throughout the U.S. My point here is to inform the laity and clergy that the Church’s treatment, as well as any other institution or work place, of such personal matters was the approved societal manner of handling such cases, the behavior was not “criminal” an,d therefore, some leeway should be granted the Church leadership prior to society criminalizing that behavior in the late 1980s.

      • Avatar Bill Bannon says:

        This link…FindLaw….says that all states had mandatory reporting laws by 1972.

      • Bill Bannon’s comment and the link he provides are not helpful in the present context. With regard to the assertion that by 1972 all US states had “mandatory reporting laws [relative to child abuse]”, the questions that need to be answered before that information becomes useful are :- (1) what types of child abuse were covered, (2) what level of knowledge/evidence triggered the duty, and (3) who were the mandatory reporters?

        As to (1), I strongly doubt that state mandatory reporting laws as early as 1972 took cognizance of sexual abuse. The initial stimulus to the passing of mandatory reporting laws was Henry Kempe’s 1962 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on “Battered Child Syndrome”; hence such laws initially applied only to medical professionals. It was Congress that took the lead, in 1974, with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (which included sexual abuse – although it wasn’t defined). As late as 1977, the same Henry Kempe said in the Anderson Aldrich lecture that the sexual abuse of children and adolescents was “another hidden pediatric problem and a neglected area”.

        As to (3), even now, only 27 states have statutes that require clergy to report known or suspected instances of child abuse or neglect, and only 18 states have laws that require any person who suspects child abuse or neglect (universal mandatory reporting), to report it.

        See, e.g., the portal

      • Avatar Bill Bannon says:

        Do you agree with Still Believe that only in 1990 did sexual molestation become a crime? Were child rapists prior to that immune from prosecution? Police could not touch them.. And do you think Christ was odd for whipping the money changers out of the temple when it was obviously permitted by the temple authorities and societal custom? Have I entered another dimension of time and space? A man was arrested in my home neighborhood for child molestation in the 1960’s.

  3. Avatar Ray Marshall says:

    I think “Marriage Problems” are deserving of far more than two words in an analysis of what has happened that caused 30 million to leave the Church.

    When the Catholic divorce rate of 50% is equal to that of protestants and of the non-religious, it is probably unreasonable to expect that youngish divorced Catholics will stay single and abstinent for the rest of their lives. In an era of much premarital sex and cohabitation before marriage, followed by quick and easy “no-fault divorces”, and a Church that has banned remarriage after the dissolution of a validly celebrated marriage ceremony, the only option for many is leaving the Church and a re-marriage.

    Few are that committed that they would want to go through the time and expense of marriage therapy of the annulment process of the Church.

    • The Church is only following what Jesus said. Jesus said remarriage while your spouse is still living is adultery. When a man and woman marry in the church, they become one flesh in God’s eyes. Divorce doesn’t dissolve the union, as it is indissoluble. Yes, there are some who chose to turn their back on their marriage, and their on flesh spouse, and pursue an adulterous relationship. By doing so, they are refusing to obey Christ. Annulments are being used far too loosely these days, and they are not a “Catholic Divorce.” Either your marriage is valid, or it isn’t, and it is valid until presumed otherwise. I don’t know why people always seem to think that you can “just get an annulment.” Until death do us part means just that.

      • Thank you, Tina, for standing for the truth about marriage. I do recognize the annulment process as a compassionate and honest process. I also believe that it is often misused. The Church seems to be trying to correct the lack of training in marriage preparation to eliminate the reasons for annulments, but the culture makes permanent marriage more and more difficult. My saint heroes have been John the Baptist and St. Thomas More, as I fend off well-meaning church folks who try to convince me that surely I could get an annulment, when both my husband and I were well aware of our commitment at the time of our marriage. Fortunately, I found support early on with a Protestant group who were called “standers” believing in marriage restoration. A few marriages were reunited, but it is very difficult once a spouse has remarried. My option was to pray and stand, even if my husband never restored our marriage. God’s grace is sufficient for me, although I do not judge those who do not stand. That is between them and God, but I do believe that the church must be more vocal on the issue of indissolubility.

      • For 4 years the priest asked me – I was 9 year old, confessing masturbation – if I did it alone or with others ?
        I found it very dangerous and damaging for a girl to be asked by a man, such question, even if that man is a priest.

        A psychologist would never ask such a direct question, without a context. If the priest ask psychological- type question, than, he has to be a psychologist.
        That priest was evil for me – I left the church for good.
        The church teaching on confession seems to be defined only by men , but refusing women input.
        I wonder if a man would feel helpful to be asked by a woman if he masturbated alone or with others?

