Monday, April 25, 2011

The Hidden Exodus: Catholics becoming Protestants

Now that the “Creasters” (Catholics who only attend Mass on Christmas and Easter) have disappeared until December, Church attendance will return to normal. Most places it means about 1/3 of Catholics will attend on Sundays. Creasters represent about another third. It’s the final third of baptized Catholics who have simply disappeared. Rev. Tom Reese considers this third in a recent article…

The hidden exodus: Catholics becoming Protestants
Apr. 18, 2011
Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why
By Thomas Reese

The number of people who have left the Catholic church is huge.
We all have heard stories about why people leave. Parents share stories about their children. Academics talk about their students. Everyone has a friend who has left.

While personal experience can be helpful, social science research forces us to look beyond our circle of acquaintances to see what is going on in the whole church.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has put hard numbers on the anecdotal evidence: One out of every 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a separate denomination, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States, after Catholics and Baptists. One of three people who were raised Catholic no longer identifies as Catholic.

Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why. But the U.S. bishops have never devoted any time at their national meetings to discussing the exodus. Nor have they spent a dime trying to find out why it is happening.

Thankfully, although the U.S. bishops have not supported research on people who have left the church, the Pew Center has.

Pew’s data shows that those leaving the church are not homogenous. They can be divided into two major groups: those who become unaffiliated and those who become Protestant. Almost half of those leaving the church become unaffiliated and almost half become Protestant. Only about 10 percent of ex-Catholics join non-Christian religions. This article will focus on Catholics who have become Protestant. I am not saying that those who become unaffiliated are not important; I am leaving that discussion to another time.

Why do people leave the Catholic church to become Protestant? Liberal Catholics will tell you that Catholics are leaving because they disagree with the church’s teaching on birth control, women priests, divorce, the bishops’ interference in American politics, etc. Conservatives blame Vatican II, liberal priests and nuns, a permissive culture and the church’s social justice agenda.

One of the reasons there is such disagreement is that we tend to think that everyone leaves for the same reason our friends, relatives and acquaintances have left. We fail to recognize that different people leave for different reasons. People who leave to join Protestant churches do so for different reasons than those who become unaffiliated. People who become evangelicals are different from Catholics who become members of mainline churches.

Fr. Reese spends some time analyzing the data (For the full article go to ,) but his summation includes….

Lessons from the data

There are many lessons that we can learn from the Pew data, but I will focus on only three.
First, those who are leaving the church for Protestant churches are more interested in spiritual nourishment than doctrinal issues. Tinkering with the wording of the creed at Mass is not going to help. No one except the Vatican and the bishops cares whether Jesus is “one in being” with the Father or “consubstantial” with the Father. That the hierarchy thinks this is important shows how out of it they are.

While the hierarchy worries about literal translations of the Latin text, people are longing for liturgies that touch the heart and emotions. More creativity with the liturgy is needed, and that means more flexibility must be allowed. If you build it, they will come; if you do not, they will find it elsewhere. The changes that will go into effect this Advent will make matters worse, not better.

Second, thanks to Pope Pius XII, Catholic scripture scholars have had decades to produce the best thinking on scripture in the world. That Catholics are leaving to join evangelical churches because of the church teaching on the Bible is a disgrace. Too few homilists explain the scriptures to their people. Few Catholics read the Bible.

The church needs a massive Bible education program. The church needs to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is more important than memorizing the catechism. If we could get Catholics to read the Sunday scripture readings each week before they come to Mass, it would be revolutionary. If you do not read and pray the scriptures, you are not an adult Christian. Catholics who become evangelicals understand this.

Finally, the Pew data shows that two-thirds of Catholics who become Protestants do so before they reach the age of 24. The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence over the complaints of fuddy-duddies and rubrical purists.

Current religious education programs and teen groups appear to have little effect on keeping these folks Catholic, according to the Pew data, although those who attend a Catholic high school do appear to stay at a higher rate. More research is needed to find out what works and what does not.

