A heartbreaking study of Catholics who have left the Church

The Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton had the courage to invite scholars to survey those who have left Catholicism. It was a self-selected group (people who responded to published invitations, rather than scientific samplings), but still, the responses to the survey break my heart, and should break the heart of anyone with a passion for the Good News of Jesus Christ. Access to the scholars’ work is still not available, but America has posted an article they’ve written. Among the findings:

It should be noted that most respondents said no to our question about any “bad experiences” they may have had with any person officially associated with the church. Mention was made, however, of bad experiences in the confessional; refusals by parish staff to permit eulogies at funerals; denial of the privilege of being a godparent at a relative’s baptism; verbal, emotional and physical abuse in Catholic elementary school; denial of permission for a religiously mixed marriage in the parish church. In one case the parish priest “refused to go to the cemetery to bury my 9-year-old son  because it was not a Catholic cemetery.” Several respondents noted that they were victims of sexual abuse by clergy.

In the context of his reply to this question about “bad experiences,” a 78-year-old male said something that could serve as a guideline for the bishop in reacting to this survey. This man wrote, “Ask a question of any priest and you get a rule; you don’t get a ‘let’s-sit-down-and- talk-about-it’ response.”  It is our hope that there will be more sitting down and talking things over in  the Diocese of Trenton, and perhaps in other dioceses, as a result of this  survey experience.

The authors’ conclusions:

Considering that these responses come, by definition, from a disaffected group, it is noteworthy that their tone is overwhelmingly positive and that the respondents appreciated the opportunity to express themselves. Some of their recommendations will surely have a positive impact on diocesan life. Not surprisingly, the church’s refusal to ordain women, to allow priests to marry, to recognize same-sex marriage and to admit divorced and remarried persons to reception of the Eucharist surfaced, as did contraception and a host of questions associated with the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

The survey invited respondents to provide their name and contact information if they wanted direct connection with the bishop. Of the almost 300 who responded to the survey, 25 offered their information to the Bishop. I would love to be the fly on the wall in those conversations.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we as Episcopalians might respond pastorally to the crisis in Roman Catholicism. Short of putting direct ads in newspapers and other media, how do we communicate that our liturgy is quite similar, that we welcome divorced and remarried people, gays and lesbians, and those uncomfortable with the authoritarian hierarchy. The increasing rigidity of our Roman Catholic neighbors makes our openness all the more important, and our message all the more crucial.

Bishop O’Connell deserves praise for undertaking the study, and for his invitation to meet with respondents.

An earlier discussion of the issue is here.

Quitting Church

This week there’s been a good bit of discussion around the web about quitting or leaving church.

I’ve been thinking about this theme myself, in part because of recent encounters with a number of Roman Catholics who are struggling with their faith and their membership in that Church. Some can no longer find a spiritual home there and have embarked on a journey that leads them away. Others are struggling to find some way of finding peace with a hierarchy from which they are alienated and finding peace as well with a personal history and family tradition that still binds them.

Over the weekend, our neighbors down the street at the Freedom from Religion Foundation had an ad in the NYTimes urging Catholics to quit the church. Here it is:

The ad has produced its desired result: considerable response from various quarters. Sidney Callahan wrote about it for America magazine’s “In All Things,” observing that:

Helpfully, the free from religion folks provide a long list of oppressive “dark age” errors that “must be stopped.” One can become a member of their cruade by sending checks ranging from $40 (Individual) to $100 (Sustaining) to $500 (Life) to a puzzling category of (After Life) for $5000. This pitch for money prompted one wag to reply, “Hey people, you can quit for free you know.”

I’ve long joked that I would love to run an ad campaign directed at Roman Catholics with tag-lines like “The Episcopal Church: All of the Liturgy, none of the Guilt.” I do believe that the Episcopal Church can offer a home to at least some Roman Catholics who can no longer be at home in their church. But at the same time, to make such a direct appeal seems problematic. Here’s another version, from Rev. Matthew Lawrence.

A generous, pastoral response is necessary; and above all, humility that the Episcopal Church might not be the appropriate place for everyone who is estranged from the Roman Catholic Church.

One Catholic who left the Church and an order, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, is Mary Johnson. An interview with her  is here.  Her story of leaving is An Unquenchable Thirst.

My doubts in the convent were more questions about my call than doubting God or my Catholic faith — that came later. Though I’d felt called to serve the poor, I was assigned years of administrative work. Eventually when I was superior of a house that cared for refugee women and their children, I was forbidden to start programs that would have helped the women toward self-sufficiency; my superiors insisted that I limit myself to providing food and shelter. As Mother Teresa aged and her health failed, I clashed with two powerful sisters who had pulled the community very far to the right. I also realized that I needed deeper human connections than the rules allowed. I kept hearing within me the words of Jesus in the gospel: “I came that you may have life, and have it to the full” — and life in the MCs didn’t look very full. I felt as though I was suffocating.

Lisa Miller points out that women are giving up church in growing numbers. According to the Barna Group, regular attendance by women has dropped by 20% between 1991 and 2011. Her focus is on conservative Christianity.

One woman who struggles with church-going is Elizabeth Drescher, who writes about  “Giving up Church for Lent.”

Dave Kinnaman (The Barna Group) on their current research findings, postulating “two worlds” one of active, engaged Christians; the other consisting of secular people completely alienated from religion and Christianity. He suggests that perhaps whole segments of our population and culture have given up church. That is to say, religion is no longer of any significance or interest to them.