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October 18, 2010

Ex-Catholics and Nominal Catholics

Tom Roberts has an interesting article in the National Catholic Reporter discussing Pew Forum data about those who have left the Catholic Church in the U.S. It is well known that more persons have left the Catholic Church than any other denomination. Thirty-two percent of those who are born Catholic, some 23 million people leave the Church. What happens to them? Ex-Catholics are almost evenly divided between Protestants and unaffiliated. A far smaller percentage belong to non-Protestant religious groups. I would guess that a plurality of ex-Catholic Protestants belong to the Episcopalian Church (Episcopalian priests report that their most numerous converts are ex-Catholics). But I have not seen data on this.

Although the data in Roberts's article does not present a sunny view of the Church’s ability to retain members, the picture is actually much worse. Roberts's article discusses those who leave the Church. If you combine those who leave the Church with those who rarely attend, the percentage of those who leave or rarely attend rises to above 60%. See Putnam and Campbell, American Grace 138 (2010). This crisis in the Church has been disguised in part by immigration. Without Latino immigration the American Church would have experienced a “catastrophic collapse.” Id. at 299. But the increased and increasing Latino presence in the Church should ease the decline because Latinos leave at lower rates and attend at higher rates.

One final point of perspective. Although Catholics have the highest number of persons leaving a denomination, some other religious groups have similar (mainline Protestants) (or worse, e.g., Jews) percentage declines, albeit for different reasons. More on that later.

cross-posted at religiousleftlaw.com

Posted by Steve Shiffrin on October 18, 2010 at 11:09 PM | Permalink


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Steve, your point in the last paragraph is, it seems to me, an important part of the conversation. The number of "ex-Catholics" is high, but that is not unrelated, I assume, to the fact that Catholicism is the largest Christian community in America. If we talk in percentages, I would think that the exodus over the last 30 years from the "mainline" Protestant communities has been huge. Now, where have these folks gone? Some have, I suppose, become "spiritual, not religious." Many have become Evangelical Protestants of one stripe or another.

A question I'd like answered (if an answer is possible) would be something like "all things considered, has the whole individualism/modernity/suburbanification/secularization 'thing' hit Catholicism harder than it has hit, say, conservative Protestantism or mainline Protestantism?" If the answer to this question is "yes", then it would be interesting to know why. Part of the story might have to do with the once-very-important-but-now-perhaps-less-so factor of "ethnic" Catholicism. That is, maybe the Catholic numbers were "inflated", in the past, by the connection between close-knit ethnic communities and their traditional/cultural Catholicism?

I know that some (I'm not saying this of Steve) like to see in these numbers a "educated and maturing people, who otherwise would stay engaged in the Church and with the faith are leaving the Catholicism of their youth because the Church is too hidebound, conservative, and irrelevant, especially after decades of John Paul II and Benedict" narrative. Maybe that story is right, but I tend to doubt it. In any event, it seems to me that every Catholic has a stake, given the Great Commission, in helping to form (and attract) mature Christians to the fullness of the Catholic community, and so no Catholic should be complacent about these numbers.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 19, 2010 3:54:09 PM

In my experience, I think secularization has hit Catholicism harder than it has hit conservative Protestantism but less hard than it has hit mainline Protestantism. Mainline Protestantism has to a great degree dissolved into secularism. Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, have done a good job of maintaining a strong subculture: they tend to have close-knit communities and churches and have their own media, including books (including everything from theology to romance novels) and music. Catholic culture, on the other hand, has waned over the past fifty years. I agree with Prof. Garnett that the answer is not to become more like the mainline Protestants. I think the conservative Protestants offer a pretty good model of how to proceed, altho this would obviously have to be translated into a Catholic context, and I don't think we should have Catholic romance novels.

Posted by: Tim | Oct 19, 2010 6:01:16 PM

NCR studiously avoided the fact that the Episcopalian church is declining at breakneck speed. Many Anglicans are swimming the Tiber. If embracing the liberal agenda NCR trumpets would increase our numbers by millions then why are the denominations that practice that agenda dying?

Posted by: Fr. J | Oct 19, 2010 8:12:58 PM

“A church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power. The Church is at the service of Another.” Pope Benedict XVI.

Posted by: Dan | Oct 19, 2010 8:46:49 PM

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