Which is Worst Kind of Catholic?

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©Heidi Bratton Photography

Is it better to be an ex-Catholic or cultural Catholic? An ex-Catholic is on the outside of the fullness of faith while a cultural Catholic is on the inside but not getting it–or rather not accepting it.

An ex-Catholic has left a church he probably didn’t understand.  Otherwise, he would not have walked away from all the gifts Christ left for us — his Body and Blood being foremost.   A cultural Catholic identifies himself as Catholic without faithfully adhering to the faith. He hasn’t left the Catholic Church, but whether through ignorance or rebellion, it’s not his inner compass.

One of the most unfortunate things about ex-Catholics is that they criticize and chip away at the body of Christ. One of the most unfortunate things about Cultural Catholics is that they criticize and chip away at the body of Christ. So, in that respect, it’s a draw.

The Catholic Brand

In spite of those who have left the Church, one in four Americans call themselves Catholic. However, many merely like the brand name but it’s more of a knock-off variety they practice. 


In a survey of 1,442 U.S. Catholic released Oct 24 this year, of those identified as Catholics, an overwhelming majority, 88%, say, “how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is Catholic.”  Forty percent say you can be a good Catholic without believing that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass. Yet, that is at the core of our faith.  The survey, Catholics in America: Persistence and change in the Catholic landscape, is part of ongoing research by sociologists led by Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio. It is the fifth survey since 1987.

These results likely explain the decline in Mass attendance. Since 1987, it has fallen from 44% attending at least once a week down to 31% in 2011.  Those attending less than monthly went from 26% to 47%. The number one excuse for not going? Forty percent of those not going say they are simply not very religious.

Here are the things respondents did believe are important.

  • 73% Jesus resurrection
  • 67% helping the poor
  • 64% Mary as the Mother of God
  • 63% The sacraments
  • 45% Daily prayer
  • 40% Against abortion
  • 36% Devotions such as rosary
  • 35% Against same-sex marriage
  • 30% Accepting Vatican authority
  • 29% Oppose death penalty
  • 21% Male celibate clergy

 Having taught CCD classes for nine years, those numbers don’t surprise me. Disappoint, yes; surprise, no. Whether it’s a case of an ex-Catholic or cultural Catholic, this issue revolves around understanding Catholic teaching. Knowing the faith leads to loving it and practicing it.  In recent years access to that information abounds and is growing, through TV and radio, books, tapes, speakers and conferences. Still, it’s proverbial: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

 I am very aware that writers and speakers are churning out excellent Catholic material.  Often it’s a matter of preaching to the choir, but still there are many newbies and reverts heading our way.

In the end — and the beginning — it takes prayer. We need to pray for the body of Christ to grow stronger and bigger. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see this trend reverse?  Our Lord told us, “Ask and you shall receive.”  Join me in asking.


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  • fishman

    you didn’t answer the question asked in the title.

  • Tarheel

    As a convert and catechist for 10 years now (this is my 11th year to teach) the title of this article caught my eye. A draw between the two? Yes. How can we tell them apart. One sits in the same pew with me and the other is not present.

    How do we reverse this trend? My thoughts are first with better catechesis. And not just for our children but for adults also. In my parish here in Mobile AL we have an Adult Education class and RCIA that is held weekly covering the normal school year. Another parish has something called “Classes between the Masses”. Programs like these help everyone expand their knowledge and understanding of our faith. Bible study classes are another great idea. As you discover teh scriptures you will discover the Catholic faith and the mass will be a much more enriching experience. Two program or ministries that I got involved have really helped my spirituality and strengthened my Catholic beliefs. First was joining the St Vincent de Paul Society. This ministry had had and is having a profound effect on me. Simply said in this ministry I have learned compassion. The second one is designed just for men. The Men of St Joseph is men’s group started here in Mobile Al. we meet weekly for one hour in the more for prayer and discuss the weeks upcoming Gospel. For more info on this go to http://www.menofstjoseph.com

    We are all called to evangelize. To spread the good news. We are told to do that at the end of each mass. So why don’t we? Many do and many don’t. For many Catholics their faith is a very personal thing and they don’t feel “comfortable” talking to others about it. I can understand that. But the people that have told me that are good at evangelizing to “fallen away” Catholics and don’t realize it. How? Because you can easily tell by watching these people that they are Catholic through their actions. Being catholic is not cultural for them it is a everyday part of their life and it shows!

