Monday, March 26, 2012

New Study Explores Why Catholics Are Leaving the Church

Recommends "constructive dialogue"
between hierarchy and laity, rather than
"simple reiteration of church rules or policies."

Editor's Note: Following are excerpts from an article by Jerry Filteau first published March 23 by The National Catholic Reporter. It's interesting to contrast the study's recommendation of "constructive dialogue" between hierarchy and laity to Archbishop John Nienstedt's recent response to a group of Catholics concerned about the shortage of priests.

In an unusual study whose main results were released at a Catholic University of America conference in Washington Thursday, Villanova University in Philadelphia asked former Catholics in the Trenton, N.J., diocese why they left the church.

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.

One of their key recommendations was for pastors, bishops and other church officials to respond consistently to questioning or angry Catholics with constructive dialogue rather than a simple reiteration of church rules or policies.

Jesuit Fr. William J. Byron, a professor of business at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia — who collaborated in the study with Charles Zech, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Church Management of Villanova’s School of Business — several times cited a response of one disaffiliated Catholic who complained, “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.”

Byron and Zech told conference participants at The Catholic University of America that many of the responses from lapsed or disaffiliated Catholics in the Trenton diocese matched what researchers have known from other surveys: They object to what they see as the church’s unwelcoming attitude toward gays and lesbians or toward the divorced and remarried, they find homilies uninspiring, the parish unwelcoming, the pastor arrogant or parish staff uncaring, or they have suffered terrible personal experiences with a priest or other church official, such as rejection for being divorced.

. . . William Dinges, a professor in Catholic University’s department of theology and religious studies, said research in the 1940s and ’50s indicated that U.S. Catholics and other U.S. religious adherents were largely identical in terms of their adherence to religious beliefs and practices of their forebears.

That began to change for Catholics after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, he said, although he noted that it was not just the council, but a wide variety of other factors that influenced U.S. Catholic membership, participation and sense of affiliation with the church in the post-council years.

Byron said the Trenton findings urge Catholic leaders to be more sensitive to lay Catholic concerns.

At one point in the question-answer period of the discussion, as the growing shortage of priests was raised as a problem, Byron bluntly challenged official Catholic positions on priestly celibacy and ordination of women.

Calling the exclusion of married men and women from ordination “institutional barriers,” he said such ordinations “may not happen,” and many would argue that they “should not happen,” he said, but to argue those things are “impossible” is to deny that “nothing is impossible with God.”

“We may be stifling the Spirit” by “our resistance to respond” to the current priest shortage in the church’s refusal to expand its rules for who can be ordained, he said.

To read Jerry Filteau's article in its entirety, click here.

Recommended Off-site Link:
New Jersey Catholics Give Church a Piece of Their Mind – Peggy McGlone (
The Star-Ledger, March 23, 2012).

1 comment:

  1. I don’t mean for this to sound cynical, but I don’t understand how a ‘constructive dialogue’ is going to retain members rather than getting the rule straight-up. For instance, if someone does not agree with the church’s position on gay rights. The ‘dialogue’ is not going to change a priest’s mind or change the church’s position on the issues. Is the idea that dialogue will diffuse the anger, perhaps keeping someone from being so angry that they quit the church? I suppose if someone had wanted to sit down with me to discuss things it would have felt good. But it still would have come back to the rules in the end and the same conclusion – I would have to leave.