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Catholics not replenishing their ranks.

Since the Pew Forum's "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" appeared in 2008, Catholics have debated the right way to interpret the data. There are now 22 million ex-Catholics in America, but the Catholic church also holds on to 68 percent of its members, one of the highest retention rates among Christian denominations.

Does that mean American Catholicism is suffering a "mass exodus," as theologian Richard Gaillardetz recently suggested, or is the church actually doing fairly well in a fluid religious marketplace?

In a recent NCR interview, the director of the Pew Forum, Luis Lugo, and senior researcher Greg Smith discussed the results.

The bottom line: In comparison with other religious groups in America, the Catholic church's struggles aren't really with pastoral care, but missionary muscle. What's unique about Catholicism isn't that it loses people, but that It doesn't recruit new members as well as other religious groups.

NCR: What reactions do you get when you discuss these findings with Catholics?

Lugo: From headlines, people may have the impression that the Catholic church is just bleeding members, but that's out of context. Everybody's losing members in this country, some even more than Catholics. It's on the recruitment side that Catholics are not doing as well. Protestants are losing lots of members too, but for every four Americans who are no longer Protestant, there are three who are Protestant today who were not raised that way. Catholics are not replenishing their ranks through conversion in the same way.

Is it accurate to talk about a "mass exodus" from Catholicism?

Lugo: In the context of American religion as a whole, it's not really accurate. Look at the fastest-growing religious group in America, the unaffiliated. Even there, half of all people who were raised without an affiliation have since joined a religion. Or take the group that everybody considers to be the most dynamic, the Jehovah's Witnesses. Two-thirds of those raised as Jehovah's Witnesses say they're no longer members, which is double the losses of the Catholic church in percentage terms.

Smith: If all you looked at is retention, you would probably say that Catholics are doing just as well as other groups, and even better, than many of them. But one of the points of the report is that to understand the dynamics of American religion, you have to see retention and recruitment together. Four people leave Catholicism for every one who joins, and there's no other religious group where you see a similar ratio. Baptists, for example, also have more people leaving than joining, but their ratio of 2-1 is twice of what we see for Catholics.

Is the takeaway that Catholics need to ramp up their missionary efforts?

Lugo: In terms of sheer numbers, that's right. I wouldn't want to say that the church shouldn't be thinking about pastoral strategies to retain its current members, especially young people. Yet the bottom line is that if you're a religious group in this country, you're going to lose members in significant numbers. I know that all the RCIA people will probably be mad, because they're already overburdened. But the most striking thing about Catholicism in America isn't that it's losing people, but that it's not recruiting them as successfully as other groups.

What do we know about why those 22 million ex-Catholics left the church?

Lugo: We have to break it down between those who have joined the ranks of the unaffiliated and those who have become Protestants. When you do that, it's by no means clear, from a purely retention point of view, whether the church ought to become more liberal or more conservative. One out of 10 evangelicals in America today is a former Catholic, and many of those folks say the Catholic church isn't conservative enough.

Smith: Roughly half of the former Catholics are now unaffiliated, and half became Protestants. Among those now unaffiliated, 65 percent say they just stopped believing the religion's teachings. A majority cites unhappiness with specific teachings: Fifty-eight percent say they were unhappy with the teaching on things like abortion and homosexuality, and 48 percent or so were unhappy with the teaching on birth control. However, even more say they just gradually drifted away.

Among former Catholics who became Protestants, what's interesting is the difference between the evangelicals and those in mainline churches. More than half the ex-Catholic evangelicals cite the Bible as a factor in their decision, and most say the Catholic church does not view the Bible literally enough. Only 16 percent of former Catholics in mainline Protestantism cite the Bible, and they're evenly divided between those who say Catholicism takes the Bible too literally and those who say it's not literal enough.

For those who leave the church, when do they do so?

Smith: Switching is something that usually happens early in life. Most who left Catholicism did so prior to reaching the age of 24. For those Catholics now unaffiliated with any religion, half left Catholicism before they turned 18, and another three in 10 left during the college years, between ages 18 and 23. Among Catholics who are now Protestants, half left before 18 and another third left between 18 and 23.

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Title Annotation:Pew Forum's Luis Lugo and Greg Smith; FEATURE/OPINION
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 4, 2011
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