Coming Home

Exploring why millions of Catholics are estranged from the Church and what might bring them back

Coming Home

 

“The hundreds of stories I heard convinced me that coming home to the Church is a frequently unnoticed but astonishing phenomenon today.”

As a lifelong Catholic who cherishes his faith above all else, I am saddened when I hear that someone I know has chosen to distance himself or herself from the Church, for whatever reason-to shift to another religious tradition or to give up on religion altogether. When I learn, however, that someone has chosen to return to the Church after a long absence, it’s always a thrill for me, and I say a prayer of thanksgiving.

Defection rate holds steady

According to the empirical research of sociologist Fr. Andrew M. Greeley, most Catholics in the United States choose to remain in the Church as active members. This amounts to about 25 percent of the U. S. population, or some 60 million people. At the same time, it appears that about 15 percent of those who grew up Catholic no longer choose to think of themselves as such. They are, in other words, alienated from the Church. Greeley concludes from his research that this defection rate has not changed since 1960. This means that, conservatively speaking, some 9 million citizens of the U.S. are alienated Catholics.

“The hundreds of stories I heard convinced me that coming home to the Church is a frequently unnoticed but astonishing phenomenon today.”
At the same time, it seems that more often than we might think, alienated Catholics choose to come home. When I wrote my recently-published book, It’s Not the Same Without You: Coming Home to the Catholic Church (Doubleday, 2003), my main interest was to find people who had come home to the Church and ask them to share their stories. First, I wanted to know how and why they became alienated Catholics.

I also wanted to hear their stories about returning to active participation in the life of the Church. The hundreds of stories I heard convinced me that coming home to the Church is a frequently unnoticed but astonishing phenomenon today. In all cases, including the SCU alums I cite in this article, I use fictitious names to protect the identities of those who shared their stories.

Various reasons for drifting away

My question about why Catholics become alienated from the Church received many responses. Some told stories of adolescent rebellion that extended into adulthood through indifference. I heard stories from people who drifted away from the Church during their high school or college years, then returned in their 30s or 40s. Joe, for example, recalled attending a Jesuit high school in the 1960s, followed by two years at a Jesuit university where conflict with the faculty advisor to the student newspaper over a Catholic doctrine led him to transfer to a state university for his junior year.

“After that, I didn’t go near a Catholic Church for 30-some years,” Joe recalls. “My wife was Presbyterian, so I went to Church with her by default more than anything else. Then a few years ago, I realized that I just wasn’t happy with that. I read a little-classified ad in our local newspaper inviting lapsed Catholics to ‘come home to the Church,’ and something clicked. I just realized that I wasn’t happy with being away from the Church. So I attended an informal evening meeting at a nearby parish, and the following Easter I formally returned to the Church. Soon after that, my wife joined me and became a Catholic, too.

Divorce is often the issue

The cause for alienation from the Church that came up more frequently than any other in my research and interviews was misunderstandings about, or disagreement with, Church teachings on divorce and remarriage. Carol is a returned Catholic in her mid-50s. “For years,” she says, “I thought that if you were divorced and remarried that was the end of the road for you as a Catholic-which, when you think about it, doesn’t say much for the Church when it comes to embodying the forgiving and reconciling presence of Christ. Fortunately, I eventually found out about the real meaning of the Church’s annulment process, which was a difficult process for me. But in the end it was a very positive and healing experience.”

Alan, an SCU alum from the class of ’74, told of attending a Jesuit high school as a non-Catholic, then receiving a scholarship to attend Santa Clara. Following graduation, Alan became Catholic prior to his first marriage, which ended in divorce seven years later. “And then, fortunately for me, [came] an annulment,” he says. The “initial rigidity” that Alan experienced in obtaining an annulment caused him to, as he describes it, “be absent from the Church for several years.” Later, however, he returned to the Church. “And my love for the Church is greater than ever,” he says.

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Religious ambivalence

More than a few people said that they simply drifted away from the Church through the influence of a dominant secular culture that is ambivalent about religion, at best. Bob, a 43-year-old attorney, was one of many who had slipped away from the Church after four years at a state university where he had no Catholic friends. “It all began to seem irrelevant,” Bob says. It was only after he married, in a civil ceremony, and became the father of three children that he and his wife-who grew up in a religiously indifferent family-began a search that led Bob back to his Catholic roots, and his wife along with him.

Some told of being offended or hurt by a priest or nun, including a few who were sexually abused in childhood by a priest-stories straight from recent national headlines.

I was surprised at the number of formerly alienated Catholics who left because they became convinced by biblical fundamentalists that the Catholic Church is at odds with the teachings of the New Testament. Linda, a 35-year-old accountant, spent 15 years away from the Catholic faith, active in a fundamentalist Christian sectarian church. Ironically, it was the minister of this sectarian church who led Linda-and about 60 other people-back to Catholicism.

“Our minister was a really studious guy,” Linda said, “and he studied long and hard about the history of Christianity, and after about three years the whole bunch of us, him included, just up and converted to the Catholic Church. For me, of course, it was a matter of coming home, back to where I started.”