    • I saw a statistic recently, I think in The Register, that said the Catholic divorce rate was about 29 percent, better than most protestant traditions.

    • I left the Church around 2005. I was a Catholic faithful & committed to Church teaching especially in matters relating to marriage and family and the value/dignity of life. When my own marriage was in trouble because my husband was dealing with some pretty heavy duty stuff from his own family background and I turned to the Church for help in trying to hold things together, the responce was (in a nut-shell): He’s a jerk. Go get a divorce and then come back and we’ll help you get an annulment. I didn’t want a divorce or an annulment. I wanted help for US. So, what I ended up with was a divorce I didn’t want but had no way to stop and then he died…alone. The whole business was simply WRONG…and inexcusable, like so much that gets swept under the carpet both inside and outside the Church these days. I foolishly thought that the Church was was one place I ought to have been able to turn to get support on behalf of marriage. Boy, was I wrong!!!

      • Hello Sophia,

        My deep condolences, for your losses. You lost your marriage, your husband, and your Church – any one of which is a deep, severe and lasting wound in the heart. Yes, you deserved help and support in that crisis. I am sorry you did not find it.

        Jesus is the great healer – of that I am sure. It can take time, and a heart of forgiveness like His, but you can find healing for it all. Perhaps you already have, but if not yet, please persevere in hope, and trust, and prayer. God works all to the good, for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

      • Avatar Bill Bannon says:

        I have seen your exact story in my part of the world. Do not leave the Trinity though. The Carthusian hermits are often dispensed from attending Mass in order to follow contemplation.
        Perhaps God wants you be one of His hermits of the heart for awhile. God is not dispensing you from talking to Him though even if He well understands your leaving the “community” and its liturgical laws.

  4. In my opinion, the largest reason for those leaving the Church is primarily their lack of commitment. There is no commitment to work, job, marriage, and/or a spiritual and moral life. Commitment to a moral and religious life would necessitate a commitment to knowledge of both and then a commitment to follow that knowledge. Further, if one places a commitment to a religious and moral lifestyle on any one individual or person, whether he be priest, bishop or pope, that person will ultimately and surely be disappointed, for no person is perfect and will ultimately do something to discourage or demoralize someone. No one can change what someone else will do or believe. Each person is responsible for his/her own direction in this life and will have to stand alone before God at one time and answer for those choices and decisions. Until each individual understands that and lives by that principle, the world will be in torment and derision.

  5. Avatar Dennis Babson says:

    “Vanishing” is not the exclusive of Catholics. Non Catholics including Protestants and the growing tide of Christian “independent churches” suffer the same malady, how to keep our children from leaving the faith. I suspect that it has to do more with independence from the parents and therefore being able to choose for one’s self that is a factor. Also, the allure of the secular world is too great to resist. “Let me find out for myself.” As for “… those who left because they became greatly dissatisfied with inadequate preaching, uninviting liturgy, and minimal hospitality in their parishes”, that would not stop me from attending the Church. I attend and participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharistic celebration, whether I like the priest or his homily or not. I’d love to have a quiet, reverent church, a holy orthodox celebrant, convenient Mass times, etc., but I’m there to give homage to God. If we find ourselves no longer closer to Jesus, guess who moved?

    • Avatar LongIslandMichael says:

      I think a lot of the comments that have been posted but this one strikes me a lot because it is something I hear a lot about. I know a lady who uses the excuse that a certain priest was not nice to her and she just throws them all into this group. Its an excuse no doubt but your comment is correct I go to Mass not for the priest but to pay homage to God. Like you there are a lot of things that annoy me about my parish particularly some of the abuse of the liturgy I see and hear with the overuse of music at the expense of reverence. Those things aside that is not going to stop or prevent me from going to Mass.

  6. As a Catholic junior high school teacher, I found that students were not ground in the Faith at all. The previous grades had not done their jobs (thinking that the wishy-washy textbooks sufficed), so when they arrived to me, it was like starting from scratch. I always found that most of the students asked the same questions about such things as homosexuality, abortion, etc, – no one had bothered to explain what the Church says about these things. They would repeat what their parents or friends had to say on these subjects, but none of these apparently knew what the Church teaches.
    In high school, the emphasis was on social justice, but the students remained not catechized in the Faith and had not idea of the wealth of knowledge the Church possesses.
    For the most part, bishops and pastors ignore Catholic schools – in part because Catholic schools have continued their downward spiral since VII and many never went to Catholic schools themselves. There are also many administrators and teachers who are supposedly Catholic, but have views that contradict Church teachings, too – so the wolves roam in sheep’s clothing.

