Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Reasons Why Catholics and Protestants Leave Their Churches

Why do Catholics leave the Church? Is the typical person who exits a long time member who has finally become fed up with the Church’s views on sex, women, reproduction etc? According a report by the Pew Forum (link to full report can be found at this link (the data here comes from the full report), it turns out that those who leave the Church typically leave it at an early age. Of those who have left, the overwhelming majority become Protestant or become unaffiliated in relatively equal numbers. About 9% join other faiths. Surprisingly (at least to me), of those who become Protestants, 2/3 join evangelical churches (10% of that group are black Protestant churches); only 1/3 join mainline Protestant churches. (The view that evangelical churches are growing is mistaken. Those churches stopped growing 20 years ago according to Putnam and Campbell).

I say they left at an early age because only 20% of those who became unaffiliated and 34% who became Protestants left after reaching age 24 (though those over the age of 24 exiting involve large numbers of people). In terms of why Catholics leave, there are many reasons (including new marriages, more preferable types of services, ministers they liked more, felt called by God etc), but, as the Pew Forum explains, former Catholics in large numbers say they gradually drifted away and “Majorities of former Catholics who are now unaffiliated also cite having stopped believing in Catholicism’s teachings overall (65%) or dissatisfaction with church teachings about abortion and homosexuality (56%) and almost half (48%) cite dissatisfaction with church teachings about birth control, as reasons for leaving Catholicism.” The treatment of women was mentioned as a factor by 39%. For those who become Protestant, only 16% cited disagreement with birth control teachings and 23% say they differed with the Church’s teachings on abortion and homosexuality. Of those who joined mainline churches, however, these factors, of course, played a larger role. (Of those who joined evangelical churches, unhappiness was expressed about the Church’s failure to read the Bible in a more literal way).

I would like to see the Church change its position on many of these issues, but I do not contend that doing so would be a means of member retention. If the Church changed its stance on issues such as these it would continue to lose members – just different members for different religious/ethical reasons.

The most interesting statistic about Protestant switching is this: only 15% of Protestants say they left their former denomination because they stopped believing in its teachings. For example, only 14% cited teachings about abortion or homosexuality as a reason. Switching by Protestants seemed to be a search for a different religious community that would for one reason or another (the minister, the style of worship, a mixed marriage, etc.) provide greater spiritual fulfilment.


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According to these numbers, I think you are certainly correct that changing the Church's moral teachings would not lead to fewer people leaving. By all appearances it would lead to more people leaving. Of those raised Catholic, 68% remain Catholic. So we are talking about 32% who leave. But among those who either become protestant or unaffiliated, only 40% cite disagreement with the Church's teaching on moral issues. In other words, 60% of those people agree with the Church on moral issues or those teachings didn't cause them to leave. And lot of the 68% who don't leave would leave if the Church changed her age-old moral teachings.

Note that it doesn't make any sense for the survey to guage how many people disagree with the Church's teachings on "abortion/homosexuality." Opinion on those issues is significantly divergent. I don't know if the question was asked that way or if it is just being reported that way, but it taints the results. It especially doesn't make sense to measure it that way while measuring disagreement with birth control separately.

I think what is happening is pretty well understood. Many Catholics grow up in the Church in America without being inculcated into an adult knowledge or living of their faith. It doesn't happen in Catholic schools or in their families, in large part. So when they become high schoolers or college students they make a worldview choice: pop culture's values, or Christianity in the form that they see it being devoutly lived, Evangelicalism, or lukewarmness in becoming culturally Protestant or non-practicing Catholic (which by default is generally also a choice of pop culture's worldview). Of those who leave, a little more than half choose the world, and a little less than half choose Christ, in general.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Oct 22, 2010 9:56:42 AM

Again, if they are leaving for reasons such as the role of women then why do the Anglicans, who have women bishops and tout abortion, not growing? Why do they not join that church? Matt makes some good points.

