We already have a good idea of why Catholics don’t come to Mass

The National Centre for Pastoral Research (NCPR) is going to spend the next two years finding out why Catholics in Australia aren’t coming to Mass any more. Having been in the Catholic survey business for a few years now myself, I can tell you some things that I’ve noticed that might make the job easier.  

The first is that the “irregulars” and “nevers”—Catholics who rarely go to Mass, if at all — are usually keen to change the church’s teaching in key areas, like ordination and sexuality.  

But they never say they’ll come back to Mass if the church changes.  

Do you think we could try asking for a signed contract from each of them, saying that the minute the teachings they find objectionable are changed, they’ll be back every Sunday? 

I’m no lawyer, but I suspect we might have trouble making that one stick in court. I also suspect that were we to make their desired changes, we’d find the Catholics who still attend Mass right now would vanish overnight.  

It’s not unlike those conservative political parties who decide to woo a new more liberal electorate and discard their old mainstream one. It can very easily blow up in your face.  

We know from previous studies in 1996 and 2007 that Australian Catholics mainly stop coming to Mass for two reasons. They don’t think it’s a sin to miss Mass on Sundays, and they don’t agree with the church’s teaching on key issues.  

Both these reasons tell us that we’ve done a poor job of teaching these people about their faith from childhood. If I were them, I wouldn’t come to Mass either.  

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I’ve also read all the Plenary Council documents (2018-2022). I think the reasons why people don’t come to Mass any more are laid out quite clearly there as well. 

The NCPR thinks there might be new reasons for people not turning up that we’ve missed since then.  

Perhaps there are. COVID19 has had a real impact. I’ve found from my own research that about a quarter of all Mass-goers had reduced their normal level of Mass-going, even though churches were open again.  

Then there’s the awkward matter of older Catholics simply dying over the last five years. I think natural deaths account for about a quarter of the people we’ve lost since 2016.  

The national Catholics in Australia 2022 survey scooped up just over 500 “irregulars” and “nevers.” Just over a hundred of them also left comments for me that shared their anger with the church.  

I’m working through this data right now. They’re an interesting group—for a start, they tend to be older than the weekly Mass-goers.  

But I can’t find a clear pattern to their responses yet. For example, around 14 per cent of them mention clergy sexual abuse, and around 12 per cent mention the role of women. 

They mention these as reasons why they don’t like the church or are angry with the church. Very few of them say, “this is why I don’t go to Mass any more.”  

Instead, there are some very personal stories of why some people stopped going to Mass. Some of these are based on tragic misunderstandings of church teaching.  

Some people say they’ve worked for the church and have seen things which horrified them. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting a new parish priest who they didn’t like.  

It’s also very common for the comments to juxtapose “Jesus” against “the church,” with Jesus—and the commenter—on the winning side. It’s similar with those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” 

The most interesting group for me so far are those who come across as quite conservative in their beliefs, but who have lost hope and stopped going to Mass. I’m not sure anyone knew about them before now.  

I think it’s important we know more about Catholics who don’t go to Mass any more. I also think that we should not kid ourselves that we can bring these people back by rearranging the church furniture.  

It will take a lot of openness, patience, and willingness to explain the church’s teaching clearly to each of them, quite possibly for the first time.  

It will take apologising and forgiveness on both sides. We have a lot to apologise for.  

It will also take them falling in love with Jesus again in the Blessed Sacrament. But this time, it will have to be the real Jesus. 

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