Posted in church, Raised Catholic

Where Have All the Catholics Gone? – Part I

Today’s blog explores the mass exodus of Catholics to somewhere else.  Why did they leave and where have they gone? Today we explore the why.  Monday, we will explore the where.  PS  This blog might be about you!

Staggering Statistics

Several years ago while attending a church-oriented workshop, I learned two very interesting statistics:

  • The single largest religious denomination in the United States is Roman Catholicism. 
  • The second largest religious denomination in the US is comprised of non-practicing Catholics. 

Today I learned the staggering statistics that back up this information.  According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostalate (CARA), in 2011, there were 77.7 million self-described (on a survey, they identify themselves as Catholic) Catholics in the United States.  Of those 77.7 million, only 22% attend mass on a weekly basis.  And of those who identify themselves as Catholics, 42.7 million are no longer practicing Catholicism.  Let’s state this another way:

  • 17 million Catholics out of 77.7 million attend weekly mass
  • 18 million Catholics out of 77.7 million are only participating marginally
  • 42.7 million aren’t participating at all

Note:  These numbers are only related to those who in a survey on religion would identify themselves as Catholic.  It does not address those who were raised Catholic and no longer identify themselves as Catholic.  I have to wonder what the numbers are for these folks! 

Where are the 42.7 million and all the ones not counted???

These statistics beg a very important question:  What happened to 42.7 million self-identified Catholics?  This is an enormous audience of people who are no longer participating in the Church that they identify themselves as belonging to.  Where did they go and why?  Today’s blog explores my observations and theories about why they are no longer participating, Monday’s blog explores where we might find them.

We are Smarter than You Think

In the old days, Catholics went to mass because they were told to and because they were told that if they did not attend mass, it was a mortal sin and they would go to hell if they died without receiving the sacrament of reconciliation.  So, they went because they were told and they went because they were scared.  Here’s the funny thing, this little moral teaching (not attending mass = a mortal sin and you will go to hell if you have mortal sin on your soul) is still on the books…..this is still the official teaching of the Catholic Church.  But guess what, most people are smart enough to believe in a loving God who will probably not condemn them to hell for missing mass.  So if the fear of eternal damnation is no longer hanging over our heads, what is the motivation for going to mass?

We Would Go if We enjoyed it

One of the things the Catholic Church figured out during the Vatican II Council was that vibrant worship, inspiring, relevant and nourishing preaching, meaningful rituals and with full participation of the laity (the people in the pew) would inspire people to attend.  Well…… most Catholics know, the reforms of Vatican II have been a LONG time coming….and now seem to be going in reverse.  As such, the goals of vibrant worship, meaningful ritual, inspired preaching and full participation have only been marginally manifest.  Yes, some parishes are doing this REALLY well….especially if they have a pastor who is motivated by these goals and gifted in these areas, or who has recognized he’s not and hired support staff to accomplish these tasks.  For the most part, however, Catholics are NOT experiencing vibrant worship, etc. and are not feeling nourished by the mass……so they don’t attend, or they go somewhere else.

Catholic Moral Teaching vs. Primacy of Conscience

This sticky little area is perhaps the number one reason that Catholics don’t participate or choose to leave all together – they do not or cannot uphold some (if not many) of the Catholic moral teachings.  Even though there is a loophole in a little doctrine known as primacy of conscience, many churches teach a hard-line approach to morality and many are made to feel as if they are not welcome if they choose to step outside of the literal interpretation of the law.  So, if you believe that birth control is ok, that there is nothing wrong with living together before marriage or that homosexuality is something created by God and that a homosexual lifestyle is not something to condemn or if you suffered an abortion or know women who have and find that you cannot judge that as condemnable, you might not choose to play with a Church that tells you otherwise.

Abuse of Power

Everyone has read the headlines.  The institution of the Catholic Church is in deep doo doo.  Priests sexually abusing children, mostly young boys and their bishops either ignoring it or covering it up.  The Catholic Church is NOT ALONE in this kind of abuse of power, in fact, the statistics are the same across denominations.  But…..the Catholic Church is the biggest and easiest target and quite frankly, the most self-righteous.  Everyone wants to see the one on their moral high-horse brought down (especially one that seems to say “do as I say but not as I do”) – this is human nature!  Today, the Church would be in a better position if they would have handled this whole fiasco better – accepted responsibility, asked for forgiveness, made reparations to the victims and their families, then initiated effective reform to help prevent further incidences of abuse.  But…..the Church has not, in spite of what they say and seem to be doing.  Catholic are disgusted by this and many have left because of it.

The Disenfranchised, Rejected and Banished

This is the group of Catholics that have been told they are not welcome in the Catholic Church, or at the very least, made to feel they aren’t welcome:  Divorced, Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, Transgendered, women who have suffered abortion, those who choose to live together before marriage, those choosing artificial birth control as their method of family planning, those with AIDS, women called to the priesthood, married men called to the priesthood, those who question or challenge Catholic teaching, those who are open to exploring other forms of worship, prayer, communion with God, etc. etc. etc.  The list is endless.  If directly or indirectly, we are made to feel unwelcome, we leave.

The Bottom Line

I believe that the ultimate reason that Catholics leave or choose to no longer participate is even more deeply rooted than any of the above reasons.  Ultimately, we leave because our spiritual hungers are not being satisfied.  We are not being fed.  Now, that is a whole other topic and one I promise to explore, but I have learned that when people are being fed spiritually, they come back.  When people are honored and loved for who they are and invited to share who they are with the community, they stick around.  I have also found that when people are being fed spiritually, a whole bunch of “sins” by an institution can be forgiven and little mistakes overlooked.  Church is kind of like a marriage – if you treat me with love, honor and respect, I will do the same for you.  And when you make a mistake, say you are sorry and try to change, I can forgive you and I will stick around.  So if the Church wants to get back the 42.7 million who are no longer playing, maybe this would be the place to start.

If you are Catholic and no longer participating, what are your reasons for leaving?

What could the Church have done that would make you stay?

What do you look for in Church (if that is one of your ways of being with God)?

Lauri Lumby

Authentic Freedom Ministries


I am a trained, professional Spiritual Director, Author and Hands-on Healer. I offer services, programs and classes that empower you to hear the voice of the Divine that speaks from within you. It is the voice of the Divine that leads us to our highest truth, to the discovery and cultivation of our gifts and to a life of Authentic Freedom where we know contentment, compassion and joy. Your truth will set you free!

2 thoughts on “Where Have All the Catholics Gone? – Part I

  1. I often think that that many people try to leave the Catholic Church because they don’t really understand its teachings and ways. Plus, the sacraments and healthy, deep community living do in fact offer all the spiritual feeding one needs- but if their wounds prevent an openness to the blessed power in these things, then it can be hard to stick around…. Unfortunately, institutions are sinful, but God is abundantly merciful, patient and good. I think the Catholic Church is the best vehicle to God on the religious super-highway of faith, at least it gets me close to God the best. Thanks be to God for that! Amen.

    1. Julia,
      I totally agree with you in regards to people leaving because they do not understand the fullness of what exists within the Catholic tradition. There really is something there for everyone if we would take the time to seek and if the Institution would support that search. The key here is taking the time and support, both of which unfortunately are rare. You are among the fortunate who have been gifted through your own vocational formation to learn the breadth and depth of our faith. The Institution has much to learn from the model of spiritual formation, contemplative living and mission that has been developed and lived out through religious orders.

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