We can learn a lot from people who left the church, whether we can win them back or not.
For generations, the Baltimore Catechism taught that Catholics who miss Sunday Mass through their own fault commit a mortal sin, making the soul an enemy of God, depriving it of the right to everlasting happiness in heaven, and making it fit for everlasting punishment in hell.
These teachings helped fill the pews of Catholic churches for decades, but today nearly two thirds of U.S. Catholics do not attend Mass weekly. For many, the church is not a relevant force in their lives. Others, however, love the church in which they grew up but are at the same time angry with it. They may disagree with the church’s teachings on divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, or birth control. They may have become fed up with a certain priest. They may be angry with changes that have or have not occurred since the Second Vatican Council.
“Alienated Catholics are Catholics for whom their Catholic faith is very important but who feel that they have been excluded or driven away by the church,” says Jesuit Father Mark Horak, contrasting alienated Catholics with those who feel the church offers them nothing of value. “This feeling of having been excluded may or may not be well-founded, but it is real. The good news is that alienated Catholics are likely to return to the church if they can somehow be reconciled.”
As millions of Catholics have drifted from the church and then back to it, many have stepped forward to welcome them. A ministry of welcoming alienated Catholics has sprung up in the last few decades, and in many cases, these ministries can teach some lessons to the greater church.
1. Time away from the church can be spiritually productive.
“Righteous, respectful anger has a place in the church,” says Mary Christine O’Connor, adjunct professor of theology at St. John’s University in New York. “Anger and love are just a hair away from being the same thing. If people didn’t care, they wouldn’t be angry.”
Even when that anger leads people out of the church, it may still contribute to the overall spiritual growth of the person, says Paulist priest Jim Moran, director of Landings International, a 10-week, parish-based program that helps alienated Catholics return to the worshiping community. Moran has directed the program for four years and says one of the quotes that inspires him most comes from the book of Proverbs: “I, wisdom, dwell in experience.” He raises eyebrows when he asks returning Catholics, “What wisdom has God brought to you in this experience of being apart from the faith? Why did the Spirit lead you out of the church?”
Father Peter Cullen, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, sees firsthand the wisdom that people gain while outside the Roman Catholic Church. Many Roman Catholics come to St. Paul’s seeking a smaller worshiping community, a more inclusive environment, or the sacrament of Matrimony for a couple unable to marry in the Roman Catholic Church because of its rules on divorce.
St. Paul’s is considered an Anglo-Catholic parish, and as such Masses include all of the accoutrements Roman Catholics grew up with: stained glass windows, statues, candles, incense, and a communion rail that still serves its original purpose. What it lacks is the teaching and preaching on sexuality that turn many Roman Catholics away from their own church.
Cullen finds that while alienated Catholics may find a home in his parish, it is often temporary.
“Ninety percent of disaffected Romans who come to St. Paul’s do not want to be Anglican, they want to be Roman,” says Cullen, adding that he, too, wants them to be Roman. “I think the gravity of Rome is very, very strong and is always a presence in their lives.
“These Catholics need to get away to get a sense of perspective,” he adds. “From a distance, they realize a lot of times that they are not leaving the Catholic faith, but they’re leaving a particular priest or a localized Catholic expression of the Catholic faith.”
In Cullen’s parish they find a space to work out problems they have with their own church—and prepare them for an eventual return home.
2. We just want a clear explanation of church teaching.
When alienated Catholics engage Cullen in discussion, the Anglican priest finds himself doing apologetics for the Catholic Church, often explaining its teachings and the many demands placed on its priests.
“One of first things I always have to do is listen to stories of priests who have yelled at them,” Cullen says, “and I have to know more about Roman Catholic marriage law than my own.”
Joan Horn, a coordinator for Landings International, says many of the alienated Catholics she encounters are misinformed about church teaching.
“Many years ago, maybe someone’s aunt told them they were excommunicated because they were divorced,” she says. “And when you’re away from the church, you’re often not in touch with Catholics. Landings puts people who have been away in touch with people who can answer their questions.”
Although not always available, discussions of church teaching can have an impact on Catholics struggling with the church.
“The teachings of the church are the teachings of the church,” says Father Michael Carrano, as alienated Catholics already know. But local pastors can make a difference in the spiritual lives of Catholics who disagree with certain church teachings, even while affirming those teachings. Carrano, pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Brooklyn, New York, co-facilitates Theology at the Tap (not to be confused with the young adult program Theology on Tap), a forum that welcomes alienated Catholics for an evening of dialogue at a local restaurant. Like Landings, Theology at the Tap does not promise answers to all questions. The priests who facilitate the program promise only thoughtful dialogue.
Much of Carrano’s work with alienated Catholics is done outside the doors of his parish on Sundays. As he greets departing parishioners after Mass, he makes an effort to introduce himself to unfamiliar faces and welcome them to return to his parish.
His inspiration stems from a spontaneous two-hour conversation that he had with a group of young adults after Mass at his first Brooklyn parish decades ago. “We just met outside the church and wound up chatting,” he recalls. “The joy of seeing them walk away feeling they had been heard made me promise myself that while in parish ministry, I would make a point of drawing out people who felt alienated.”
Carrano approaches alienated Catholics by trying to get into the world of the person he is talking to. He begins by asking them to share positive stories about their experiences with the church.
“You must teach what the church teaches, but it’s the way you do it,” says Carrano. “Teaching is an art—a work of art that is ongoing.”
3. Spirituality should come before dogma.
Communicating church teaching often means striking a balance between affirming particular teachings and acknowledging the reality of parishioners’ experiences.
