Addressing the Church’s Attrition Problem


It’s no secret that the Catholic Church has an attrition problem. As Father Thomas Reese points out in his column “The hidden exodus: Catholics becoming Protestants,” the findings of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, point to a stark reality:

One out of every 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a separate denomination, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States, after Catholics and Baptists. One of three people who were raised Catholic no longer identifies as Catholic.

All Catholics have their pet theories about why this is happening, and the best way to address it — usually, as Father Reese notes, colored by their personal experience and preferences for how the Church should be run. This is no less true for Father Reese himself, as when he addresses the problem of young people leaving the Church:

[T]he Pew data shows that two-thirds of Catholics who become Protestants do so before they reach the age of 24. The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence over the complaints of fuddy-duddies and rubrical purists.

But there’s a crucial error here: Without fail, every parish where I’ve been a member already does make a “preferential option” for young Catholics, and has for a long time. Life Teen and young adult Masses have been specifically designed to “cater to their needs” — fuddy-duddies and rubrical purists notwithstanding — and yet the trend remains the same.

Why aren’t these programs working? They tend to emphasize modern, “accessible” liturgies; social justice outreach; and tight-knit communities — the very things done so well by many Protestant communions. But in a head-to-head battle, wherever the Catholic Church is simply mimicking these attributes and not offering anything distinct, young adults continue to drift away.

If the Catholic Church is considered no different than the Protestant church down the street, there is no reason for young people to stay — unless, that is, we can show that we offer something that can’t be found anywhere else: namely, the Eucharist. Community is important; social outreach is important; inspiring liturgies are important — though given the rise in interest in the Traditional Latin Mass among young people in particular, “relevant” may not be the watered-down pabulum we’ve been spoon-feeding them for so long.

But all of this means nothing if we haven’t conveyed the fundamental truth at the heart of our Faith: that we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord in the Eucharist at every Mass, through an unbroken 2,000-year chain stretching back to Christ Himself. Any attempt to address the attrition problem that doesn’t begin here will fail before it has begun.

Margaret Cabaniss


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

  • Bill M

    Young people are leaving the Church for the same reason I did many years ago: they weren’t properly catechized.

    Catering to their (mis-perceived) needs will only push them away. Kids know when they’re being patronized. They want the beauty and mystery offered by tradition, even if they’re unable to articulate it.

  • David W.

    I respectfully disagree. I don’t believe it’s the case that young people are leaving the Church because they are not attending Mass, being properly catechized, etc. I believe they are not attending Mass and they are leaving the Church precisely because they understand the Church’s positions on certain matters, and simply disagree with them. They support gay marriage, use contraception (and support the use of it), and have no problem with female spiritual leaders. Why be a part of a Church that runs counter to that? The Church has simply lost its persuasive authority in those areas. The youth have heard the Church’s side, but they have also heard the sides of their parents, their peers, and their own consciences. They have weighed those competing visions, and decided that the Church’s position is the incorrect one. So, it’s not a matter of their not understanding, or their not being fully informed. I submit today’s young members are fully informed (more so than any other generation), they are well-read, and intelligent, and they have simply reached different conclusions than those of today’s bishops.

    • There may be some cases where this is true, but most young people have never heard the reasons behind these teachings so there’s no way they can be “fully informed.” How could they be? They don’t read encyclicals or books by the two last popes. Their parents don’t know this stuff, and priests rarely explain it in depth from the pulpit. So how can they possibly be informed?

      I disagreed with the Church as a young adult on most moral issues — until I studied these things in depth. It took time and effort because the Catholics around me didn’t know any of it.

      • Rudy

        Totally agree with you. I’ve found the same and followed the same path; self education by reading the Church documents.

      • Chris in Maryland

        Agree w/ Zoe:
        Catholics like me (I’m 55 now), enabled by our educational infrastructure, went sleep-walking through our young adulthood, dimly sensing our own drift, but not awakening to the fact that “to cleave to the Church” requires our own action, i.e., “practicing the faith.”
        But thanks be to The Lord and His Bride, He light shines eternal, and pierces our very own darkened minds…and having access to all of the riches He has given The Church, we are steering back on His course, and The Ship sails on!
        In Christus Veritas

    • Hi, David — Thanks for the comments. “Disagreeing with Church teachings” seems like an easy answer, but if you read the results of the original study, you’ll see that it isn’t the reason being offered by many of the people doing the leaving. For the people who leave the Catholic Church for other Protestant denominations (about 50%), 70% of them said they left because they weren’t being “spiritually fed.” And when we consider the number of people who disagree with various Church teachings and yet *remain*, it’s clear that there’s something else at work here.

