17 September 2014

New survey gives reasons Catholics have left - and remain in - the Church

According to a new survey conducted by researchers at Benedictine University, the very reasons why some people have willingly chosen to separate themselves from the Catholic Church are the same reasons why others willingly remain within the Catholic Church. For example:

  • 30% of those who have left the Church cited a lack of community as one of the reasons they left, while 85% of active Catholics said the sense of community they experience in their parish is one of the reasons they remain; 
  • 34% of those who have left the Church cited the Church’s opposition to abortion as one of the reasons the left, while 90% of active Catholics said the Church’s opposition to abortion is one of the reasons they remain;

Cognizant that Mass attendance at some parishes in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois decreased by as much as 30% between 1996 and 2011, His Excellency the Most Reverend Thomas John Paprocki and his Presbyteral Council approached Dr. William Carroll, President of Benedictine University, to seek ways to learn why so many Catholics have left the Church and what might be done to call them back.

Conscious, too, that many of these fallen away Catholics would ask for an impossible change in some doctrines of the Church and that some requested changes, though perhaps possible, might also alienate those who have remained in the Church, the Bishop and the Presbyteral Council asked Dr. Carroll to help find ways to ask Catholics why they have remained in the Church.

(It should also be noted that during the same time period, other parishes in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois experienced no change in attendance and some experienced an increase of as much as 82%).

Dr. Phillip R. Hardy, PH.D, Assistant Professor of the Department of Political Science, and Drs. Kelly L. Kandra, PH.D and Brian G. Patterson, PH.D, Associate Professors of the Department of Psychology, prepared and conducted online surveys completed by volunteers solicited through advertisements in the Catholic Times, secular newspapers published throughout the Diocese, parish bulletins and announcements, postcards, the Diocesan web site and Facebook page, and by word of mouth. 575 individuals who self-identified as “inactive, lapsed, or drifting Catholics” responded to the first of the two surveys between November 2012 and March 2013. Between February and March 2014, 827 individuals who self-identified as active Catholics responded to the second of the two surveys.

The researchers presented the answers to these questions to the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois on September 10, 2014 in a 60-page document titled Joy and Grievance in an American Diocese: Results from Online Surveysof Active and Inactive Catholics in Central Illinois, and made available to the public yesterday.

In their final analysis, the researchers concluded that “Church doctrine plays a key role in individuals separating from the Catholic Church and it may be difficult to prevent current parishioners from leaving or to bring lapsed or drifting parishioners back to this faith community” (56). In this analysis, they are entirely right.

People make all sorts of excuses about why they have left the Church, including unwelcoming priests, an unfriendly word from a secretary, or a glare from a parishioner but in the end, they are only that: excuses, and not real reasons. As J.R.R. Tolkien once observed:

I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the Church (which for me would meaning leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe any more, even if I had never met any one in orders [that is, a deacon, priest, or bishop] who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call Our Lord a fraud to His face (J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Michael Tolkien, 1 November 1963).

These are the words of a man of deep faith and profound insight!

The only real reason, it seems to me, why someone would leave the Catholic Church is to because they never had – or somehow no longer have – a belief of the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

A bad priest does not make someone leave the Church; they choose to leave. Tomaso di Celano tells us that Saint Francis of Assisi “often used to say: ‘If I should happen at the same time to come upon a saint coming from heaven and some little poor priest, I would first show honor to the priest, and hurry more quickly to kiss his hands.  For I would say to the saint: “Lo, Saint Lawrence, wait!  His hands may handle the Word of Life, and possess something more than human’” (The Second Life, 201)! This does not mean, of course, that a bad priest - or a rude layman - cannot lead to a weakening of someone's fragile faith by causing scandal, which should always be avoided. The decision to leave to the Church, though, remains that: a decision.

When reviewing the results of this survey, we should keep in mind the words of G.K. Chesteron, who famously quipped, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

The results of this survey indicate that there are some things we can do to try to draw those who have lapsed in the practice of the faith back to the Church. It shows that some who have left will not return until the Church is no longer the Church.

At the same, the survey shows, with no real surprise, that a great number of practicing Catholics have difficulties with the Church’s teachings on certain topics continually misrepresented in the media. The Church needs to redouble her efforts to explain these teachings well, and why she teaches them, but finding ways to get those who do not embrace these teachings to listen carefully and openly is not easy. The survey also shows the principle reason many Catholics have remained in the Church is the community they experience. While this is not bad - indeed, community is necessary! - it should be at least a little troubling that the Eucharist – Christ Jesus himself - is not immediately the principle reason they remain.

I encourage you to read the results of the two surveys carefully and prayerfully. I have read it once now and want to read it again to be able to thoughtfully address some of the issues raised in the survey here on the blog in the coming weeks, one at a time.


  1. A small corrective - you refer to "fallen away" and "lapsed" Catholics. These are somewhat condescending terms and they are also not accurate.

    As you note, the survey indicates that most Catholics who have left (in Springfield, and it seems, throughout the US) have left as a matter of conscious choice after being "active" Catholics. The main reason they live is church teaching, as you note.

    They did not disappear from the pews as a matter of carelessness - just forgot to go to church (lapsed) - they did not "fall". The walked away as a thought-out choice.

    You are right about one thing though - the vast majority of the tens of millions or so of Catholics who have walked away from the church in the US, in Europe, and increasingly in Latin America will not be back.

    1. The terms I used are those of the survey and those who responded to the survey recognized the terms.

    2. The survey did use those terms. They are commonly used in some Catholic circles, but they are imprecise and often inaccurate and misleading.

      I do hope that priests will be careful in their choice of words to describe those who are no longer practicing Catholics. Using misleading terminology can impact actions. For example, those concerned with the stated goal of the "new evangelization" to "bring back" inactive Catholics to the pews should not base their efforts on a false understanding of why many Catholics have left the church. Bringing back those who drifted or lapsed involves a different set of issues, and thus a different approach, than does bringing back former Catholics who dissent from church teaching or governance.

    3. Did you read the report, Anne? That's the very reason the two surveys were conducted and the (not well here) self-identified "fallen away" and "lapsed" Catholics expressed no offense at the use of the two terms.

      What is more, they largely indicated that the only they'll return to the Church is if the Church changes her doctrines, which, of course, she cannot do.