“The church is different from a business,” says Horak, the Jesuit priest and pastor of Old St. Joseph’s Parish in Philadelphia. “The church is not about a final product, it’s about holding people together. We work hard to retain people who are angry, indifferent, incompetent, or broken. If we have these people filling our church, we know we’re doing something right.”
Old St. Joseph’s, he adds, is perceived as being welcoming to those who feel alienated, and sometimes a “last step” for people considering leaving the church. Similar to Carrano’s approach, Horak chooses not to hit people over the head with what the church says.
“People who are gay, divorced, remarried, they know what the church says about all these issues,” Horak says. “Pastors need to be able to balance being a teacher and being with people where they are, moving people forward a bit. People who are alienated are typically alienated by the actions of people who are not able to strike that balance.”
Among the Catholics at Old St. Joseph’s who may feel alienated from the church are many gay and lesbian parishioners and parishioners in non-traditional marriages.
“We don’t presume that gays and lesbians are sexually active or that persons in irregular marriages haven’t been reconciled in some internal forum,” Horak says. “I am not naive or stupid; it is more a matter of don’t ask, don’t tell.
“Incidentally,” he adds, “if the gay and lesbian persons in our parish were to suddenly leave, we would lose a very large percentage of our lay leaders and active ministers.”
Horak compares his work to that of loving parents who do not always agree with the choices their children make.
“You don’t throw them out,” he says. “You move them slowly into a position of greater unity. Parents do it all the time, especially when the kids get older. You maintain the family unit and respect choices people make even when it’s not what you’d like to see.”
The fact that spirituality is what draws people to the church—rather than agreement with every rule—is also affirmed in programs like Landings, says Moran.
“If people make the first criterion of someone’s return a pledge of allegiance rather than a felt connection with a worshiping community, if returning is not about spirituality first, then the issue of spirituality never does get resolved,” he says. “It gets buried under a pseudo kind of orthodoxy.”
4. Parishioners need to do their part.
Community bonds hold the church’s members together. Looking at vibrant parishes like Assumption in Brooklyn or Old St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia, it’s difficult to negate the role of a welcoming, pastoral priest in building a healthy faith community. But of equal importance is the role of the parishioners—not only in contributing to quality liturgies, but in building friendships with new parishioners.
“Priests come and go, but what’s going to sustain your faith is a healthy parish that helps congregants to have bonds among themselves,” says O’Connor, the St. John’s professor. “That’s not the priests’ role, that’s the parishioners’ role.”
While serving as a full-time pastoral associate at St. Ignatius Loyola, a Jesuit parish in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, O’Connor saw attendance at one evening Mass triple to more than 300 attendees.
“Very few people have some mystical experience outside the community,” she says. “People need to find a church community where they feel at home. The people in my experience who don’t have a real, deep connection at a local parish don’t have a home in the parish, are not part of something. The only church they know is one in the media.”
Lynn Neu, pastoral associate at the Catholic Community at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), encounters very few alienated Catholics in her day to day work with young adults. Solid liturgies, an active social justice program, and frequent invitations to participate draw hundreds of students and nearby residents into the community.
“People here have found a home, found a family,” she says. “They feel they’re in a place where they belong. It’s friendly, it’s inviting, and they’re asked to participate.”
But not all members of the UCSD community remain active churchgoers once they graduate. In 2004, when Neu was facing surgery, several graduates returned to the community one Sunday, and when Neu asked them about their current parishes, they uneasily told her that they had not joined a parish since leaving UCSD.
“They were our best and brightest,” she recalls. “They were movers and shakers in our community, our student leaders. We had so much invested in them. But when they moved to another parish, they said the music sucked, the preaching sucked, and it was so family oriented, there was no place for them to hook in.” With Neu’s help, the students found a parish that seemed inviting and promised Neu they would return to parish involvement.
“All of the people in the parish need to be on the lookout for people coming back to the parish or coming into the parish,” Neu says. “When new people come, they will only keep coming if they meet somebody, if it catches. What I’m learning from these young people is that the majority of people who leave here leave with a good experience. They served on the parish council or a committee, and then they go someplace else and are not encouraged or invited. It doesn’t feel very meaningful.”
For many, there comes a tipping point. Of the 150 members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Parish, many—perhaps half—come from Roman Catholic backgrounds. A survey of Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parishes across the country would likely paint a similar picture—meaning that despite the “gravity of Rome” that Cullen speaks of and the best efforts of neighboring Roman Catholic pastors, there comes a point where anger and frustration with the Catholic Church are too deep to be overcome.
Even the vibrant community at UCSD is not immune to such an experience. San Diego is now home to St. Mary Magdalene the Apostle Church, a parish led by Jane Via, who claims to be a Catholic priest but whose ordination ceremony was condemned by the Vatican and her local bishop. Via is a former member of the Catholic Community at UCSD, and when she started her parish two years ago, some of the adults who had been part of UCSD’s Catholic Community left to join her.
“This is a group of people who have participated faithfully in the church all their lives, people who seek change in the church on issues of women, homosexuality, accountability of the hierarchy, meaningful lay participation,” Neu says. “These are people who didn’t see change coming any time soon and who grew weary, angry, frustrated, and disillusioned.”
Though members of both communities still maintain friendships with each other, the break was painful. Neu finds it difficult to apply the term “alienated Catholic” to people she knows to be so deeply Catholic and notes that they continue to call themselves Roman Catholics.
“It’s important for all of us to keep in mind that they love the Catholic Church,” Neu says. “They don’t want to be cut off; they want to model a more inclusive church. It’s a tender situation.
“What I’ve learned from this is that deep pain, unresolved anger, and frustration can lead some to a tipping point,” Neu adds. “And it was interesting to see that once people moved on, some of that anger got released.”