Monday, 25 April 2011

Why Are Catholics Becoming Protestant?

Recently, erstwhile Lutheran pastor come Roman Catholic layman David Schuetz, over at his blog Sentire Cum Ecclesia, posted on the string of prominent Lutheran theologians who have become Roman Catholic in recent years. I couldn't help but offer a rejoinder to the effect that I have more ex-Catholics in my two congregation parish than the half dozen or so former Lutherans David could cite...but apparently since my parishioners aren't theologians they don't matter! Several RC commenters at David's blog then suggested that Catholics who leave Rome for various forms of Protestantism really aren't from among the "best and brightest" Catholics in the first place. That smacks of denial to me, so I left off the discussion, knowing there was little point continuing.

But at least one Catholic intellectual is interested in who the 1/3 of members the Catholic Church in the US has lost in recent years are, and why they have left (and the US situation is small beer compared to South America, where the formerly monolithically Roman Catholic nation of Brazil will become a majority Protestant nation in the next generation). He is Jesuit Fr Thomas Reese, and an article expressing his concern and findings has recently appeared in the US National Catholic Reporter. It makes for interesting reading. Here are some excerpts...

The principal reasons given by people who leave the church to become Protestant are that their “spiritual needs were not being met” in the Catholic church (71 percent) and they “found a religion they like more” (70 percent). Eighty-one percent of respondents say they joined their new church because they enjoy the religious service and style of worship of their new faith.

In other words, the Catholic church has failed to deliver what people consider fundamental products of religion: spiritual sustenance and a good worship service...

People are not becoming Protestants because they disagree with specific Catholic teachings; people are leaving because the church does not meet their spiritual needs and they find Protestant worship service better.

Nor are the people becoming Protestants lazy or lax Christians. In fact, they attend worship services at a higher rate than those who remain Catholic. While 42 percent of Catholics who stay attend services weekly, 63 percent of Catholics who become Protestants go to church every week. That is a 21 percentage-point difference.

Catholics who became Protestant also claim to have a stronger faith now than when they were children or teenagers. Seventy-one percent say their faith is “very strong,” while only 35 percent and 22 percent reported that their faith was very strong when they were children and teenagers, respectively. On the other hand, only 46 percent of those who are still Catholic report their faith as “very strong” today as an adult.

Thus, both as believers and as worshipers, Catholics who become Protestants are statistically better Christians than those who stay Catholic. We are losing the best, not the worst.

Make of Fr Reese's conclusions what you will (and I caution that nothing that emanates from the Roman Catholic sphere is as simple as it appears on the surface), but at least he acknowledges there's a problem. I for one find it curious that doctrine matters so little to those who leave, and apparently equally little to those who stay. For a church which is so rigorously doctrinal, that is surely a problem - there is evidently a failure to connect doctrine with life (surely a challenge to all confessional churches in late modernity, but particularly so when you have a doctrinal system as complex and irreformable as Romanism).

On a more positive note, those who leave for Protestantism report their "faith is stronger" as a result - I think that probably translates as they find greater assurance of salvation under Protestant preaching, surely a good thing!

Click on the post title to read the full article.


Lvka said...

How can someone who embraces the smells and bells of commercial & superficial American-Protestant `worship` be called spiritual? Only if by it one means enslaved to the spirit of this world. Or worshipful? Whom exactly does he worship? Himself? Or Christian? What Christ does he worship? One of those that our Savior spoke of in Matthew 24:24 and Mark 13:22?

Seriously, Father: these are the people that -were they Lutheran or Reformed-, they'd leave their *traditional* Lutheran or Reformed congregations for new, 'hip' ones, with `contemporary` and `relevant` worship: these people are NOT the ones you want to point out, trust me...

But if you really know of people, distinguished by either piety, or character, or intellect, and who converted from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism in general (or to Lutheranism in particular) and for reasons preferably other than how `cool` or `dull` `worship` is, feel free to share their stories or testimonies...

Pr Mark Henderson said...

