Exit Interviews For Lapsed Catholics

There is an interesting article over at America Magazine by William J. Byron, S.J. of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. In the article, Fr. Byron advocates for the use of business-style exit interviews for Catholics leaving the Church.
• Why have you stopped attending Sunday Mass regularly?

• Are there any changes your parish might make that would prompt you to return?

• Are there any doctrinal issues that trouble you?

• Does your pastor or anyone on the parish staff know you by name?

• Are you in a mixed-religion marriage?

• Do your children go to church?

• Did you ever really consider yourself to be a member of a parish community?
I think that this idea has some merit. There are a number of reasons why people leave the Church and, for certain, some of them can actually be addressed by Church leadership. While there really are no valid reasons for leaving the Church, there are things that the Church could certainly do better. But....

Fr. Byron has received a lot of feedback on this idea from a previous article he wrote on the subject and he quotes from some of it in his America article. Here is a sampling...
Another woman who identified herself as “a cradle Catholic, educated exclusively in Catholic schools, married to a practicing Catholic, raised five children in the faith, taught C.C.D., was involved in the marriage preparation program in our parish—in short, one of the active practitioners of the faith,” said she had opted out because of “the recent church teaching on end-of-life issues; the moving, instead of removing, of priests and bishops involved in the molestation of children; the headstrong opposition to the use of condoms in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS; and the absence of any priest I can talk to.”
“Exit interviews for departing Catholics or those just not attending Mass is a nice thought,” said a 69-year-old retired businessman, “but it is obvious to me that there are two reasons for the drop in Mass attendance and withdrawal of financial support: (1) the pedophile issue and (2) the exclusion of women and married men from the priesthood.”
“I am on the knife edge between staying and leaving the church,” he said. He offered these reasons: “(1) I no longer trust the management; (2) I have no way of influencing the selection or change of a priest or bishop; (3) the clergy sex abuse scandal continues to grow; and (4) the continuing lawsuits continue to drain my spirit.”
As previously stated, I think the idea of business-style exit interviews has some merit but I think it presents a real danger as well. If we begin to treat the Church as a business, we run the risk of thinking like a business. The successful business mindset embraces to varying degrees the mantra "the customer is always right."

But when it comes to the business of saving souls, the customer is not always right.

First a caveat. While the scandal of sex-abuse, a black mark on the Church that puts many souls at risk, is included in many lists of reasons, I hardly think we need a poll for anyone to understand this. Those of us who stay in the Church are at the very least equally disgusted by the sin of sex abuse and the sin of cover-up. That said, I have my doubts about the role this plays for many of these people. But let's stipulate that this is a deal-breaker for those who don't really understand what the Church IS. How it's holiness is not dependent on the holiness of its members. Its holiness comes from Truth. The full truth that can only be found in the Church. So to this point, we need to fix forever the blight of priestly abuse and we need to educate Catholics about what the Church IS.

Now, take a look at some of the previous quotes. Many of them include reasons in which the quitters directly oppose the teaching of the Church. What? No condoms, I am outta here. No women priests? Not the Church for me.

So what if we conduct a multi-million dollar exit-interview program and these issues are at the top of the list. Then what? In this case the customer is not right. These things cannot change. We can focus our efforts toward educating people as to the whys and hows of Church teaching, but we already know this.

Exit interviews may serve the interest of better pastoral care, but doctrine is doctrine. If people leave the Church because they do not like what the Church teaches, then the only option is for the Church to teach it louder and better, in words and in deed.

The risk in such exit interviews is the expectation that the Church will pivot, ala Bill Clinton, to give the public what it wants. That is not the job of the Church. The job of the Church is to teach the truth.

When Jesus said "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you," many of those who had previously followed Him found this to be a hard saying and no longer followed him.

Jesus did not then turn to the twelve and ask them to conduct exit interviews for those who would no longer follow. He asked them if they would leave too? They responded "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

This is why we stay and this is why they go.


  1. Sorry, but the retired businessman is full of it. Mass attendance has been way down for years, well before the sex scandals and big push for married or female "priests". Those are just his reasons for leaving, but he wants to make those reasons important and thus assumes it's the reasoning of most of the people who left over the past 40 years.

  2. I think that this idea is a shadow of what should already be. I hope that the idea of an exit interview is not only an opportunity to find out how the Church can exercise its mission more effectively, but also an opportunity for instruction when the "interviewee" may clearly not understand the teaching of the Church. Point is, these kind of conversations should be going on all the time, not just when one is on the way out the door.

