As some Catholic bishops persist in attempts to impose their disordered ideas on sexual ethics and civil marriage on the rest of the population, they would do well to read and ponder deeply a post by Tom Roberts at NCR on the extent of disaffected Catholics, whom he calls the “had it” Catholics “who are leaving the church and either dropping out of organized religion altogether or finding refuge in other denominations.”
The phenomenon of declining numbers in all the major denominations is well-known, but Roberts refers to a Pew research report that show the Catholic church is especially hard hit.
In working on the Emerging Church series, it was easy to develop the impression that the church is hemorrhaging people and to form the question about what it means to the future of the church. Every diocese, it seems, has its “parish of last resort,” and every city of any size seems to have its Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian or Unitarian Universalist congregation that benefits from the Catholic fallout.
A study released in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life appears to support that common wisdom. It reported that while Americans in general “change religious affiliation early and often,” Catholicism has especially suffered from the trend, experiencing “the greatest net loss” of any major religious group.
More alarming though than the bare numbers are some other figures that lie beneath them:
While the Catholic church is the largest US denomination, the “ex-Catholics” are the second largest group;
Forty-eight percent of Catholics who are now unaffiliated, according to Pew, left the church before reaching age 18. A great deal of the drain from Catholicism is occurring among those who are much younger than Vatican II-era Catholics.
Even those who remain nominally inside the Church are falling away from the sacraments: baptism, confirmation and marriage.
What really concerns Gray, however, is the “sacramental data,” the numbers that show a falling rate in baptisms, some of which is related to a falling rate of fertility, but some of which is also linked to the exodus of Catholics. The drop in the number receiving later sacraments — first Communion, first confession and marriage — is even more problematic, he said, because those numbers indicate that parents aren’t following up with sacraments later in childhood. “Marriage is one of the [sacraments] most strongly affected. The number of marriages is so much lower than the number of the Catholics in church” would indicate. “It’s not that Catholics aren’t being married,” said Gray, “it’s that they are choosing to marry outside the church.”
This may well explain the bishops’ desire to “protect marriage”, but their supposed solution, to attempt to preserve heterosexual marriage by fighting against any proposals for same-sex marriage is singularly misguided. The church’s stance on homosexuality, and on sexual ethics more generally, is the primary reason for people abandoning the Church.
Among those former Catholics now unaffiliated, according to the Pew study:
- 56 percent said they were unhappy with teachings on abortion and homosexuality;
- 48 percent were unhappy with teachings on birth control;
- 39 percent were unhappy with how the church treated women;
- 33 percent were unhappy with teachings on divorce and remarriage.
Among those who became Protestants, 70 percent said they found a religion they liked more; 43 percent were unhappy with church teachings about the Bible; and 32 percent were dissatisfied with the atmosphere at Catholic worship services.
Lower in the rankings of reasons for leaving (percentages ranged from low teens to mid-20s) were the clergy sex abuse scandal; clerical celibacy; married someone from a different faith; dissatisfaction with clergy; and unhappy with teachings on poverty, war and the death penalty.
The attempts to “protect marriage” by hammering away at a traditional teaching formulated by celibate men who have forsworn natural sexual lives for themselves, with no foundation in the realities of sexual health, will simply reinforce the existing movement away from the church, and the loosening of respect for ecclesiastical authority.
Now here’s the killer:
What all of this means to the future of Catholicism is difficult to determine. According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, no one at the conference is studying the phenomenon.