Hidden exodus: RC becoming protestant

The National Catholic Reporter reports that the Roman Catholic Church has lost one-third of its members and one in ten Americans (USA) is an ex-Catholic:

The number of people who have left the Catholic church is huge.

We all have heard stories about why people leave. Parents share stories about their children. Academics talk about their students. Everyone has a friend who has left.

While personal experience can be helpful, social science research forces us to look beyond our circle of acquaintances to see what is going on in the whole church.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has put hard numbers on the anecdotal evidence: One out of every 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a separate denomination, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States, after Catholics and Baptists. One of three people who were raised Catholic no longer identifies as Catholic.

Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why. But the U.S. bishops have never devoted any time at their national meetings to discussing the exodus. Nor have they spent a dime trying to find out why it is happening.


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.

Dissatisfaction with how the church deals with spiritual needs and worship services dwarfs any disagreements over specific doctrines. While half of those who became Protestants say they left because they stopped believing in Catholic teaching, specific questions get much lower responses. Only 23 percent said they left because of the church’s teaching on abortion and homosexuality; only 23 percent because of the church’s teaching on divorce; only 21 percent because of the rule that priests cannot marry; only 16 percent because of the church’s teaching on birth control; only 16 percent because of the way the church treats women; only 11 percent because they were unhappy with the teachings on poverty, war and the death penalty.


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.


…almost two-thirds of former Catholics who join a Protestant church join an evangelical church. Catholics who become evangelicals and Catholics who join mainline churches are two very distinct groups.

Read more here.

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Category : The Lead

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  1. Chris Arnold

    Very briefly, it sounds to me like people leave the Roman communion for the same reason that they leave every other church. I’m sure there will be comments about how this clearly proves how rotten the Roman Catholic apple has become. It’s sad, it’s a problem for all of us in the religious world, and I don’t take any great delight in hearing the news.

  2. Mary Ann Hill

    The former RCs who have joined our parish in recent years have left almost entirely over the lack of response to clergy sex abuse. I think people are willing to live with a lot they disagree with, but not with the church protecting people who have ruined the lives of countless children.

    Sometimes I think the best thing Rome could do would be to set up something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconcilliation Commission. Of course, honestly admitting what has transpired for all these years would probably open them up to many more lawsuits, but I would rather be in a poor church than one refuses to admit to the magnitude of what has happened and atone for it.

  3. Bill Dilworth

    I don’t find the defections from the RCC surprising or shocking – look at the numbers of other groups. What rather shocks me is the charge that the US Bishops have shown such little concern.

  4. tgflux

    almost two-thirds of former Catholics who join a Protestant church join an evangelical church. Catholics who become evangelicals and Catholics who join mainline churches are two very distinct groups.

    But I believe the majority of those leaving the RCC become secular/decline-to-state/no affiliation.

    God bless those ex-RCs who become Evangelical, but they’re not my primary concern.

    Episcopalians ought to make a special effort to reach out to the secular ex-RCs. A Sunday morning at leisure may have its charms for a while, but I think there may be a deeper hunger after the pain (of the RCC) and then novelty (of secularity) wear off.

    JC Fisher

  5. Keromaru5

    “But I believe the majority of those leaving the RCC become secular/decline-to-state/no affiliation.”

    Actually, as the article says: “Almost half of those leaving the church become unaffiliated and almost half become Protestant.”

  6. Keromaru5

    Blah, forgot to sign.

    – Alex Scott.

    Thanks Alex ~ed.

  7. Jesse Snider

    I left the RCC after a life of affiliation I was a seminarian, a Benedictine. But the liturgy was too “pop” culture for me, light less filling, happy clappy, it lacked the substance and depth that I found in the Prayer Book liturgy. And the hymns were not given any great concern…just looking thru the pew side paperback missal, the music was honestly in most quarters just awful. The sheep come to the shepherd to be fed and I was starving to death. I met a wonderful TEC priest and she convinced me that God wanted me in His house on Sunday so I went. I’ve never been back to the Roman Church since. Officially received into the Church and even on the vestry now. I’m happy and I’m home. Thank You God for helping me find TEC. And thank all you wonderful people who make up this most wonderful and sacred mystery, the church for being my family. 🙂

  8. Caoilin Galthie

    1 in 10 Americans are ex-Catholics, and of that group, half joined a Protestant church, with 1/3 of them joining mainline churches and the other 2/3 joining evangelical churches. Of those joining mainline churches, 57% said that their spiritual needs were not being met in the Catholic Church, and this dwarfs the number who switched because they disagreed with a specific teaching, doctrine or practice, or even the cover up of abuse by clergy (21% cited this reason). More so for those who joined mainline churches than evangelical churches, the issue of marrying someone in that church and the Catholic partner moving the the Protestant partners church was also significant.

