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.