  7. From the US census 2000-2010 ages 25-44 dropped in all Catholic communities in the USA (not including immigration). Rhode Island dropped by 15%, NY 10%, WI 9%, Massachusetts 13%, ect… Compare this to Utah which decade after decade has the youngest population. The 1960’s free loving generation brought us the 1970’s breakdown in the CATHOLIC family and a sexual revolution that continues today. Look at my senator Democratic Tammy Baldwin who was overwhelmingly voted in by Catholics. She has spent the last year working tirelessly for the LGBT community, doing away with the filibuster to elect radically anti-life, anti-family, anti-Catholic judges. Where are our Bishops and Catholic professors when this is going on?

  8. I heard this more than anything else from former AND non-Catholics “IF the CHURCH was STILL ‘traditional’, I’d go back or convert TO.’ Second is…’The Catholic Church talks weak against sin.’ Take that for what it’s worth but I pay attention when people talk.
    Progressiveism will destroy the Catholic Church. I wish someone would seriously tell the Pope.

  9. Avatar Jay Tucson says:

    50 years ago, priests wore cassocks, nuns wore habits, Catholics observed meatless Fridays year ’round, and (most important) the Mass was said in Latin, at which worshippers received communion on the tongue while keeling at a commuion rail. In other words, Catholics evinced a profoundly distinct identity within the larger society.

    During that awful decade, forces within the Church — at best misguided, at worst sinister and malicious — conspired to drain Catholicism of its distinct identity. I believe we have seen the results of this watering-down in lower Mass attendance, and fewer self-identified Catholics.

  10. Some thoughts on this… Christian faiths, outside the Catholic church, seem to be more accepting of the sinner. Their focus is on the Bible and God’s teachings which the Catholic church seems more focused on man-made rules. Also, the Catholic church strictly forbids anyone to receive communion without going to confession while other churches only ask you to examine yourself and confess your sins directly to God. Could the politics of the Catholic church contribute to people moving away? The Catholic church asks you to pay to play through indulgences; they still are having problems directly dealing with past sexual abuses; some Catholics seem to be able to pay for their annulment while those with less money are seen as sinners as they end up with a divorce. Why does the Church adore icons and priests wear expensive garments at Mass and use a gold chalice? Would Jesus have worn such clothes and used such items? We are all sinners while on earth and sometimes I find it hard to understand why only some people (often laypeople) are so unforgiving and judgmental. I’ve seen it on EWTN talk shows and heard it from church members.

    • Avatar Shaune Scott says:

      You seem to be repeating only what you have been told, and some of what you have been told is wrong. To address one issue: Reception of the Eucharist is permissible if the person is a Catholic who has no serious sin on his or her soul. Catholics do not permit “open” communion because for us, the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. Protestants do not share this belief, so to receive the Eucharist would be attesting to something they do not believe. As for “play to pay”, that remark smacks of anti-Catholic bias. If your questions are sincere, I suggest that you consult solid Catholics sources and well-catechised practicing Catholics.

  11. The confusion following Vatican II, combined with the rampant liturgical abuse, as as well as changing the liturgy in such a radical way to begin with, communion in the hand, altar girls, etc. all representing a radical departure from the Tradition of the Church in both teaching and praxis are the biggest reasons. Read Papal Encyclicals on Modernism, the Liturgy, etc. and try to reconcile that with the current state of the Church and you will find the reasons that people have left.

    • Avatar James R. Johnson says:

      You hit the nail on the head!!! The abuses, of Vatican Council II, went way beyond normal comprehension. After VII we didn’t know what to do from sunday to sunday. At the church where my family and I were members, one of the bishops had moved into the rectory. The majority of the parish had dealt with the negatives of VII when the congregation begin to dwindle. My family and I, along with about a hundred other parishoners, left the Church after we had had enough. Our views seemed intolerable to the very same people who said we were intolerant. On a saturday we watched as all the statues were carted out of the church, the beautiful inside was being painted an ugly blue. I turned around walked away, never looking back. Many of us, at the time, were received into Eastern Orthodox Church; and have been happy in pleasing God ever since.

  12. Great article. Most disheartening are the atheists pushing theists, especially Christians, out of the public square….in other words, the same people who are celebrating having homosexuals come out of the closet so they can be married, etc. are pushing Christians into the closet to be out of sight, out of mind. It is a brave new world that is crying out for a Savior. And 30 million baptized Catholics have turned their back on the only answer to the meaning of life (including two of my own children).. May God have mercy on them and us. Keep praying for their reconversion and for our zeal in evangelizing our post Christian culture. Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and renew the face of the earth!