      • Umnnhhhh….

        The folks I know who left the Church left her due to ‘below-the-beltline’ issues-disagreement, whether divorce/remarriage, artificial contraception, or other.

        Granted, those folks are above the age of 24. But it wouldn’t be the first time that people did not respond honestly to survey questions.

    • Dale Price

      “I submit today’s young members are fully informed (more so than any other generation), they are well-read, and intelligent, and they have simply reached different conclusions than those of today’s bishops.”

      I am always skeptical of narratives that presume and privilege the supposed enlightenment and better-ness of the present, especially the present generation.

      More to the point: are they, really? What is your evidence for such a conclusion? As with the rest of us, I think young people have more *information* at their fingertips today. But data does not equal reason.

      I mean, it’s also clear that younger people are by substantial majorities, supporters of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (f/k/a torture) which is also opposed by the bishops. Under your argument, this, too, was determined by a process of careful weighing the evidence and coming to a reasoned moral conclusion, and the poor bishops simply have to accept that the youth do not want to be part of a Church which runs counter to that.

      More to the point, the “rational youth actor” argument presumes that views have set in concrete and are not subject to change. Poll them again in 10 years when they have to start rearing the next generation.

  • rtjl

    I couldn’t agree with Zoe more. Our young people are not properly catechized and are misinformed – often by the very people charged with informing them – and it would sometimes seem deliberately so. I have done my best to ensure that my own son is fully informed and to some extent I have failed. Part of the reason for this is that my attempts to properly catechize my son have been very often undermined by clergy and religious who seem determined to follow and apply every new fangled program under the sun except that of catechizing in the Catholic tradition. Our young people are not informed because we keep evading the issues.
    A person who wants to truly be informed must often be prepared to swim against the tide and take responsibility for informing themselves.

  • annie

    unfortunately, these days “spiritually fed” often means “entertained” and entertainment is not what liturgical worship is about.

    • Micha Elyi

      If there’s a confusion of ‘spritually fed’ with ‘entertained’ it’s not among the parishoners but among those who put the ho-hum in ‘homily’ and reduced catechetics to children’s stories.

      I’m confident that were those who answer that they weren’t spiritually fed aren’t complaining about a lack of entertainment during worship services. For example, folk masses can be entertaining but singing Blowin’ in the Wind during mass does not leave one spritually fed.

  • Decades of no or faulty catechesis coupled with the corruption in many religious orders (including apostate Jesuits, etc) and with the scandals have sent many souls packing…

    But the slow return to Tradition is bringing in many young and large families who will be renewing the Church in the fullness of its beauty and reverence.

    Yes, society is totally against the moral teachings of the Church but they are TRUE and those souls of faith will be drawn. Those who want to invent their own churches and means of worship will continue down the sliippery slope. We see this happening everywhere. And when the Christian faith is marginalized to an extreme degree, I guarantee we will not like what takes its place.

  • TOM D

    As a recent initiate into the faith, and now a catechist in my parish community, I read your article with great interest.

    First, isn’t it true that the majority who leave the Church either move to conservative evangelical faith communities of become “unaffiliated?” Relatively few Catholics join more liberal, “mainstream” denominations. Those who disagree with traditional Church teachings are more likely to give up their faith, rather than join another faith community.

    Second, the historical and doctrinal dimensions of the Catholic faith require much study and understanding in order to more fully comprehend our faith. Two thousand years of tradition and encyclicals and other writings require a willingness to study the past in ways that are quite unpopular in our modern secular culture. Young people are encouraged to seek the truth within and “do their own thing.” That is the antithesis of the approach necessary to understand and live the Catholic faith in all its fullness.

    As mentioned before, there are trends among the young toward a more orthodox faith, as discussed in Colleen Carroll’s The New Faithful (2002), although I do not know the extent of this movement within the Church among the young.

    • Chris in Maryland

      Well said !!

