More on the 'Why We Left' study of dissaffected Catholics

by Dennis Coday

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“It is no secret that increasing numbers of baptized Catholics in the United States never or rarely attend Sunday Mass. In the late fall of 2011, we asked some of them a simple question: Why? At the request of Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., of Trenton, N.J., we surveyed nearly 300 nonchurchgoing Catholics in his diocese.”


Thus begins an article scheduled for the April 30, 2012, issue of America magazine by Jesuit William J. Byron and Charles Zech. Read the full story here: Why They Left: Exit interviews shed light on empty pews in Trenton.

Byron, professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, Pa., and Zech, professor of economics and director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University, Villanova, Pa., conducted the study.

NCR Washington correspondent Jerry Filteau filed a story about this innovative study after the results were released at a Catholic University of America conference in Washington last week. (See: Unusual study asks former Catholics why they left church

Filteau wrote: “While the results themselves were not surprising, the researchers said, the study suggests new ways the church can approach Catholics who are dissatisfied with what the church teaches or how it acts -- including those so dissatisfied that they have decided to leave.”

In the America article, the researchers, Zech and Byron, get a chance to speak for themselves about the data they collected. Two things struck me as I read the article:

1) The pain evident in comments from women:


  • “I didn’t understand certain things and found no mentors within the church. I just stopped going because my community of friends and family were no longer in the church.” [23-year-old female]

  • “Please find a way not to exclude me from the Catholic community.” [divorced female, 56]

  • “Young mothers like me need help. Have women, as well as men, as greeters at Mass; make childcare available; encourage the formation of mothers’ groups; have the homilies speak to me.” [married white female, 29, now attending a Baptist church]


2) For the most part, the issues the exit surveys raise are not doctrinal issues. They are pastoral issues, or as Zech and Byron write, basic “customer relations.”


  • “There were sufficient reports of bad experiences over the parish telephone, however, to suggest that attention should be paid to courtesy and improved ‘customer relations.’ ”

  • “As much as I wanted to get involved and expand my faith, there were no clear avenues to do that. So it was just a place to attend Mass. … I was always alone in a crowd.”

  • “No one misses the fact that we stopped going. No one has called from the parish even though we were regular attendees and envelope users!”


It seems to me that these are words that would break a pastsor’s heart.

Byron told NCR that he and Zech have already received a couple of requests to conduct similar studies in other dioceses, and he expected that additional requests would come in in the wake of the article in America. Let’s hope those diocese are as forthcoming with the results as Bishop O’Connell has been. These seems to be an exercise all pastoral workers can learn from.

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