Mark Silk, editor of the Religion in the News magazine, issued by Trinity College, and professor of religion in public life at the college, said in an interview with the Banner that the decline of religious identification was most marked in northern New England.
The Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis may have led to a marked increase of those no longer identifying themselves as Catholics in New England, he said.
This crisis exploded into the news in early 2002, after the second of the ARIS surveys in 2001. In Vermont, those identifying as Catholic were 37 percent of adults in the 1990 survey, 38 percent in the 2001 survey and then down to 26 percent in 2008, Silk noted, providing the number for 2001, which wasn't included in the published survey.
Elsewhere in New England, the percentage of adults identifying as Catholic in Massachusetts in 1990 was 54 percent; by 2008 this had fell to 39 percent, a drop of 15 percent; New Hampshire, 41 to 32 percent; Maine 31 to 22 percent; Rhode Island 62 to 46 percent; Connecticut, 50 to 38 percent.
However, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, an internationally known Catholic journalist and commentator connected the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said in an interview that in reality the accurate answer to why Catholics are leaving is, "We don't know."
Reese noted the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted in 2007 and released in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. This survey noted that while 31 percent of Americans were raised in the Catholic faith, fewer than a fourth of U.S. adults describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced if not for a large influx of Catholic Hispanics immigrants. Some states show an increase of Catholics for this reason. For instance, the percentage of Catholics in Texas was 23 percent in 1990, rising to 32 percent in 2008; for California the increase was from 29 to 37 percent in this time period.
Reese lamented that the Catholic hierarchy has not done in-depth research to look at the problem and find out why so many U.S.-born Catholics have left. Personally, he suspects a variety of reasons for such losses, ranging from the sexual abuse crisis to the involvement of bishops in politics to the possibility that many Catholics may well be bored in church.
A follow-up Pew survey published on April 27 focusing on religious switching asked former Catholics why they had left the faith. This survey offered respondents both a list of reasons to choose from and asked them to explain why they left in their own words. The most chosen response by the religiously unaffiliated from the list was just gradually drifted away from the religion, 71 percent; stopped believing the religion's teachings, 65 percent; "spiritual needs not being met, 43 percent. Other common choices by religiously unaffiliated former Catholics included unhappiness with church teachings on abortion and homosexuality, 56 percent; unhappiness with the treatment of women, 39 percent; and the clergy sexual abuse scandal, 27 percent.
However, there was a difference when religiously unaffiliated Catholics explained their reasons for leaving in their own words. The top reason, at 54 percent of those responding, was disagreement with religious and moral beliefs. While 42 respondents gave reasons for leaving that fell into the broad category of religious institutions, practices and people, only 2 percent of religiously unaffiliated former Catholics listed the clergy sexual abuse crisis as a reason for leaving.
Similarly, 3 percent of former Catholics who had become Protestants listed the clergy sexual abuse crisis as their reason for leaving the Catholic Church. Drifting away from the faith was given by only 4 percent of unaffiliated former Catholics when giving reasons for leaving in their own words.
A news item on the poll on the Web site of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops after Monday's release of the latest Pew survey chose to emphasize the positive, noting that 68 percent of Catholics stay with the faith into adulthood, one of the highest retention rates among Christian denominations in the U.S. It also highlighted the low number of former Catholics who in their own words cited the sexual abuse crisis as a reason they left the church, though it also noted that this number jumped to 21 percent for Catholics who became Protestant and 27 percent for former Catholics now unaffiliated with any church.