You're defending Roman Catholicism now, Lucian? "Birds of a feather flock together", I suppose.

Well, I can only presume to speak for the ex-Catholics I know, Lucian, and yes, they are quite devout and intelligent, and not at all interested in the excesses of what passes for worship in some quarters of Protestantism.

Try again, my friend...

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Btw, why is it only those distinguished by "piety, character or intellect" who matter?

I really don't get this elitism!

After all, consider the first Christians: "Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called; not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth..."

You surely know, Lucian, that the appeal to the supposed innate authority of intellectuals is a logical fallacy.

Lvka said...

I said pious and of character, not influential and of noble birth.

Because reasons matter.

Well, I can only presume to speak for the ex-Catholics I know, Lucian, and yes, they are quite devout and intelligent

Then this post should've been about *them*, or others like them, NOT about American "Christianity" and their dubious reasons for church-shopping, err, I mean: `conversion`... :-\

Stephen K said...

Hi, Pastor Mark. This is an interesting topic, in the sense that the reason why people do things of such importance as changing allegiances (of all kinds) gets to the heart of our fellow humans and can help us understand who we are and how we might resolve our own challenges.

I too was initially surprised at the comment that people changing were not so worried about specific doctrines, because it is indeed my sense that amongst the 90% of baptised Catholics who do not attend Mass, most would have some problem or other with one or either doctrine or teaching. But I reflected that perhaps only the theologically articulate tend - and perhaps have always tended - to tie themselves up in knots over doctrinal arguments, and that for most people, it has not generally been the doctrine per se that is of significance but the manner in which they are dealt with as persons as a result or corollary of particular doctrines.

I suspect that, in the case of the majority who cease service attendance, it is not so much an analytical rejection of Catholic teaching but a judgment that the Church doesn’t know what it’s talking about on marital matters, that leads to a conclusion that it probably doesn’t know what it’s talking about on the eschatological stuff either. Many sermons are either boring, over-the-head, or institution-obsessed, consisting of a string of exhortations to obey the hierarchy or condemnations of non-attendees as morally or intellectually weak.

I suspect too that other factors play their part: (i) the loss of moral authority through not only the behaviour of some of its ministers but the defensiveness and style of response from the hierarchy; (ii) the modern assumption - however vague and woolly - of democratic and egalitarian values; (iii) disagreements with the political stances taken by the institution at different eras and over different issues. I don’t know, of course, whether the survey revealed anything on these dimensions.

In the case of those who transfer to Protestant communities, I can well imagine that emotional fit and various forms of acceptance would be powerful incentives to change to new religious vocabularies. They might well be only able to do so if they have developed their theological understanding in the direction that one Christian form is potentially as good as another - which goes against Catholicism’s insistence on its unique integrity - but in the end what might be uppermost in their minds at the point of survey would be their sense of and need for community.

Amongst traditionalist Catholics, there can be discerned the predominant view that the solution to losses from Catholic practice lies in ever more stringent doctrinal catechesis and longer and more traditional liturgical and devotional practice.

Amongst what I might call radical Catholics who remain within the Church, I believe the predominant view would be that both these strategies are meaningless without or before the mission of universal love and concrete service to the weak and vulnerable.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Stephen for your thoughtful response. I would agree with the need for increased basic catechesis; this applies to all confessions/church bodies these days. In Lutheran terms the fides qua (subjective faith/faith in) and fides quae (objective faith/ faith that) go together.

Stephen K said...

Of course, Pastor Mark, you’re right that the two “go together”, in the sense that the former - a kind of mode - presupposes the latter - a content. I don’t suggest that catechesis would not be necessary, in the eyes of the different camps, simply that disagreement probably revolves around the questions of content, and of the primacy of either - in terms of a kind of “causa efficiens” - for purposes of evangelisation. Something along the lines of “actions speak louder than words”. I’m inclined to the view that people don’t usually affiliate (in anything) by primarily following an intellectual process, but rather by responding to experience - a much more complex and possibly primarily emotional thing. That is to say, fear or love are more powerful drivers of action than any kind of clinical cognitive analysis. In other words, for all of us, no matter how educated or articulate we may or may not be, in matters of religion we follow our ‘heart’. The ‘head’ or understanding often kicks in after.

