Disaffected Catholics on the rise

"Lapsed" members take spiritual needs, practices to Protestant groups

August 29, 1999|By GERALD RENNER

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Anthony and Carol Zadzilko had a quarrel with the Roman Catholic church from the start of their marriage 18 years ago. They missed a premarital counseling session because of a scheduling mix-up, and the priest berated them.

"It was not our fault, but he had a bird. He threatened not to marry us because we missed a class," said Anthony Zadzilko, still burning with the memory of what he considered clerical arrogance.

The relations of the Zadzilkos with the Catholic church went downhill from there. The Plainville, Conn., couple disagreed with the church's positions banning artificial birth control and abortion, felt they were constantly being dunned for money and resented what Carol Zadzilko said was "the guilt" the Catholic Church heaped on people. "I didn't want that for my kids," she said.

Today, the Zadzilkos, parents of 11-year-old twin girls, are much happier in their new church home, the Congregational Church of Plainville.

They are not alone. The pastor, the Rev. Christopher Horvath, reports that more than 80 members in his congregation of nearly 400 used to be Catholics.

A precipitous decline in marriages in Catholic churches, an increase in interfaith marriages, weak Catholic identity among young people and the Catholic church's less aggressive effort to seek converts portend continued erosion of the Catholic base, says sociologist James D. Davidson of Purdue University in Indianapolis, who directed a major survey of American Catholics.

This doesn't mean the number of Catholics is shrinking. The 61 million-member Roman Catholic church is the largest religious body in the United States.

But sociologists of religion add wryly that an estimated 15 million to 20 million "lapsed" Catholics make up the second largest religious body. And while the Catholic population has jumped 28 percent during the last generation -- in great measure because of the influx of Hispanics and other immigrants to the United States -- the number of Catholic church marriages has plunged 29 percent.

Disaffected Catholics are presenting a challenge to Protestant pastors to respond to their spiritual needs. They also are bringing Catholic influences to Protestant practices.

Horvath said the questions of former Catholics "are helping us look at our own traditions and the way we do things in the church."

Horvath began keeping track of former Catholics who joined his church after he became pastor 10 years ago, and a couple approached him about marrying.

They said they were Catholics, but the man was divorced and could not remarry in the Catholic church without an annulment of his first marriage. The man said he did not want to subject himself, his future wife and his former wife to that process, which he found complicated and intrusive.

Horvath said he "was impressed with their love and commitment to each other and with their articulation of their faith in God." He celebrated the wedding in his church.

Pastors in other Protestant churches find that divorce and remarriage are major reasons Catholics change denominations.

"I know of many cases where Catholics come to an Episcopal church to get married," said the Rev. Christopher L. Webber, vicar of Christ Episcopal Church in North Canaan, Conn., and the author of the book, "Finding Home: Stories of Roman Catholics Entering the Episcopal Church," published in 1984. "Either one or both of them were divorced. Some of them stay [in the Episcopal church], and some of them don't."

Interfaith marriages

The growing number of Catholics entering interfaith marriages contributes to Catholic flight, particularly when the wife is not Catholic. Sociologist Davidson said, "The man is likely to capitulate to her and let the kids marry in her faith."

Davidson was project director of a major survey that showed a weakening of Catholic identity among those younger than 35.

He said his research found striking differences in the rate of interfaith marriages among different generations of Catholics. The rate was 16 percent among Catholics born in and before 1940; 32 percent among Catholics born between 1941 and 1960; and 40 percent for those born after 1961.

American Catholic bishops have taken note of the figures. They set up a national office of evangelization, established workshops for divorced and alienated Catholics in the hope of drawing some of them back, beefed up youth programs and promoted small Christian communities within parishes.

Davidson said the shortage of priests limits the effectiveness of the church's efforts. And, he said, the church is fighting a general cultural trend.

"The data is telling us [that] more and more people getting married these days don't want to go through the marriage preparation process or are not thinking of marriage as a sacrament," he said.

Pastoral response needed

Horvath said the presence of so many Catholics in his congregation demanded a studied pastoral response.

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