Lapsed Catholics

by Michael Sean Winters

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A few weeks ago, I was at a dinner and one of the people present told me that she had stopped going to Mass. My heart sank. Lord knows, there are often good reasons for people to be frustrated with the Church, but, still, the thought of not going to Mass on Sunday is so incomprehensible to me that whenever I hear of someone leaving, I can’t get my mind around it and my emotional response comes to fore. It makes me very sad.

Sadness may be an appropriate feeling, but it is not a moral, still less an ecclesial, response to this phenomenon. Next week, on March 22 from 3-6 p.m. Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (where I am currently a visiting fellow) will be sponsoring a symposium on “Lapsed Catholics” to examine this sad phenomenon. The event is co-sponsored by Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management.

The phrase “lapsed Catholic” is telling. I never him someone talk about a “lapsed Presbyterian” or a “lapsed Methodist.” The word “lapsed” means a falling away, but it does not imply a complete and total severance of a connection. There is a sense, at the very least, that a person can always come back. I raised this point with Professor William Dinges, Professor of Religious Studies at CUA and one of the principal speakers at the symposium. It turns out, he explained to me, that social science surveys confirm the point. If you have a Methodist or a Presbyterian who has not belonged to an active congregation for some years, and you ask that person their religious identity, they say they have none. But, if you ask a Catholic who has not crossed the threshold of a church in many years what their religious identity is, they will say that they are Catholic.

Dinges explained that there are three reasons he and his colleagues decided to put this symposium together. First, as Father William Byron, S.J., explained in an America magazine article, if a corporation found it was losing customers at the same rate that the Church is losing members, that corporation’s first step would be to conduct exit interviews. Second, if we in the Church don’t talk about this phenomenon, others will frame the discussion, and not only with a view towards social scientific accuracy. (More on this later.) Finally, if we don’t address this as a Church, what message does that send to those who have left? As a community of faith, we need to have something else to say to those who have left besides “Keep warm and well fed.”

At the symposium, Dinges will present his synthesis of over 80 years of social and behavioral science data on the subject. 80 years? That’s right. In 1925, Gerald Shaughnessy, who would go on to become Bishop of Seattle, wrote “Has the Immigrant Kept the Faith?” This question has been around for a long time. Dinges will look at was that the pre-conciliar literature and the post-conciliar literature are similar and which ways they are different. One difference struck me as very significant: “Nothing in the pre-Vatican II literature sees this as a ‘youth problem,’” Dinges told me. “The pre-Vatican II parish had myriad ways of keeping kids connected to their parish.” In our own day, it is among youth that the numbers of those expressing no religious affiliation are at their highest. Here is something pastoral leaders truly need to focus on.

Dinges also noted that there is a new body of research on what he termed the “new religious movements, many Eastern, esoteric psychologies, philosophies and religious traditions.” This tells us why people joined one of these new movements which, in turn, tends to tell us something about why the left their old ones. But, here is one of the difficulties facing researchers in this field and it gets to the point of creating a narrative I promised more on above. Once someone leaves the Church and joins a new esoteric movement or a megachurch in their town, they will begin to develop the narrative that new spiritual locale offers, which will obviously be intent upon confirming the decision to leave Catholicism and join the new movement or megachurch.

Of course, not all religious movements are esoteric. There are new movements within the Catholic Church: Communione e Liberazione, Focolare, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, etc. I hope that members of these groups will come to the symposium – and think about their own lives and how the decisions they have made can help bring others to decide to stay within the fold. The Spirit is clearly at work in these new movements in the post-conciliar era, and we are foolish not to ask them how the charisms of their movements affect them and bind them to the faith.

The other night, at the RCIA, just before the break, I told the neo-phytes that I was going to be asking them to share with me the circumstances of their decision to become Catholic at this point in their lives. When we returned from break I went around the room, picking one person from each table. One person said she was getting married and realized it was important to her to get married in the Church and to raise her children in the faith. One gentleman had already married a Catholic and had attended Mass with her over the years and finally decided to join. A young man said he had felt spiritually restless throughout college and found himself feeling more comfortable when he went to Catholic Mass. I thanked everyone for sharing the stories and said, “Very nice and thank you all for sharing....but I must tell you that you are all wrong. You are here because God has called you to be here. He may have delivered His call via your impending marriage or your restlessness, but it is His call that brought you here, ready to present yourself to the Church to receive the Easter sacraments.” We know, in faith, that God calls us all. We know, too, that He never stops calling us. We need to figure out why some people, indeed many people, become deaf to that call.

“The diagnosis matters,” Dinges said. This is true of any sick patient. We, as a Church, need to know why people are leaving if we are going to figure out how to keep them. At the symposium Father Byron and Professor Charles Zech of Villanova will present their findings of a survey they recently conducted of lapsed Catholics. Finally, Peter Murphy from the USCCB will round out the panel. The event is free and open to the public and you can find out more and register by clicking here.

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