I don’t suggest that this is either a strict rule or completely straightforward process: clearly some rationalising goes on from an early stage: as Karl Popper used to teach, we need to know what it is we are looking for/at if we want to observe it. So the phenomenon needs to be tackled sort of holistically, which will irritate those who insist on a neat sequence. But this does explain to me why for many people it is not verbal exposition that triggers their personal conversions, but the co-suffering experience of loving and good people with whom they come into contact, and why unless verbal expositions are accompanied by this experience, for many sermonising will have the opposite effect.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I think you're right about experience driving the religious decisions of people, at least those who aren't intellectuals in any sense, Stephen. One of the challenges is to educate such folk about how doctrine underpins experience, and can therefore also be used to verify experience (or not!). This is a challenge with Pentecostals and Charismatics, for e.g., as well as Catholics.

You mention Popper, I read some of his stuff a few years ago and found him very helpful; I must return to him. I'm afraid I'm largely an autodidact, and so I tend to graze across the fields of knowledge. Lately I've resolved to become more disciplined in my reading. Less width, more depth!

Stephen K said...

Dear Pastor Mark, if I may just make one more response: I don’t want to deny that intellectuality does not have some effect on how we respond; but I would press the point that, intellectuals or no, we, as humans, respond on an emotional or deeper psychological level to things first and foremost. Doctrine can certainly filter, interpret - as you say, underpin - experience, but I would understand this as a post-factum thing, not a sine qua non. I hope you understand what I’m getting at: not sure I’m using the right words here.

Secondly, there’s no shame in auto-didacticism! Again, I believe we are, to considerable extents, all auto-didacts: we have to teach ourselves. Some have a formal environment for some studies, but most of our years are spent in reading what interests us - by ourselves. What’s wrong about that? Your resolve to read deeply and with less width is perfectly understandable, because of all the pressure from the way our society appears to applaud and fete “experts”. But in fact, the renaissance ideal was the “universal man” and virtues like prudence, sensitivity and many others do not come from a single-minded focus but rather in diversity of living and learning. Or so my instinct and observations urge me.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

You're essentially saying, to borrow Pascal's phrase, that "the heart sometimes has reasons which reason doesn't know"? That's true, of course. The trouble is that, as Calvin famously said, "the human heart is an idol factory". So, just as we need to factor into our understanding of the capabilities of our unaided reasoning the noetic effect of original sin, so also we need to factor in the effect of original sin on the human heart. Thus the need to be corrected/guided by revelation from without/above.

But I wouldn't totally object to what you're saying, Stephen. I don't believe we come into this world totally "tabula rasa". Anyone who believes in God as Creator surely believes a lot of knowledge is prior to reasoning, or is discovered within, as much as without one's self, yes? I wouldn't be at all surprsied if science makes some incredible discoveries about "knowledge" being passed on genetically in the future, if that makses sense. Jung was definitely on to soemthing with his notion of the "collective memory", for example.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Christine made this comment, but Blogger chewed it up somewhere between my approval and it appearing here, so I've cut and pasted it from my e-mail...thanks for your comment, Christine...

"Oh boy oh boy, there's so much to unpack here I don't know where to start. First of all, I take anything I read in the National Catholic Distorter and by liberal Jesuit Thomas Reese with a grain of salt, but I don't doubt the statistics by Pew Research that 1/3Catholics have left.

I know a former Catholic who was "evanglized" by a Pentecostal Christian. The mix and match aspects of her new faith were interesting. She was quite happy to keep her sacramental view of Holy Communion as she marched up to receive at my Catholic sister-in-law's funeral even though this woman no longer attends the Catholic church and knows perfectly well she should not receive Communion as a former Catholic. At the same time her embrace of the Pentecostal view of Scripture lead to some interesting views on her part.

