Why Do People Leave?

I would encourage everyone to read this piece in yesterday's National Catholic Reporter.  Every single thing about it is interesting and worth thinking about.

The author, Fr. Peter Daly, is a pastor in a church in the what is basically now the ex-urbs of Washington, D.C.  He wanted to know why more young people (defined as 18-40) didn't come to Mass.  So, he decided to ask them.

Everything about Fr. Daly's efforts here should be commended, but I want to pick a few nits before I get into the good stuff.  First, Fr. Daly seems to assume that these young folks all stay in one place.  To set up his in-person survey, he reached out the 500 people that have been confirmed in the parish in the last 25 years that no longer attend.  He seems to assume that if these folks are not attending his church, then they are not attending a Catholic Church at all.  Certainly some of those folks are not attending at all, but many are not attending his Church because they are living somewhere else.  In the 14 years since college, I moved seven times.  That's probably on the high end, but it is not completely unheard of.  As a member of the group Fr. Daly is trying to reach, it seems weird to me that he would assume that people would stick around,

Second, he seems disappointed that, of the 500 people he surveyed, only 50 or so showed up.  I don't know, I think that's pretty good.  I have been involved in cases where we were offering people $40 or $50 in a settlement, and we would only get a couple percent of the total group to send in a form so they could get a check.  Getting ten percent of the total to take time to come talk to him shows that people do care about spirituality and the church, not that they don't.

Still, all credit should go to Fr. Daly for taking the time to listen to these people, and then simply reporting what they said.  The term "mansplaining" is often used to describe situations where women will say things and then guys will rush to "interpret" or "clarify" what they "actually" meant.  There is a similar phenomenon of "churchsplaining," where folks will try to supply what the "actual" reason for people being estranged from religion.  People in the comments do that, but Fr. Daly scrupulously avoids that trap.  It's refreshing.

So, what problems do people have with the Catholic Church?

The No. 1 issue by far, which came up over and over again, was the Catholic church's treatment of lesbians and gays. Everyone, conservative or liberal, disagreed with the church on that.

Everyone disagreed with the Church's position on that issue.  There are folks who like to pretend that gay issues are being advanced by some super-liberal cohort.  Maybe in the older generations, but not among young people.  I was more or less the last hold-out among my friends on this issue, and I'm at the old end of this group.  Behind me, only the most hardcore religious conservative is willing to consider the Church's position on the question.

One young woman followed up on his comments. She now attends a United Church of Christ. She said that our song "All Are Welcome" is hypocritical.

"You say that all are welcome, but that is not true. Gays are not welcome. Catholics are the most judgmental group," she said. "If you don't follow all the precepts, you are excluded." 

There is a pattern to these kinds of discussions.  Folks like this young woman will say "gays are not welcome" (or, even "you hate gays").  The inevitable response is "you're wrong, we totally welcome gays, we just tell them they are sinning."  That's not a constructive response, because it drags the discussion into a semantic debate over the meaning of "welcome."  You will never convince someone that you are, in fact, making them feel welcome if they don't believe they are being welcomed.  The sense of welcome is in the hands of the person coming to the door.

One young man, a lawyer, said the Catholic church is the "most sexist and homophobic institution of significance in our culture." He noted that there is no discussion of issues like women's ordination in the church. It is just not to be discussed. He felt the church just dismissed women's opinions.

A female friend of mine, in discussing issues related to women in the church, talked about how important she thinks it is for men to speak up on these things.  To paraphrase her, when only women raise these issues, they are dismissed as whiny bitches.  That's crap and unfair, but it is likely true.

He also said there is a complete lack of accountability for what is said from the pulpit. He cited in detail statements made by a priest at another parish regarding Obamacare and birth control. He said the statements were simply factually false, and no one held the priest accountable. He wrote to the archdiocese and not receive a reply.

