by Father William J. Byron, S.J.
ON MARCH 22, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America sponsored a symposium on “Lapsed Catholics: Old and New Theories, Contemporary Voices, and the New Evangelization.”
Mine was one of the contemporary voices in this conversation. Along with Professor Charles Zech, who heads Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management, I discussed the findings of the “exit interview” survey that Zech and I conducted recently to get at the “why?” behind the absence of those Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., who are no longer showing up for Mass on Sunday. (A news story about the survey can be found on Page. 12.)
Before offering here a summary of what we learned about Trenton, let me note that the old and new theories referenced in the symposium title relate to pre- and post-Vatican II scholarly work around the issue of “declining salience” of religion in the American Catholic mind.
Professor William Dinges, who specializes in religion and culture in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University, provided an overview of these theories. He explained that salience simply refers to the relative importance of something on one’s scale of values. In the American Catholic mind, religion is on the decline.
I kept wondering whether the salience question is an instance of salt losing its savor, since “sal” is the Latin word for salt. But we were there to discuss theology and sociology, not etymology.
Salience is an idea Catholic leaders should be considering as they continue their so-called “new evangelization,” discussed at the Catholic University symposium by Peter Murphy, executive director, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis. Whatever is new in the new evangelization will have to help the salt regain its savor.
Here is a summary of what Zech and I learned from Trenton Catholics who left the Church. Many say they left because the Church not only does not ordain women but because women have no voice or status in the Church.
Refusal to recognize same-sex marriage also was a factor, they said, but even more of an issue is the Church’s refusal to welcome divorced and remarried Catholics to reception of the Eucharist.
Birth control is an item. And a host of issues associated with the mismanagement of, and attempts to cover up, the clergy sex-abuse scandal over the past decade were mentioned. About half of our respondents (by definition, a disaffected group) were negative on clergy. They view priests, by and large, as aloof, arrogant and removed from reality.
Consistently poor homilies and uninspired liturgies prompted some to leave. Politicizing the pulpit drew criticism from the left and the right. The absence of a sense of community alienated some. And the need for transparency in church management as well as the need to listen to the laity became decisive factors for some.
One man remarked: “In this diocese, if you ask a priest a question, you get a rule; you don’t get a ‘let’s-sit-down-and-talk-about-it’ reply.”
These exit interviews have opened up new conversations in the Diocese of Trenton.
Jesuit Father William J. Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia.