The Hemorrhaging of the Catholic Church

Bleeding creates anxiety. Our son’s severe hemophilia reminds us of this fact. Usually bleeds happen on the playground, running, climbing, jumping—God bless boys—and then he falls. “Daddy, my ankle hurts.” Out comes ice, and, if things look swollen, so does an intravenous needle to pump his veins full of blood-clotting medication. While doing all of this, the clock is ticking. With every passing moment, the possibility of permanent joint damage increases. The anxiety leads to stress.

Sometimes churches bleed, and in America this is occurring most acutely in the Roman Catholic Church where one out of every ten Americans is an ex-Catholic. In a recent Catholic National Reporter article, “The Hidden Exodus: Catholics Becoming Protestants,” the Rev. Thomas Reese S.J. provides reasons for the crisis:

People are not becoming Protestants because they disagree with specific Catholic teachings; people are leaving because the church does not meet their spiritual needs and they find Protestant worship service better.

Nor are the people becoming Protestants lazy or lax Christians. In fact, they attend worship services at a higher rate than those who remain Catholic.
Thus, both as believers and as worshipers, Catholics who become Protestants are statistically better Christians than those who stay Catholic. We are losing the best, not the worst.

Father Reese’s observations are noteworthy. For instance, he contrasts the reasons why there are more Catholics migrating in an evangelical direction than toward Protestant liberalism. Reese also sets the record straight in explaining the disconnect between the commonly cited reasons for these departures by Catholic clergy—e.g., disagreement with moral stipulations such as contraception, women priests, or divorce—versus actual reasons based on data from the Pew Forum, which indicate that it is something closer to spiritual renewal and attraction to dynamic forms of worship.

The strength of Reese’s case rests upon research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, particularly chapter two, Changes in Americans’ Religious Affiliation. The data supports what sociologists of religion and pastors like me who serve at the Catholic/Protestant intersection have been noticing for years. For instance, it is a main point of my book Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic (Zondervan), which grew from two years of focus group interviews among former Catholics across the country. Another recent example comes from Alisa Harris of World in her article, “Mass Exodus.” The Pew Forum has put hard numbers to this anecdotal evidence, asserting that there are currently 15 million former Catholics in America attending Protestant Churches, two-thirds of whom do so as evangelicals.

The Challenge of Implementation
Against the backdrop of the recent Gospel Coalition national conference in Chicago, an application from the Catholic experience comes to mind. It is a lesson about the importance of implementation. Christian leaders occasionally come together to confess, expound, and admonish Christian truth, and even codify their insights. But such events do not guarantee that the church will get closer to applying the gospel to ministry. For Catholics, this challenge of implementation has continued to plague her leaders since the closing session of Vatican II.

Instead of the citadel image of the Roman church that was forged during the age of Pius IX (pope from 1846 to 1878), Vatican II portrayed the church as a “pilgrim people” on the move throughout the modern world. Toward this end, the council was designed to pursue missional aims (unlike Trent and Vatican I, which focused mainly upon doctrinal reform). The particular term used by John XXIII for this pursuit was aggiornamento, an Italian word meaning “bringing up to date.” Among its chief concerns was the question of where church authority resides and how such authority should be proclaimed on the parish level. Would the song of the Lamb ring out from the clerical citadel, or would it proceed from the lips of Catholic parishioners?

Contrary to the fortress mentality, the Vatican II vision sought to reach out to the world in fresh ways. For instance, Protestants, who were previously considered to be damned heretics (since the Council of Trent), were elevated to the more favorable plane of “separated brethren” (an improvement to be sure). Some of them were even invited to observe the council. Ecumenical bridges were also built to Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism. The sharp wedge between tradition and Scripture was removed.  A decree on the freedom of religion permanently eliminated inquisitions and other techniques of forceful religious coercion. Papal authority was diffused as the role of bishops was increased. Bible study was encouraged for lay Catholics, along with more emphasis on personal faith. Perhaps the most obvious reform came in the liturgy itself. David Wells, writing in Revolution in Rome, describes the change:

Formerly, worship had tended to be mechanical, external, carried on by a priest who was almost oblivious to the people in the Church. They tended to be merely spectators at an event essentially external to them. [The council document titled] Mediator Dei sought to reverse this, arguing that the faithful are not “mute onlookers” but should share in the worship service with the priest. The encyclical even allowed that the laity has a priestly function to fulfill. While falling short of endorsing a full doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, the encyclical went a long way toward reversing a suffocating clericalism under which Catholicism had suffered and toward endorsing the need for subjective involvement in Christian faith (11-12).

