I’ve heard it said a number of times that if it were a denomination of its own, “Lapsed Catholics” would account for either the second or third largest Christian body in the United States. Roughly one out of every ten people in the country were raised Catholic but no longer identify or practice the faith.
This is a staggering statistic that calls for action. But what?
The large statistic does not say very much, tough. All it says is that there is a growing number of people in this category. The real question is why. Over the past two decades, there has been extensive research into this question, and smarter people than I have written books on all the many reasons and what we can do to fix it. I do not pretend to offer any new information or to be an expert on the issue. Rather, I think what is most helpful for me is not knowing all of the individual reasons that someone leaves, but the nature by which someone “leaves.” Was it an abrupt, conscious decision, or did someone gradually fade away over many years until they no longer considered themselves Catholic?
In the former category are those who leave because of trauma, scandal, theological disagreement, or some other event that either destroyed their faith in one fell swoop or was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. They can point to a specific thing in the Church that is keeping them away, and unless that thing is changed, they will not return. For the average Catholic, there is little we can do to remedy this situation because the thing is often well outside of our control. We can’t change the theology, we can’t undo the past, and we can’t take away the pain that they feel, whether imagined or actual. In many ways, the best we can do is to simply live our faith with patience and hospitality for those struggling.
This is quite different from those in the latter category, a group that I believe (although I have no data to prove it) is much larger. These people have no major “issue” with the Church, no traumatic experience or major moral disagreement with its theology. No, those in this group are simply bored and disconnected. They do not feel a part of a community, are either unaware of the activity of the Church or have limited options for getting involved, and frankly, find the liturgical celebration, the main experience of Church for most people, to be dreadfully boring and un-affective. Add a touch of misinformation or poor catechesis, offer them numerous ways to be a good person in the world without going to Church, drop the Catholic guilt that drove them in their younger years, and you’ve got yourself a person that says, “What’s the point in going to that building once a week?” There’s no strong feeling towards the Church, no stumbling block preventing them from coming… there’s just no feeling at all.
That was the backdrop for a conversation I had a few week back with Rob, the mysterious voice that routinely asks me questions from behind the camera. With so many people leaving, and so many people simply disaffected by their experience, we’re forced to evaluate what we do: is there something wrong with the Mass that leaves so many unfulfilled? And if so, what can we do to make it better?