But these three paragraphs are of great interest to me:

While the hierarchy worries about literal translations of the Latin text, people are longing for liturgies that touch the heart and emotions. More creativity with the liturgy is needed, and that means more flexibility must be allowed. If you build it, they will come; if you do not, they will find it elsewhere. The changes that will go into effect this Advent will make matters worse, not better.

Heart and emotions -- they want to make them into ex-Catholic pietists, the Catholic version of die Schwaermer? The article points out that doctrine is not a strong issue for Catholics, whether they leave or stay. I would say that is a VERY serious problem.

Second, thanks to Pope Pius XII, Catholic scripture scholars have had decades to produce the best thinking on scripture in the world. That Catholics are leaving to join evangelical churches because of the church teaching on the Bible is a disgrace. Too few homilists explain the scriptures to their people. Few Catholics read the Bible. Can't argue with that. That was certainly my experience of the RC for ten years, although having a Lutheran background to which I returned mitigated that for me, since the Bible always figured in my own spirituality.

The church needs a massive Bible education program. The church needs to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is more important than memorizing the catechism. If we could get Catholics to read the Sunday scripture readings each week before they come to Mass, it would be revolutionary. If you do not read and pray the scriptures, you are not an adult Christian. Catholics who become evangelicals understand this. Even a so-called smarty-pants like Reese doesn't understand that the evangelical way of reading the Bible is rooted in decision theology. Pitiful.

I'm afraid the NCR doesn't quite get it. I would also submit that if those Catholics who are leaving embrace certain aspects of certain mainline Protestants they may be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.


SMCath said...

It's a long story, and space on here does not permit for me to elaborate on it. But I left liturgical Protestantism (Episcopalian/Luthern) to become Catholic roughly a dozen years ago. Why? I basically thought Protestantism left "too much out" and and had reduced or redefined historic Christianity. In the not-too-distant past, it began to reoccur to me why I hadn't become Catholic way back in 1979-1980--which marked my first attempt to become Catholic. So I'm thinking of leaving. I think most ex-Catholics leave because they can see a "greater wisdom" in their moral judgements and their spirituality. Catholicism, as expansive as it is, has a very narrowly defined moral code and very specific means of expressing one's faith. At times, but not always, it frowns on any deviation away from these norms. Early advocates and proponents ofVatican II mistakenly believed that you could change all the external structures of the Church, while leaving its internal structures intact. It didn't quite work that, and 48 years later, the Roman Catholic Church can't put a lid on the can of worms it opened with such reforms.

Mark Henderson said...

I'm intrigued. Perhaps you would consider expanding on your story, SMCath? What do you refer to by "constraints"?

SMCath said...

Pastor Henderson: For those brought up in the Catholic Church, I think they are far less prone to question much about their faith and practices becuase they have been inculcated through religious instruction to believe "this is the way it's always been done and this is what we have always believed". The same could be said of any number of people who brought up in any number of denominations, so Catholics aren't alone there. However, what is equally true of Catholicism is that they have "engineered" much of their theology by taking what would appear to be weak foundations in what they read in Scripture and expanding or developing it further to the point where they have many beliefs that are not shared by other Christian bodies. Probably the best example is the belief in purgatory. This belief stemmed from what they read out of Maccabees. Eastern Orthodoxy more or less has the same Old Terstament canon. Yet for them, purgatory is a speculative concept at best. In other areas, they have introduced practices that seem utterly abstract, such as Eucharistic Adoration--a practice that can be traced back to Saint Francis of Assisi. Probably what served to unhinge my desire to remain Catholic was reading Garry Wills' "Papal Sin". To Wills, his church (and mine too for the time being) has built upon and fortified dogmas that simply aren't true. Are they outright lies? Not entirely, but Wills' compares what was once believed in the ancient Church and compares it to what is beleived today (or practiced today)and exposes how many things have transformed or morphed into something different to the point where they are understood or interpreted differently than they once were.

Mark Henderson said...

Ah! What you write is so true SMCath. The Roman Catholic Church of today falls at the bar of history. Thank you.