Back in the Fold

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Author: Mitch Finley

I became Catholic at age 9, one fine May morning in 1956. In the manner of the pre-Vatican II church, my parents, my sister and I gathered around the baptismal font in the back of the little parish church in Grangeville, Idaho,with only our various godparents in attendance. One by one, we each leaned over the baptismal font—my younger sister and I standing on a little stool—as Father Lafey poured the blessed water over each of our foreheads and spoke the ancient words—in Latin, of course: “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

I have been gratefully Catholic ever since. I am not like Larry, my best friend from high school, who hasn’t been near a parish church in about 30 years. I never even went through an adolescent “lapsed Catholic” phase. During four years in the U.S. Navy I rarely, if ever, missed Mass on Sunday. There were times when I attended daily Mass for weeks on end, too. My affection for being Catholic was such that I majored in religious studies at a Catholic university and later earned a master’s degree in theology at yet another Catholic university. Along the way, of course, my understanding of the faith became, I like to think, more adult, my ability to reflect critically upon my faith more acute.

Because I love being Catholic, and I love the church—its many warts and all—I always feel regret when I hear of people who, like Larry, choose to distance themselves from the church, for whatever reason. Doing the research for my book It’s Not the Same Without You: Coming Home to the Catholic Church (Doubleday, 2003), I collected stories from hundreds of formerly and presently alienated Catholics.

According to the empirical research of sociologist Father Andrew M. Greeley, in the United States most people born and raised Catholic choose to remain in the church. This amounts to about 25 percent of the U.S. population, or some 60 million people. At the same time, it appears that about 15 percent of those who grew up Catholic no longer choose to think of themselves as such—they are, in other words, alienated from the church. Greeley concludes from his research that this defection rate has not changed much since 1960. This means some 9 million or so U.S. citizens are alienated Catholics.

Doing the research for my book, however, it became clear to me that being alienated from the church is a question of degree. Most Catholics are alienated from the church at one time or another in their lives and to one degree or another. The recent clergy sex abuse scandal has, I suspect, alienated a great many more Catholics, even if they continue to think of themselves as practicing Catholics. Indeed, being alienated from the church doesn’t necessarily mean one stops participating in the life of the church.

For example, a Catholic may be alienated from the church when it comes to certain official church positions or teachings. If polls and surveys are accurate, the vast majority of Catholics are alienated from the church on the level of the official teaching that prohibits the use of artificial contraceptives. In Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic, Father Philip S. Kaufman, OSB, wrote: “Never in papal history [has] there been such negative response to a papal teaching” as there has been to the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned artificial contraceptives. While research has shown that more than 90 percent of U.S. Catholics dissent in good conscience from particular, nonessential, church policies or teachings, many continue to practice the Catholic faith.

Alienation from the church also may be ideological. Both liberal and conservative Catholics may be alienated from the church, believing it either bends too little or too much. Even middle-of-the-road Catholics may feel alienated on specific issues. “It drives me nuts,” one woman told me, when a parish priest “turns the opening part of the Mass into a ‘hi-how-are-ya’ kind of thing.” The result is Catholics who feel alienated from the church for all kinds of reasons but who don’t leave the church.

We might view alienation from the church along a spectrum, with complete estrangement at one end and a “my-church-right-or-wrong” position at the other end. Most Catholics are someplace between the two extremes and continue to participate in the life of the church. Those who leave, however, do so for various reasons, from theological-ideological issues to mere apathy.

Today’s middle-age Catholics, who spent the first18 to 20 years of their lives in the pre-Vatican II church, often attained adulthood with an idealistic image of the church as a near-perfect society. In later years, when the church’s imperfections became all too evident, such Catholics sometimes felt that they had no choice but to leave the church. “We couldn’t get a priest to come to Grandma’s bedside when she was dying. If that’s the way the church treats people, I want nothing to do with it.” “Priests sexually abusing boys tells me that something is terribly wrong with the church as a whole, so I no longer go to Mass.”

Catholics who are already on the fringes of the church often choose to distance themselves entirely when a priest or parish lay minister responds in what strikes them as a legalistic manner. “You must attend these classes, or we won’t baptize your baby.” “You must participate in the marriage preparation program, or you can’t be married in the church.”

I was startled when a Catholic who described himself as “lapsed” explained that it made no sense to him to “tell your sins to another human being,” and he couldn’t believe in a church that said that if you missed Mass on Sunday just once you were “condemned to hell for all eternity.” I can only conclude that there are more alienated Catholics like him who have erroneous understandings of various things Catholic and have never bothered to learn if their understandings are correct or not.

One of the most common reasons Catholics become alienated from the church involves church policies related to divorce and remarriage. Some Catholics still believe that divorce in itself means a person is either excommunicated or may not receive the sacraments. So, once divorced, they stay away from the church. Those who want to remarry sometimes don’t understand the church’s annulment process. Others feel that it’s an unreasonably difficult or painful process and are unwilling to cooperate.

More than a few “lapsed” Catholics are adults who drifted away from the church during their high school or college years and simply never drifted back. The power of a culture that is, at best, religiously indifferent, negative headlines about the Catholic church, and the simple habit of being a non-churchgoer, should not be underestimated.

At the same time, it seems that more often than we might think alienated Catholics choose to come back to the church. When I began work on my book, my goal was to find people who had left the church and then, later in life, returned. I wanted to learn more about why they left and why they came home again. I also wanted to hear from Catholics presently alienated from the church to learn what caused their alienation.

I asked a dozen of the biggest circulation Catholic newspapers in the United States, plus a few in smaller dioceses, to publish my invitation to Catholics formerly or currently alienated from the church to share their stories. I wasn’t prepared for the deluge of e-mail responses I received. I lost count, but the hundreds of stories I read convinced me that if the percentage of “lapsed” Catholics is more or less constant, coming home to the church is a frequently unnoticed phenomenon today. I was unable to find any empirical studies that track how many people come home to the church each year.

The accounts I received fell into a few general categories. Some told of adolescent rebellion that extended into adulthood through indifference. I read stories from people who drifted away from the church during their high school or college years, then returned in their 30s, 40s or later. Joe (all names have been changed), for example, recalled attending a Catholic high school in the 1960s, followed by two years at a Catholic university. There, conflict with the faculty adviser to the student newspaper over a Catholic moral position led him to transfer for his junior year to a state university.

“After that, I didn’t go near a Catholic church for 30-some years,” Joe recalled. “My wife was Presbyterian, so sometimes I went to church with her by default more than anything else. Then a few years ago, I realized that I just wasn’t happy with that.” Then Joe saw an ad in his local newspaper inviting lapsed Catholics to come home to the church. “Something clicked. I realized that I wasn’t happy with being away from Catholicism. So I attended an informal evening meeting at a nearby parish, and the following Easter I formally returned to the church. My wife joined me and became Catholic, too.”

The cause for alienation from the church that came up more frequently than any other involved divorce and remarriage. Mary is a returned Catholic in her mid-50s. “For years,” she said, “I thought that if you were divorced and remarried that was the end of the road for you as a Catholic—which, when you think about it, doesn’t say much for the church when it comes to embodying the forgiving and reconciling presence of Christ. Fortunately, I found out about the real meaning of the church’s annulment procedure, which was a difficult process for me. But in the end it was a very positive and healing experience—not only for me but, surprisingly, for my ex-husband, who is also Catholic.”

Michael told of attending a Jesuit high school as a non-Catholic, then receiving a scholarship to attend a Catholic university. Following graduation, he became Catholic prior to his first marriage, which ended in divorce seven years later, “and then, fortunately for me, [came] an annulment.” The “initial rigidity” that Michael experienced in obtaining an annulment caused him to “be absent from the church for several years.” Later, he returned to the church “and our parish, and my love for the church is greater than ever.”

More than a few said they simply drifted away from the church through the influence of a secular culture that is ambivalent about religion, at best. Ken, a 43-year-old attorney, was one of many who slipped away from the church after four years at a state university where he had no Catholic friends. “It all began to seem irrelevant,” he said. It was only after he married in a civil ceremony and became the father of three children that he and his wife—who grew up in a religiously indifferent family—began a search that led Ken back to his Catholic roots and his wife along with him.

Some told the common story of being offended or hurt by a priest or nun, including a few who were sexually abused in childhood by a priest—the latter stories straight from recent national headlines. One of the true stories I had to cut from the manuscript of my book due to space limitations was from Sharon, a 50-year-old grandmother. She wrote about being sexually abused at the age of 15 by a nun who taught at the Catholic boarding school Sharon attended. “Later, I understood that this nun was probably a lesbian and maybe didn’t even know it herself at the time,” Sharon said, “but I still live with the fear and shame that came from being abused by her. Fortunately, through extensive counseling I was able to return to life as an active Catholic, and today I treasure my faith deeply.”

I was surprised at the number of formerly alienated Catholics who left because biblical fundamentalists convinced them that the Catholic church is at odds with the teachings of the New Testament. Yvonne, a 35-year-old accountant, spent 15 years in a fundamentalist sectarian church. Ironically, it was the minister of this sectarian church who led her—and about 60 other people—back to Catholicism.

“Our minister was a really studious guy,” Yvonne said, “and he read long and hard on the history of Christianity, and after about three years the whole bunch of us, him included, just up and converted to the Catholic church. For me, of course, it was a matter of coming home.”

Some Catholics come home to the church after years of buying into the trendy opinion that “organized religion” is spiritually constricting. Teresa told of growing up in a Catholic family, attending Catholic schools, then deciding in young adulthood that she believed in God but had no use for “organized religion.” Drawing from various sources—often Eastern religions, New Age gurus, occasionally Wicca, 12-step recovery programs, sometimes even Catholicism—such people cobble together a personal eclectic spirituality.

Teresa returned to a life of active Catholic faith after her mother passed away. “I had to attend the funeral Mass,” she recalled, “and something about the liturgy touched me deeply, and I realized that I had to come back. I realized that what I had been searching for all those years was right in my own backyard. Really, what I had to do was leave behind the childish ideas of what being Catholic is all about that I had lived with for so long and move on to a mature, adult Catholic faith. I no longer expect the church to measure up perfectly to my personal expectations, and I don’t expect to get all the answers.”

The story Charles told began with his account of becoming what he called “an intellectual atheist” while attending medical school. “I concluded that if you can’t find scientific proof for something, including the existence of God, then it can’t possibly be real.”

Charles said that years later “I had to acknowledge that there are kinds of human knowledge that can’t be scientifically validated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but which are valid all the same. Sometimes poetry communicates truths that science never can. To paraphrase Pascal, the heart has its reasons that the intellect knows nothing about. Eventually, I found myself back on the doorstep of Catholicism, where I grew up. And thankfully, very thankfully so. Catholicism has more respect for the human intellect, and its role in the life of faith, than any other denomination, religion or philosophy.”

Stories that came up with surprising regularity consisted of variations on a theme. Someone in the family was dying. A family member could get no priest to come to the dying person’s bedside. Often, this event happened many years, sometimes many decades, ago. But the story takes on mythological dimensions. Children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren do not grow up Catholic because a priest refused, or was for whatever reason unavailable, to come to Grandma’s death bed.

I remain astonished at how often alienated Catholics report that they left the Catholic church because it didn’t measure up to their personal expectations. A significant percentage of lapsed Catholics will not tolerate a church that doesn’t meet their standards of perfection. “I want nothing to do with a church that won’t ordain women to the priesthood.” “I want nothing to do with a church that clings to the mundane, uninspiring Mass it has now and won’t allow the old Latin Mass.”

Invariably, when alienated Catholics return, their coming home requires the realization that an adult faith includes the ability to distinguish between the church as an imperfect human institution and the living Catholic tradition, one that mediates the healing and liberating presence of the risen Christ in time and space. Church and Sacred Tradition cannot be completely separated, but an adult faith requires the ability to distinguish between the two. Some find it difficult to accept the idea of an imperfect church, a church that fails at its mission regularly, but once they do it can be a liberating experience.

Historically, Catholics have had a kind of superior attitude toward “lapsed” Catholics. It was a moral issue, and “fallen away” Catholics were culpable. End of discussion. Fortunately, this attitude is changing. Outreach to alienated Catholics is slowly becoming a part of Catholic life.

