US Catholics leaving the Church in droves: what can be done?

US Catholics leaving the Church in droves: what can be done?

Fr Joseph A. Sirba

A recent survey of the religious beliefs and practices of Americans shows a large drift of Catholics from their Church to other churches or to no-religion, a pattern resembling Australia's. Fr Joseph Sirba, a parish priest in the Duluth Diocese, Minnesota, analyses the causes of the drift and suggests what needs to be done to reverse the trend.

The following is a shortened version of Fr Sirba's article which was first published in 'Homiletic & Pastoral Review'. An electronic copy of the complete article is available on request.

From 8 May to 13 August 2007, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed over 35,000 adults seeking to learn more about current religious beliefs and practices within the United States. The first report on survey findings entitled U.S. Religious Landscape Survey was released on 25 February 2008. The full report can be found at

Most of the survey's findings are reported as a percentage of the adult population in the United States and not as absolute numbers. Adult population is defined as those individuals eighteen years of age or older. At the time of the survey, the adult population in the US was estimated at approximately 225,000,000.

The US adult population is now just over half Protestant, 51.3%, an historic low in terms of percentages. Throughout the 1980s, the Protestant percentage was relatively stable and varied at between 60 and 65% of the population.

The number unaffiliated with any church has grown dramatically in recent years to 16.1% of the adult population which is more than double the number of adults who say that they were unaffiliated as children (7.3%). Furthermore, of those in the 18-29 year age group, 25% identify themselves as unaffiliated. Note that within this category, the Report includes atheists (1.6%), agnostics (2.4%), secular people (6.3%), and religious people who belong to no organised church (5.8%).

The percentage of adults who have left the religion of their parents (excluding Protestants who have switched from one Protestant denomination to another) and moved to another category stands at 28%. If those who moved from one Protestant denomination to another are included, the percentage of those who have left the religion of their parents rises to 44% of the overall adult population.

23.9% of the US adult population (or 53,775,000) identifies itself as Catholic. The survey notes that this percentage is roughly the same as it was in 1972. On face value, this does not look too bad compared with Protestant losses as noted.

In fact, massive Catholic losses have been hidden by the large number of Catholic immigrants. Of the present 23.9% of adults who call themselves Catholic, about 23% of that number (or 12,368,250) are immigrants, mostly Hispanic.

Massive losses of native-born Catholics have not only been significant but in fact staggering, so much so, that those who conducted the survey wrote in their analysis, 'Catholicism has lost more people to other religions or to no religion at all than any other single religious group.'

10.1% of the adult population in the United States now consists of people who have left the Catholic Church for another religion or for no religion. To put it another way, one out of every 10 people in the United States (or 22,725,000) is an ex-Catholic.

These are individuals who were baptised and raised Catholic but who now no longer identify themselves as Catholic.

Further, if one excludes immigrants and converts from the calculations, the Catholic Church has lost to other religions or to no religion at all, 35.4% or more than one-third of the 64,131,750 of its native born members to other religions or to no religion. This amounts to almost 7 out of every 20 adults who were baptised as Catholics.

So where has the 10.1% of the population which has left the Catholic Church gone? What has happened to these 22,750,000 people who have left?

Over six-and-a-half million former Catholics have joined Evangelical Protestant Churches while unaffiliated accounts for almost ten million former Catholics. Recall that unaffiliated includes atheists, agnostics, secular people and religious people who belong to no organised religion.

The survey does contain some good news. Of the 23.9% of the adult population that identifies itself as Catholic, 2.6% (5,850,000) are converts from other faiths or from no faith at all. This growth in the Church partially offsets the 10.1% of the population which has left the Catholic faith and leaves the Church with a net loss of 7.5% of the population (or 16,875,000).

A significant gender gap was reported among nearly all Christians favouring women over men. Both Catholic and combined Protestant traditions have the same numbers: 46% are men and 54% are women. On the other hand, the gap is reversed among the unaffiliated. For the atheists, 70% are men and 30% are women; it's 64/36 for the agnostics and 60/40 for the secularists.

Signs of hope

So, what are we to make of all this? Well, the numbers speak for themselves but they also confirm and quantify what many seasoned pastors have known or suspected now for years. We have lost a massive part of the Church. It explains why we have been able to cut back the number of Masses in many places, why there are so many grey heads in many places, and why there are so many empty pews.

In fact this survey merely quantifies what pastors across the country have been aware of for many years, namely, that large numbers of individuals who were baptised Catholic have left the Catholic Church. It also reveals that if we exclude the Catholic immigrant population, we are doing far worse at retaining members than even the weakest of the mainline Protestant denominations.