  3. When was the last time you heard a Catholic priest say that he was in the "business" of saving souls? Well, we're all going to heaven, so what's the need? In truth, we are put on this earth to work out the salvation of our souls; there is a heaven and there is a hell and some of us are on a fast track to the latter. Sin has consequences and big sins have big consequences. Holy Church and the Sacraments are necessary for salvation. Save the peace and justice crap for NPR.


  4. I think the exit interviews could be helpful, if only to clarify for pastors which issues need to be more regularly addressed in homilies and other opportunities to educate the faithful. Too many people in one parish, for instance, complaining about condoms/birth control means that that parish does a lousy job of presenting the truth about the Church's teaching in these areas.

    As for the people who leave/say they are leaving because of the sex scandal--there are three types, in my opinion:

    1. Those who misunderstand the Church's response and truly believe nothing has been done, when this present pope has already done a lot to make it easier (canonically speaking) to move against priests credibly accused of crimes against children, and when other strategies have been adopted to encourage quick and/or anonymous reporting etc.,

    2. Those who believe that if the Church can't teach priests to be holy, then her promises of aid in gaining salvation are false; and

    3. Those who are angry because they wish to sin in some way, and find in the scandal a convenient excuse to throw up their hands, leave, and begin engaging in adultery or fornication or pornography use or intemperance involving drugs or alcohol or some other grave sin which intrigues them.

  5. Realistically:
    "Because when I fight to get to Mass, on time and decent, get my fussy daughter in and TRY to be properly respectful... I either get social hour from 'I showed up' parents or spoiled brats who won't stop harassing my infant-- or both! I haven't heard the Mass more than a few times in the last few MONTHS, in spite of being there!"

    It would be nice if folks were a bit better catechized, too.....

  6. Exit interviews! Really? So we get to hear dissenting Catholics regurgitate what the media tells them is wrong with the Church. These people dont have any good reasons, they are lemmings who get their info from MSNBC, NYT et al

  7. Am I the only one who gets really bugged by this? Our priests could literally be monsters, but as long as they're ordained and recite the words Christ Himself spoke over the Eucharist, it becomes Him.

    I can understand no longer funding the Church or actively participating in your Parish over your take on various issues, but to leave the Church completely because of your personal take on condom usage is to deny yourself Jesus. And I mean, why? To stand at the gates of Heaven and say, "I ignored you Lord and sharing in You, but let's really roll up our sleeves and start discussing condom distribution, that's what's truly important."

    It's all so amazingly misses the point of Catholicism, that these conservations honestly worry me.

  8. Is it okay to leave because of the felt banners and goofy me, me, me hymns?

    -- Mack

  9. I believe that it comes down to the fact that people are not catechized properly. Look at the first woman indentified in the article. This woman was an active parishioner and even went so far as taught C.C.D. yet she did not agree with the teachings of the Church which means that she did not understand them. So what does she do; she leaves the Church. She does not take the time to learn why the Church teaches what it does. Why even try to find out? I think that people are either too lazy or just want a “reason” to leave so they do not have to feel guilty or bad about leaving. When I started questioning what the Church teaches, I actually took the time to find out why it does. I have learned so many interesting things and my eyes are open more now than it ever was before.

  10. I get so frustrated with the Church as well, but not because it seems too orthodox, but because the folks (bishops) in charge don't follow what it says in the big green book (catechism). I came into the Church because of what the Church "taught" only to find out that most of the priests don't believe in it. But if I left, where would I go? Who else has the True Presence or the promise by Christ that the gates of Hell shall not prevail? What religion or institution on earth is perfect? None. So, despite the flaws, I shall sit my self in that pew every Sunday, instruct my children in the Faith, and pray for better leaders in the future. I' not going to have a temper tantrum and quit because the Church isn't exactly as I would run it.

  11. I think the idea of counseling those who are planning to leave the Church is a great idea. I'm not so jazzed about the idea of this counseling taking the form of "exit interviews." However, I have more to say about the second issue for why Mass attendence and financial support are dropping.

    Recently, I had a conversation with someone at my (Benedictine) college, and he laid out several reasons why women are not priests. I already believe that men and women are suited to different vocations, so I listened to his arguments and agreed with them. Then, he apologized, because I was a woman.

    I once had a problem with this issue, but I view struggles with Church teachings as signs that I lack understanding. Now as I grow older, I grow in the understanding of my vocation as a woman, and I in no way feel that I have any less dignity than a man because I cannot become a priest. I will never be able to understand how people can say that the Church is against women, when our holiest saint is Mary.

  12. Funny.
    No one gave myself and 2 of my friends (that makes 3 solid Catholic families) an exit interview when we finally departed our parish church (for another Catholic church).

