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Issue Date:  March 7, 2008

Examine the Catholic exodus

Among the many fascinating findings of the recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showing the porous borders of the country’s religious denominations and the diversity of religious expression in this country, is the sobering note that the Catholic church has been hemorrhaging membership in recent years.

The survey (see story) found that while 31 percent of Americans were raised Catholic, only 24 percent still identify as Catholic. While the retention rate among Catholics remains one of the highest among world religions, the fact is that millions have left.

We have been able to ignore that sad reality year after year by boasting of the significant numbers of new Catholics signing up, most of them immigrants from Mexico and other areas of Latin America.

While their numbers and vibrancy bring new life and perspectives to a church that is otherwise losing members at a record rate, it would be foolish to keep ignoring those who feel compelled to find religious homes elsewhere.

Undoubtedly, some of the more self-righteous among us will say good riddance to those who decide to leave, disdainful of such infidelity.

It would be of far greater value to the community, however, to seek to understand why so many feel so at odds with the tradition, its teachings and its leaders or so rejected by the community that their only option, as they see it, is to leave.

Sociologists such as William D’Antonio, Dean Hoge, Fr. Andrew Greeley and others have accumulated years of research detailing the attitudes and shifting loyalties of U.S. Catholics. Some of it makes for discomfiting reading, raising challenging questions about church structures, authority and the role of the laity.

Speculation about why the numbers have dropped began immediately after the report was released: secularism; assimilation of former immigrants who no longer feel an attachment to the church; poor efforts at evangelizing; not enough priests and nuns to go around. All of that may be true. We’d add a few of our own: the sex abuse crisis, particularly the cover-up by bishops; rules prohibiting birth control; rules forbidding Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics; lack of accountability on financial matters; the second-class status of women in the church; rejection of gays and lesbians.

We don’t need any more speculation. What we need is a churchwide discussion of what we know and don’t know about those who leave. The alternative, of course, is to continue on in blissful ignorance, bidding good riddance to the critics, and pretending smugly that all is well.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008

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