Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why did you leave the Church

Kathy Shaidle has linked to a post on Deacon's Bench about people leaving the Catholic Church. The stimulus is the recent Pew Study that showed that the Catholic Church in America had the highest representation among those who had left the faith of their birth/youth. So what makes people leave? Deacon Greg Kandra, who blogs at Deacon's Bench, says it's other people:

"No, what drives people away is often something far simpler and, in a way, far more sinister.

It's other people.

It's the priest who condescendingly tells a grieving daughter, after her mother's funeral, "Now you can really grow up. You know, we never truly become adults until after our parents die."

It's the deacon who refuses to anoint a baby at a parish baptism because the family arrived late.

It's the pastor who won't take the time to listen to a teenage girl's problems because "it's just hormones."

These are real examples from people I know -- and the people who experienced them walked away from the local parish and, eventually, the Catholic Church. There are many other factors that contribute to religious alienation, I know. But, like the woman at the well in last Sunday's gospel, people are thirsty. What are we giving them to drink?"

I can agree to an extent, though I think the Greg Kandra and Kathy Shaidle are only partially correct. Certainly being offended by other parishioners, priests or other religious can play an influential role in where and how a person worships, but its far from the main cause. Of the people who've left, I imagine very few had what we could call 'serious religiosity', ie a developed relationship with Christ via an active prayer life, the Sacraments and Scripture. I recently had the misfortune to be told by a lay church steward that my confession wouldn't be heard because the priest had to leave early to prepare to say Mass with the bishop. That the fate of my soul could have been at risk never seemed to enter into the mind of this over eager baby-boomer Catholic, whose real interest was in keeping a schedule than helping other people live their faith. But despite this, and I was really pissed off, I didn't leave the Church. I didn't even leave the parish. I prayed about it, got over myself and moved on. According to Kandra however, most people would have:

"From my experience, most alienated Catholics have wandered away not because of dogma or doctrine, or even discipline. They're willing to live with the sometimes difficult teachings of the Church, even the ones with which they don't entirely agree. They're even willing to forgive (after a lot of prayer and teeth-gnashing and soul-searching) the financial and sexual scandals that seize the headlines."

Now there are a tiny minority of cases, such as those involving abuse, that undoubtedly move people away from the Church because of the heinousness of the act. Yet most of the complaints Deacon Greg Kandra lists are ones that we wouldn't quit our jobs over, or make us end friendships, or divorce spouses for. They are in fact a litany of petty gripes from people who were already only tenuously attached to their Catholic faith. I know that sounds harsh, but if you really believe the Catholic Church was founded by Christ and is the only way to know Him, you wouldn't leave even if your priest refused to have a funeral Mass for your Mexican mother because he didn't like ethnic minorities.

In my experience, which I admit is probably much more limited than both Shaidle's and Kandra's, is that people who have left the Church had mentally left long before their bodies did. All of my friends growing up, who were all baptised and confirmed Catholics, left the Church in their teen years because they didn't believe in Catholicism anymore. They left because they didn't agree with the Catholic position on sexual ethics, homosexuality, contraception, divorce and the rest of the usual suspects. For these folks, Catholicism had ceased to be normative, and thus had no personal relevance, so leaving had little to do with their respective interpersonal ecclesial experiences, and everything to do with how the faith was passed on to them.

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