While many parishes show little or no interest in reaching out to alienated Catholics, the exceptions are noteworthy. Programs that reach out to alienated Catholics are often local in origin. Some are remarkably successful. One parish program, Alienated Catholics Anonymous (ACA), in Tucson, Arizona, was launched in the early 1980s by Monsignor Thomas Cahalane. Cahalane realized that if alienated Catholics have any contact at all with the church it’s likely to be at Christmas and Easter. So he scheduled ACA programs for right after these two major liturgical events. Later, he added a third series of ACA sessions after the school year begins in September. Invariably, each ACA series attracts 20 to 30 returning Catholics.

Other programs are national, such as Landings, a program designed and administered by the Paulist Fathers. Printed materials describe Landings as “a program for returning Catholics [that] offers them a safe place to land.” Although Landings has a national base, it is designed for use on the local parish level. Alienated Catholics are invited to join a group of active parish members for six to eight evening sessions, and laity, rather than a priest, lead the two-hour sessions, each of which follows a pre-designed format. The Landings program website is www.landings-international.com/mercy.ssi.

Another national program, OnceCatholic, is entirely Internet based. Sponsored by the Franciscan Friars of the Cincinnati Province and their magazine, St. Anthony Messenger, the OnceCatholic program invites alienated Catholics to check out www.oncecatholic.org, where they find information and opportunities for interaction with others, plus referrals to programs for returning Catholics all over the United States. Eight chat rooms offer a connection that is both “cyber” and personal with a “companion” who is a pastoral minister in the church.

Not infrequently, returning Catholics have been carrying a load of anger and resentment toward the church for many years. Those responsible for parish and/or diocesan programs for returning Catholics find that it’s important to include resolution of these feelings in the reconciliation process. Sometimes professional counseling is necessary.

Sometimes, Catholics who return to the church do so when an official representative of the church, usually a priest or bishop, expresses regret and asks alienated Catholics to forgive the church for whatever led to their alienation. In some instances, however, formerly alienated Catholics discover that they, in return, need to ask the church’s forgiveness. “Basically,” said one woman, “I realized that I needed forgiveness as much as the church needed forgiveness. I had been throwing a temperamental hissy-fit for 17 years because the church wouldn’t measure up to my personal standards of perfection—as if I was perfect myself!”

Monica, a formerly alienated Catholic, told her story: “I didn’t consciously stray or lapse from the church. Over my teenage years I had no real interest or connection and that just continued for me. I was married the first time in the church at a young age, but the realness and seriousness of the sacrament and commitment of it was not clear to me. After my first marriage ended it catapulted me onto a spiritual path. I was seeking to understand myself, my life, why I was the way I was.”

When her marriage ended, Monica entered counseling therapy, studied Eastern religions, practiced meditation, visited a Hindu ashram and “spent time with an Indian guru who embodied the qualities of a living saint.” Then, in the late 1990s—"it was very much a surprise to me"—Monica returned to the Catholic church. “I never thought the church had anything to offer or would ever be my path. I returned home from a spiritual retreat and found myself drawn to reading books about prayer and saints.”

After reading a book about an author’s spiritual quest that brought an awareness of the role in Catholicism of Mary, the mother of Jesus, Monica said she “felt drawn back to church through Mary.” She began attending daily Mass, praying the rosary, and spending time in church to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. “Suddenly there was something real about this for me—the Presence of Jesus became real, maybe for the first time in my life! This is why I choose to stay connected with the church now.”

Reading the stories, it struck me how subjective the return to the church seems to be for most who come back. Typically, formerly alienated Catholics do not return as the result of a quest for the truth. Only two of my hundreds of respondents said that they came home to the Catholic church because, in effect, they realized the truth of what early 20th century convert and apologist G.K. Chesterton, who anticipated the perspective of Vatican II by several decades, said. “I could not abandon the faith,” he wrote, “without falling back on something more shallow than the faith. I could not cease to be a Catholic except by becoming something more narrow than a Catholic.”

Those who come home to the church—for whatever reason—discover that reconciliation is what being a disciple of Christ is about. Therefore, reconciliation is much of what being Catholic is about. Indeed, this ministry of reconciliation is the business of all Catholics. But those who have come home to the church seem especially good at it, because they know from personal experience the sorrow of being away and the joy of coming home.


Mitch Finley is the author of more than 30 books, including The Joy of Being Catholic , Catholic is Wonderful! (Resurrection Press) and For Men Only: Strategies for Living Catholic (Liguori).


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