When We Don’t Make Disciples

shutterstock_126312980The 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. 

R. Thomas Richard


R. Thomas Richard, Ph.D., together with his wife Deborah, currently offers parish adult formation opportunities, and programs for Returning Catholics.  He has served the Church in religious formation, lay ministry and deacon formation, and retreat direction.  He is the author of several articles in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, as well as books on Catholic spirituality, prayer, and the Mass - which are described on his website, www.renewthechurch.com.  He also publishes a blog at renewthechurch.wordpress.com.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Dorotheus

    It may be wise not to make too many assumptions about the people who leave the Catholic Church, e.g. that they do not have an adult formation or that they do not believe in the real presence. (It could be a crudely mechanistic understanding of transubstantiation presented to them as the real presence that they are rejecting). This makes it seem like their fault that they turn away from the Church, but perhaps the Church needs to look more at itself for the cause.

    I once read this in a book by an admired spiritual guide: ‘Religion is meaningless if it is confined to external and ritual acts of worship. Liturgy and ritual only have meaning when they are inspired by conversion of heart.’ May it be that the Catholic emphasis on doctrine, ritual, moral codes – the external form and practices of religion – neglects the more fundamental conversion of heart which could be what people are seeking?

  • DYoung

    So the one true Church that Jesus Christ established and said, “I will be with you even until the end of time” is at fault for people leaving? So you are saying that God is doing something wrong?
    Doing a google of your quote brings me to John Main, who taught to pray using a mantra. Now a mantra is not something you say just once, you have to repeat it thousands of time before you get it and maybe thousands more before it changes you.
    So I think John Main may be on to something. If people would just go to Church, like a mantra, let it in, listen and hear spiritually (not going for entertainment) and if they continued this practice then they would get it and then their hearts would change.
    The devil continues to work against the Catholic Church, but he will not win.

  • waynergf

    Hmmm…71% of former Catholics left the Church because their “spiritual needs” were not being met…but I see nowhere any definition / description / explanation of what the survey respondents meant by “my spiritual needs.”

    Until we have that, we have nothing.

  • Dorotheus

    I am not saying that the Church is necessarily at fault or that God is doing something wrong – that is clearly absurd (why are people always so belligerent on these blogs?), but if those who leave the Church say their spiritual needs are not being met we need, as waynergf says, to look at what that means and perhaps ask in what ways the Church is not meeting those needs – rather than assume that they ought to stay with it because it is always right. Attributing things to the devil is not much help either.

  • John Keating

    The Pew Forum doesn’t define it exactly, but I think it’s a mistake to then ignore the findings and pretend that everything is okay.

  • waynergf

    Sorry, John, but nowhere did I say, nor even imply, “that everything is okay.” The fact that it’s not is given by the 68% statistic.

    I was referring to the 71% statistic. The danger is trying to provide remedies / corrective actions when you don’t yet understand underlying causes, and we can’t start to deduce causes until we know the respondents’ meanings of “my spiritual needs” – a rather indeterminate phrase.

  • Hello wayne,

    I don’t think that asking a person to explain his/her missing “spiritual needs” is necessarily helpful. I don’t think that most people know, to a significant measure, just what their missing spiritual needs are. As an example, Jesus did not take a poll and adjust His teachings and ministry to what men thought they needed: He gave the living truth to all who would or could receive it.

    The Church has been entrusted with the fullness of divine revelation, and she was sent to preach and to teach all that she is given. If we are told that we are not fulfilling spiritual needs, I think it is not rocket science to study what the Church is doing, and subtract that from “all,” and get the answer.

  • Hello Dorotheus,

    Thank you for your comments. I agree that conversion of heart is crucial – conversion is the beginning of authentic Christian discipleship. Thus, in writing in my summary I said, “… we need meaningful, substantive, comprehensive and spiritually rich adult faith formation.” Each word describing the kind of faith formation needed is important.

    I wrote an article in HPR titled, “Prior to Adult Faith Formation, One Thing Is Necessary” – making the point of the need for heart-felt conversion.

    Also, in another article in HPR I include something of the process and stages of spiritual growth, in traditional Catholic spiritual theology, that describe the journey of discipleship – from beginning to the fullness of our call in Him:

    And there’s my book, The Ordinary Path to Holiness, with much more detail. The Church has been given so much! We are not doing well in passing enough of it to the members.

  • waynergf

    Au contraire, Thomas, I think it would be *very* helpful. What’s not helpful…nay, not rational…is to compare Jesus’ teachings to humans’ responses to a survey. And if the respondents don’t know what they mean by “spiritual needs” how is the Church to know what to do differently? [And again, nowhere did I say, nor imply, that the Church should change its teachings based on a survey’s results, or on the respondents’ meanings of “spiritual needs.”]

    You indirectly make my point: If we don’t know what is meant by respondents when the say “spiritual needs,” how will we know what to “subtract?” …or “add?” …or “change?” …in the Church’s *delivery* of that truth?

