Finally, the current election season is drawing to a close. Now that I have some time,  I’ve tried to return one of the 32 phone calls I received from Mitt Romney, but he is apparently busy.

We also have some time to consider another election that seems to be taking place – an election in which a growing number of Americans are casting a ballot to leave organized religion.

Of course, I am talking about the recent report from the Public Religion Research Institute. Its data closely follows the broader study conducted by the PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2008.

By now, these statistics are old news to most of us:

  • 28% of all Americans have left the faith in which they were raised
  • While 31% of Americans were raised as Catholics, 24% currently describe themselves as Catholic
  • 19% of Americans describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated (even though only 36% of those unaffiliated describe themselves as atheists or agnostics).

It looks like a number of formerly religious folks are voting with their feet for ‘none of the above’ when it comes to their current slate of candidates.

These surveys outlined a number of reasons why so many have left the traditions of their upbringing, including rejection of teachings they received during childhood, negative personal experiences with organized religion, and perceptions that religious people are hypocritical, among other reasons.

There are truckloads of social scientists trying to explain why this is happening, so there are plenty of folks (much smarter than I am) who can shed insight on this trend.

But while I can’t speak for the millions of ex-faithful who have left the Church, I can speak for my personal sampling of 1 (myself), explaining why I too have sometimes struggled with my religious heritage.

Some may describe this attitude as ‘cognitive dissonance’, others call it conscience, and probably others call it heresy. Doesn’t matter, there are things the Church does and says that are contrary to my life’s experiences, and in some cases, my past education as a Catholic.

So, exploring the feelings of my sample of 1 from a population of persons who feel they are sometimes being pushed away from the Church, here are the current trends that make me want to vote with my feet during these politically and socially charged times.

On the topic of bishops telling me how to vote (which, for the record, they don’t do, even though it sure felt like it), I think results are more important that rhetoric.

In this election year, I reject the requirement that when it comes to abortion, the only Catholic vote is one for the candidate promising to make abortion illegal.

If we could remove a behavior by making something illegal, we’d have empty prisons and no drug problem. Countries with more liberal abortion restrictions have abortion rates lower than those of the US. Abortion is ‘caused’ by bad decisions carried out most often by the poor and uneducated (see David Frum’s commentary  for some insight). Solely focusing on making abortion illegal as the ONLY solution to to the problem is the easy way out – let the government deal with the problem by putting people in jail – then there’s nothing more we would have to do – problem solved (except for the uneducated poor who will still continue to make bad choices).

If a Catholic feels the best way to reduce abortions is to criminalize the act and prosecute the perpetrators, then they should act and vote accordingly. But there is no apparent justification for the Church hierarchy to criticize Catholics who choose to reduce the abortion rate by focusing on poverty reduction, increasing educational opportunities for women, delivering child-care services to teenage moms, and attacking patterns of sexual abuse.

Stop with the ‘Intrinsic Evil’

Church leaders and spokespersons are too liberal in attaching the ‘intrinsically evil’ label on most of the contrarian stands on the reproductive and sexual identity issues that face us. (For my non-Catholic friends, ‘intrinsic evil’ is to readers of the Catholic Catechism what ‘communism’ was to Americans in the 1950’s – it is the moniker attached to those behaviors that are to be avoided at all costs.)

There is a thoughtful explanation discussing intrinsic evil vs moral correctness at America Magazine  (I admit I smiled at the rhetorical question of whether the federal government should outlaw the ‘intrinsically evil’ act of masturbation).

Too often we use the ‘IE’ term as a label attached to specific acts regardless of the morality of the act —- and we spend too much time attaching that label onto people who don’t look and act as we do.

I often think that we would be able to move closer to the Kingdom if we taught and adhered to the true foundations of Church teaching, a foundation in which we are to avoid any behavior that demeans the sanctity and value of human life, our relationship with others, and any other act that (according to the Catechism) ‘authentically opposed to the good of persons’. Then, ‘intrinsically evil’ would be less likely to be hijacked as a tool of judgement, a tool which isn’t ours to use.

My Book of Kings beats your Deuteronomy…

I am really tired of people trying to ‘out-Bible’ each other – engaging in contests involving volleys of scriptural verses, excerpts of Canon Law, and most of all, uncontrolled demonizing of others. As the incessant arguments continue with quote after quote and verse after verse, you get the feeling that some folks would rather use Scripture for a legal opinion rather than spiritual enlightenment.

It is when these honest disagreements give way to unrelenting virulence — that some probably choose to leave the squabbling family behind and try to find a quieter place for the spiritual feast.

So, now what?

Those are a few of the points that have always challenged me as a ‘recovering’ Catholic. So what can we do about it?

In the perspective of the laity, we need to spend less time judging each other and more time reaching out to those who need to be reached. There is nothing new in disagreeing on which ‘moral teachings’ are more important than others – we all are shaped by our experiences, and we see the Church’s teaching through different lenses. But the essence of the Christian message is to help those in need, to proclaim that our lives can and do have meaning, regardless of past failings, and that our faith always has and always will call us to find God in each other.

What is more important, the signs we carry on the street, or the signs others see through the examples of our personal ministries?

Do young adults have a place at our table?

The ‘formal’ Church also needs to find a better way to connect with the young adults of ‘modern’ industrialized countries. This is not my opinion, this is a matter of numbers. The PEW foundation report indicates that of those age 18-29, one in four attest to no religious affiliation. Other reports indicate that more than 50% of the Catholics who leave the faith are under the age of 28. No business would accept a 50% dropout rate for its customers and neither should our Church.

Yet much of the outreach messaging from the the Church’s lay media representatives do little more than repeat Church dogma with a decidedly conservative slant (I sometimes watch EWTN, but when the host of a commentary show introduced Pat Buchanan as the ‘sage’ of American politics, I turned to ‘Laverne and Shirley’ reruns.)

The operations of Church machinery sometimes riles the sensibilities of those from the progressive / liberal side of the spectrum.

I don’t expect Hans Kung to be on Pope Benedict’s Christmas card list, but one has to ask why the Church shows endless patience with ultra-conservative bishops while showing Melinda Gates the door because she dares use the ‘C’ word (contraception) as part of her work in Africa. Some people argue that this approach is OK, that a smaller, conservative church of devout followers is better than a larger, noisier church that deals with the unseemly details of diversity. I doubt that is what is expected of us.

The Church’s message to young people is competing with a 24×7 media behemoth that stresses instant self-gratification and materialism and a social-media engine that seems to focus on little more than self-importance. This is what the Church is up against, and if it really wants to stop the bleeding of young followers, its message has to be delivered from spokespersons who can relate to young men and women in a way that speaks to the heart of their issues. (No, Pat Buchanan doesn’t count.)

Focusing on a messages and dogma that resonates only with today’s followers does little to draw the interest of those standing outside the door.

But, in the end….

But in the end, I have faith in my Church. She has endured much as a result of human shortcomings, mistakes, and poor judgments. If she can make it through the Inquisition and Galileo, she can make it through the Facebook era. And I, as well as other well-meaning members of the flock must always remember that there is something to be said for humility.

I may not like everything my candidate does or says – but I vote to stay.