    Here's what I would have said:
    because you don't know if you are Catholic or Protestant; you think social justice (ie.projects to help the poor) are why people join the youth groups instead of teaching our children the faith (that we had to learn on our own) that LEADS to GENUINE social justice; and your hired ministers wear Obama shirts, oblivious to the fact that voting for candidates who break with non-negotiable Catholic teaching is sinful, not merely ignorant, though we'll grant non-church ministers the benefit of the doubt (and for God's sake; educate them); and we're sick of ugly music and pathetic liturgy. We can get better entertainment and tunes at the Protestant church.

    The answer is not exit interviews. It is, as ever, shepherds who teach the truth in charity and all possible holiness.

  13. The Church's mission is to save souls by preaching the truth. Corrupt Church officials have been with us always. Judas was corrupt. My faith is not affected by personalities or failings of its ministers. Corruption in the Church is common place these days and so is the corruption in society. Follow doctrine and the Bishop of Rome and those in consonance with him and you will be safe.

    As far as some of the feedback mentioned in the article, I am reminded of Hiliare Beloc's quote "It is a nice question whether ignorance or stupidity play the greater role in human affairs."

    My own quote "Anything from the Jesuits is suspect."

    A quote from Jesus Christ "Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household." (Matt 10:34-36)

    St. Athanasius is the first recognized Doctor of the Church and has the title of “Father of Orthodoxy.” The following quote was attributed to him “The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of Bishops.”

    A G.K. Chesterton quote “Be careful not to be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

  14. Dear Priests;
    The thought of even considering an exit interview means something is seriously, seriously WRONG! Please teach/preach the Gospel; I promise you, that is all it takes, that is all we thirst and hunger for. Stop the psycho-analyzing; stop the social-worker mentality; stop the pop-culture hymns; stop trying to be a comedian at the pulpit - truly for God's sake and our SALVATION(!) - preach the Gospel. Tell us we need forgiveness and that means the confessional; tell us we need to love our neighbors and that means our immediate family too; tell us we need to have hope and that it ain't a political slogan!

  15. Bleah! Berk! Any other languages with sounds of revolted distaste for the idea? Amen to anonymous in the previous post. With one caveat: they teach the Gospel according to the Magisterium's approved translation.
    How about saying the Nicene Creed instead of a sung version of the Apostle's Creed at Life Teen Massses? An unpolitically correct version of Psalm 72 (yes, Virginia, there were kings in Tarshish!) would be nice, especially since no one would be shocked at the idea since there was a King Herod mentioned in the Third Reading.
    America and the fishwrap are the last two publications any orthodox member of the laity bothers reading. I'm glad someone follows them so I don't have to!

  16. People leave a parish because they don't like the people or the pastor. When they leave the Church it's because they no longer, (or never really did) believe in God.

  17. The risk in such exit interviews is the expectation that the Church will pivot, ala Bill Clinton, to give the public what it wants.

    Definitely. If you start doing exit interviews, the people questioned will think you believe the Church is like a business looking for ways to increase market share, and the Church will adjust to meet those expectations. It has a very high risk of sending the wrong message - that Church teaching is negotiable if enough potential customers want something changed. Just another consumer product/service.

  18. The exit interview idea is just another fad. One of the reasons why Mass attendence is dropping has nothing to do with pedophile priests or celebacy rules. Our society is changing fast. And it isn't just the Catholic Church that is seeing stagnant numbers. The old Fundementalist Protestant Church is also aging, as younger more hip people find much more accomodating churches. The Emergent Church is one such sect that is young, hip, and edgy. It is a mish-mash of Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodox, and Pentacostalism. It never veers too much into Christian Orthodoxy, but presents to Gospel in a much more entertaining and open manner. Other non-denominational sects also cater to younger families by offering music recoding studios, cafes, free WiFi, and a whole host of activities. That is where many Catholics are headed.

    By comparison, the RCC requires frequent confession, pennance, couples must be open to life (ie no BC),and our Masses are stale. For the RCC Mass Communion is the highlight. How can this compare to rock bands and highly emotional worship services the Protestants offer? And when some parishes attempt to be just as hip and relevant they only make themselves look ridiculous.

  19. How about Entrance Interviews?

  20. The Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, not just some parts of it, as founded by Jesus Christ. The fallible human beings in the Magisterium are just that - fallible human beings, not Jesus Himself. They would much more closely resemble Jesus, as we all must do to get to heaven, if they invoked His help and invited the Holy Spirit to direct their sermons and dealings with the laity. There are wonderful and holy priests out there; if you don't have one in your parish, go find one in another parish, not another church! It makes no sense to leave the Catholic Church for any other denomination, as none of them can give what only the Catholic Church can give, namely the body and blood of Jesus Christ Himself.


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