How Is Your Church Bleeding?
While the Catholic Church has made enormous strides in moving away from the monarchial church of Vatican I, it nevertheless continues to struggle with helping her disengaged laypeople implement the fruit of Vatican II. Where I currently live, in Wheaton, Illinois, there are some terrific examples of implementation—charismatic Catholics whose faith moves in a remarkably gospel-centered direction. However, when I go home to New York and similar places, the problem which Father Reese describes of disenfranchised Catholics for whom Scripture and the gospel are foreign appears to be ubiquitous.
Father Reese correctly concludes by saying,

The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging members. It needs to acknowledge this and do more to understand why. Only if we acknowledge the exodus and understand it will we be in a position to do something about it.

As an ordained elder in an evangelical church, I read this statement and think, How is my church bleeding, and what am I doing about it? We may not see an exodus of people, but there is undoubtedly some way that we can improve our implementation of gospel truth. Even if we’re pleased with the number of people among us, there is always our desire to see men and women grow as disciples whose lives are fully consecrated to embodying and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Now is no time for Protestant triumphalism.

I wonder what it is that we evangelicals must “acknowledge” and “understand” concerning our implementation of the gospel. Like the hemorrhaging woman of Luke 8, who pressed through the crowds to lay hold of Jesus, may we properly diagnose our maladies of ministry, and, at these very points, have faith to appropriate the redemptive power of Christ.

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. I think the Catholic Church had a similar situation of hemorrhaging members in the 1960-1970’s when many were leaving the Church for Pentecostal and charismatic circles. Interesting to note that Vatican reached out to Pentecostal leaders and an actual group was formed: The International Communion of Charismatic Churches (

    Somehow I don’t expect to see the same type of relationship formed today with Protestant Evangelicals, probably because of the history between the two groups. I think Pentecostalism was able to bridge the gap because of charismatic renewal inside the the Roman Church. I don’t see much evangelical renewal inside as of now. Hopeful, though.

  2. Despite articles that highlight the “hemorrhaging” of the Catholic Church, there still continues to be a “transfusion” of new members into the Church. Beckwith,Smith,and other “academics.” My observation is that I rarely have seen a Catholic theologian or a Catholic who understands their faith leave for evangelicalism. But I have seen very well respected evangelical thinkers and academics leave protestantism for Catholicism fully understanding their protestant faith. Could anyone accuse Dr. Beckwith of ignorance or misunderstanding evangelical protestantism?, or this recent Dr. Smith?
    As an aside, The research methodology used in your book, focus groups with disgruntled Catholics,presents people who are looking for a more “dynamic form of worship or spiritual renewal.” There’s a fairly high probability that the the Catholic who leaves the Church looking for such things has missed the fact that the God of the universe has come to the altar and then allows us to eat his flesh and blood. I can almost guarantee that 99 percent of those interviewed in Holy Ground did not understand or believe this. By definition, this group would give a biased view of the Catholic faith, since they didn’t understand it.

  3. I live in Portugal where the historic Catholic Church is being assailed by protestant “missionaries” from America via such tools as the Alpha Course. Many gullible priests allow their people to participate in Bible studies that say they just want to get folks to have a closer relationship with Jesus. They focus on a generic (Mere) Christianity. They fail to see that a Christianity without Catholic distinctives like Mary, Sacraments, Papacy, etc. is not generic at all but pure protestantism. It denies Christ’s promise 2000 years ago to never abandon his Church built on Peter. I oppose the missionizers and their trojan horse tactics at every opportunity. I always invite them to explore the historic Church ( the one that produced martyrs under the Romans, withstood Islamic occupation and sent real missionaries to Brazil, Africa and India) and culture of Portugal with me and they always decline. They are dishonest. They suck Catholics in by mentioning Jesus and offering freebies like ESl lessons. Then they start chipping away at their Faith and slipping in their sterile, unhistoric and semi-Christian beliefs. Chris C has lost his faith and now preaches another gospel than the one handed down to him from the Apostles.

  4. Jim:
    I disagree that Chris has lost his faith. He has a very strong faith in Christ as evidenced by his life, teachings ministry etc. The gospel that says Jesus came and died and rose again and offers his salvation for all who would believe is the same gospel Protestants and Catholics can agree on. Though I don’t disagree with you regarding alpha ministries.
    The problem is that protestantism is a fairly novel truncated form of the apostles teachings because it has to be in order to exist. You have to deny the sacraments in order for it to work. IF you believe Christ comes to us in the Eucharist, as the Christians have believed from the beginning(which can be shown historically) then you have to accept the Church that protected these teachings. Even Luther fought to retain this teaching, but once the cat was out of the bag, in his own lifetime there were myriad definitions of what the Lord’s Supper was.
    Sadly most Catholics who have left the Church for Protestantism, a I did once, never understood the teachings or were nominal Catholics and did not have a relationship with Jesus.
    But there is always hope that they can return as I did.

  5. Thanks, Russ and Jim. I am in California having just finished two lectures on Catholicism at Biola University. I wish that I had received these comments sooner; they are a terrific example the traditional and evangelical Catholic positions, respectively. It’s fascinating to see how these positions correlate to Protestant Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Best to you and your families!

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