  13. It can also be reasoned to the fact that the Church is divided by political boundaries between the rich and poor. It usually comes under denial of reality that is often opposed by heretical arguments.

  14. It’s the sexual issues that most drive the young people away. They cannot go along with the birth control ban. And neither can their middle-aged parents. I am 57 years old and I still struggle with this. Accepting a large family in today’s society makes for a lifetime of sacrifice. I ask all of you, how can a mother be expected to raise a large family and still go to work everyday? We have allowed the feminists to desecrate the family, to take the beauty of motherhood and change it into some type of undesirable life sentence. We have lost the homosexual battle. All of that behavior is seen as beautiful and we are seen as homophobes. It gets to the point where I question my beliefs as well. Thankfully, I can point to Christ and the Gospel. I tell my children, “it’s not up to me to reason these issues out in my small human mind, this is what God commanded us to believe, and only He knows what is truly good for us”. Heaven help us all. I pray for God’s mercy at my judgement.

    • Avatar DJ Hesselius says:

      As Catholics, are we not called to sacrifice? But as to a large family: no where does the Church teach that one must have a certain number of children–neither maximum nor minimum. The Church simply forbids contraception and IVF. She does not object to people “planning” their family with some form of NFP. Since many young people want to avoid chemicals and hormones (and if you look on the internet, there are many articles that point to the damage the Pill is doing to our nation’s waterways and wild life), NFP, if presented realistically (can we please get beyond this “every month a new honeymoon” marketing gimmick–NFP can be hard work for some folks) ought to be a reasonable choice.

  15. In my case, it was my parents who left the church some 38+ years ago. They have totally repudiated all of the teachings of the Church: infant baptism, Transubstantiation, Tradition and the Magisterium, the use of symbols (no nativity manger in their church), etc. etc. Although THEY are the ones who left it is I who is seen as the heretic. My parents have been very active in the Assembly of God community. Meanwhile I remain a devout, active Catholic. I have a deep love of the Church and I am working on my Master’s in Ministry. It will be tough for anyone to lead these people back to the Church. I assure you…they do not want to hear it from me. It will take someone with a special calling — one who can pretty much “speak their language”, so to speak. For them to return they must shift their entire world-view and everything they stand for, for many of them are still very angry with the Catholic Church. They are not just suddenly going to embrace what they view as the “whore of Babylon” with its änti-Christ” figure-head (the Pope, of course) and Mary-worshippers…yet they sat watching the white smoke come out of the chimney of the Sistine chapel back in March. They left, to begin with, because they were easily lured out of the Church on the basis of Sola Scriptura. A strong-personality leader of the local charismatic group back in the mid-70’s began pointing out that various Church teachings are not biblical. The use of that one term, sola-scriptura (invented by Martin Luther in an attempt to further his own agenda) has been the number 1 cause for myriads to leave the Church. While many have left because of scandals and abuses, and still others prefer to be “spiritual but not religious”(SBNR), it is those who have gone over to the fundamentalist communities that make up the overwhelming number of former Catholics, and it will take the largest amount of effort to reach them, and lead them home.. And what of the dioceses that have no program to work with these people, who must be (in a sense) de-programmed? Who will reach out to them? Who will work with them, and re-educate them, in the Faith? It is not, I assure you, for the faint of heart.

    • Although THEY are the ones who left it is I who is seen as the heretic. My parents have been very active in the Assembly of God community.

      So they left a system in which most Catholics, whom Rome treats as members in life and in death, are liberal (at least in the West) to become vibrant conservative evangelicals. And they are focused on as if they were the greatest threat to Rome. Which is quite telling, as the priority is not commitment to Christ by the primacy of Rome.

      The use of that one term, sola-scriptura (invented by Martin Luther in an attempt to further his own agenda) has been the number 1 cause for myriads to leave the Church

      Actually, while SS sees varying definitions, often that of a straw man as used by RCs (you cannot use anything but the Bible, etc.), it is abundantly evidenced that Scripture was the standard for obedience and testing truth claims. And the Lord established His claims upon Scriptural substantiation, not under the premise of an assuredly infallible magisterium, which Rome has infallibly defined herself to be.

      And the OT materially provided for the NT, and also provides for the church, etc., while formally providing the gospel of salvation and more.

      What is the basis (Scripture, history, etc.) for your full assurance that the RCC is the one true church?

