Exit interviews and welcome mats, The Anchor, March 30, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
March 30, 2012

As we prepare for Palm Sunday and, in just over a week, Easter, it’s a time when many of the three-quarters of American Catholics who do not attend Mass weekly return to worship. These “Cape”— Christmas, Ashes, Palms and Easter — Catholics still have, thanks be to God, some connection to Christ and His Church that draws them on these occasions and gives the Church community an opportunity to welcome, embrace and hopefully inspire them to come regularly. Many baptized Catholics have unfortunately given up attending even on Christmas and Easter. A 2008 Pew Forum Study showed that 30 million Americans now describe themselves as ex-Catholics. Why have so many given up the regular practice of the faith or stopped coming altogether? This question weighs on the hearts of pastors and faithful alike. We may know the circumstances of why particular family members, friends or fellow parishioners have said they have ceased to practice the faith, but there have been few systematic studies as to why one out of 10 Americans baptized in the Catholic Church now describe themselves as ex-Catholics and why three out of four who still list themselves as Catholics do not practice each week.

Some light was shed on these issues last week. A year ago Bishop David O’Connell read an article by Jesuit Father William Byron of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia suggesting that the Church conduct “exit interviews” of former Catholics to help the Church grasp better why Catholics are leaving, so as to prevent some from doing so and perhaps learn how to draw some of them back. Bishop O’Connell called Father Byron and asked him to put this idea into practice in Bishop O’Connell’s diocese of Trenton, N.J. Together with Charles Zech, the director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova’s Business School, Father Byron began advertising in secular and diocesan newspapers, parish bulletins and other outlets soliciting non Church-going Catholics to participate in a survey; 298 responded. Byron and Zech released the results in a speech at the Catholic University of America last week. Even though they noted that the survey was one of “convenience” rather than a sociologically-random one, it still illuminated issues that the Church needs to ponder and confront.

The vast majority of those who responded said that they have left not only their parish but the Church altogether, with only 25 percent saying they still considered themselves Catholic. They gave many reasons for why they had left, which the authors categorized in terms of “non-negotiable” and “negotiable” issues.

Among the non-negotiable or irreformable issues, some cited the hierarchical nature of the Church, the Sacrament of Confession, the all-male priesthood, the Church’s condemnation on same-sex sexual activity, the inability of the divorced-and-remarried to receive Holy Communion, the refusal to grant sponsor certificates to those whom the Church considers canonically unqualified, and the Church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion and contraception.

Among the negotiable issues were cited too short, banal and “empty” homilies detached from daily life, uninspiring music, an insatiable focus on raising money, an inadequate response to the sexual abuse of minors, the sense that Church was simply a place to attend Mass lacking a true community spirit, an absence of consultation and transparency in Church administration, “arrogant” and “aloof” priests, unwelcoming or bad experiences in interactions with parish staff or fellow parishioners, the failure of anyone to call or to show concern when they stopped attending each week, too much emphasis on politics, local rules against eulogies at family funerals, a presentation of God as harsh, judgmental and unforgiving, and a sense that women are not equal in the Church and that certain groups of people — those who have same-sex attractions or who are divorced-and-remarried — are unwelcome.

“There is much to be learned from all of this,” Byron and Zech stated in an accompanying article in America magazine. Even with regard to the “non-negotiable issues,” they pointed to the need for more compelling catechesis and pastoral accompaniment of those with questions and difficulties. They mentioned a paradigmatic reply from a 78-year-old man who, in responding to a question soliciting any bad experiences he may have had, wrote, “Ask a question of any priest and you get a rule; you don’t get a ‘let’s sit down and talk about it’ response.” Certain Church teachings on faith and morals, in other words, rather than being discussed as calls to conversion and to a deeper understanding and living of the faith, were presented as walls, with the clergy sometimes behaving as bricklayers. It doesn’t have to be this way. While the truths of these teachings cannot change, the presentation of them can, so that those who need help to grasp and live teachings that are difficult in our cultural context can come to see the truth and how it will set them free. Moreover, it’s clear from the survey that many have misunderstood what the Church believes and practices — for example in the claims that the Church does not welcome women, those with same-sex attractions, and those who have been divorced-and-remarried. With those who are still open to the truth — who believe that God can teach us contrary to the rigid orthodoxy of contemporary secularist elites — these misconceptions can be clarified through patient conversation and apologetics to prevent some from leaving over misunderstandings.

On the negotiable issues, there is even more to learn, for clergy and faithful. The clergy can and must preach better, relating the Gospel to human life in a way in which people genuinely feel fed and develop a hunger for more. For this to occur, however, not only is there a need for much more effective training in seminaries and in continuing formation programs for clergy, but there is a need for a revolution in the expectations that many clergy and faithful have for homilies. Christians hankering for engaging, relevant, biblically-based, inspiring homilies should never have to leave the Catholic Church; for that to occur, however, Catholic preachers and regular Mass-going Catholics need to prioritize those same elements over cultural conventions that equate, for example, the “best” homilies with the “shortest.” The survey likewise shows that there can be disastrous consequences when clergy fail to be humble, approachable and understanding, or when they do not do all it takes to make sure that the children entrusted to them are protected from predators. The calls for more welcoming, warm and familial parishes, inspiring music, greater co-responsibility for the laity, and a more effective apologetics on controversial issues, all depend on the lay faithful to remedy as much as they do the clergy.

Byron and Zech say that perhaps the largest take-away from the survey is that the Church — not just the clergy but every Catholic who comes into contact with those who have given up the regular practice of the faith — has to provide a much more effective explanation of the Holy Eucharist and Mass. “Underlying all the opinions expressed by the respondents to this survey,” they wrote, “is the fact that they are, for the most part, willing to separate themselves from the celebration and reception of the Eucharist.” Few, in doing so, regard the dissociation as a separation from Jesus Christ, because, it seems, at a practical (rather than notional) level, they never really regarded the Eucharist as God-incarnate. If those who believe in and love Jesus Christ recognize that He is truly present in the Eucharist, they can never regard Mass and the ability to be with and receive God within as an optional part of a Christian life or something superfluous to the good life. The fact that many fail to grasp this, and have at least partially for this reason wandered away from what the Second Vatican Council called the source and summit of Christian life calls, the authors stated, “for a creative liturgical, pastoral, doctrinal and practical response.”

The Good Shepherd declared that he would leave the 99 and go after the one sheep who was lost. The disciples of that Shepherd should always show the same concern. That begins with addressing the issues that can sometimes cause those sheep to separate themselves from the flock, and then with committing ourselves to working with the Good Shepherd to try to bring each sheep for whom He gave His life back to the fold.