    I’m wondering if many of those 71%’s “spiritual needs” were really “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

  • Hello again Wayne – I’ll try to be clearer; maybe you misunderstood me. The Church knows what man needs! Man needs Jesus. Men and women and children need Jesus, and we need all that He came to give us. The Church has been entrusted with the fullness of divine revelation, and the work of the Church is to pass on that fullness.

    If a given person is not having his/her spiritual needs provided for, the reason is no mystery: the person is not receiving the fullness of what Jesus has given us in His Church. Perhaps the fault is in the person, perhaps the fault is in the leadership of the Church (lay or clergy). But the obligation for the Church is to provide it! And it is no mystery in a given parish or diocese what is in fact not being provided, in my experience and observations. The mystery to me is why it is not.

  • pbecke

    After leaving the Church as a young child, I retained a very strong faith in Christ, although, like many youngsters, I turned away from it, as an adolescent. In my early twenties, I returned to it, my faith stronger than ever, though content to take my time in returning to my Catholic roots.

    What always struck me, after my return was that the live of the saints were not spoken about and held up as examples for us, during the homilies at Mass. Likewise, no mention of the interior life, no teaching about deepening our prayer-life by prayer and self-denial and acts of charity, whether financial or in terms of charitable activity for those disadvantaged in some way.

    The centrality of the Mass for us could hardly be overstated, and yet I have always had the feeling that it was taught as a kind of ‘be all and end all’, and a routine ‘merit mark’, almost as if meted out by a kind of slot-machine. ‘Pay and pray’, is the way I believe it has been described; as if to say (by the priests: ‘We’re the professionals’, no need to concern yourself with much else. It is even noticeable in the separate prayers for clergy and laity in a weekday missal I have. The interior life should be for all Catholics in some measure, surely.

  • Amen pbecke! – “The interior life should be for all Catholics in some measure, surely.” The Church teaches the crucial need for prayer – for the interior life – and we have many heroic examples of lives of prayer and fidelity to God in our saints. We do not have a good record of teaching the art and the science of prayer, and the beautiful way that a disciple is to grow in that interior communion with God called “prayer.”

    I was happy to come across an ad on-line for an institute for adult formation in theology, the St. Thomas the Apostle Institute of Catholic Theology in Phoenix. It turned out they were offering a spirituality course there (also on-line), using a book I wrote specifically to help Catholics understand some of the treasure of spiritual wisdom concerning the interior life, and growth in prayer. The book, The Ordinary Path to Holiness, might be helpful to you if you are wanting to grow in prayer, on the path of the interior life.

  • waynergf

    Thanks, Thomas, for “giving it one more go.” 🙂 But now I *am* confused. Agree totally with your first paragraph, but the first sentence in your second paragraph reads like a circular argument to me wherein “the fullness of what Jesus has given us in His Church” is a longer version of “spiritual needs.”

    And the last part of your second paragraph reads like the Pew Foundation didn’t need to do a study – they could have just asked you…? What is not being provided, in your experience and observations?

    [If anyone else is following our exchange, perhaps you could jump in with a clarifying perspective? I still think most Catholics left the Church because they didn’t want to live the very teachings Jesus gave us and Thomas mentioned: on abstinence, on marriage and divorce, on use of contraceptives, on abortion, on…]

  • Sorry I have not been clear enough, Wayne. I’ll try to be:

    The saving Gospel is to become an integral part of a person’s life. Indeed the life of Jesus is to become the life of a Christian. If a Christian does not receive His life by grace, and begin to understand His life, and begin to live His life, again by grace, then that person is still lacking, still hungry, still wandering and confused.

    We are called to be saints – to holiness – to the perfection of HIs grace in us. Jesus said to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” This perfection is a maturation of His grace – which grace is, itself, a sharing in His eternal life.

    Catholics need, as human persons – and deserve, as Baptized members of His Body – all that God created them to have, to share and to become. When the Church fails to hold out to members the full dignity and responsibility that Christ died to give them, they rightfully remain hungry. And to some extent “bored” – and angry – and dissatisfied. Such a person as this can “feel” spiritually dissatisfied and can leave for a church that (as some experience) feeds them with (for example) the Word of God, Holy Scripture. The evangelicals capture many dissatisfied Catholics in this way.

    Such Catholics deserve to be fed Holy Scripture as Catholics! Why should they have to go to an evangelical church to find an adult Bible Study that actually reveals Christ to them in His Holy words? The Catholic Church has Bibles! We have the means to offer Bible Studies! Why don’t we do it? And not “academic” and dry “studies” – but reverent and prayerful studies that help reveal the living Christ present in His holy words. As in Lectio Divina, rightly taught and practiced. (and yes, I have a little book to help people begin to do that: http://www.amazon.com/Encountering-Christ-Scripture-Lectio-Divina-ebook/dp/B005596HNK/ )

    The Church rightly exalts Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Christian life – but we do not, commonly, help (secularly) educated American adult Catholics understand why that is, and what it means, and how to become open to the outpoured grace made available to us in Holy Eucharist. Catholics cannot receive fruitfully, if we do not know how to approach the Sacrament with right disposition. And many have no clue how to do this, or what “right disposition” means or how to receive Christ or what this even means. The Mass is ordered toward – and ordered us toward – right disposition, if we participate in the Mass as we ought. But so few know how to do this! (Yes, another small book: http://www.amazon.com/Mass-movements-Conversion-Consecration-Communion-ebook/dp/B007SGUHYI/ )

    This is what I mean when I point to adult formation as the necessary factor that is being ignored in our parishes. Most adults have not grown in understanding the mysteries of the faith since 8th grade Confirmation preparation. That is not right. Adults need adult formation to come into an adult faith as Catholics.