      • Avatar DJ Hesselius says:

        Actually, the “One True Church” comprises not just the Roman (aka Latin or Western Rite–the one we in the States are familiar with) but the Eastern Rite Churches as well (Byzantine, Greek Catholic–as opposed to Greek Orthodox–Maronite, some Coptic parishes, etc). As for the Bible: a definitive list of the books contained in the Bible didn’t appear on the scene until the late 4th Century (Synod of Rome, Councils of Hippo and Carthage). (When Jesus referred to Scripture, He was not referring to the Bible as we know it today–it didn’t exist.) Before then, there were all sorts of writings, and the writings used varied from place to place. Even today, there are many, many variations of the Bible out there. And with those variations, come people’s own different interpretations, which gives rise to many different Denominations and differences of opinions. (For more information see Joel Peters “Scripture Alone” available at
        There are Christians who condemn homosexual behavior based on the Bible, and those who defend it, based on the Bible. Those who oppose abortion and contraception (did you know that no Denomination approved of contraception until the early 1930s when the Anglican Church at its Lambeth Conference finally gave the go-ahead to married couples? For nearly 400 years, the Protestants agreed with Rome on that particular “tradition of man”) and those who don’t–again, based on the Bible. Christ clearly teaches that remarriage after a divorce is adultery–most Protestants I know disagree with that one (and plenty of Catholics as well). Is the Catholic Church the One True Church? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But there is no way that the Baptist Church or Methodist Church or Anglican Church or Evangelical Church any other Protestant denomination has a better claim.

  16. Let’s see… while we try to fight the drift to libertinism, the Pope shrugs, “Who am I to judge?”

    50 years ago, while we tried to battle the 60s, the Vatican talked about the exciting new age.

    Over and over again, people leave the Church because Bible churches are hewing more closely to the faith than the leaders we are supposed to give allegiance to. Francis laments clericalism, and then goes not to display an acute case of the same by proving he has no idea at all what laypeople on the ground are fighting. The media acclaims him while faithful Catholics rightly feel stung by him. Same ole, same ole…

    Really, too many leaders seem amazingly clueless.

  17. Has anyone here considered that people leave the Church because, frankly, there aren’t any good reasons to believe in its main tenets? Catholics often ignore the fact that many leave the faith because they no longer find it convincing or worthy of rational assent. Simple as that.

  18. “Many older Catholics are saddened at the sight of their children and grandchildren abandoning the Church.”

    We are not faithfully transmitting what we have received. Old people who taught their children reverence for Christ in the Eucharist are now the ones who sit and socialize before the Throne of God ignoring Him. It is our fault no one believes in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. God will not reward our bad behavior and we will be judged for their irreverence and loss of faith. We must work tirelessly for their re-union to the Mystical Body of Christ or we will be damned with them.

  19. Avatar Ben in Maine says:

    Thank you for touching on the heart of the matter. Too many of m fellow “conservative” Catholics have tried blaming the loss of Faith on secular trends and cultural hedonism. Those are certainly present factors, but the sex abuse crisis, combined with either hierarchical silence and complicity, really drove home the loss of faith in the Church.

    Sorry is not enough, it does not suffice. There needs to be structural changes in how clergy are appointed and bishops selected. Give the laity something besides mere apologies.

  20. What has caused such a massive defection?

    50% of all Protestants converts from Catholicism said they stopped believing in Catholicism’s teachings overall. Only 23% (20% now evangelical) were unhappy about Catholicism’s teachings on abortion/homosexuality (versus 46% of those now unaffiliated); 23% also expressed disagreement with teaching on divorce/remarriage; 16% (12% now evangelical) were dissatisfied with teachings on birth control, 70% said they found a religion the liked more in Protestantism.

    55% of evangelical converts from Catholicism cited dissatisfaction with Catholic teachings about the Bible was a reason for leaving Catholicism, with 46% saying the Catholic Church did not view the Bible literally enough.

    81% of all Protestant converts from Catholicism said they enjoyed the service and worship of Protestant faith as a reason for joining a Protestant denomination, with 62% of all Protestants and 74% Evangelicals also saying that they felt God’s call to do so. ^

    More :

    • Your comments need to be attached to reputable surveys which supply the necessary information to justify taking them seriously. Your own website (to which you give a link) gives no sources for the material you re-cycle here – certainly you did not get any of what you assert in this combox from the 2008 Pewforum Survey.