Seeking structure

Some formerly alienated Catholics come home to the Church after years of buying into the currently popular opinion that “organized religion” is spiritually constricting. Judy told of growing up in a Catholic family, attending Catholic schools, but deciding in young adulthood that she believed in God but had no use for “organized religion.” For years, she rejected the idea of religious institutions, clergy, religious doctrines, and so forth. Drawing from various sources-often Eastern religions, New Age gurus, 12-step recovery programs, sometimes even Catholicism-such people put together a personal, eclectic “spirituality.”

Judy returned to a life of active Catholic faith after her mother passed away. “I had to attend the funeral Mass,” she recalls, “and something about the liturgy touched me deeply, and I realized that I had to come back. I realized that what I had been searching for all those years was right in my own backyard. Really, what I had to do was leave behind the childish ideas of what being Catholic is all about that I had lived with for so long, and move on to a mature, adult Catholic faith. I don’t expect the Church to be perfect anymore, and I don’t expect to get all the answers. Now all I expect is to live with the risen Christ and with his ordinary, sinful, everyday people, and that I get in abundance. I also soon realized that the Catholic religion is the most open, inclusive religion there is. That’s what ‘Catholic’ means, after all-universal and all-inclusive. It’s the other religious perspectives that, unintentionally, are often narrow-minded.”

High standards

One of the surprising trends among formerly alienated Catholics was the tendency to leave the Church based on experiences of the imperfect humanity of the Church and the sinfulness of its members. Catholics who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, especially, seem to have been raised with a highly idealistic image of the Church. When someone who represented the Church failed to live up to that idealistic image, the disappointed Catholic would give up entirely on being Catholic. Dozens of times such people said in their interviews that they decided that “if that’s the way the Church treats people, I wanted nothing more to do with it.”

I remain astonished at how often alienated Catholics reported that they left the Church because it didn’t measure up to their personal standards. It seems that a significant percentage of lapsed Catholics are people who will not tolerate a Church that isn’t what they think it should be. Liberals stay away, for example, because the Church won’t change according to a liberal agenda. Conservatives stay away because the Church won’t change according to a conservative agenda.

Invariably, when alienated Catholics return, their coming home includes the realization that an adult faith includes the ability to distinguish between the Church as an imperfect human institution and the living Catholic tradition, one that mediates the healing and liberating presence of Christ in time and space. Some find it difficult to accept the idea of an imperfect Church, but once they do, it is a liberating experience.

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Asking forgiveness

Often, Catholics who return to the Church do so when an official representative, usually a priest or bishop, asks alienated Catholics to forgive the Church for whatever led to their alienation. Noteworthy, too, is the realization on the part of formerly alienated Catholics that they, in return, need to ask the Church’s forgiveness. Sometimes, for example, they realize that they reacted in a childish manner to an unintentionally hurtful action on the part of a priest, bishop, religious sister, or parish lay minister. “Basically,” said one female returnee, “I realized that I needed forgiveness as much as the Church needed forgiveness. I had been throwing a temperamental hissy-fit for seven years because the Church wouldn’t measure up to my personal standards of perfection-as if I was perfect myself!”

An SCU alum from the class of ’76-I’ll call her Betty-explains: “I didn’t consciously stray or lapse from the Church,” she says. “During my teenage years I had no real interest or connection and that just continued for me. I was married the first time in the Church at a young age, but the reality and seriousness of the sacrament and commitment of it was not clear to me. After my first marriage ended, it catapulted me onto a spiritual path. I was seeking to understand myself, my life, why I was the way I was.”

When her marriage ended, Betty says she explored “various spiritual paths” including seeing a therapist. She studied Eastern religions, practiced meditation, visited an ashram, and “spent time with an Indian guru who embodied the qualities of a living saint.” She also met the Dalai Lama.

Then, in the late 1990s, Betty returned to the Catholic Church. “It was very much a surprise to me,” she says. “I never thought the Church had anything to offer or would ever be my path. I returned home from a spiritual retreat and found myself drawn to reading books about prayer and saints.”

After reading a book about an author’s spiritual quest that brought an awareness of the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Catholicism, Betty says that she “felt drawn back to church through Mary.” She began attending daily Mass, praying the Rosary, and spending time in church to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. “Suddenly there was something real about this for me-the presence of Jesus became real, maybe for the first time in my life. This is why I choose to stay connected with the Church now.”

Perspective gained

Betty, like many Catholics who have come home to the Church, believes that her years away from the Church were worthwhile because she gained a perspective that helps her to be a better Catholic today.

 

Those who return to their Catholic faith discover that reconciliation is what being a disciple of Christ is all about. In fact, I would argue that reconciliation is what being Catholic is all about. This ministry of reconciliation is the business of all Catholics, but those who have come home to the Church seem especially good at it, because they know from personal experience the sorrow of being away and the joy of coming home.

Editor’s Note: Mitch Finley ’73 is the author of more than 30 books including The Joy of Being Catholic (Crossroad), and For Men Only: Strategies for Living Catholic (Liguori). This article is loosely based on his most recent book, It’s Not the Same Without You: Coming Home to the Catholic Church (Doubleday, 2003).

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