  • Other Joe

    Main street protestant churches offer a softer message based on scripture (its source authority) and a one-time salvation. One accepts Jesus and goes about one’s new life. The politics are decidedly liberal – see David W above. Like everything else in postmodern life, it is easy and breezy and affirming of our careless self-centeredness. Contrast that with confession, a daily struggle, the requirement for obedience (even – especially- when one disagrees) and the austere glory of the tabernacle. Easy breezy (like school dating) is fine for kids, but thin soup for adults. Having suffered through “Catholic” teen mass with rock and roll combo, and having seen the result, I believe it is better by far for the church to remain a haven for adult sensibilities based soundly on Truth. The problem with post-modern living is that there is no home to return to when things go sour, as they inevitably do.

  • Jay

    I agree with the author of this article: one of the ways for young people to stay in the Catholic Church is by receiving the Eucharist.

    In my parish, we have Life Teen which is pretty strong and “tight-knit” as the author identifies. However, they also go as a group to Eucharistic Adoration at least once a week for an hour. I think this is pretty cool — seeing teenagers next to old women wearing mantillas — directing their hearts to Jesus.

    As a man in my 20s, one of the ways that brought me back to our Catholic faith were Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica) and the two encyclicals of Blessed Pope John Paul II:

    -Veritatis splendor
    -Fides et ratio

    Some Catechists and theologians say it’s too dense for teenagers but you’d be surprised. I took excerpts from both encyclicals and shared them with my brother (17 year old). He was surprised how much truth the Church held in her hands.

    • Thanks for sharing your insights, Jay. I’m glad to hear that the youth programs in your parish are so Eucharist-centric; I really do think that will be the common thread in any successful youth outreach, whether of the Life Teen variety or something more traditional.

      And you’re right, we don’t take teenagers seriously enough. If we challenged them and took the time to present the Church’s true teaching on these things, I think they’d surprise us.

  • Glenn M. Ricketts

    David, in all seriousness, would you mind explaining why you find the current young generation to be so exceptionally well-informed? Do you really mean to say that they’ve pored over all the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Church Fathers, the Scholastics or the writings of John Paul II and his successor and have given Humanae Vitae a serious and reflective reading? Is there in fact a parish/diocese to which you can direct me where the Church’s are so extensively and thoroughly presented, from which “young people” nevertheless walk away?

    I’m asking as one who is both an educator by trade and a long-tme CCD/RCIA instructor who’s often wondered how I can make Catholics out of students with whom I’d meet for perhaps 90 minutes per week. And although I and a few other teachers did our best to give’em the straight stuff, it was often evident that other classes were little more than coloring-book sessions or extensions of the feelings-centered experiences to typical of contemporary education and popular culture. If there are Catholic youth as well-read and wise as you describe, I and I think other posters here would like to know where you found ’em. I certainly don’t see their equivalent among the incoming freshmen I encounter every Autumn. Honestly, no sarcasm intended here, but I would appreciate some elaboration, given the easy assurance with which you posted something that seems counterfactual to me.

  • Ryan

    As a teacher of high school and college aged young people, I can say that they tend NOT to be well-informed regarding the Church’s teaching. Not only do they not know WHY the Church teaches what she does on most issues, but they also tend not to know even WHAT the Church teaches. They are profoundly influenced by the media saturated culture in which they live and are bombarded by the pro-“choice”, pro-fornication, pro-same sex “marriage”, individualist, relativist, entertainment heavy narrative. These are junkies. They are victims of propaganda…plain and simple. They are certainly not “informed”. Seriously, when was the last time a serious attempt was made by anyone who’s left the Church to offer good reasons against Church teaching. As CS Lewis says, “do not most simply drift away?”

  • Jesurgislac

    Consistently, Catholics give two reasons why they no longer consider themselves to be members of the Church.

    One is the love, support, comfort, and concealment that the Church hierarchy has consistently offered to ordained child molesters and abusers, and still offers today.

    The other is the contempt shown by the Church hierarchy to the lives and values of women – from the assertions by bishops and archbishops that the right thing to do if a pregnant woman is dying and needs an abortion to save her life, is to let her die: through the deliberate denial of contraception and other prochoice healthcare to women from Catholic health agencies: to the assertion that for a woman to seek to be ordained as a priest, is morally equal to a male priest raping a child.

    It’s odd that an article about Catholics drifting away from the Church wouldn’t even touch on or refer to the most common reasons former Catholics give for leaving the Church.

    • Jesurgislac: Before reading about the results of the Pew study, I might have agreed with you — but the numbers simply don’t bear out your position.