  21. There were a lot of reasons given by many thoughtful people. Here is one I didn’t see mentioned. Catholics stop practicing because they no longer believe in God. For 50 years school children in America and elsewhere (Ireland, for example) have been indoctrinated in school with the foundation dogma of of the non-theistic religion of secular humanism. Google “Humanist Manifesto I” and read the 1st two faith affirmations. Essentially they are cosmic and biologic evolution. Once one accepts that as fact, the secular humanist ideology built upon that premise becomes coherent and credible. For 5 days a week in science and social studies classes starting at the 1st grade, children are taught that the universe began with an explosion from a dot billions and billions of years ago and following billions and billions of years of death and random accidents originating in a fantasy called “primordial soup” all of the design and order evident in this world just happened. As long ago as 1974 while teaching CCD to 11th grade students I realized none of them believed the Genesis account of origins; they all believed in cosmic and biological evolution. If the Bible is wrong in its first 11 chapters, why is the rest of it right? God, if he exits, is simply unnecessary. We got here without him and we can continue perfecting ourselves with evolution. Catholic intellectuals mock the Evangelical scientists who defend the literal interpretation of Genesis. Those scientists know that all of the scientific data supports the Creation Model, not the Evolution Model. Until the Catholic clergy that control the organs of Catholic teaching wake up and learn to confront the evolution hoax (that’s what it is , a 19th century-invented hoax) Catholic children will keep voting with their feet as soon as they get away from their parents’ control.

  22. Avatar james ohnson says:

    Maybe God is withholding Grace since the third part of the secret of Fatima was never read in 1960 or by any Pope since John XXIII.

  23. Good morning, Father and readers.

    My comments echo several above (Cindy’s, jm’s, others’). You write about those who have abandoned Catholicism as having “left the church.” For many who have left, this is not at all what they have done. Rather, they see their “departure” as a return to the true church of Jesus Christ. I won’t argue this position for them, but any analysis of an exodus from the Catholic Church would benefit by considering it. Many believe that, historically and even in modern times, the Catholic Church has been dominated by heretics and heretical practices. Good Catholics might be appalled to hear this, but, as the saying goes, you really have to “deal with it” if you are to understand fully why members leave.

    • Hello, Norm. The 2008 Pewforum Survey took a snapshot of religious affiliation of adults in the USA. Of those raised Catholic, 68% had stayed Catholic, 18% had converted to another religious group, and 14% had abandoned religion altogether.
      The survey doesn’t say where those 18% converts went, but 22% of Buddhists in the USA were raised Catholic as were 4% of Hindus, 3% of Jews, and 4% of Muslims. Among non-Catholic Christians, 9% of the members of the so-called “mainline churches” were raised Catholic. Among the sects (if we must call them that), 7% of Mormons were raised Catholic and 26% of Jehovah’s Witnesses were.
      Apart from those who converted to “mainline churches”, none of the above-mentioned cradle Catholics can be said to have been motivated by a desire to return to what you call “the true church of Jesus Christ”.

      This volatility is not just a Catholic phenomenon in the USA, nor are those raised Catholic more likely to abandon their childhood faith than those raised in other religious traditions (the average retention rate countrywide is 56.5%).
      Half of those raised Buddhist had abandoned Buddhism, and two-thirds of those raised Jehovah’s Witnesses had abandoned that affiliation.
      Almost half of those raised in any given Protestant tradition had abandoned that tradition (more than half of them switched to another Protestant tradition).

  24. Modernism is the number one factor! ( why Catholics are leaving) young adults are bored at Mass , they also have grown up in a soceity where self-gratification is more rewarding than a slow and steady pace in life. Some major issues that I’ve encountered with young adults is this: they believe in gay marriage, more open soceity of acceptance in general too.

  25. Decades ago, Catholic children were generally raised in a Catholic culture–their parents were practicing Catholics, neighbors, schools; the schoolbooks were Catholic, there was no tv, little radio. Their lives revolved within the parish: school and church and the domestic church of the family. It all flowed in the same direction, all their neighbors and classmates and relatives, were Catholic. They were like fish in the sea surrounded and continually breathing in the Faith.

    Then came WW2 and all those social changes. Catholics joined everyone out in the suburbs–so good for the children! But they were surrounded not by Catholics but people of all different sorts–people with whom one had also to keep the peace. We became more like them.

    The parish church and school were too far to walk to, so kids couldn’t just go there to hang out. Sometimes the school was too expensive or inconvenient and the children were sent to public school. Nuns left and the prices increased.

    The full catechesis–the discipleship, if you will, or apprenticeship– into Catholic life dissolved. Religion became a subject, separate from other subjects rather than permeating it. Catholic schools adopted secular textbooks because they received state funds (for handicapped children and the like) or because these books were seen as modern.