    I would never advocate sheep stealing, but what can we as a church do to meet the stated needs of the Catholics who are coming to our mainline churches? Focus on good liturgy and also being intentional about spiritual formation and offering resources for spiritual direction sound like good places to start. We have a deep and rich liturgical tradition that we need to be using to meet these needs. I think that we can also draw on the deep and rich array of spiritual practices of Catholicism that so many Protestant churches seem so wary of.

    The article only deals with the half of ex-Catholics who joined Protestant churches. It would be interesting to read an analysis of the other half who became unaffiliated with any church or religion and to see what stands out there and how we might respond to those needs.

    I believe that if we are going to meet the needs of the world, whether they be spiritual or social justice needs, we need to first figure out just what those needs are. I take note of Fr Reese’s comment in the article “One of the reasons there is such disagreement is that we tend to think that everyone leaves for the same reason our friends, relatives and acquaintances have left. We fail to recognize that different people leave for different reasons. People who leave to join Protestant churches do so for different reasons than those who become unaffiliated. People who become evangelicals are different from Catholics who become members of mainline churches.”

  9. Keromaru5

    Well, speaking as an ex-Catholic myself, I can say that I came to the Episcopal Church mostly seeking familiarity and room to explore. Oddly, I’ve kind of developed a better appreciation for Catholic theology and spirituality from the outside than I ever did when I was in. I never knew, for example, about the liturgy of the hours, Christian mysticism, the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, or apophatic theology.

    I guess I can’t say I wasn’t feeling spiritually nourished, but that’s only because I hardly knew what spirituality was before I left.

  10. Keromaru5

    Grah, sorry for not signing.

    – Alex Scott

  11. Keromaru5

    Grah, sorry for not signing.

    – Alex Scott

  12. “Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why.”

    Really? Has the Episcopal Church done any studies on the reasons behind the loss of over one-half of those raised in the church? The Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey reported in 2007 that only 45% of those raised in the Episcopal/Anglican faith remained in it as adults. See page 31 of this report: http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-chapter-2.pdf

    I am not aware of any follow-up study that the Episcopal Church has done to understand why this is the case.

  13. Sorry, forgot to sign!

    Nurya Love Parish

  14. Ann Fontaine

    Actually Nurya, Kirk Hadaway has done extensive research. Top reasons: low birth rate among Episcopalians, fighting (of any sort) in churches, secularization of the US (lack of interest in organized religion).

  15. Weiwen Ng

    “only 11 percent because they were unhappy with the teachings on poverty, war and the death penalty”

    makes me worry.

  16. Around 1979, I played around with the idea of becoming Catholic. I already knew a little something about it, so going through the catechism really wasn’t a learning process for me. But I didn’t follow through on it. I spent the next 20 years bouncing back and forth between the Lutherans and Episcopalians, but never really a member of either group. In 2000-2001, I “made the leap” and became Catholic. Now after 12 years in the Church, I am revisiting the very same reasons I didn’t become Catholic 33 years ago. In reading Garry Wills’ “Papal Sin”, I’ve become painfully aware of the intellectual dishonesty Catholicism is so guilty of. There isn’t room on this blog to discuss every problem I have with Roman Catholicism, but let it be said in passing that what the Roman Church was many centuries ago and what it is today makes me (or anyone else who questions the RC church) see it as something foriegn from its original roots. The Roman Catholic Church being the true church of Jesus Christ and the Apostles? Only if you believe THEIR version of church history and development. The absolute truth is an objective thing, and Catholic truth is subjective. There are dozens upon dozens of inconsistencies in Catholicism. And for each inconsistency that comes up, they have an army of apologists to “explain away” the inconsistencies.

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