Why Are People Leaving The Catholic Church ???

I know I've been beating this topic like an old rug, but I simply will not stop talking about this until I see evidence that people are listening.  In a previous article, I shared a video of a regular Ordinary Form mass in Macon Georgia, which serves as a good example of something going right in the Church today. It's also a good example of a place where the Catholic Church is thriving deep within the Protestant heartland of the Bible Belt.  There is a growing number of such examples, and the formula is always the same.  This involves a heavy emphasis on traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and liturgy!  That's right, the more traditional and old fashioned the Church, the more young people flock to it.

Yes, the exact opposite of what the 1970s hippy generation told us has turned out to be true.  The generation of the 1970s told the Catholic Church to "modernise" and "get with the times," so as to bring more young people into the Church.  The Catholic Church did just that, modernising not only the liturgy itself, but the way the liturgy is celebrated, the music, the atmosphere, the preaching, and sometimes even the teaching. The result?  Over the last four decades a flood of young people have poured out of (not into) the Church. The exact opposite of what the 1970s generation told us came true.  The modernisation of the Catholic Church has obliterated the Church's appeal in the minds of many young people.

Even my younger sister, who is a lovely and devout Evangelical Protestant woman in her early 30s, can see right through it.  When she visits a Catholic Church, she prefers a more traditional style of mass.  The more incense, bells and chant the better, as far as she is concerned.  Bring in the altar boys in black cassocks and white surplices.  Let the priest face the altar instead of the people.  Kneel for communion for heaven's sake! (If you believe it's God, why aren't you kneeling!?!)  This is how she looks at it.  She doesn't believe in Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, but she understands it, and she understands that if we believe it, a certain element of solemnity and reverence is to be expected.  She gets quite bored at contemporary celebrations of the mass, and I can't help but wonder, as she's yawns and claps her hands to the latest Michael W. Smith song being performed by the parish choir, if she's thinking: "this sounds so much better at my Evangelical church." The truth is -- if she is thinking that -- she's right!  It really does sound so much better at her Evangelical church.  I know, I've been to those churches.  In fact, I even trained for the ministry in one. Their contemporary worship music completely blows our contemporary music away. Catholic churches just aren't built for that kind of worship and they shouldn't be.  My sister loves going to midnight mass with me on Christmas Eve, and when she does, she expects to experience a solemn high mass, where she sees reverence at the altar, hears the ringing of bells and the echoing of chant, along with the smell of incense in the flickering glow of candles.  That's what she expects.  She's a Protestant to the core, and she would expect no less.  That's why she comes.  It's the beauty that attracts her.  It's the ethereal and other worldly experience that keeps drawing her back.  She can't get that at her Evangelical church.  It's just not built for that sort of thing.  To her, this is what Catholicism is supposed to be.  Guess what?  She's right again.

You see there is only so much we apologist writers can do.  We can explain the sacraments and traditions of Catholicism, support Catholic teaching with scripture and reason, and even knock down every Protestant objection imaginable. Sometimes we do a very good job at this, creating a watertight argument that is nearly impossible to refute. However, any convert to Catholicism, like myself, knows this isn't enough.  It's never enough.  We can make apologetic blogs, videos, recordings of all sorts, and even draw pictures and graphics.  It doesn't matter.  It's all a moot point when something is missing.  What is that something?  It's the one thing that we apologists just can't do anything about, because we have no control over it.  It's the beauty and solemnity of Catholic liturgy. When that's not present, there is nothing we apologists can do about it.  An opportunity toward evangelism has been missed, and all we apologists can do is shrug our shoulders and move on, hoping for better luck next time.

