Whither goeth all of those former Catholics?

Sometimes, your GetReligionistas come across mainstream religion-news stories that leave us saying, "That was kind of good, but that left me wanting more." As if that mixed message wasn't confusing enough, the truth is that some of these stories may leave one of us "wanting more," in a good sense, or "wanting more" in a bad sense. Some cause us to feel both ways at the same time. In other words, some religion stories are good news-bad news propositions.

Take, for example, the new CNN online report that ran under the headline, "'Recovering Catholics' reveal spiritual journeys."

There is much here to praise. For starters, this subject is very big, very current and very important -- as illustrated by the following background material high in the report.

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religious Life and Public Life, 31% of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24% now describe themselves as Catholic. Read the study (PDF).

That means about 1 in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a denomination they would be bigger than Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians. The total U.S. Catholic population has remained at about 24%, as immigrants have filled the pews the ex-Catholics have left behind.

The story makes it pretty clear that, when Catholics leave the church, they often use different exit doors and they proceed to head in different directions, often for radically different reasons. That's a very important point to make. Thus, readers are told:

Kathleen Cummings, associate director at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame, says that some people leave the Catholic Church after a defining event like the priest abuse scandals or because of a disagreement with the Church over social issues, but most leave because they feel their needs are not being met. ...

Church supporters are urging wayward Catholics to return to the fold. For example, Catholics Come Home, a nonprofit lay organization formed in 1997, has been putting out the welcome mat via the media. The group has an interactive website www.Catholicscomehome.org and airs what it calls “evangomercials” on radio and television. The group says that since 2008 more than 350,000 people have “come home” to the Catholic Church through their campaign.

Tom Peterson, president of Catholics Come Home, says some worshipers who've returned to the Catholic Church report leaving because they had disagreements with church officials or had divorced and feared they wouldn’t be welcome. But, he says, the majority never really gave up on the Church.

This is all well and good. My problem with the report is that it essentially left the impression that most of these former Catholics head into other churches -- especially independent evangelical flocks.

This may be true, but I suspect that it is not true. I know from following work in this field that the wider world of "ex-Catholics" includes other significant groups. There are, of course, some ex-Catholics who become, in effect, ex-Christians. There are others, and the story hints at this, who slide into the whole "spiritual, but not religious" crowd. There are Catholics who head to the theological left, into liberal mainline Protestant bodies -- such as the Episcopal Church. Then there are plenty of Catholics who join evangelical Protestant groups.

The bottom line: I was left wanting to know if the experts, inside and outside the church, have any ideas about how many ex-Catholics go in each of these directions.

This is a rather important question, since -- as the story properly notes -- we are talking roughly 10 percent of the entire population of the United States. For example, if lots of these ex-Catholics are headed into oldline Protestant pews, we should be seeing a slower decline on the religious left or even a small rate of growth in some of those flocks.

Does anyone have any idea -- even a rough idea -- what percentage of ex-Catholics are headed where?

Just asking.

This was, I will say once again, a pretty interesting story. With two or three more paragraphs, with one or two more sources, if could have been much better. Is CNN up to doing a sequel?

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