    Parents tried to fit into a larger society that had been set up for Protestants who focused on what they had in common and ignored the differences. Our differences were muted as we tried to keep from being judgemental, inclusive, and polite.

    Parochial activites including devotions were dropped because people were busy watching the TV.

    THEN came the 1960s! Society seemed to be decomposing and re-building on completely different lines. What to do when one’s own child became involved? What to think about major changes in the family masked as fair and kindly things to do? What to make of the utter confusion over the Pill?

    Catholicism is supposed to be a universal religion. It is universal not only in terms of Christ’s command to teach all nations but also in terms of life itself. Catholicism should be universal in our lives so that every part should revolve around, be influenced by, and be a part of one’s foundation of faith.

    How is a Catholic to live in this world of secularism, pluralism, tv, and cars? What are we to make of loved relatives who suddenly announce they are planning to marry outside the Church, divorce & remarry, or marry a member of the same sex?

    I think the main reasons that Catholics leave is that they simply do not onow how to reconcile their Faith and their lives. Even those (apparently) few who are well-catechized still can’t figure out how to live in a world in which difference is decried as divisive and maintain their distinctive Faith. Any form of “balance” ends up being a surrender…

    • Hello Annie.

      You wrote, “I think the main reasons that Catholics leave is that they simply do not know how to reconcile their Faith and their lives.” If this is the main reason, then the main solution seems clear to me: the faith in many Catholics is not being brought to maturity (to “perfection”) as it deserves and as it ought to be. “Their Faith” is to grow; “their lives” are to become converted and transformed: “new”.

      • Father
        I just came from a parish council meeting which has been focused on how to convert the people in the pews and to evangelize the unchurched. When to topic of the message of the homily came up the pastor said it was not his job to tell the people how to live their life. The reason that I am awake at this wee hour of the morning is that I can not get that statement out of my head. If not him as our representative of Jesus than who. week after week the people are not being fed and so it is not surprising that they drift and move to evangelical churches who are willing to help them live their life according to gospel principles.I would welcome your feedback on the role of the priest in regards to teaching us how we should live.

      • Hello Cheryl. I think you are asking me, and not the author of the original article (you clicked the “reply” button under my response to Annie) – but I am not a “Father” in the sense of being an ordained priest. I can give you – as a catechist – my answer to your question, “how to convert the people in the pews and to evangelize the unchurched.” Catholics need to be fed the Word of God, and not only in the few minutes of a homily in the Mass. We need organized and comprehensive programs of Adult Faith Formation, including Scripture studies, Catechism studies, and perhaps other topical studies focused on apologetics, moral issues, keeping a faithful Catholic Home, and so on.

        Sometimes the pastor or other priest in the parish has a real heart for building up the people in the Faith! When that is the case, he will either organize such a program himself, or find and authorize some well-formed lay person to make it happen. It ought to be in place in every Catholic parish!

        I wrote two articles not too long ago for HPR, on Adult Formation. The links for the two are:

        Perhaps those articles can help. Perhaps your pastor is willing to find (and if needed, bring on staff) a credentialed and faithful, well-formed catechist to direct Adult Faith Formation in your parish.

        Or, perhaps there exists some in the parish who could as “volunteers” offer Scripture and Catechism studies. I do this in my parish, now that I’m “retired” (i.e. I do this not-on-staff). There is much that can be done without full-hearted support and endorsement from the pastor – but certainly pastoral support and endorsement and cooperation, if not direct leadership, ought to be the case! Sadly, without the pastor’s explicit connection, many Catholics will not get involved! This is the persisting “clericalism” among Catholics – found among clergy, found among laity – a defect that should be far, far gone from us by now.

        My blog may have some other thoughts for you. My email address also is there on the blog (click my name here) – and once at the blog, click on “about this blog.”

        I was happy to read your parish council was concerned with such matters! That is wonderful! With commitment and persistence, your parish can be transformed.

  26. Avatar Michael Baker says:

    Should the Church tolerate priests that have repeatedly abused children and make excuses for them. Modern people see beyond the tradition of placing priests as representing Christ even though they treat others worse than ordinary Catholics learn to do. We expect more of our leaders than to accept them at any condition. We the lay people have left all our relationship to Christ to the example of our priests, some have proved unworthy and so we question the authority of a Church that places abusing priests before the victims of horrible and repeated crimes.

  27. The Catholic Church is scandalously supportive of divorce, adultery and all manner of crimes as it funnels marriages through its annulment mills and refuses to address those of us who know what we have lived through in this regard. It will only get worse under Francis. Most Catholics are CINO, as well. Most do not give a hoot about seeking truth or attempting to even try to live an upright life. Western “culture” is dying. People are ignorant and proud to be ignorant.

