Why do Catholics leave the Church? It’s a fair question that occupies the minds of Church scholars and leaders. It also occupies the hearts of people sitting around kitchen tables because almost every Catholic knows another Catholic who does not practice his or her faith.
A son or daughter, sister or brother, parent, loved one, friend or neighbor, one of those folks in our lives has ceased coming to a Catholic Church to join in the celebration of the holy Mass.
They may still call themselves Catholic, a member of the Church that they entered at baptism and perhaps in which they were educated. But in practical terms they have walked away.
Certainly, the sexual abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia does not encourage Catholics who may be on the fence about going to church. Nor do tensions about earlier school closings, future parish consolidations or the serious financial condition of the Archdiocese do anything but dampen morale.
These may be seen as excuses, but Catholics hold these feelings nonetheless.
Last fall professors from St. Joseph’s and Villanova universities aimed to learn about this dilemma in a study that polled 298 self-identifying Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., who do not attend Mass.
In the recently published study, those people generally reported their views in two classes of issues: non-negotiable Church teaching on holy orders (ordination), and human sexuality (contraception and same-sex marriage); and issues including liturgical practices, image of clergy and Church fundraising.
Overall the respondents reported they drifted away from the Church they left, and were ambivalent as to why. Many still identified themselves as belonging to a parish.
Clergy, religious and lay Catholics who attend Mass regularly, and who pray for their brothers and sisters who do not join them more often, might see something of a silver lining in this study.
The challenge on the one hand is to present Church teachings more pastorally and with greater clarity. On the other, an opportunity exists to constantly improve divine worship in the liturgy and make the parish community a warmer and more welcoming family of faith.
Both the challenge and the opportunity are rooted in the hope of the resurrection of Jesus. His disciples today need to witness their faith in Him just as His earliest disciples did. That witness changed the world, and it can do so again.