The newly released Pew Forum poll on religious affiliations shows
that while we’re still a nation of faith, many Americans are changing
churches.

Faith in Flux has good news and bad news, depending on who’s reading the results. Some say it’s bad news for Catholics, but Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, the US bishops’ media director, doesn’t think so, when you get into the story the statistics tell. 

The new “Faith in Flux” study from the Pew Forum on
Religion & Public Life will draw groans from many Catholics when
they read that “Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the
process of religious change.”

No surprise there. With one in 10 Americans a former Catholic, some
say that ex-Catholics comprise the second-largest religious group in
America.

Some reporting stopped right there, and the headlines were basically
about some Catholic exodus. Which isn’t what this is saying…

The Pew study notes that those who have left the
Catholic Church as adults outnumber 4-1 those who join in adulthood.
However, the same report says that 68% of people who were Catholics as
children remain Catholic in adulthood. That’s an impressive retention
rate in modern American life.

Think of other affiliations in modern society. Divorcerate.org
reports that only 50% of Americans remain married to their first
spouse. A “Psychology Today” article reported that about one-third of
adults described their relationship with their siblings as “rivalrous
or distant.”

Since cultural trends directly relate to and impact religious ones,
that’s an important analogy. A 68 percent retention rate, today, is on
the up side of just about any relationship demographic.

Polled for why they left, 47% of former Catholics cited
discontent with such issues as the Church’s position on birth control,
homosexuality, and attitude toward women. I don’t take much stock in
that since, like it or not, there are plenty of self-identified
Catholics who grouse a lot, or even carry picket signs over the
Church’s positions, but it doesn’t necessarily drive them away.

The No. 1 reason people leave their childhood religion is that they
just slowly fall off. That was true for seven in 10 ex-Protestants and
ex-Catholics. Mediocrity is the real killer, as it is in everything.

Is there a key determining factor in who finds the faith mediocre and who finds it fulfilling? Yes.

Interestingly, the study found that the best predictor
of people remaining in the Catholic Church in adulthood is childhood
and teen Mass attendance…

Someone once said that it is not that Christianity has been tried and failed; it’s never really been tried.

(I think it was Chesterton…)

A lot of people who are counted as Catholics have never
given Catholicism a try. They were baptized and confirmed, but outside
of those experiences were hardly ever in church. The study’s finding
that the best predictor of children remaining in the Catholic Church is
Mass attendance seems to confirm the connection between really “trying”
the Catholic faith and staying with it.

Truth doesn’t depend on our believing it, and the sacred isn’t
determined by our planning or staging it. But good homilies
and reverent Masses do attract. People will come….and
stay….when celebrations of sacraments are authentic and ennobling.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....