Why Catholics Leave & Where They Go

Terry Mattingly at Get Religion expresses the same frustration I was feeling about recent stories that focus on Catholics who have left the Church. He is interested to know how many have left – 10% of the entire population of the U.S., which would make ex-Catholics a larger denomination than Episcopalians, Presbyterians or Methodists if ex-Catholics were a denomination. But, he also wants to know where they have gone.

Mattingly writes: “There are, of course, some ex-Catholics who become, in effect, ex-Christians. There are others, and the story hints at this, who slide into the whole “spiritual, but not religious” crowd. There are Catholics who head to the theological left, into liberal mainline Protestant bodies — such as the Episcopal Church. Then there are plenty of Catholics who join evangelical Protestant groups.”

Certainly, I would never suggest that the Church trim its sails to keep more liberals or more conservatives on board: Crowd reaction is for the advertising industry, not for the Church. I do know that fewer would leave for such ideological reasons if both liberals and conservatives were more attuned to the danger of reducing religion to ethics. If you think the most important thing about being a Christian is the avoidance of homosexuals, or if you think that government programs that care for the poor is not intrinsically linked to the Eucharist, then you have missed the boat: Again, and again, and again I plead with preachers and prelates to make sure that every word that comes from their mouths is rooted in the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, and the invitation to the divine life of the Trinity that empty tomb proclaims. Everything, our teachings about sexual morality and social justice, our understanding of the hierarchic nature of the Church and our commitment to understanding the role of all the baptized as the “people of God,” all of it must be rooted in, and flow from, our creedal formulas. The failure to do so is what is responsible for the crisis of faith in the West.

I do not know what to do about those who proclaim themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Usually I find such people insufferable, solipsistic, unwilling to consider the implications of their own intuitions, superficial, intellectually lazy. The Rev. Lillian Denn, senior minister at the First Congregational Church, UCC, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, gave a wonderful send-up of the “spiritual, but not religious” crowd on my colleague Sr. Maureen Fiedler’s radio show “Interfaith Voices” that you can listen to here. I associate myself with her hilarious, but trenchant, remarks in toto.

But, as the exit interviews conducted in the Diocese of Trenton indicate, a large number of people stop coming to Mass because they find it boring. Some say – Wait a minute. No matter how banal the music or insufferable the sermon, the Mass is still the Mass, the body and blood of Jesus Christ becomes present in a unique way, a miracle occurs. How can anyone think that is boring? True enough. But, if it is a miracle we are witnessing and participating in, shouldn’t we act accordingly? Is it too much to expect the priest not to appear hurried, that his sermons not be slovenly, that the entire congregation come together to make the Mass truly a celebration of the Eucharist? A priest who appears distracted while reciting the Eucharistic prayer does not help the people come to the realization that what is being done before our eyes is nothing less than earth-shattering. Should not everything be done to put the entire congregation in the mind of Charles Ryder, in Brideshead Revisited, as he watched Lord Marchmain in his dying moments trace the sign of the cross: “And then a phrase came back to me from my childhood, of the cloth at the Temple being rent from top to bottom.”

Part of the problem is that our priests and deacons rarely if ever preach about anything except the Scripture readings. To be clear, the reintegration of a love for the Scriptures among the Catholic faithful is one of the most obvious fruits of the Second Vatican Council. But the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, notes that the Scripture and the liturgy are both fit topics for sermons:

Because the sermon is part of the liturgical service, the best place for it is to be indicated even in the rubrics, as far as the nature of the rite will allow; the ministry of preaching is to be fulfilled with exactitude and fidelity. The sermon, moreover, should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, and its character should be that of a proclamation of God's wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.

When was the last time you heard a sermon that focused on what, exactly, is going on at the consecration? Or explained the history of the prayers? Or explained why the priest’s prayers are directed to the Father through the Son, while the people’s prayers, with the exception of the Our Father, are spoken directly to Jesus in the second person: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world” and “Glory to God in the highest…you alone are the Holy One” and, finally, as a result of the recent revision, the Memorial Acclamation no longer has the people of God putting Jesus in the third person: “Christ has died….” Or explained why we recite the Creed every Sunday, or focused on the different lines in the Creed. I suspect there are some powerful sermons to be delivered that focus on such remarkable claims as “His Kingdom is without end” and “consubstantial with the Father” and, perhaps, something on the intimate connection between Christians and Jews required by the claim that the Holy Spirit “has spoken through the prophets.”

Another part of the problem is the music. St. Augustine famously observed that he who sings well prays twice. All of us are permitted our biases, but the fact is that much of the music written since the Council is drivel. I am uniquely blessed to normally worship at a church with a wonderful choir that sings great music. So, it is especially jarring when, as happened last Sunday, I had to attend Mass at a church which knows only the worst of the worst, from the opening hymn “All are Welcome” to “On Eagle’s Wings.” Yuck. I found myself thinking of the scene at the beginning of the movie Amadeus, when Salieri is speaking with the priest who has come to visit him in the insane asylum. Salieri plays a few of his own compositions and the priest does not recognize them. Finally, frustrated, Salieri plays the opening bars of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony and the priest instantly recognizes it. There are such things as bad music and better music and glorious music and history usually serves to sort out the wheat from the chaff. We have had mostly sing-songy chaff since the Council. It inspires not at all. Besides, classic hymnody is a great catechetical tool, especially for the young. The words of such great hymns as “Love, Divine All Loves Excelling” or “Come Holy Ghost” or the English Te Deum “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” are filled with the kind of catechesis about the dogmatic truths at the heart of our faith and embedded in our Creed that I should like to see preached on more frequently. I recall planning my mother’s funeral and making sure the homilist knew what hymns we would be singing so that he could work them into his sermon. And, lest you think I am allergic to anything written after 1965, I can say that the hymn “I am the Bread of Life” is one that always makes me cry. It, too, focuses on the central mystery of the Eucharist and when we find ourselves singing “Yes, Lord, I believe, that you are the Christ…” and singing those words at your mother’s funeral, those words, and the kerygmatic proclamation they contain, should bring tears to one’s eyes.

As the Church prepares for the Year of Faith, it would be good if our local clergy and congregations could focus on improving their weekly liturgies. It is one thing to lose Catholics to other churches. It is one thing to lose Catholics to an ambient culture that holds out many alluring, yet anti-Christian, values. But, we should not lose anyone to indifference or boredom.

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