Study Examines Why Catholics Leave Church

by Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Church leaders should take to heart reasons why Catholics have left the Church, according to a priest who has conducted an “exit poll” of former Catholics.

Above all, their departure highlights how the Church must offer a “fresh explanation of the Eucharist,” said Jesuit Father William Byron, professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, pointing out that those who leave the Church separate themselves from the celebration and reception of the Eucharist.

“This calls for a creative liturgical, pastoral, doctrinal and practical response,” he said, to help Catholics understand what the Sunday Mass obligation is really about and what they’re missing when they leave.

Father Byron conducted the study last fall along with Charles Zech, economics professor and director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University’s business school. They surveyed 298 non-churchgoing Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J. They presented their results March 22 at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

Father Byron said the idea of the survey came about after a conversation he had about the number of Catholics who have left the Church, which, according to a 2007 Pew Forum report, is one-third of those raised Catholic in the United States. In the course of the discussion, a retired chief executive officer told the priest that if the Church were a business, it would conduct exit polls to find out why people left, or in business terms to “know where your losses were from.”

That’s what Father Byron and Zech set out to do with the study “Empty Pews: Survey of Catholics Regarding Decrease in Mass Attendance.” They reached participants through advertisements in Catholic and secular newspapers and bulletin announcements. As Father Byron pointed out, the survey didn’t involve a random sample but more a “sample of convenience.”

Still, the answers could provide an important tool for Church leaders, he said.

The survey presented participants with various questions about their parish experience: Did they feel they belonged to their parish? Was the pastor approachable and the pastoral staff welcoming? Was there anything their parish could do to make them return?

Participants also were asked specifically about their departure, if it was conscious decision or the result of “drifting away?” Did they leave their parish, the Catholic Church or both? Did they join another faith community? Were there Church teachings they found particularly troubling or if they had a bad experience with anyone in church?

They were also asked what they would like to discuss with their bishop if they had the opportunity.

The median respondent was a 53-year-old white female. Father Byron noted that although respondents were from a “disaffected group,” they were primarily positive and appreciative for the chance to express their views.

He said the respondents’ views on “non-negotiable” Church teachings points to the need for more pastoral and clear explanations of what the Church teaches and why. Respondents cited disagreements with the Church’s stance on women’s ordination, married priests, contraception and same-sex marriage, he said.

He labeled other issues that prompted people to leave as “negotiable,” such as dissatisfaction with homilies and negative clergy image. Some wanted their bishop to apologize for the clergy abuse scandal; others wanted to hear fewer appeals for money and more about care for the poor.

Overall, most respondents said they left the parish and the Catholic Church and were ambivalent if their departure was a conscious decision or not.

Many had positive reactions about their parish, saying the staff was welcoming and the pastor approachable for the most part. They also considered themselves members of the parish, but some were disheartened that they had not been missed when they left.

Most didn’t have a bad experience with the church and the vast majority didn’t join another faith community.

U.S. Catholics leaving the Church is hardly a new issue, noted William Dinges, religious studies professor at Catholic University. He said this was a particular concern as immigrants came to the U.S. In the 1940s and ’50s, he said, research indicated that 70-80% of Catholics attended Sunday Mass. Now that figure is about

31% of Catholics, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.