      Among Catholics who leave the Church to become Protestant (about 50% of the total, and the phenomenon we’re talking about here):

      — 21 percent mention the sex abuse scandal
      — 16 percent mention “the way the Church treats women”

      Again, compare that with the 71 percent who simply say that their “spiritual needs are not being met.” Obviously, going by the math, people could choose more than one reason for their leaving — and even then, the response rate for your two issues remained low. They simply are not “the most common” — nor even the fourth or fifth most common — reason people are leaving the Catholic Church for other Protestant denominations.

      If we’re going to successfully address the issue, we first have to accept the facts as they are — and the reality that they may not match up with our preconceived notions.

  • Margaret,
    For too long sociology has required actual research and listening to others….work in short. There is a new branch of sociology called “imaginative hunch sociology”….emanating out of an internet university in Nigeria. It’s freed us from even reading at all. Jessie can do her thing. Latin Mass people can attribute the attrition to non availability of the Latin Mass. Tithing parishes can attribute it to lack of tithing. Capital punishment people like me can attribute the attrition to the recent campaign of two Popes against the death penalty. It’s all about us….not about the actual people leaving and giving their reasons for
    leaving. Have to run….there’s a song on the radio in the kitchen and it’s probably about me…..about me…about me.

  • Peter Freeman

    “Again, compare that with the 71 percent who simply say that their ‘spiritual needs are not being met.'”

    That sounds like as loud a hunger pang for the Eucharist as I can imagine. I think you’re right on the money, Margaret.

    A person who believes that his or her needs are not being met while in the Real Presence must either a) not realize what they have before them (probably due to poor catechesis), or b) have a rather provincial and immature definition of “spiritual needs” (again, poor catechesis would seem to be the problem).

    Of course, even Jesus lost followers when he tried to explain the Blessed Sacrament…so there will always be some percentage of people for whom faith in the Eucharist just doesn’t click intellectually, no matter how good a teacher they have.

    And, hey, the number of people who continue to identify with the Church (two-thirds) is higher than the national average of people who remain faithful to their spouses…so the Church must be doing something right…right?

    • Micha Elyi

      In other words, they’re not being offered the Word.

  • Vince

    Too many parishes have a culture that turns off young people. (There are exceptions of course) Too often they run into people who expect them to just volunteer and work in fundraisers. Few people take the time to guide them through the tough years of adolescence. My brother recalled to me two stories that show the extremes. We were playing in the church parking lot on a bingo night and a bingo worker came out and in extremely profane language told us to get out and another said she would run us over. Years later he was in a parish parking lot with a friends kids when a guy was complaining of the kids in the parking lot on a bingo night. The pastor said, “Why don’t you slow down and be careful, the school is here for them!”
    Until more parishes can learn to walk the walk, the kids are going to walk.

  • Michael PS

    I would suggest that part of the failure of modern catechesis is the neglect of spiritual formation and of the interior life.

    The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and the Introduction to the Devout Life of St Francis de Sales, which formed the staple spiritual reading of generations of Catholics are wholly neglected.

    It is astonishing that this should have happened at a time when the critical texts of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross that are now available amend previous versions in many important respects and when we have reliable editions of Tauler and Ruysbroeck; of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” and of Walter Hilton’s works.

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  • Chris in Maryland

    Agree w/ Zoe:

    Catholics like me (I’m 55 now), enabled by our educational infrastructure, went sleep-walking through our young adulthood, dimly sensing our own drift, but not awakening to the fact that “to cleave to the Church” requires our own action, i.e., “practicing the faith.”

    But thanks be to The Lord and His Bride, He light shines eternal, and pierces our very own darkened minds…and having access to all of the riches He has given The Church, we are steering back on His course, and The Ship sails on!

    In Christus Veritas

  • Chris in Maryland

    By the way – go to “Chant Cafe” and see Fr. Chris Smith’s post today on this very subject.

  • Mike Walsh, MM

    I am compelled to agree with those who cite the appalling catechesis most young people have received –since the late ’60’s, in my experience. But in a sense, those who claim the reason young people leave is because they disagree with certain issues, are also right, and bound to be: given such poor catechesis no-one would be able to engage the issues from a Catholic perspective. Ultimately, the buck stops with the bishops, who for too long have regarded themselves as CEOs –administrators– instead of identifying primarily with the missionary charism that is theirs as successors to the Apostles. Leadership is crucial.

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