A heartbreaking study of Catholics who have left the Church

The Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton had the courage to invite scholars to survey those who have left Catholicism. It was a self-selected group (people who responded to published invitations, rather than scientific samplings), but still, the responses to the survey break my heart, and should break the heart of anyone with a passion for the Good News of Jesus Christ. Access to the scholars’ work is still not available, but America has posted an article they’ve written. Among the findings:

It should be noted that most respondents said no to our question about any “bad experiences” they may have had with any person officially associated with the church. Mention was made, however, of bad experiences in the confessional; refusals by parish staff to permit eulogies at funerals; denial of the privilege of being a godparent at a relative’s baptism; verbal, emotional and physical abuse in Catholic elementary school; denial of permission for a religiously mixed marriage in the parish church. In one case the parish priest “refused to go to the cemetery to bury my 9-year-old son  because it was not a Catholic cemetery.” Several respondents noted that they were victims of sexual abuse by clergy.

In the context of his reply to this question about “bad experiences,” a 78-year-old male said something that could serve as a guideline for the bishop in reacting to this survey. This man wrote, “Ask a question of any priest and you get a rule; you don’t get a ‘let’s-sit-down-and- talk-about-it’ response.”  It is our hope that there will be more sitting down and talking things over in  the Diocese of Trenton, and perhaps in other dioceses, as a result of this  survey experience.

The authors’ conclusions:

Considering that these responses come, by definition, from a disaffected group, it is noteworthy that their tone is overwhelmingly positive and that the respondents appreciated the opportunity to express themselves. Some of their recommendations will surely have a positive impact on diocesan life. Not surprisingly, the church’s refusal to ordain women, to allow priests to marry, to recognize same-sex marriage and to admit divorced and remarried persons to reception of the Eucharist surfaced, as did contraception and a host of questions associated with the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

The survey invited respondents to provide their name and contact information if they wanted direct connection with the bishop. Of the almost 300 who responded to the survey, 25 offered their information to the Bishop. I would love to be the fly on the wall in those conversations.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we as Episcopalians might respond pastorally to the crisis in Roman Catholicism. Short of putting direct ads in newspapers and other media, how do we communicate that our liturgy is quite similar, that we welcome divorced and remarried people, gays and lesbians, and those uncomfortable with the authoritarian hierarchy. The increasing rigidity of our Roman Catholic neighbors makes our openness all the more important, and our message all the more crucial.

Bishop O’Connell deserves praise for undertaking the study, and for his invitation to meet with respondents.

An earlier discussion of the issue is here.

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