You see evangelism is really very simple.  It only consists of three parts.  Are you ready, because here they come...
  1. PREACHING -- this involves everything from the pastor's homilies, to reading the gospels, to writing books and articles, blogging, to apologetics, to ecumenism, to street witnessing.  It's the spoken and written word that tells the story of Christ's redemptive love and sacrifice.
  2. CHARITY -- this is exactly what it sounds like.  It's about works of mercy, and involves everything from making people feel welcome at mass, to making new friendships and keeping old ones, to helping our neighbours, to reaching out to the poor, sick and needy.
  3. LITURGY -- this is the beauty, dignity and solemnity of Catholic worship. It's about bringing heaven to earth, by putting humanity in touch with the Divine, while the Divine puts himself in touch with humanity.
When all three of these things come together, they create a nearly irresistible combination that is difficult for any non-Catholic to ignore or refuse.  When one is missing, the work of evangelism is hampered.  Now God is God, and he can still save people regardless of our imperfections, and he does so all the time.  However, that doesn't mean it's okay for us to intentionally put up obstacles to the missionary work of evangelism to suite our own fancies.  When one of these three elements of evangelism is missing, or done poorly, it creates an unnecessary obstacle to the work of Evangelism.

So why are people leaving the Catholic Church? -- especially young people?  We could point to a number of reasons, but I think the biggest one today is hampered evangelism in the form of poor liturgical celebrations of the mass.

Now before you get your nose bent all out of shape, stop and consider what I just said.  I didn't criticise the Church's preaching.  Yes, sometimes there are problems with that, but with all the good preaching out there, I think it all comes out even in the wash.  I didn't criticise the Church's charity, simply because there is nothing to criticise.  I am not aware of any other organisation that does more for the sick, poor and needy.  I think the Church has got that one pegged just fine.  I suppose some of our parishes could work on making people feel more welcome at mass, but that's a minor thing which can be easily addressed.  The only thing I criticised was the liturgy, which of all three is the last of Evangelistic components.  Nevertheless, though it comes after the first two, it is still important.  For many, this final component of evangelism is a "deal closer."  This is what "seals the deal" and solidifies Catholic identity.  It may be last in the evangelism chain but it is important nonetheless.  How important?  Well, I think the last 40 years tells us how important.  During the last 40 years there has been an exodus from the Catholic Church unparallelled in half a millennium.  Not since the Protestant Reformation have so many Catholics left the Church.  So the question begs to be asked -- why? What has happened over the last 40 years that would cause this?

Many traditionalists point to the Second Vatican Council as the problem.  I disagree.  I go with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's explanation on that.  Vatican II was not the problem.  The erroneous interpretation of Vatican II, that followed the council, was the problem.  Part of that erroneous interpretation was the way liturgy was reinterpreted, renovated and recreated.  All across the Western world, the proverbial "baby was thrown out with the bath water."  High altars were torn down.  Communion rails were town down too.  The faithful were encouraged to stand while receiving communion in the hand as opposed to in the mouth.  Chanting was eliminated and replaced with contemporary pop music.  The bells were eliminated, incense was eliminated, and in some places, even the kneelers in the pews were eliminated.  The priest turned around and faced the people, turning "the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself." -- (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 80) The former pontiff continues with even stronger language advocating the ad orientem (facing liturgical east) posture by saying: "a common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord." (ibid. p. 81)  His Holiness pointed out many problems with the bad interpretations of Vatican II in his book Spirit of the Liturgy, and I highly recommend it. If anyone wants to dismiss my words here as having been influenced by "radical traditionalists," only our former pope is to blame for moulding my "impressionable mind."  The list of bad interpretations of Vatican II goes on an on, but I'll stop here.  

These changes began about 40 years ago.  The mass exodus of youth from the Catholic Church began about 40 years ago.  The crisis in priestly vocations began about 40 years ago. I don't know, maybe it's just a coincidence. Then again, maybe it's not. Maybe the two (liturgy and crisis) really are connected. Our former pope thinks so, and so do I.  Does that put me in good company?

Remember the three components of evangelism above.  For the last 40 years the Church has done a pretty good job with the first two.  Oh sure, there have been examples of some significant problems, mainly with individuals, here and there.  However, for the most part, the first two components have not really been very serious.  Like I said, the good teachers have balanced out the bad teachers, and in spite of this, the official teachings of the Catholic Church have never changed.  In addition, nobody is more charitable than the Catholic Church.  It's mainly only the third and last component of evangelism that's been a really big problem. As a result it would appear the consequences have been pretty serious.  One can only imagine how bad things would be if two or three components were having trouble.