    If our Protestant brothers and sisters can evangelize then we can to. Just picture the look on someones face when on a Saturday they respond to a knock on their door and when they answer they are invited to attend church Sunday at a Catholic Church.

  • Fishman, I didn’t answer the questions because it’s both rhetorical and also subjective. Different people will have different opinions. My point was that both tear at the fabric of our Church. To have left the Church often leads to criticism of it–thinking that one has found a better way. To stay but not agree with teachings or follow them, means one believes he knows better than the Church. Both hurt the One Body in Christ. And in both cases, lack of understanding Catholic teaching is often at play.

    God bless you Tarheel for teaching others the faith. It’s the mission field you are in.

  • noelfitz

    Reading this, I wonder is it better to die of cancer or from heart failure, neither are attractive outlooks. So is it better to be an ex or cultural Catholic?

    I am reminded of LBJ’s remark that “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent p…g out, than outside the tent p…g in”, so perhaps we should try to keep folk within the Church, even if they have problems, as at present many of us are struggling to hang on.

    I am also reminded of Benjamin Franklin “If we don’t hang together, by Heavens we shall hang separately”.

    We belong to the People of God/Mystical Body of Christ, even if we are a bit wobbly at times. Some of us have difficulties with Church teaching and practice, but that is no reason for being rejected fully.

    This issue should be discussed in great detail, as the conclusions are fundamental for the future of the Church and the eternal destination of many baptized people.

    I fully agree we should pray more.

  • Tarheel

    Noel I like “so perhaps we should try to keep folk within the Church, even if they have problems”, because there is hope that one day they will have that epiphany or “ah ha” moment and they will become stronger Catholics.

    I read somewhere once, (Ms Armstrong feel free to correct me) that the second largest “denomination” in America was “Catholics who have left the Church”. Just think if we could get half of those people back into the Church.

    • noelfitz


      many thanks for your kind and supportive post.

      • Tarheel, I heard the same statistic. I agree, it would be amazing if all those Baptized Catholics returned. Yet another intention for us.

  • I am a re-vert and I was brought back 17 years ago by … Protestants! I had young Protestant friends and I was impressed by the way they witnessed to Jesus and knew their Bible. I started attending a weekly Protestant fellowship in my town and then I realized that since I had been brought up Catholic, I wanted to return to my own tradition. So I started attending Mass and going to Confession again.

    None of my subsequent faith life would have happened without the witness of my faithful Protestant friends. God works in mysterious ways.

  • Tarheel

    During and after my conversion process (This went from December 1982 through September of 1988) I got excited and still am, about all the great “stuff” the Church has to offer. I also got jealous and upset because Catholics were keeping to themselves and telling the rest of the world.

    Come on brothers and sisters let’s tell the world about all our great “stuff”!

  • noelfitz

    PH & Tarheel,
    Thanks for your great posts, they have encouraged me to try to contribute more.

  • I’ve been inspired many times by Protestants. We don’t have the corner on holiness, just all the gifts that help us get there.

  • Tarheel

    Noel I’m pleased that something I said or wrote encourages anyone. I have been thinking about this topic quite a bit over the last day or so and I feel that we as Catholics need to let our “external” Catholic be a reflection of our “internal” Catholic. Let people see and know we are Catholic by actions and how we conduct ourselves.

    The Gospel readings this past Sunday presents a challenge by Christ to us. Not the part about “call no one Father” as most priests will concentrate on that portion for homilies. But in the beginning Christ of this passage Christ tells to do as Pharisees teach the Law of Moses but not to do as they do. For “they preach but do not practice”. Ever heard the expression “Practice what you preach”. This is where that expression originates from. Another way to put this is; “If you talk the walk, then walk the talk.” We as Catholics and especially Catholic men need to live and practice our faith inwardly and outwardly. We lead by example this way. Not just our families but to everyone around us.

    And in all this we must maintain humility and be humble. Our actions will speak louder than words ever can.

  • noelfitz

    Thanks, Tarheel.

    The priest in our parish quoted a former (Protestant) Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr Temple ??) who claimed that if ministers practice what they preach they must give very poor sermons.