So what's to be done? Is there any hope? Yes! With God all things are possible.

In recent years, faithful Catholic groups and organisations have networked and now form a solid foundation that is beginning to rebuild and renew the faith. They are being supported by a growing contingent of bishops who recognise how deep the rot has gone and are determined to do something about it.

There are more and more young people who are on fire with the love of God and who are willing to live the faith to its fullness. They are certainly not a majority but they are now present and visible in many places. Not a few have entered the seminary or novitiate. It will be these young people of today who will be rebuilding the Church in America.

Causes of problem

If this rebuilding is to have maximum success, we need a plan.

The first step in solving any problem is to admit that a problem exists, something many Church leaders have thus far been unwilling to do. However, the survey results make it painfully clear that we do have a problem. That said, the next step in solving any problem is to identify its causes.

Saint Paul said that 'If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle (1Cor 14:8)?' Clearly, for those Catholics of the baby boom generation, uncertain notes were the only ones being played with the result that one-third of our fellow Catholics have now left the field.

Furthermore, of those 53,775,000 American Catholics who remain in the fight, except for the elderly, most are so poorly catechised that they continue to be highly vulnerable to invitations from Evangelical congregations or to the secularising influences in our society.

In a word, our problem has been dissent tolerated by weak leaders which in turn has led to confusion as to what we as Catholics believe and how we should live.

The final step in solving any problem is action. To that end, we must work to stem further losses and then begin to seek those who have left and invite them to return. I might add that this survey is a godsend because it has already identified for us where our work is most urgent.

Like generals marshalling their forces, our bishops need to do several things. First, make sure that everyone is presenting a clear message. All remaining dissenters must be expunged from their positions within the diocesan offices, major parishes and influential positions in the Church.

This is especially crucial in Catholic colleges and universities which form the weakest link in the nascent renewal we are experiencing. For the most part, they are still seriously undermining the faith of our young people, young people who will be our nation's leaders.

This must stop if we ever hope to have well-formed Catholic leaders in business, education, politics, science, the arts and medicine. Bishops and donors must apply pressure to our Catholic colleges and universities to reform their theology and philosophy departments.

Bishops must also apply pressure to the religious orders who run many of our schools to support the needed reforms.

Second, the survey results reveal that the faith is weakest among the young. We must act immediately to reverse this trend before we lose the better part of yet another generation.

We have to take a good hard look at our Catholic schools. Often, lots of money is spent with little to show for it. We end up offering an alternative to public schools to parents who do not practise their faith. I think all pastors would agree that when parents are not practising the faith, our efforts to educate their children are almost fruitless.

We need to reconsider what role Catholic schools should play in the 21st century. Perhaps parish funds could be better spent on well designed religious education programs or by supporting on-line schools that don't require expensive infrastructure.

Third, aggressive steps must be taken to retain the many Hispanic immigrants coming into our country (who now number nearly half of all Catholics aged 18 to 29). We cannot let these people slip away into the Evangelical congregations or into the growing unaffiliated group.

Fourth, while men and women have an equal dignity before God, they are not the same. We must recognise and acknowledge the significant psychological and emotional differences in men and women and how they view the world. The overt and covert feminisation of the Church must end. Men and boys need strong male role models to look up to and to emulate. Masculine approaches to the faith must be developed and affirmed if we are to erase the significant gender gap that now exists and retain more of our male members.

Lost sheep

Finally, we must reach out to those who have fallen away. They are the lost sheep of today. As this group is diverse, we must address at the very least, the larger segments within it.

For example, it has been this pastor's experience that many former Catholics who have joined Evangelical congregations tend to be very zealous members of their new congregations. For the most part, they are good, faithful people who love God but who were not fed in their Catholic parishes. They were attracted to these congregations because of clear and strong homilies, Bible studies, youth programs for their children and good music. They need to be shown that Scripture alone is not enough and that we need the Eucharist and the rest of the Sacraments as well.

Former Catholics who are now part of the educated, unchurched secular group need to see that science alone cannot explain all we experience in the world and in our hearts. To that end, because few pastors have the ability or the knowledge to answer or address all of the questions and concerns specific to each group, diocesan programs need to be developed to reach out to these groups and others.

It's now far beyond the time for half measures. We must act now to clean up the messes that remain and to develop reasonable, workable plans to move forward.

Jesus said, 'He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters (Mt 12:30).' Tolerating dissent has led us to where we are today. It's time for some intolerance.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.