    The Church has been allowed by God to get what it wants….a lousy hierarchy. It has deserved this for decades.

  28. This is about the massive failure by the episcopacy to teach — their primary function.

  29. The author points primarily to sociological and psychological reasons to explain the “vanishing Catholic”. This perspective, IMHO, while valid, reflects a fundamentamental approach to the Church as just a social institution and belief system, rather than a body that is at once natural and supernatural. Until the Church teaches the Gospel and the supernatural dimension of human existence with clarity and rigor, and in a pastoral way – not one or the other – and reminds us of our ultimate meaning, it will be perceived as just an out-dated social institution, whose voice will be drummed out of the culture by louder more militant interest groups. If the human heart is restless until it rests in God, as Augustine wrote, let’s assume that premise to be true and proclaim the Gospel in so many ways in it’s social AND supernatural dimensions to the world. The Gospel converts human hearts.

  30. I think Bob and Jay Tucson nailed it. I am a recent convert to the Church (2012) and one of the things that has really concerned me is how many of our young people quit attending Mass and participating when they get into college. They aren’t properly catechized growing up and by the time they leave home they are confused and ill-prepared to resist the temptations they come up against. I know so many young people that live together, and have babies, and then later marry, or don’t marry at all. In my RCIA class, we had a young Catholic woman that came with her boyfriend because she wanted him to convert before they married. Then, one day she announced that she was pregnant and everyone there seemed happy for her. I was completely blown away by that. I wanted to stand up and say “how can this be?” The Church and her parents failed her. For some reason, it was important to her to be married in the Church, but it wasn’t important to remain chaste until she was married. It’s the same with attitudes towards abortion, contraception, and so called “gay-marriage.”
    Kids are becoming more accepting of these things in spite of the Church’s teachings against them.
    The most important place we have to keep our young people in the Church is the home. A strong Catholic home, where they are taught the Bible, and the teachings of our Lord, and are brought to Mass every week will prepare them better when they come up against teachings contrary to what we believe.

  31. Avatar says:

    First, as an elementary teacher I agree with Bob in his 12-26-13 comments.
    Re the reasons for so many “Vanishing Catholics” after Vat. II:
    Many have been stated and are correct, but, in my opinion, one of the most important is the breakdown of teaching the reasonableness of the church’s teachings. Our relig. ed. programs have been relying on living color pictures in the children’s books and the feelings part of the human being , to the soft pedaling of the knowledge/understand part. Is not a human a unity of mind and body; a unity of intellect and emotions? In my direct experience wherein I was required to follow and not deviate from the fun and games/ feelings program, content knowledge and understanding were given very little effort. I observed this in the religious ed and confirmation programs since 40 yrs ago when my 6 kids were in them, as well. I realize that with the little time available, it was very hard to address the learners’ minds, but the programs hardly tried. And I wasn’t permitted. I don’t buy the “we don’t have time” argument. We have some time and we should use more of it to “teach all nations”, rather than “give them a good time”.
    Re comments by Stillbelieve on 12-27-13: Giving “leeway” to the church leaders because society at the time saw child abusers as just sick and should be moved after the psychologists judged them as well or safe to be around kids, doesn’t hold water. These leaders were educated in scholastic philosophy, which included the study of truth (epistemology), among other supporting subjects. So they can’t escape wise judgement of whether a priest is safe to be around children by saying that a psychologist has so judged. Besides, a priest is not bound by the changing moral norms of the society in which he lives. There are many morally bad societies, at least in one way or another.
    What a cop out!

  32. Avatar Ann Malley says:

    This article must be parody – there is no other explanation for a ‘why would this be happening’ lament combined with a beginning and end plug for ‘it couldn’t be Vatican II.’ I just about choked at the notion that the work of reunion was begun with Vatican II.

    What clap trap. Sorry.

    Heck yes, the fault lies within Vatican II and the hermeneutic of ambiguity that it ushered in full force. Progressives had a field day. The young left because they could get a far better show somewhere else. And the Faithful were left to fend for themselves amid all manner of ‘what the heck is all this?’ The experiment was a disaster and still is.

    Try simply preaching Truth, full and entire, like Jesus did. He had many ‘hard teachings,’ but didn’t soften his message or run after folks if they didn’t like it. Keep it simple. Cut the catering. Just put it out there like it actually is. That said, truth in advertising and flat out honesty, despite not getting everyone to agree, will at least earn a body respect. Why? Because those who hear what you have to say might actually believe that YOU believe what you say.

    God bless


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