The Catholic church is hemorrhaging members. It needs to acknowledge this and do more to understand why. Only if we acknowledge the exodus and understand it will we be in a position to do something about it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Thursday: Who Sat at Table with Jesus?

Holy Thursday recalls the creation of the sacrament of Eucharist with the last Supper. Were women present? Why not? Some parishes don’t let women wash feet or have their feet washed, less someone think women were present and participating in the Last Supper/ First Mass. We do know that there were many married men there who were charged by with the ministry of service and with breaking of the bread “in memory of me.” So editorialist, Tim Padgett, found this Holy Week an appropriate time to suggest a return to a married priesthood.

Sunday, Apr. 17, 2011
Palm Sunday Plea: Let Priests Marry
By Tim Padgett

One of the best Roman Catholic priests I've ever known, Father Berns, was a widower. He had a mind as broad as his faith was deep; he served a dry martini but never a dry homily. And I've always wondered how large a role the gloriously messy life experience of a wife and children played in making him such an unusually engaging, and engaged, Catholic cleric.
The answer, of course, is that there is no real answer, especially when I consider all the lifelong celibate priests whom I've admired as much as I did Father Berns. Still, he's on my mind right now because of the Catholic Church's latest sexual abuse scandal, playing out in Philadelphia. There, on Friday, April 15, three priests and a former Catholic school teacher pleaded not guilty to charges of raping and sexually assaulting minors. What makes this case different, however, is that for the first time in the U.S., a higher-ranking Catholic official, Monsignor William Lynn, former secretary of the clergy for the Philadelphia archdiocese, is being charged with trying to cover up the abuse. (Lynn too pleaded not guilty on Friday.)

It's that twist that has me thinking of Father Berns — and it has made me more convinced than ever that the Catholic Church has got to drop its celibacy requirement for priests. I say that not because I think letting priests marry would have prevented priestly abuse. Pedophiles prey regardless of marital status. I say it, especially after having interviewed abuse victims, because I think letting Catholic clergy have wives and families may well make the hierarchy, from guys like Lynn on up to bishops and the Vatican, more concerned about safeguarding youths than about protecting priests.

For U.S. Catholics, the arraignment of Lynn and the four other men was a lousy way to kick off Holy Week, which starts today, Palm Sunday, and ends next Sunday on Easter. Then again, what better time than the week that includes Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified, to wrestle with it. (And the conservative Catholic League's full-page ad last week in the New York Times — which, astonishingly, blamed much of the abuse crisis on "homosexuality" — is just another reminder why it's so important we keep wrestling with this.)

So since I'm a hack and not a theologian, I'd suggest Catholics could start that process this week by recalling another, more benign scandal that hit the church two springs ago. That was the case of the Rev. Albert Cutié, the Catholic priest and Spanish-language television talk-show star who left the church in 2009 after a tabloid printed photos of him and his covert girlfriend (now his wife) cuddling on a Miami beach. Cutié, aka "Padre Alberto," became an Episcopal priest and, this past December, the father of a baby girl. In the process he's refueled the Catholic debate about clerical celibacy, and the upcoming Philadelphia trial makes his story especially relevant.

That's because Cutié, despite the double life he once led, has forced Catholics to consider a key question: Why did his romantic relationship with a woman — a peccadillo most Catholics shrugged at when the scandal broke — seem to elicit as much if not more outrage from the church hierarchy as the priestly sexual abuse of minors has?

Cutié feels that the hierarchy's overreaction to his indiscretion reflects how celibacy has helped condition the church's lame reaction to the abuse horror. He's of course not suggesting that a man has to have a wife and kids to be sensitive to these issues. But the Catholic Church risks breeding insensitivity by segregating its diocesan priests and bishops from the world of wives, children and the loving sex that begets them. It risks sending the message that those human joys would somehow sully their vocations — that those things are inferior to the priesthood, and so protecting the holy fraternity is what matters most during a crisis like the sexual abuse plague.

