The Catholic Church is not doing well in holding her own. Of those Church members raised in the Church from childhood, a Pew Forum Study (Faith in Flux) found only about 2/3 (68%) of “Cradle Catholics” remain. Of the 1/3 who leave the Church, about half leave and become Protestants and about half leave and remain unaffiliated with any religion. A small part (3%) of the cradle Catholics leave and join other religious groups (Buddhists, Jehovah Witnesses, etc.) But – about one out of three “Cradle Catholics” leave!
The Church would be shrinking, were it not for immigration. Those who have left the Church (over 10% of the American population are now “former Catholics”!) outnumber those who have become Catholic (2.6% of American adults come into the Church), by a margin of nearly four to one. Only the immigration of Catholics has kept the Church in America from diminishing year by year. Evangelical groups, meanwhile, are zealously working with the immigrant population to attract, to convert and to keep them satisfied in a non-Catholic form of Christianity.
Here is a number from the Pew Study that I think ought to get our attention. Of those who left the Church and became Protestant, 71% gave as a reason that their spiritual needs were not being met. This was the most commonly given reason for this group. How is it that spiritual needs are not being met, in the Catholic Church formed and sent by Jesus Himself, entrusted with the fullness of divinely revealed truth? How can former Catholics find more to fill their spiritual needs, in denominations that have less of the spiritual food that God has given? Something seriously wrong is happening. Or maybe something seriously right and needed is not happening in the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church believes and teaches that the Sacred Liturgy is the “source and summit of the Christian life”! We have just noted that of the 1/3 of Catholics who were raised under this Church belief and left the Church for Protestantism, 71% left because their spiritual needs were not being met! The overwhelming majority of those spiritually hungry former Catholics (78%) found their home in evangelical Protestantism, where Scripture reigns and “sola scriptura” is the dominant doctrine. We Catholics ought – ought – to learn something from this.
One observation that I think we need to take seriously is the hunger for the Word of God among Catholics. This hunger is a beautiful gift from God – it is a hunger that the Church is obliged as Mother to respond to, in her children. Catholics ought not have to leave the Church, to find the beauty and power and presence of Christ in His holy Word.
A related matter is the Presence that the Church does strongly proclaim and offer to her own: the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Of course these issues are connected, in the Church: in the Mass, we celebrate both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The table of the Word is offered, the Word is proclaimed in each Mass!
Indeed the Liturgy of the Word precedes that of the Eucharist in the Mass, just as in salvation history the Word was given first in written form, before Christ the Word came in living form as a man. First the words, then the living Word! Adult Catholics today need to find Jesus first in the words – in Holy Scripture, spiritually – before they can fully know Him and receive Him by faith in His real, substantial and sacramental Presence in the Eucharist. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17)
In a CARA study (Sacraments Today) at Georgetown University, the following question was asked the respondents: “Which of the following statements best agrees with your belief about the Eucharist/Holy Communion?” Two possible responses were offered to choose from:
“Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.”
In 2001, 63% chose this statement. In 2008, 57% chose this.
“Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not really present.”
In 2001, 37% chose this statement. In 2008, 43% chose this.
Setting aside the imprecise language of the options, the startling fact remains that 43% of self-defined Catholics (not those who consider themselves “former” Catholics, yet) reject the doctrine of the Real Presence. When we hold in the one hand the “source and summit” doctrine of the Church, and in the other hand a 43% denial of the Real Presence among self-identified Catholics, we can perhaps begin to understand the exodus to Protestantism because of spiritual hunger unfulfilled. Is it well-educated and carefully discerned rejection of Church doctrine? Is it ignorance of Church teaching? Is it because the doctrine is presented (if at all) as hard and formal dogma, as unrealistic and incredible “law”? Is it because so many Catholics today lack adult formation in the faith, and have never had the opportunity or time to consider carefully and prayerfully as adults this and the many other challenging doctrines entrusted to the Church?
The fact is, many Catholics do not receive Christ spiritually in His Word – a presence they hunger for. Some – to our loss and theirs – leave the Church to find Him in Scripture elsewhere. Many Catholics do not have the faith or the understanding to receive Christ in His Real and Substantial Presence in Holy Eucharist. They think they are receiving merely a symbol, and so they lack the right disposition to become fruitful by the Gift.
Our Faith is not strong
The Pew study gives us more troubling news, concerning those Catholics who remain in the Church: by our own admission, our faith is not strong. Less than half of the self-identified Catholics questioned, reported their faith to be very strong – whether in their childhood, in their youth, or in their adulthood now. The numbers were, 46% reported very strong faith when they were children, 34% reported it in their teen years, and 46% reported this as true for them now as adults. Our remaining Catholics – at least the majority of us – are not remaining because of a fervent (or “very strong”) Catholic faith.
It seems that such a lack of fervor explains very well how so many simply “gradually drifted away” from the Church. The Pew study writes, “Nearly three-quarters of former Catholics who are now unaffiliated (71%) say this, as do more than half of those who have left Catholicism for Protestantism (54%).” The ties that bind a human soul to the truth of God ought to be the strongest ties in his life! But when faith is weak that the Church has such ultimate value – or when faith in God Himself is weak, unclear, poorly grasped in mind and heart – then we can well understand how such a soul can simply wander off, gradually and with little concern.
A relevant and interesting statistic that Pew reports is this: of those who left the Catholic Church for Evangelical Protestantism, 78% said that their spiritual needs were not being met in the Catholic Church, 70% said that they now have found a religion they like more. Indeed among all former Catholics who are now Protestant (evangelical or main-line), 71% say that now their faith is “very strong”! To me, this statistic is one of the most troubling. These Catholics had to leave His Church to find Jesus “really” – with a faith of fervor and zeal.
The answer to this strange and sad conundrum is simple, and the Church on paper has been exhorting us all to it for some time: we need meaningful, substantive, comprehensive and spiritually rich adult faith formation. We have done well at dispensing sacraments having immense potency of grace! But we are far from the rich bounty of fruitfulness that the Lord and His sacrifice deserve. We have not done well – indeed we continue to do poorly – at making fervent disciples in His name.
Catholic adults deserve the formation worthy of disciples – indeed the defining mission of the Church is to preach the Gospel and make disciples of all nations. What do we need to do? What do we need to do better? What do we need to do less, if at all? One thing we need to do, I am sure, is begin to care, and deeply, about our obedience to the mission of Christ: make disciples!
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Renew The Church Blog and is reprinted here with kind permission.