30 million American ex-Catholics can’t be wrong, can they?

In a recent Pentecost sermon carried in the National Catholic Reporter and re-published on this blog, Bishop Tom Gumbleton wrote:

As we gather together as the church, as God’s people, to celebrate this Eucharist, there is a heaviness in our church today that is felt by many, many people. You could know this by the fact that, as I have mentioned before, 10% of the people in the United States are people who have left the Catholic church — 30 million people. The second largest Christian denomination in our country now are those who used to be Catholic in a practicing way.

With the national debt at $13 trillion and the annual US budget deficit projected to be $1.26 trillion (these are ballpark figures), 30 million doesn’t seem like a big number. Yet compared to the number of Catholics in the US, the percentage is striking. The handy online Wikipedia says, “There are 68,115,001 Catholics in the United States (22% of the US population) according to the Official Catholic Directory 2009.

The cost to the Institution of 30 million Americans leaving

I’m no sociologist or theologian. Nor am I a financial analyst. But a few back of the envelope financial calculations might be instructive. Suppose the 30 million who have left have an average yearly salary of $40,000. Suppose further that each gave 2% of their salary to the church. That’s 30 million times 40,000 times .02. The product of these numbers is 24,000,000,000—that’s 24 Billion dollars of lost revenue per year. That’s $24 Billion, billion with a capital B! Use your own assumptions and calculations and let me know what you come up with.

No matter what assumptions you make, that’s a heck of a lot of money. And that’s just in the United States. What would the numbers be if you added in those in Western Europe who have left the church?

Why is it that so many Americans who started life as Catholics now call themselves ex-Catholics?

I recall a retreat master once saying that whenever Catholics get together and talked about their faith—unlike born-again Christians who often discuss what the Lord is doing in their lives—Catholics talk about church authority and sex. I’m no sociologist of religion, just a software engineer/consultant turned blogger in his retirement, but I do have some opinions about why so many Catholics have left “the flock.” It’s about authority and sex, yes, but it’s much more than that. It’s also about the clergy sex abuse scandal—heinous crimes by sociopath priests against innocent children and cover up of the crimes by bishops and popes. It’s about the church’s teaching and practice about women. It’s about the legal ownership and iron-fisted control of church assets by the clergy. And last, but not least in this writer’s judgment, it’s about dogma.


Authority of the bishops and its hierarchical organization, the church steadfastly insists, comes directly from Jesus Christ and the mind of God. No American-style democracy here. Papal infallibility is a core Catholic teaching and a stumbling block for many—Protestants, ex-Catholics, and Catholics, too.


Discussions about sex, and sex-related issues, seem to go on and on forever among Catholics. Everyone knows the topics and has an opinion, often a strong opinion, on them: abortion, pre-marital sex, artificial birth control, homosexuality, priestly celibacy, and on and on.

Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal

The basics of the scandal have been reported by both secular and religious media: heinous, violent crimes by sociopath priests against innocent children and cover up of the crimes by bishops and popes. A major if not the most important part of the abuse story that has been grossly underreported by the media is the Institutional church’s response to victims. The Institution treats them like the enemy, who “just can’t get over it,” portraying them as loathsome money grubbers who hire greedy lawyers who sue the church to enhance their obscene bank accounts. Whatever happened to the Good Samaritan and basic notions of justice? Another underreported part of the abuse story is the great amount of monies paid by bishops to lawyers, public relations firms, and lobbyists to defeat campaigns in the states that would reform outdated and unjust statutes of limitations on sexually violent crimes against children and would allow victims to find justice and redress through the civil justice system. Finally, what of the pew Catholics who continue to contribute donations to their sinful church and passively await the salvation promised—guaranteed?—to them by their bishops and popes? I maintain that many of the 30 million have left because of the Institution’s response, or non-response, to the scandal.

The Church’s Teaching About Women

The Institutional church would have us forget the gospel story that women were the first to discover the empty tomb, would have us dismiss scholars’ contentions that women deacons and priests were partners with men in building the early church, would have us turn aside the equality gained, progress made, and the power achieved by women in the modern world. No uppity women shall share the power and perks of the Roman priesthood proclaims the Roman pontiff and his brother bishops. How many of the 30 million have left because of the Institution’s teaching about and policies toward women?

Ownership of Church Assets

Church assets—property, stocks, bonds, cash—are legally owned by the pope and the bishops. When lay folks cry foul and say that it’s our money in the first place, they face implacable pastors and the legal firepower of the legal owners in the person of their highly paid lawyers. How many of the 30 million have left because of their sense of powerlessness over ownership of church assets and the other accoutrements of Institutional power?


Some church reform groups press for change to the Institution’s governance structure yet are loathe to, or are fearful of, challenging the “Faith of our Fathers” given in creeds and councils. Yet many members of these groups have great difficulty with the “essential beliefs” of the Nicene Creed and are challenging, in many cases silently, the “Faith of our Fathers.”

Michael Morwood, author, adult Christian educator, and Associate Director of Adult Spiritual Renewal & Empowerment, Inc., of South Bend, Indiana. asks in a recent Voice from the Desert blog post, How much longer are “reform” groups in the Catholic Church going to hide from the fact that the issue of doctrine must be addressed [the emphasis is Morwood’s] for any reform of structures or governance to occur?

Morwood argues that

Catholic doctrine on revelation and salvation is top-down from start to finish: A God in the heavens reacts, has a “plan,” intervenes, grants unique access to “himself” to chosen groups, has definite opinions on a host of human issues, sets up “His” Church and guides it into all truth by selecting popes and bishops who know with utter certainty that God wants them to protect the institution “He” has established.

Until the doctrinal mind-set on revelation and salvation is publicly questioned and replaced with the awareness of the divine working within and through the patterns at work in the universe, from the ground up, as it were, then no significant change is going to take place in Church governance and structure.

Isn’t it obvious that Vatican II got blocked by the Vatican’s refusal to allow public questioning of the theology that gave men in the Vatican supreme power and authority?

The fact is, the Vatican uses doctrine based on “God’s plan of salvation” to establish its authority, its power, and the Church’s identity. The Church’s present system of governance is locked into the mentality of this doctrine. We should not be surprised that any Catholic theologian publicly stepping beyond the boundaries of this theological mind-set is silenced.

How many of the 30 million would agree with Morwood? A significant number would be my guess.

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