My experience on the ground is that people often SAY they leave for a reason to justify leaving, but that is often not the real reason. When you delve more deeply often the real reason surfaces. Often I ask if they miss the Eucharist. If they say yes then I know I have a shot at bringing them back. If they say no then it will be an uphill battle.

Posted by: Fr. J | Oct 22, 2010 12:02:14 PM

Dear Steve,

Thank you for posting this series. I am grateful to you for your contributions.

I cannot speak about the Protestant decline, but I think I can say something regarding Catholics who leave the Church. Today we often hear that Catholics have much more education than they did two or three generations ago. This may be true in one sense, but I do not think it is true in the crucial sense of whether they know what Church teachings are regarding faith and morals. Moreover, I question if they know why the Church teaches what she does. This is one problem: in spite of being educated, being more prosperous, and having access to learning more about the faith, many Catholics today are not familiar with the deposit of faith. Much of this deficiency can be tracked down to shortcomings of religious education in many families, religious education programs, and theology or religious studies courses offered in colleges and universities that claim to be Catholic. In this third grouping too many courses equate "social justice" or "doing good" with Church teachings. While social justice matters can be a part of the corporal works of mercy, are they really in all cases what Catholics need to know and understand and sustain their faith and belief? There is more to Catholicism than doing good for others. While doing good for others is relevant, there is more to understanding and embracing Catholicism. The problem exists for many well-intentioned people when they believe that they are still Catholics as long as they do good for others on occasion.

I question if the departures from Church membership in all cases are attributable to disagreement with teachings or for other reasons. A major source of these other reasons is the negative contribrutions of culture. For example, when Sundays (and holy days of obligation) are viewed as another day to pursue recreation or to work rather than to worship God especially with one's families, Church ties become less significant. In spite of diverse opportunities to worship in many communities where a variety of Sunday and Saturday Vigil Masses are available, many who consider themselves Catholic in fact do not attend Mass. Rather than attending and participating in the Eucharist they do something else.

From my perspective, religious instruction needs to be dramatically reformed in most contexts so that Catholics know what the Church teaches and why she teaches what she teaches. With a sound religious formation, a Catholic will have a much better understanding of the importance of sacramental life. Then, if a person well educated in the faith still does not participate, it should be easier to conclude that he or she does not agree with Church teachings. The distinction then about why people remove themselves from the sacraments will become more clear. In one instance, there is a remedy: quality in religious formation and the role we all have in this enterprise. In the second case, there is not much that can be done with a lack of faith other than to pray for the lost souls.

Faith is a great gift. It cannot be forced on anyone, but it can and must be taught properly.

Posted by: Robert John Araujo, S.J. | Oct 22, 2010 5:51:01 PM

Let us posit that some substantial number of people leave the Catholic Church because of her teachings concerning sex. What of it? It certainly can't be a reason to change those teachings. As Flannery O'Connor observed, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." Remember that although we have Christ's promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, we know from the Book of Revelation a point will come when the Church, although not exterminated, will appear defeated, small and insignificant, and treated with indignity.

Posted by: Dan | Oct 22, 2010 9:26:30 PM

What does 'leaving the church' mean, exactly? Is it a failure in observance or is there some other metric?

In that regard, a tour guide in Italy once remarked to me that Italians attend church only at weddings, funerals and, interestingly enough, baptisms. Recent statistics suggest there's a lot of truth in that remark (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1543643/Italian-church-attendance-lower-than-thought.html ). Yet, there does not seem to be a lot of hand-wringing about the perilous state of Italian Catholicism.

Posted by: antonio manetti | Oct 23, 2010 12:14:03 PM

I realize this is largely unrelated to the primary gist of your post, but I couldn't help but focus in on your statement "I would like to see the Church change its position on many of these issues..." You would like to see the Church change its "position" on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, etc? I hope I am misunderstanding your statement, because both your assertion that these are "positions" of the Church and your stated desire for change cause me real concern when you are writing on a "Catholic" law blog. Forgive me, however, if I have misunderstood you.

Posted by: Cameron | Oct 25, 2010 2:03:25 PM