Here's a harsh lesson for preachers.  No matter what topic you are talking about, you need to assume there is someone in your congregation that knows more about that topic than you do.  And, yes, that often includes theological topics.  You simply cannot get away with making things up; you will get caught, and your credibility will be shot.

The thing that most upset this young lawyer was our "inhospitable" policy regarding the reception of the Eucharist. He noted that the missalette in used in Catholic churches said non-Catholics were not welcome. At the Episcopal cathedral in Washington, D.C., where he had gone to Christmas services, he noted that everyone who wants to "deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ is welcome at Holy Communion." He felt strongly that Jesus would welcome everyone to his table. Even atheists should be welcomed.

I am convinced that the way a church sets the rules for people to come and receive the Eucharist is the way those people will understand the nature of God.  I was very skeptical of the idea of open communion before I started attending the Episcopal church.  Now I am not.

A young mother in her 30s with four children was upset about birth control. She spoke of moving back to our community after a decade of living elsewhere. Her first Sunday back, she was confronted by a woman about natural family planning. She was told she was not in a state of grace because she was using birth control. She felt the church's teaching on birth control was unrealistic.

There is always at least one of these folks in every parish,  Oh, and a pro tip:  if you don't know of one in your parish, chances are it is you.

One woman, a Ph.D. candidate in the natural sciences, said she felt that her questions and doubts about the Bible, especially about science, were not answered. She said no one has really dealt with the "inaccuracies" in the Bible. She said there are many contractions in the Scriptures. "Moses was a murderer," she said. All the war and killing in the Scriptures in the name of God bothered her. It was like terrorism today. She did not see how we could leave out the unpleasant parts and only read the nice things in church. It seemed dishonest to her.

This bit is really unforgivable, because the Catholic Church actually has a thoughtful and nuanced approach to Scripture that can answer this woman's questions.  I've been reading a bunch of stuff from people like Rene Girard and Fr. James Alison that provide what I think is an incredibly illuminating set of insights to the issue of violence in Scripture.  Unlike gay marriage or birth control, the Catholic Church already has much of what she is looking for.  But no one is getting it to this woman.

This brings up something I have noticed, particularly among the uber-traditionalist Catholics.  In many cases, these folks are actually more conservative than Catholicism itself, particularly when it comes to the Bible.  The Catholic Church does not subscribe to a literal reading of Scripture.  Catholics do not have to believe that the world was created in seven days, or that the Book of Exodus should be read as a newspaper account.  Catholicism has a enough problems; it doesn't need to take on the baggage of the fundamentalists regarding the Bible.

There were lighter moments. One man wanted the Mass explained more to the congregation. Why do we stand and kneel? He thought it was just Catholic calisthenics.

The biggest lesson of my time teaching RCIA is that you need to spend a significant period of time explaining, in detail, every part of the liturgy.  People want to know this, and are too embarrassed to ask, because they think they are the only one who doesn't know these things.

I used to think that better catechesis was the problem. But they did not feel that they had not been taught the faith. We have a pretty thorough religious education program. They felt they knew "the stuff." It did not seem that pounding the catechism harder would have made them more sympathetic to the faith. Some, like the young lawyer, clearly knew what the Catholic church said in great detail. They just disagreed.


After all, these 40 to 50 young people were idealists. They have good hearts and good instincts. They want to respond to people with compassion and hospitality. They want what Jesus would want, that we live the law of love. They desire that all should be one in Christ.

That is what Jesus would want from them.

It's easy to pretend that younger folks are just amoral hedonists because they aren't in church every Sunday.  But that's just not true.  They don't inherently hate religion or disdain morality or spirituality.  They just disagree on some fundamental issues.

The Catholic Church, and other churches, can decide to write these people off because they refuse to sign on the dotted line regarding gay rights, or birth control, or women in the church.  Ultimately, that's their call.  But they need to understand, and be honest, about the people they are writing off--good, idealistic people who are basically aligned with the core message of Jesus.  They need to own that.


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