Where have all the Catholics gone? A few years ago, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that nearly a third of U.S. Catholics had left the church — so many that if they were counted as a single religious body they would be the second largest in the country, after the Catholic church itself.
But why are they leaving? The Diocese of Trenton, N.J., recently tried to find out. The diocese commissioned a survey designed by William J. Byron, a Jesuit professor of business, and Charles Zech, a specialist in church management at Villanova University. The results were presented at a recent conference in Washington, D.C. A follow-up article was just published in the April 30, 2012, issue of the Jesuit magazine, America.
The study’s findings are not surprising: too many rules and not enough consultation; bad experiences with church personnel; uninspired preaching and liturgy; feeling marginalized or excluded for being gay, or divorced and remarried; lack of a sense of community. It is clear, though, that many ex-Catholics in Trenton still cared enough about their experiences with the church to answer local media advertisements soliciting their opinions. These 298 “usable” responses, while not a random sample in the sociological sense, were likened to a business’s “exit interviews,” indicating where improvements could be made to retain “customers.”
The survey did not answer another important question: where are these ex-Catholics going? Are they joining other churches where they feel more inspired or more connected? Are they exploring non-Christian faiths? Or are they joining the ranks of what Amy Sullivan, in her March 12 article in Time magazine called the “nones,” those who answer “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation?
Santa Barbara, in addition to its nine Catholic parishes has two “intentional eucharistic communities,” which attract Catholics dissatisfied with the traditional parishes. St. Anthony’s is served by several male priests who were validly ordained but later chose to marry. The Catholic Church of the Beatitudes has two women priests who are part of the Roman Catholic WomenPriests movement. (Despite the fact that they can trace their ordinations back to a validly ordained and consecrated male bishop, their ordination is not recognized by the Vatican — apparently on the grounds that ordination doesn’t “take” in female bodies!) The church’s members, on the other hand, feel that the Holy Spirit “blows where it will,” with or without Vatican approval.
In recent months, the Church of the Beatitudes has been actively inviting “disengaged” Catholics — those who have dropped out of parish life but still feel some attachment to Catholic tradition — to listening sessions at which they can talk about their experiences and explore their options. The next session is scheduled for 4 p.m. May 19 at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. at West Padre Street). Participants are warmly invited to stay for our weekly liturgy at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. On this special Pentecost weekend, the service will be followed by a reception.
— Anne Heck is a parishioner at the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which meets at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for additional columns.