    Does this help at all? The Pew study did not probe for such “data” and they could not anyway. They gave us numbers – percentages – that ought to awaken us to the flood of Catholics leaving us.

  • waynergf

    Ahhh…*now* I understand your argument – thank you! 🙂

    I may have been dense in “getting it” because our parish at one time had *three* Bible classes going – two now. And they recently started a series on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    The third Bible class (now no more) was taught by a man born and raised Catholic, left the Church for a Baptist church for almost 20 years – where he learned the Bible inside-out – then came back to the Church. I (and others) spent about 10 years learning from him as he “connected” the Old and New Testaments with the Church’s teachings – and with the culture of Biblical times. It was most excellent.
    And you are quite right: as I truly learned the whats / whys / wherefores of the Catholic teachings, I realized how very little my cradle Catholic friends knew about their faith…I was shocked that many seemed to *not* want to know.

  • Good. We understand one another. Very good. Your parish is very fortunate to have such a teacher – very blessed indeed.

  • Kathy

    It is sad people are leaving their faith.there are just too many reasons and not one specific thing to blame.The catholic faith is deep and beautiful,but often not appreciated and very misunderstood.it requires a lifetime of learning and is really a journey and relationship.Sometimes the church seems very exclusive and does not meet people in the hardest times of their lives,like divorce or sin, they are rather pushed away from the very thing they need the most.i must say that sometimes the ones sitting in the pews are not always encouraged,but are instead chastised. All the teachings are important but if love and forgiveness and mercy are absent then people are going somewhere else to find it.I love being Catholic but there are so many empty pews , this is so wrong as these are difficult times and people need the loving active accepting Christ.Sometimes I wonder what Jesus would do? Turn away the poor from the true prescence?

  • Hello Kathy. Thank you for your thoughts, and comments. I can only agree with you about the good and the not-good as well, that you observe in the church.

    What would Jesus do? Well, He taught us His way, in this matter of “empty pews” and “former Catholics” and all who are scattered and confused in this world. He is The Good Shepherd (Jn 10) who went seeking the lost; He taught us of the woman who swept the house in search of the lost coin – and of the father who saw his lost son seeking his way home, and he ran to meet him. (Lk 15) The shepherd in Luke lost one sheep out of a hundred! One percent! Yet he went seeking that precious one!

    The Church has lost, and loses, 32 percent of those born into the Faith. How many parishes are actively looking and searching and praying and seeking them, to gather them back to their home? How many parishes even have an active outreach of evangelization? How many even have an active and comprehensive process of adult formation in the Faith – in Catholic doctrine, in the Sacramental life, in Catholic Moral teachings, and in the interior life of prayer? How many Catholics are trying to help those in their own families who have drifted away, to come home? Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful – Kindle in us the fire of your love!

  • Kathy

    Amen! Lets keep praying for all things to become as Christ intended for all His loved ones.

  • noelfitz

    This is another great article. Thanks are due to the author and those who contributed to the discussion.

    However the article is limited to the US. In several parts of the world the Church is doing very well, and in other parts, such as (perhaps) Europe including Ireland,
    the story is more bleak.

    I wonder do I add to the poor image of the Church by not being a better Catholic? I suppose, first of all, one should look at oneself.

    In Ireland perhaps the main reason for the fall-off is lack of teaching or
    catechesis. Has the sex scandals done serious damage to the Church? In the US
    do the numbers of immigrants, and also the size of their families, add to the
    flourishing of the Church?

    Pope Francis encourages us to realize the Church is universal and not an exclusive club for Europeans and those with a European background.

    However I
    do not think we should worry too much.
    All we can do is our best and hope in God.

  • Frank

    One of the most telling issues to predict the problems in the Catholic
    Church is same sex marriage. In NYS alone, a very Catholic state,
    homosexual marriage is legal primarily through the support of Catholic
    politicians. And just this weekend, Andrew Cuomo essentially told
    Catholics they have no place in NY. And yet, just a month ago, Cardinal
    Dolan identified the governor DURING Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral.
    He also eluded to the absurd position that the governor is in good
    standing with the Church. We don’t need jolly cardinals, we need
    leadership, we need direction, we need courage. Catholics will always
    have problems believing that when they receive Holy Communion they are
    receiving the real Body and Blood of God incarnate if public deniers of
    strict Catholic teachings are not admonished publically. How great it
    would be for New York Catholics if Cardinal Dolan stated that because
    the Eucharist is the real Body and Blood of Christ, Cuomo MUST renounce
    his sinful rejection of Church teachings. Then, and maybe only then,
    will the Catholic Church open the eyes of under catechized Catholics who don’t realize the gifts they receive through their Catholicism.