By Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 30, 2016
If you peruse through New Ways Ministry’s posts on this blog, one recurring opinion that you will encounter is how much harm negative messages from Catholic leaders harm LGBTQ people and their allies. A new report, however, also identifies another victim of anti-LGBTQ language and policies coming from church leaders: the Church itself.
This past week, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a report about the growing number of “nones” in the U.S.: people who profess no religious affiliation or have renounced a previous religious affiliation. So, when asked about their religious identity, the simplest answer would be “none.” The new PRRI report shows that the “nones” have increased from 5% of the population in 1972 to 25% of the population in 2016, and that currently almost 40% of adults ages 18-29 identify as “nones.”
When the survey respondents (who were interviewed in August 2016) were asked why they were religiously unaffiliated, 29% said that it was because of the negative messages they heard from religious institutions about LGBT issues. Significantly for the Catholic Church, that number is appreciably higher. Indeed, it is one of the most significant reasons they leave the Church, and they do so in greater proportions than any other religion. The report stated:
“Notably, those who were raised Catholic are more likely than those raised in any other religion to cite negative religious treatment of gay and lesbian people (39% vs. 29%, respectively) and the clergy sexual-abuse scandal (32% vs. 19%, respectively) as primary reasons they left the Church.”
Rejection of anti-LGBT messages rates higher than the clergy sex abuse crisis as a reason for leaving the Catholic Church, 39% vs. 32% statistically.
In the overall survey (not just Catholics), the number one reason for leaving was “stopped believing in the religion’s teachings,” with the number two answer being “family was never that religious growing up.” The third highest answer for all respondents was “negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people.” Given the fact that the first two reasons are highly existential ones, meaning that they cut to the core of intimate personal belief and early formation, the fact that LGBT issues comes in closely behind the number two reason becomes even more significant.
The Catholic Church has been the denomination hardest hit by people disaffiliating from their faith. The PRRI report states:
“While non-white Protestants and non-Christian religious groups have remained fairly stable, white Protestants and Catholics have all experienced declines, with Catholics suffering the largest decline among major religious groups: a 10-percentage point loss overall. Nearly one-third (31%) of Americans report being raised in a Catholic household, but only about one in five (21%) Americans identify as Catholic currently. Thirteen percent of Americans report being former Catholics, and roughly 2% of Americans have left their religious tradition to join the Church. White evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants are also witnessing negative growth, but to a much more modest degree (-2 percentage points and -5 percentage points, respectively).”
Those numbers should be a wake-up call to Catholic Church leaders who continue promoting anti-LGBT policies and messages. If they are unable to see how they are harming others with their actions and words, they should take note of how they are harming the institution as a whole. Instead of worrying about religious liberty, they should be worrying about institutional survival.
One of the most significant details about this data is that it reflects 18-29 year olds. In a survey, the behavior and opinions of the younger generation are reliable indicators of what behavior and opinion will be like in the future. And the survey also indicates that it is unlikely that these young people will return to the church to marry and have children. The report shows that 58% of the respondents have said they totally reject religion, while only 22% indicate some positive view about religion, and 18% who say they have faith, but not part of a religious group. The Church is failing its next generation by failing to develop a way to speak authentically to young people’s most urgent questions of justice and equality.
Michael Peppard, a Fordham University theology professor who blogs at dotCommonweal, offered some insightful analysis of what might be behind this exodus of young people from the church:
“Most religious people make moral evaluations through a combination of appeals to revelation, reason, and experience. What do scripture and tradition say? What does my logical thinking conclude? And what have I personally experienced that puts flesh on the bones of those arguments? In the case of the moral status of homosexuality, it seems clear that a tipping point was reached in the past decade, whereby people’s reason and personal experience have overwhelmed the appeal to revelation.”
And Peppard offered a good suggestion for Church leaders:
“What is the upshot for church leaders? Any comment a leader makes about gays and lesbians—from a magisterial pronouncement to a small remark in a pulpit or classroom—must be chosen with these high stakes in mind. With regard to how gays and lesbians are spoken of in church settings, there is no margin of error. Any expression of negativity and ostracization from the pulpit will be heard from the pew as an irredeemable affront to friends and family—or one’s very self. And next week, that same pew will be empty.”
While I agree with Peppard, I think church leaders need to do more than just watch their language. They need to be pro-active in offering affirming and welcoming LGBT messages, and they need to back up those messages with pro-LGBT policies and practices, such as working for equality, supporting non-discrimination in employment, and fighting anti-LGBT initiatives. If they don’t start soon, their buildings will soon be empty.