The Real Reason Adults Leave the Church

Aug 10, 2022

Dear Souls and Heart Community,

It happens to so many devout Catholic parents of adult children. They hear words like this during the all the family reunites at Christmas Eve: “Mom, Dad, I’m not going to Midnight Mass this year. I haven’t gone to Mass in years. I don’t believe in Catholicism anymore. It’s not for me.”

Those words fall like a hammer on the hearts of so many Catholic mothers and fathers. Those mothers and fathers have prayed for their children, prayed with their children, and made real efforts to instill the faith in their little ones. Perhaps, there was even hopes of vocations to the priesthood or to the religious life. And now, on December 24, those grown-up children are saying they have abandoned the faith. Why?

The statistics

There are any number of surveys generating statistics about the reasons adults give for leaving the Catholic faith. One particularly extensive and interesting recent one was conducted by the Catholic magazine The Pillar, entitled Why Catholics Leave; Why Catholics Stay – and it provides the most common reasons adult Catholics who left the Church gave for their departure:

  1. “I moved away from the church I had been attending.” 20%
  2. “I did not feel that attending church mattered.” 19%
  3. “I moved away from my family.” 17%
  4. “I had a change in circumstances that made it harder to attend.” 15%
  5. “My beliefs about God or religious practice changed.” 14%
  6. “I felt my church or religious leaders were not living up to their beliefs.” 11%

When I was in graduate school, in addition to getting a PhD in clinical psychology, I also completed all the requirements for a doctorate in applied quantitative psychology – in other words, I was an applied statistician – a math guy, a numbers geek. I have a great interest in and appreciation for statistics to this day. But…

I also believe that Mark Twain was right when he famously quipped, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Especially survey statistics.

There are so many ways that survey statistics get it wrong, not the least of which is that respondents can’t tell you their unconscious reasons for doing what they do. And what they do tell you can obscure the truth, even when they are sincere.

So all the of above reasons, all the reasons given for why those raised Catholic left the Church can be summed up in one reason.

The one real reason adult children of Catholic parents leave the Church

I’m going to simplify the discussion about why adults raised Catholic leave the Church. Here’s my summary.

  1. They choose to leave the Church. They make the decision, actively or passively, to depart. 100%

In all the numbers and statistics and margins of error and sampling distributions and technical specifications of surveys and samplings, we can lose track of the fundamental role of free will in remaining in the Church as the Ark of Salvation, or abandoning the ship.

No adult leaves the Catholic Church who does not choose it. Period. Full Stop.

St. Paul tells us in Romans 8: 35, 37-38

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing can separate any Catholic adult from the Catholic Church except his or her own free will. It can be helpful for parents whose children have left the Church to remember that. In the saints and especially those who are martyrs, we see numerous examples of those who have held fast to the faith under the direst of circumstances including torture and death. Circumstances that would make “I moved away from the church I had been attending” or “I had a change in circumstances that made it harder to attend” seem like very small beer as reasons for abandoning the Church.

Who has the power?

The bottom line is that parents simply do not have the power to prevent their adult children from believing in God or from being faithful Catholics. Parents can’t keep their children from the love of God and the Church willfully – and they can’t thwart their children’s search for God unwittingly, by their mistakes and flaws, either. As we noted in our reflection from last week titled Who’s Your Daddy? Confusion Over Our Primary Parents, parents have a lot of influence over their children, but the children’s choices are far more influential in the long run. There is no parental determinism when it comes to children staying in or leaving the Church.

God simply will not allow parents to intentionally throw their children off the Ark of Salvation or to accidentally bump them over the rail to the waters below. Why? Because those adult children are His children too — and he loves them with His infinite love. We explored the deeper reality of God as our primary Father in our reflection from last week.

God has no grandchildren

A popular adage in Christian circle, attributed to various people goes like this: “God has no grandchildren. He only has children.” As Charles Kirkpatrick of explains:

Some people may think that because grandma or grandpa, mom or dad, or sisters or brothers have developed a connection with God, that they will in some way get into Heaven on their shirt tails. After all, that’s the way it is with royalty, people might think. When a man becomes a president or a king, his wife and children automatically become royalty. This is not the situation in the Kingdom of God. God has no grandchildren – only children.

We are all individually accountable to God. When he saves us by His awesome power, we are adopted as His personal sons and daughters. Not one of us can claim the faith of our father or mother as our own. There is no such thing as a “spiritual grandchild” of God. We each must come to Him on our own. If we don’t have our own faith, we have no faith at all. Even though it is the same faith as others (because it is faith in Jesus), it is not our faith, until we own it in our hearts and minds. That was true for our parents; it’s true for our children, and it is true for each of us. God gave the privilege of becoming His children—His sons and daughters. How? By receiving Jesus Christ by faith, by letting go of the coattails of parents and grandparents and praying to God. When you do that, God becomes your “Daddy,” and you enter into the most intimate and loving privilege in all of the world.

Each Catholic adult is responsible for his or her relationship with God. There is no way to delegate that responsibility to someone else. Even though Catholic parents whose children have apostatized may be wracked with guilt and shame about it, ultimately, no matter what the parent did, it was the adult child’s decision to leave the Church. Every adult child could have used each parental mistake, flaw, inadequacy, and sin as a means to a greater good, because God in His Providence ordains it so. Romans 8:28 still applies: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

But there are things parents can do to make remaining Catholic more or less appealing for their adult children – even those who have been away from the Church for decades. There are things parents can do to help it be easier for children to be open to love – and that openness to love, even in the face of hard times, was the main focus of our last Interior Integration for Catholics episode, I Am a Rock: How Trauma Hardens us Against Being Loved.

How parents can help adult children return to the faith will be the topic of next week’s reflection – that reflection will be critically important for those interested in the evangelization of the sheep that have become lost from our Catholic flock.

Questions for reflection

I’m experimenting with offering some questions for reflection, for you in your own life, in your own circumstances, for each weekly reflection, for prayer and thought, and perhaps some journaling or other ways of seriously engaging with them. You can tell me if these are helpful or not. Here we go for this week:

  1. When was I furthest from the Catholic Church? How old was I, what year was it, and where was I living at the time, my circumstances of life?
  2. How do I understand my conscious motivations from drifting from the heart of the Church?
  3. What obstacles are keeping me from a deeper connection and commitment to the Church
    1. On a spiritual level?
    2. On a natural level?

Litanies of the Heart

If you haven’t yet checked out the Litany of the Closed Heart, the Litany of the Fearful Heart, and the Litany of the Wounded Heart – give them a look here. They are free to download, and we also have a free guide to praying them. The Litanies of the Heart are designed to help you develop a closer, more intimate, more personal relationship with Jesus – by helping you to pray from your heart. These litanies take into consideration the different attachment styles, the different natural-level impediments that get in the way of relating with Jesus. Check them out here – we have them in downloadable PDF format, in audio versions, and in printed version that you can order, both in English and Spanish.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Keep sharing these reflections with those who might find them helpful. Who do you know who is grieving their adult child’s departure from the Church? Would that mother or father find this reflection helpful? Please help me spread the word about our offerings at Souls and Hearts. And thank you. You are in my prayers daily.

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