A Hidden Hemorrhage Fueled by Spiritual Growth? Print
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 05 July 2012 14:08

I was so grateful when Pope Benedict made this point to the bishops of Columbia a couple weeks ago:

Pope Benedict believes that Catholics who convert to evangelical Christianity often do so because they experience a lack of fervor, joy and community within Catholic parishes – rather than for doctrinal reasons.

“Often sincere people who leave our Church do not do so as a result of what non-Catholic groups believe, but fundamentally as a result of their own lived experience; for reasons not of doctrine but of life; not for strictly dogmatic, but for pastoral reasons; not due to theological problems, but to methodological problems of our Church,”he told a delegation of Colombian bishops at the Vatican June 21.

Yes. Yes!  YES!

We have to understand that the majority of Catholics who become Protestants are motivated differently from those who leave to become "nothing".  We must not confuse these two groups because they really are on different journeys for different reasons.

This is going to be very hard for some to hear but there is a hidden hemorrhage of Catholics from within our parishes to the Protestant world fueled by spiritual growth and spiritual hunger, not spiritual disinterest. The Pew US Religious Landscape Survey found that 71% of adult Catholics who became Protestant said their primary motivation was that "their spiritual needs weren't being met".  The whole "they just want to be entertained" meme that I've heard so often in Catholic circles is almost entirely a projection of our assumptions upon a group with very different concerns that we  haven't been willing to take seriously - yet.  (I'll get to the different motivations of Catholics who becoming "nones" in a later post.)

Pope Benedict, whom no one can accuse of being insufficiently theologically-minded or sophisticated, nailed it.  For the vast majority of these Catholics-turned-Protestants, it is about lived experience and the failure of the local parish community. They are becoming Protestant not primarily for truly theological reasons (which is actually rare) but for real life, existential, pastoral reasons.

As I wrote in Forming Intentional Disciples

“ 'Rachel,” who works in a large archdiocese, recently had six different people, all unrelated, approach her over the course of a single month and tell her, “I am on the verge of leaving the Church for a Protestant church, because I don’t know anyone in the parish that I can talk to about what is happening to me spiritually.”  Word had gone around the parish that you could talk to Rachel about spiritual issues and relationship with God. Happily, she was able to convince four out of the six to stay. She connected them with people and groups in the parish who could support them in their journey.

We need to recognize the presence of a hidden hemorrhage fueled by spiritual growth in our parishes. Numerous Catholics are experiencing spiritual longings but may have little or no language for what they seek. They sense there has to be more to faith than what they have encountered so far. In terms of thresholds, these people range from the later stages of curiosity through openness and early seeking. Their spiritual antennae are up, and they are quietly looking for people who might know, for clues, for guidance. But they are often invisible to the rest of us."

Here's the reality that the Pew study uncovered:  Among American adults raised Catholic, becoming Protestant was the best guarantee of stable church attendance as an adult.  Why?

Because the best predictor of consistant adult attendance is strong adult faith. According to the Pew surveyers, there was a huge rise in "very strong" personal faith for Catholics who joined Protestant communities:  from 22% as a Catholic teenager to 71% as a Protestant adult.

The irony is that those raised Catholic and remain Catholic as adults typically had a stronger faith as a teen that those Catholics who eventually became Protestant.  But their faith as an adult was much weaker: only 46% of those who remained Catholic as adults answered that they possessed a "very strong faith".  And their Mass attendance reflects it.

Ok.  Time for the mantra that long-time readers of ID have come to know and love:

If you want practicing Catholics, make disciples.

It can be done and is being done deliberately in real American parishes as I write this.  That's why I wrote the book - to start a larger conversation about fundamental pastoral issues at play in our parishes that are devastating the Catholic community but which we hardly ever talk about concretely.

Consider picking up a copy of Forming Intentional Disciples and join in this absolutely essential conversation to which the Holy Father is calling the whole Church.  Read and talk about it with your friends or small groups of parishioners or your pastor, parish staff or pastoral council, catechists, or RCIA team. And join in the conversation here.

This is too important a conversation for you to miss.  God has given all the baptized a critical, irreplaceable part to play in the Church's mission at this moment in her history.