If the Philadelphia ugliness isn't enough of a convincer, consider Belgium — where last week former Catholic Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who has admitted to sexually abusing two nephews, turned stomachs all over Europe by insisting his pedophilia was a harmless "little piece of intimacy." Civil authorities can't collar Vangheluwe because the crimes occurred too long ago. But so far neither the Vatican nor the head of the Belgian church has done a thing to punish him or any of the Belgian priests involved in a string of recent abuse accusations.

Celibacy was not a clerical requirement in the early church — in fact, many popes were married during Christianity's first few hundred years. But as Catholicism became more affixed to the Roman Empire, the church fathers fell increasingly under the influence of Stoicism and its demonization of sex, an attitude the medieval church codified.

Today the church would argue that celibacy isn't about demonizing sex but rather nobly sacrificing it as part of being alter Christus, or "another Christ."
I and most other Catholics can respect that — if it's a priest's choice. Unfortunately, we're also aware that mandatory celibacy has led to an unnecessary isolation of our clergy — and, in turn, to the harmful sense of clerical superiority we've seen so much of during the abuse crisis. All I know is, I saw a lot less of it in Father Berns.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In Plain Sight

This lenten reflection comes from Justin Sengstock, a Catholic young adult blogger.

When I was at Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, I was astonished at the dissent the Catholic Church was promoting within its ranks. At least, that was what I had to conclude from the Gospel (John 9). It was the story of the man born blind. Rehash: Jesus meets a man blind from birth. Jesus anoints the man with mud and tells him to wash it off, whereupon he sees. When the Pharisees and the Jewish leadership find out, they are horrified.

Yeah, sure, the guy can see, whatever; what’s really important is that Jesus is doing this stuff on the Sabbath. That means he worked, and you can’t work on the Sabbath. Therefore Jesus can’t possibly be from God. God wouldn’t act through somebody who didn’t do what Moses said. Jesus' mercy obliges the authorities to condemn him, not respect him.

But wait, says the former blind man. God wouldn’t fulfill sinful requests from sinners, right? Here, let him speak for himself: "It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything" (9:32-33). This logic is almost a problem for the leaders and the Pharisees…almost. But see, they get a loophole. That’s the thing with legalism in any religion: it’s full of loopholes for powerful opportunists who know how to use them.

Here’s the loophole this time: sin was believed to afflict sinners and their descendants with concrete misfortunes, physical and otherwise. The misfortunes could be a lot of things. Could be poverty, could be leprosy, could be blindness.

So the man born blind was born in sin. That’s his essential reality, his source. He and the Sabbath-flouter must be two peas in a pod, brothers in crime, pulling off some kind of stunt. As a group of petulant scribes had said elsewhere, “By the prince of demons [Jesus] drives out demons” (Mark 3:22). So why listen to this punk? "You were born totally in sin, and you are trying to teach us?" (John 9:34). And they throw him out.

I felt myself about to bust out in a chuckle. I had to fold my arms and look down, suppressing my reaction, filing away for future reference the rebellious little insight that went with it: namely, that this first-century Gospel sounded so much like the twenty-first-century Roman Catholic Church.

Don’t the Catholic hierarchy and the opponents of Jesus sound uncannily alike? Neither group readily accepts an insight that it doesn’t come up with by itself. Neither group likes the idea of God saying or doing something that hasn’t been said or done yet, never mind all that stuff about doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19) and the new heavens and the new earth (Isaiah 65:17, Revelation 21:1).

God may only work through carefully approved channels, all of them under strict copyright. Grace through improper channels is null, void, a deception. And even when the efficacy of those improper channels is staring the authorities in the face, they will ignore it--or even just "throw the bums out"--if they have no other way to preserve business as usual.

The late Patty Crowley, a leader in the Christian Family Movement and a Call To Action member, was also a member of the papal birth control study commission in the 1960s. Marcelino Zalba, S.J., a priest who sat on the commission with her, argued that the prohibition on contraception had to remain intact no matter what the evidence. His reasoning: "What then with the millions we have sent to hell, if these norms were not valid?" Crowley quipped, “Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?"

Do the scribes and Pharisees, both ancient and new, really believe God is carrying out all their orders? That, and not just the blind man's healing (or the spiritual enlightenment that resulted from it), is integral to John 9.

