Should we conduct exit interviews for lapsed Catholics?

Over at America magazine, William Byron considers the idea of conducting “exit interviews” with Catholics who have left the Church:

The church in America must face the fact that it has failed to communicate the Good News cheerfully and effectively to a population adrift on a sea of materialism and under constant attack from the forces of secularism, not to mention the diabolical powers that are at work in our world.

An exit interview, if used creatively, could help church leaders discover ways of welcoming back those who have left, even as it helps leaders find ways to strengthen the current worshipping community. This interview could also help identify what else might need to be taught to those called to positions of parish leadership. The church would have nothing to lose by initiating exit interviews.

He proposes a few questions that could be included:

  • Why have you stopped attending Sunday Mass regularly?
  • Are there any changes your parish might make that would prompt you to return?
  • Are there any doctrinal issues that trouble you?
  • Does your pastor or anyone on the parish staff know you by name?
  • Are you in a mixed-religion marriage?
  • Do your children go to church?
  • Did you ever really consider yourself to be a member of a parish community?

 

It’s an intriguing idea, but not everyone is convinced of its usefulness. At the blog “Quid Sit?” Father Josh Miller says that Byron “misses the obvious concerning why people leave the Church”:

There are only three possible answers, and the last two are really the same: 1) They’ve become hurt, 2) They’ve become apathetic, or 3) They believe their salvation is already worked out (and thus don’t need any church).

I don’t need an exit interview to figure out why people wander away. There they are. And all of them share one thing in common: I as a priest can’t do anything about them. I can’t take away your misguided anger towards the Church because Father did so-and-so one day, or because of the abuse scandal, or because you have a malformed sense of power and the priesthood in regard to gender roles. I can’t break through that creeping sense of apathy regarding religion and spiritual things. I can’t make you see that conversion is a day-to-day struggle, and that just because people look at you and give you a big thumbs up and think you’re an awesome guy, doesn’t mean your salvation is guaranteed. . . .

Of course, I can make sure that I do my best to help you avoid these things, before you reach the point where taking an extended break becomes the issue.

But pray tell, what good is an exit interview going to do me, when I already know the core reason?

I’m of two minds about this: On the one hand, confronting the sheer numbers of people leaving over this or that doctrine (about contraception, women priests, etc.) could be a good wake-up call, showing us where our catechesis has badly failed — or, as Byron puts it, where we have “failed to communicate the Good News cheerfully and effectively.”

On the other hand, as Father Miller says, the answers themselves aren’t likely to be anything surprising — and instead it might give the false impression that if we only changed this or that doctrine, then all would be well. I’m also curious about the number of people who simply…stop going to church, or drift away over time, without having such clearly defined reasons in the first place.

Thoughts?

UPDATE: After further reflection, Father Miller has taken down the post linked above; he explains why here and in the comments.

Margaret Cabaniss

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Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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