Looking for God II: Catholics Who Leave and Why Print
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 30 June 2009 06:19
Here's a really interesting side aspect to the newest Pew findings that I didn't blog in the last post for lack of time:

Catholics who become Protestant and those who become "unaffiliated" do so for very different reasons. Which means we can't deal with them as though they were a single group with a single motivation. And they leave Catholicism for one set of reasons and chose to enter their new "religious affiliation" for a related but different set of reasons. (Pew asked both why they left and why they eventually chose the religion they chose.)

To repeat a couple of relevant points from the earlier post, two thirds of American Catholics who do become Protestant, become evangelicals. The majority of those who do become Protestant don't simply leap directly and firmly from the Catholic Church into their local mega non-denom or Presbyterian church. There tends to be a time lag between leaving Catholicism and entering Protestantism and the majority make the journey in a series of two or more steps.

And, of course, some former Catholics will come back. But we don't know how many or why. (The 9% figure for reversion in the post below was for all Americans who have left all religious affiliations and then returned, including the "affiliation" of having been raised "nothing". Some people leave "nothing", choose a faith, and then return to "nothing" at some point.) There is no way to know if 9% of Catholics who leave will come back, if the percentage of Catholic returnees is larger or smaller than the national average, nor do we know the primary reasons why former Catholics choose to return.)

What motivates Catholics who leave and eventually enter a Protestant body?

(For the figures below, Pew asked "yes-no" questions and individuals could choose multiple reasons - as many as had been true for him or her). Here were the most important reasons

raised RC, become Protestant

71%: Spiritual needs weren't met
70%: Found a religion they liked more
43% Unhappy with Church teaching regarding Bible
32$ Dissatisfied with worship experience
29% Married someone of different faith
27% Unhappy w clergy sex scandal

The positive reasons why these former Catholics chose to affiliate with a particular Protestant group or congregation?

81% Enjoyed religious services/style of worship
62% Felt called by God
30% Attracted by specific minister or pastor
28% Married someone of new religion
19% Moved to a new place

It is putting the two together that suggests a pattern.

1) for those who become Protestant, there seems to be some sense of personal spiritual investment and search ("spiritual needs weren't met") and of a personal connection with God ( 61% "felt called by God") . People who don't experience some kind of personal connection to God are unlikely to say that they "felt called by God" to do something.

This is especially striking when we remember that the Pew Religious Landscape Survey of 2008 found that huge numbers of Americans believe in an impersonal God. 29% of self-identified, affiliated Catholics told the Pew researchers that they believed in an "impersonal" God. Only 48% of US Catholics are certain that one can have a personal relationship with God

It is possible, of course, that for some, the language of "God called me" is a reinterpretation of their Catholic past in light of their largely evangelical present. But nevertheless, it is very different language from that used by Catholics who became "unaffiliated" (as we'll see in a moment).

2) Catholics who become Protestant do so because they found a religious alternative that they "liked more" or so 70% of those surveyed told the Pew people. This is a staggeringly different response from that Catholics who become "unaffiliated". Only 10% of Catholics who abandon all religious affiliation said they "found a religion they liked more". For Catholic who become unaffiliated, it is much more about rejection of Catholic beliefs than an inherent attraction to being unconnected to a religious community.

The strongest positive number is the 81% of former Catholics who said they joined their present Protestant church because they enjoyed "the religious services/style of worship". 32% told the Pew researchers that among the reasons they left was the fact that they were "dissatisfied with atmosphere of worship services." (We don't know exactly what they did not like about their experience of Mass and what they like about the services they now attend. It doesn't not help understand their motivations - which is the point of this exercise - to simply project our current concerns and disputes about the liturgy on them.)

Catholics who become Protestant seem to be motivated by a combination of personal spiritual dissatisfaction and having found a religious alternate that they like better. Especially having found a kind of religious service they really like.

Catholics who abandon religious affiliation altogether are another kettle of fish. Here are their numbers:

Why did you leave?

71% Just gradually drifted away
65% Do not believe teachings
56% Unhappy with teachings on Abortion/homosexuality
48% Unhappy with teachings on Birth control
33% Unhappy with teachings on Divorce/Remarriage
27% Clergy sexual abuse scandal
24% Unhappy priests cannot marry

Why did you choose to be "unaffiliated"?

42% Do not believe in God/most religious teachings
33% Not found the right religion

As the Pew people noted, Catholics who leave for "nothing" are much more motivated by a long list of Church teachings which they do not believe. But the most important reason is "drift". They just don't seem to care as much or be as invested in faith issues altogether as their fellow Catholics who left to become Protestant.

Notice however, that 33% are still open to the possibility of finding "the right religion".

There's a lot more on this critical topic in the Pew survey but I must push off and do some errands. In the meantime, check out Pew's nifty summary of their findings here.

Your thoughts?