So the solution, not only in my opinion, but also in the opinion of the former pontiff, is to go back to what we know works.  Revive that third component of evangelism -- liturgy -- and bring back the mystical experience of the mass. I'm not talking about a total reversion back to the pre-conciliar period by dumping the new mass.  Far from it.  I'm talking about strictly interpreting Vatican II, and the new mass, in the context of the pre-conciliar period.  In other words, I'm talking about a "hermeneutic of continuity" with the past, as opposed to a "hermeneutic of rupture" from the past.  I'm talking about doing the new mass in an older more traditional way, making every attempt to emphasise the mystery of the sacrament. Not only is this suitable for the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, but it is something that is not duplicated in most Protestant churches.  It forms a fully Catholic identity, and helps young Catholics appreciate what makes us unique and different from "other" (i.e. Protestant) expressions of Christianity. 

There are those who insist that Vatican II itself plays another significant role.  I would disagree with them on the surface, because the doctrine of the Church has not changed.  As the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith recently said; it is "heresy" to suggest that Vatican II itself was a "rupture" with the pre-conciliar period. -- (source)  However, on a deeper level, we could say that good liturgy helps us form a better understanding of Catholic doctrine.  As the saying goes -- lex orandi lex credendi -- or "the law of prayer is the law of belief."  The problem is not Vatican II itself.  Rather, improve the liturgy, and you'll get an improvement in doctrinal teaching and understanding.  One leads to the other.  

So why are people leaving the Catholic Church?  Well for the most part, it's because young people want a more disciplined Church with clear teaching.  In other words; "less warm and fuzzy, with more clarity and discipline please." A lot of this has to do with liturgy, or at least, that's where it all starts.  I think this is where it has to begin.  Let's face it, if we go through another 40 years of "more of the same" there won't be much left of the Church to reform any more.


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Good post !

Indeed, blessed cardinal Newman warned us it would happen

From : http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume2/sermon7.html

Granting that the forms are not immediately from God, still long use has made them divine to us; for the spirit of religion has so penetrated and quickened them, that to destroy them is, in respect to the multitude of men, to unsettle and dislodge the religious principle itself. In most minds usage has so identified them with the notion of religion, that the one cannot be extirpated without the other. Their faith will not bear transplanting.

We were warned ...

This sermon is so good it should be read entirely.
Pair O' Dimes said…
Do you think perhaps that's why God allowed this sacrilege to happen? To, if I may be forgiven the crassness of the phrasing, demonstrate that there was a market for what He is selling, so to speak? To show that people want the Liturgy as it's supposed to be, and that the message of "Sister Act" is completely wrong?
Brennan said…
Great article, and I couldn't agree more about the importance of the liturgy. Unfortunately many Catholics, even ones who want to evangelize, treat the liturgy (and art and architecture) as if they are somehow irrelevant as long as the Mass is valid.

And often "the world" is blamed for any problems the Church has had after Vatican II and if you talk about the liturgy being a factor the instant catch-all "post hoc ergo propter hoc" phrase is employed as if that automatically absolves the Church's prudential decisions (such as completely altering a centuries old liturgy) from any responsibility in things like declining Mass attendance.

One issue I do have, however, beyond the fact that the liturgical committee had carte blanche to completely overhaul the liturgy (regardless of what the Council Fathers wanted or expected) was that I don't think the New Mass was concocted with any particular desire or goal for reverence, beauty, or mystery, and hence it's no surprise that we have just about completely lost all of that (along with beautiful music, art, and architecture) in just about every parish where the New Mass is celebrated for the past 40 years.

From what I have read the actual committee (again, not necessarily the Council Fathers themselves) wanted and believed it necessary to adapt the liturgy to their conception of "modern man." And they revised accordingly. Pope Paul VI, according to an interview with his good friend Jean Guitton, wanted to have a Mass as close to a Calvinistic Protestant service as possible while still being valid as he believed it would help the Church reconcile with Protestants.

