Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why Catholics become Protestant

There's been a lot of ink in recent years on Protestant evangelicals crossing the Tiber to Rome, but not a lot on Christians moving in the opposite direction. The National Catholic Reporter has an interesting piece on this by Thomas Reese: "The hidden exodus: Catholics becoming Protestants". In it Reese summarizes research from the Pew Center and tries to discern trends.

One stat that pops out is that 1 out of every 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. Just from a sociocultural aspect that's an amazing number. If these folks formed their own denomination they would be the third-largest in the United States! However, half of those who leave don't join another church or religion. It's the other half that "switch teams" that Reese focuses on. The reasons ex-Catholics give for becoming Protestants are many and varied, but a few common threads emerge. As a Reformed Christian I find reason for discouragement and encouragement in the findings.

The data shows that most people don't leave because of disagreement with church teaching. I wish they did. I wish doctrine was more important. Instead, most become Protestant because their "spiritual needs were not being met" or they "found a religion they like more." The negative spin would be that this is another variant of American cafeteria-style religion. It seems not even the Catholic Church is immune from the consumer mindset that is more concerned with "what has the church done for me lately?" than truth (i.e. treating the church like a shopping mall). On the other hand if Catholicism isn't connecting with people where they are on their spiritual journey, then it's encouraging that some are finding that connection in Protestant churches.

Also encouraging to me is that the Catholics who do in fact disagree with church teaching usually end up in evangelical Protestant churches (as opposed to liberal mainline churches). Among these folks the Bible is a huge issue. As Catholics they weren't being taught the Bible or encouraged to read it for themselves, and so they are attracted to churches in which Scripture is taught and the priesthood of all believers is taken seriously. Here's how the author of the article puts it:

. . . thanks to Pope Pius XII, Catholic scripture scholars have had decades to produce the best thinking on scripture in the world. That Catholics are leaving to join evangelical churches because of the church teaching on the Bible is a disgrace. Too few homilists explain the scriptures to their people. Few Catholics read the Bible.

The church needs a massive Bible education program. The church needs to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is more important than memorizing the catechism. If we could get Catholics to read the Sunday scripture readings each week before they come to Mass, it would be revolutionary. If you do not read and pray the scriptures, you are not an adult Christian. Catholics who become evangelicals understand this.

I pray his advice is taken. Where God's Word is read, taught and acted upon; renewal and revival will follow. Who knows? Maybe the Reformation cry of Sola Scriptura will one day ring out in the halls of the Vatican.


Chris said...

I grew up Catholic and left because I realized that the theology didn't jibe with the Bible much of the time and that the Bible was not taught for the most part. The homilies very rarely, if ever, had to do with the gospel passages read. Thank you for this great post, Stephen.

Stephen Ley said...

Thanks for the affirming words, brother!