But "sight" is an awesome metaphor to consider here. Because somehow, some way, our resources for renewal (and for acting out) have always been right there, in plain sight, if you know what you're looking at. These resources may even be read aloud on weekends by priests who really have no idea that their voice is the match, that the red book on the ambo is the fuse, or that the people standing placidly in front of them are the bomb.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Popular EWTN evangelist Father John Corapi, SOLT has been placed on administrative leave by his superior after recent allegations of misconduct. The allegations, which came to light in March with a three-page letter sent to several bishops, claimed the priest took part in sexual encounters with several women and engaged in habitual drug use. Corapi vehemently denied the allegations, blaming a disgruntled female former-employee. He stated, "I'll certainly cooperate with the process, but personally believe that it is seriously flawed, and is tantamount to treating the priest as guilty 'just in case,' then through the process determining if he is innocent."

Corapi is an outspoken and flamboyant preacher, with one of his favorite stories being his path of conversion from a successful businessman, to a drug addict living in the streets, to a “manly man” crusading priest.

The interesting thing is that even if Corapi is found innocent of the accusations, his life-style and financial dealings have attracted more scrutiny. He is currently a priest with SOLT (Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity), While many other Society members give all money earned back to the Society and live on a modest stipend, Corapi is not bound by a vow of poverty. In fact, Corapi is the president and CEO of his own “for-profit” company, Santa Cruz Media, Inc, that produces tapes, CDs, DVDs, books and promotional materials for “his” ministry. He lives independent of his order in his own home. Given his religious “rock-star” status, Corapi is a roman-collar who hardly answers to any religious authority.

Monday, April 4, 2011


When he was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill proclaimed that, “All politics is local.” Recent events remind us that the same is true of the Catholic Church – “All religion is local.”

March 2011 was a tough month for the Church. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia was disgraced by the discovery that it had covered up sex abuse accusations concerning 37 of its priests. The Jesuits of the Oregon Province announced they would pay 133 million dollars to past victims of abuse at their schools for Native-American youngsters. Meanwhile, newly discovered documents revealed that the Jesuits of the Chicago Province had mishandled numerous complaints of repeated sexual abuse by their Father McGuire, who is now in prison. And Chicago’s Cardinal George, who has his own story of mishandling the abuse case of Father Dan Mc Cormack, decided to wield his Episcopal blunderbuss to wound one of his most creative priests (Father Mike Pfleger), one of the nation’s most vibrant African-American parishes (St. Sabina’s) and a legendary Chicago sportswriter (Dan McGrath) who had dedicated his retirement years to salvaging Leo High School on the Southside of the city. Also Church leaders continued their crusade against women priests, gays and lesbians, as well as Democratic politicians.

So that’s some of what was happening on the non-local scene.

Meanwhile, the local manifestation of the Church was doing quite fine on its own, thank you very much. For example, how did some Chicago parishes fill the gap created by their decision to cancel their annual St. Patrick’s Day parade down 103rd Street? It had grown to gargantuan proportions and had been bedeviled by a bevy of drunk and disorderly collegians. But nature abhors a vacuum, so they came up with a St. Baldrick’s Day celebration on March 17. It started with the seventh graders at St. Barnabas school. In seeking to support a classmate who had suffered from cancer since he was in second grade, they discovered St. Baldricks, an organization in California which seeks to fund research on childhood cancer by sponsoring communal head shavings. So the kids mobilized students, families and fellow parishioners who would pledge support for those willing to lose their locks for the cause. You can view the results on You Tube. It was wonderful.

The pastor went first, receiving a mighty cheer as his primal baldness was revealed. Then 120 others followed. Boys and their Dads were shaved. Girls and their Moms had their long tresses shorn. Neighboring parishes joined in with their own events. At the end of the day they had raised $47,000 for the cause. Everyone was so proud of the spirit of generosity and compassion which flowed out into the entire community. And just as we wince, when Church officials on the non-local level besmirch the word, “Catholic”, we can be proud together when we hear about the abundant goodness at the grassroots.

There is hope.