Lauren Pristas has done some good work examining the actual changes in the prayers made to the liturgy after Vatican II:


She also has a new book out here on the revision of the liturgy:

Brennan said…
I may very well have published this quote before, but I think it's worth publishing again regardless and it goes along quite well with the article, I think:

The quote is from Fr. George Rutler’s book "A Crisis of Saints" (Ignatius Press). He is a Priest who is old enough to have experienced the liturgy both before and after the changes:

A Liturgical Parable

The Hard Truth

...We seem to slip out of that golden sense of ultimate truth in two ways. The first is by losing any real awareness of the holy. The second is by denying that it has been lost. Without lapsing into criticism that would be out of place, suffice it to say that the worship of holiness is weak in our culture, and the beauty of holiness has been smudged in transmission through the revised liturgy. For without impugning its objective authenticity in any degree, its bouleversement [Complete overthrow; a reversal; a turning upside down] of the traditional Roman rite marks the first time in history that the Church has been an agent, however unintentionally, in the deprivation of culture, from the uprooting of classical language and sensibility to wanton depreciation of the arts.

...It is immensely saddening to see so many elements of the Church, in her capacity as Mother of Western Culture, compliant in the promotion of ugliness. There may be no deterrent more formidable to countless potential converts than the low estate of the Church's liturgical life, for the liturgy is the Church's prime means of evangelism. Gone as into a primeval mist are the days not long ago when apologists regularly had to warn against being distracted by, or superficially attracted to, the beauty of the Church's rites. And the plodding and static nature of the revised rites could not have been more ill-timed for a media culture so attuned to color and form and action.

("A Crisis of Saints", Ignatius Press pp. 107-108)
James Joseph said…
This is what a real homily looks like.

Imagine a 2 hour homily.

Shane Schaetzel said…
Pair O' Dimes, I suppose God allows everything to happen for a reason. The crisis the Church now finds herself in will be healed eventually. That is certain. The only question is: when? I suspect future generations will look back on this era as an object lesson of what not to do.
SickBeat18 said…
I really enjoyed this article and love your blog by the way! I would agree that the liturgy is one of the issues with people leaving the church. But I think the bigger issues is just the society that we live in now. I am a perfect example. Before recently I had never really taken my Catholic faith to seriously. Parental and social influences assured me that it wasn't that big of a deal. Media and entertainment make sexual immorality and other sins seem "no big deal". I also was exposed to a lot of Protestants who thought of worship differently. Another issues is so much hate and lies are spread about the Church that so many ignorant people view the Catholic faith in a bad light. So yes I agree the liturgy has something to do with it, but also a large portion is just from our modern society taking faith so lightly. Which in essence one could say started 40 years ago with the hippie generation and the "sexual revolution". Most of my friends (I am 21) who are even Catholics know very very little about our faith. I thank God everyday that he has brought me back to the faith and that I have began to seek truth.
Great post! I say a very similar thing here:
CactusWest said…
I will give you my 2 cents worth.

The main reason is "breach of trust and credibility".

Practicing Catholic .. 50+ years
Charles Luevano said…
I think what was left out was how important the Eucharist, the central core of Catholic worship, is.

I teach CCD to middle school kids, and I even helped out in a Catholic High school and to my surprise I would say that 99% of the students do not know what the Eucharist is and the importance of it. They made their first communion, and go to communion on Sundays and think its just a piece of bread or go up to have "that thing" put in their mouths. They don't remember ever learning the Act of Contrition, nor the importance of confession.

The CCD material consists mainly of social justice. Some lessons compare Harry Potter to Jesus, others claim that Nelson Mandela was doing the work of Jesus, stuff like that. Just be good, be nice, don't judge. In other words lets all sit in a circle, hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

I experimented with other churches (never stopped going to Sunday Mass though) but found something very important missing in those "rock shows". It was the Eucharist, so I said, thanks but no thanks.

So I stress the Eucharist and the importance of receiving our Lord worthily and I have them learn the Act of Contrition.
nancy said…
This is such an important article. I hear, "invite your friends to Mass", I think umm no, not yet. It's too lame, sorry. Altar girls with heels and choir directors with their bum showing, ugh. I know what's going on cause I got roped into teaching Confirmation classes for 2 years. Quite a conversion for me. But, I can't expect others to walk into most churches and go to Mass and see Jesus, the angels and all the Saints. Not til every Mass is like a more traditional Mass.