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The Hidden Exodus: RCs becoming Protestants

The Hidden Exodus: RCs becoming Protestants

Writing in The National Catholic Reporter, the Rev. Tom Reese reports:

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.

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.

If you believed liberals, most Catholics who leave the church would be joining mainline churches, like the Episcopal church. In fact, 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.

Three lessons:

First, those who are leaving the church for Protestant churches are more interested in spiritual nourishment than doctrinal issues. Tinkering with the wording of the creed at Mass is not going to help. No one except the Vatican and the bishops cares whether Jesus is “one in being” with the Father or “consubstantial” with the Father. That the hierarchy thinks this is important shows how out of it they are.


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.


Finally, the Pew data shows that two-thirds of Catholics who become Protestants do so before they reach the age of 24. The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence over the complaints of fuddy-duddies and rubrical purists.


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Marshall, I guess whether or not discussions “harp” depends upon whose ox is being gored. 🙂

One hopes that sermons in Christian churches have at least a tenuous connection to the Gospel message. Alas, the hope is not always realized.

June Butler


Marshall and all, don’t take my comment to mean that TEC does not need to change. Change will be thrust upon us, ready or not, as Bishop Katharine notes in her visits to the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“We’re a community that is on the road together, wrestling with what it means to be a Christian in this particular age,”

June Butler


June, I’m sure the studies I recall were noted here at the Cafe, as that’s how I would have learned of them. Again, if I recall correctly, it was congregations where conservative clergy were perceived as harping on the issue that were losing members most quickly. Having sat through a RC mass where the call of Jeremiah was seen as the occasion of a sermon against abortion, when in all three lessons there was so much more of the Gospel to reflect on, I can imagine feeling displaced by the issue of the moment instead of proclamation of the Gospel. But, then, that’s just me.

Marshall Scott


I’m curious to know if the young people under 24 are also joining evangelical churches in the same percentages as older folks. Is the two-thirds/one-third split the same? What then are we do do in TEC? Become evangelical?

Also, for those not that concerned about equality and justice for all, I suppose the discussions about LGTB persons can get tiresome. I’m sure people were bored with Gandhi and MLK harping on the same old things over and over. Should we give up the fight for justice in order to attract more numbers?

June Butler

Peter Pearson

As a former RC, I can say that I wanted to be an Episcopalian because I saw you all living into the gospel courageously and at the very risk of your own institutional survival. You stood for women, you stood for GLBT folks, you stood for real ecumenical relationships, you stood for change…and now I am one of you because of your fearless witness to these things and more. Tradition is great and I love some of it but we have to look toward the future more than we are looking back. I’ve said it before—- if we do this church thing right, we may be the new face of catholic Christianity and it just might be a viable face at that. Waffling will not make us more attractive but fearless resolve to follow Jesus wherever he leads us will.

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