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Book review: Why Catholics leave, What they miss and How they might return

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

By Br Thomas Thérèse Mannion | A review of 'Why Catholics leave, What they miss and How they might return' by Prof. Stephen Bullivant, Catherine Knowles, Hannah Vaughn-Spruce and Bernadette Durcan (Paulist Press, £15.95).

‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken, and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’ – Psalm 51:17

When I read this book, tears rolled down my cheeks. I was on a crowded train returning home to the Priory from two talks given by the wonderful Sherry Weddell (who incidentally wrote the preface to the book). I like to hope that the people who saw the habited religious crying at the stories of his brothers and sisters who have chosen to walk away from the Church were encouraged to find the Church, in this habited religious, is not indifferent to their pain. We hear you. We see you. We will be converted.

The book reminded me of Paul Hoggett’s essay ‘The Institutionalisation of Shallowness’ in his book Partisans in an Uncertain World, in which he speaks of ‘the Container of Abandoned Minds’. In this particular essay, Hoggett is speaking about politics and politicians who will say anything to cling to power; there is a loss of authenticity and genuineness. It strikes me that this is often how the Church is experienced or viewed. This was transformed into a poem (at the end of the post - well worth a listen) by Sarah de Nordwall in which she speaks of ‘walls of sheer consensus’ a place where ‘its inhabitants are relieved from the strain of a complex life, where grace and suffering mend the world, and receive the surgeon’s knife’. Whilst it strikes me that this is often how the Church is experienced or viewed, it also strikes me that this is not the case for all Catholics, and it should not be for anyone. There are passionate, generous, compassionate, kind, talented, intellectually sound Catholics – who are the Church. How do we move forward? By becoming what Sherry Weddell calls, ‘intentional disciples’ and ‘realising we are Apostles in our own right’. I am not talking here about the role the Bishops have as successors to the Apostles, rather living the apostolic life in a way appropriate to our manner of life as intentional disciples of Jesus Christ through evangelisation.

The book is the result of a collaboration between the Diocese of Portsmouth and the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion at St. Mary’s Twickenham. Data collected from a 2015 survey is presented and analysed incorporating the voice of Catholics who no longer practise their faith, many of whom left unnoticed. Some intentionally, others drifted away, others felt chased away.

There are as many reasons for leaving as there are responses to the survey, some of them competing. Committed Catholics will find unsurprising reasons for leaving ranging from liturgical alienation, whether that be ‘too traditional’, to ‘too liberal’, or unwelcoming parishioners, disagreements with clergy and religious, work and family life, neglect, indifference to their family or prayer life, a lack of impetus to evangelise, disagreements with Church teaching… the whole panoply is present. What differentiates this book is how personal the testimony is, and how much of it is there. In some ways this is sociology at its best, it is humane, easy to understand but painful to read. This is a brutally honest, sometimes wonderfully rude, and other times apologetic, but always compelling work and its authors and sponsors are to be commended.

This book is not a collection of statistics from which one can detach oneself, nor is it a polemical or apologetic work. It is quite simply presenting the reasons why Catholics have chosen to leave in their own words. The pain, anger and sorrow in the short snippets of testimony included – which are frequent, I might even say they make up the bulk of the text – are tangible.

This makes for harrowing reading for any Catholic, but it is not without hope. The vast majority of these issues, if not all of them can be addressed if we are bold enough to reach out. Also contained within the short book are things which are missed and what might bring our brothers and sisters back as they perceive it. It can be true that what we think we desire and the reality are different. What we think are issues for us can really be the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, we would be fools to shut our hearts. This book is like a ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’ which must be heard, calling the Church to conversion.

There is also, wonderfully, a section at the back with a theological reflection and pastoral recommendations. In the appendix you will find the text of the survey which was used.

Over and over again, the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 came to my mind, ‘Whatever you do to these, the least of my people, that you do to me’ coupled with, ‘Do you Love me? Then feed my Lambs and tend my Sheep’ from John 21.

At the recent US Catholic Bishop’s conference, Bishop Robert Barron noted the highest rate of unaffliation is in the young. Perhaps a follow up to this book could ask his question, ‘What has made you stay?’

There is no better time to evangelise than now. Sherry Weddell, when speaking how to accompany people through the thresholds of faith, spoke very movingly about the wars of religion in 17th Century France, in which you see 20% of the Parisian population wiped out due to starvation. People resorted to cannibalism. Things don’t get much darker than this – but at the same time, just as Esther was made Queen for ‘a time such as this’ to save the Jewish people (Esther 4:14) so too God raised up a ‘generation of saints’ such as St. Francis de Sales whose influence lasted more than 150 years – indeed his influence remains even today.

Recently, the Oxford Student Union held a debate entitled ‘The House believes that the Catholic Church can never pay for its sins’. Is it surprising to know the Catholic Church agrees? This is why we preach Jesus Christ – he is our saviour and he will raise up great saints. ‘To whom Lord would we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68).

Sarah de Nordwall’s ‘The Container of Abandoned Minds’: https://soundcloud.com/sarah_de_nordwall/poem-10-intro-and-the-container-of-abandoned-minds

Br Thomas Thérèse Mannion O.P.

Br Thomas Thérèse Mannion O.P.

Br Thomas Thérèse is a student brother in simple vows, born on the Wirral. He felt called to the priesthood at an early age. Before joining the Order, he was employed in the Archdiocese of Westminster as a Catechetical and Youth Coordinator. Whilst studying Theology at Heythrop College, University of London, he stumbled across the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist which lead him to discover the Friars of the English Province on YouTube. He entered the noviciate in 2016. He enjoys Ice Skating, History of the Papacy and the writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. | thomas.mannion@english.op.org



Anonymous commented on 19-Jun-2019 09:47 PM
What made you stay? At least an equally essential question.
Robert commented on 24-Jun-2019 05:57 PM
On the strength of this piece and, as a Quakers might say, 'it speaks to my condition', I have purchased the book.

I was a cradle Catholic and went to a catholic boarding school which I look back on with fondness -the quality of education both religious and secular was excellent. I went to work in Hong Kong just after Vatican II and after a year or so the Mass was then changed from Latin to the the vernacular. My Cantonese was not good enough for me to follow the Mass and I stopped attending. I discovered that Mass is the centre of our faith and in drifting away from the Mass I drifted away from the church. I used to say I did not so much as leave the Church but the Church left me.

Fast forward some 50 years and being back in UK I started attending my local parish church and, with the guidance of a very knowledgeable parish priest rejoined the Church.

I still miss the Latin Mass and the liturgy I was brought up with but now after some years feel as if I have come home. I'll be interested to see if the book touches on difficulties caused by Vatican II especially the changes in liturgy which led to ,in my view, the loss of one of the Churches greatest strength -its catholicicity. Wherever you were Mass was the same.
BARRY TEBB commented on 06-Oct-2019 08:05 PM
My late wife,the poet Brenda Williams,was a cradle Catholic who lost her faith due to a truly terrible childhood,a terrified Irish Catholic mother and a terrifying aggressive alcoholic father.I had no kind of religious upbringing but I had a conversion in my thirties.When she was terminally ill she would not speak of religion still but she said to me "Your faith will have to do for the two of us."

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