Can the 'new evangelization' succeed while cradle Catholics are leaving in droves?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 20, 2015

Writing in the Catholic Herald, Stephen Bullivant suggests that we should “Put the New Evangelisation on Hold until we try to figure out what is causing a mass exodus of cradle Catholics from the Church.

Bullivant is addressing a British audience (did you notice the “s” in “evangelisation?), so he cites the grim statistics in Britain: Nearly two out of five people who were born Catholic no longer identify themselves as Catholics; cradle Catholics are more likely than others to say they identify with “no religion.” And then there’s this bombshell: “For every one convert the Church attracts, 10 Catholic children grow up to regard themselves as non-Catholic adults.”

If it’s any consolation, the Catholic Church is better at retaining young people through adulthood than other Christian denominations. But that’s cold comfort, when most young Baptists and Methodists and non-denominational Protestants leave those communities. Retaining three out of five is better than keeping just two out of five. But it’s certainly not cause for celebration or for complacency.

The New Evangelization is obviously not sustainable if, for every person who comes in the front door, ten people exit through the back. Certainly we need to stop the hemorrhage. But is that a reason to postpone plans for the New Evangelization? On the contrary, I think it’s another reason why that effort should be the Church’s top priority. We need to find better ways to show everyone—from cradle Catholics to convinced secularists—that the Church holds the keys to true happiness. The best reasons for coming into the Catholic Church are also the best reasons for staying.

PostscriptStephen Bullivant writes to say that he did not choose the title of his piece, and would not suggest putting the New Evangelization on hold. This is not surprising, since the substance of his argument points to the need for energetic evangelization. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - Feb. 26, 2015 9:25 AM ET USA

    Was surprised by Phil Lawler's use of the phrase, "other Christian denominations." It was my belief that Catholic Church isn't a "denomination" of Christianity; it is the Protestant world that is fractured into countless denominations. This is not a small point, especially if we're discussing evangelization. Seems like it's important to be able to point out that the Catholic Church is not just one of many comparable options. Rather, it's the Church established by Christ Himself.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Feb. 25, 2015 7:01 AM ET USA

    Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't understand why it's so difficult "to figure out what is causing a mass exodus of cradle Catholics from the Church." It seems to me that this exodus is caused by those who chose to interpret Vatican II almost any way they wanted to - and that includes priests, bishops, theologians, seminary instructors, lay people, and others. A Church where the traditional liturgy and teachings are not maintained is not a Church where many feel they can find the truth.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Feb. 23, 2015 10:12 PM ET USA

    I saw what happened to the Church first hand. Once Vatican II passed, solid catechesis in our Catholic Schools and Churches was thrown out in favor of all sorts of novel and ambiguous religious ed programs. Most of the kids I went to Catholic schools with have left the Faith.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Feb. 22, 2015 4:25 PM ET USA

    I know many, many, many, many Catholics who don't know the truths of the faith. In fact, up to a few months ago, I was the only person I know who knew the Creed of Nicea. And I live in a Catholic country. So most people, in my family too, get very surprised when they find out that the expectation of the return of Jesus at the end of time, or that Jesus is in fact God (not just a "good guy"), and many many other points of doctrine. Of course people are leaving the faith, they are not knowing it.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Feb. 21, 2015 8:07 PM ET USA

    I think it is so hard, when they never learned their Faith or developed a relationship with God through prayer and the Sacraments. The young need mentors in the Faith whom they really feel they can turn to, and need to have some type of experiences of deeply feeling God's presence and love, He whom they must say YES to. They also need an education in the Faith proportionate to their general level of education--which means a much higher level of catechesis than the large majority of kids get.

  • Posted by: shrink - Feb. 21, 2015 6:20 PM ET USA

    Psychology 101: In a hostile environment, you cannot do outreach, without first securing your perimeter. To secure the perimeter, Catholic parents must guard the upbringing and education of their children, even after high school. If the moral and spiritual perimeters of the family are secure, the kids remain Catholic for the most part. In short, Catholic families must "think ghetto". Let the priests do outreach while making sure their parish families are secure.

  • Posted by: Elan - Feb. 20, 2015 9:26 PM ET USA

    How do you bring back those cradle Catholics and stop others from leaving? The same way their ancestors came to the faith in the first place, by the preaching of the Gospel! The Gospel is forever new. It is when we stop evangelizing that we lose all to the world. For too long some particular churches have ceased to preach the Gospel supplanted instead with a gospel of temporal social justice. If it becomes a purely human, social endeavor, why should anyone stay? Are there not sufficient NGOs?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Feb. 20, 2015 5:46 PM ET USA

    The Church should press forward with the new Evangelization. I cannot believe that the Church does not know why Catholics are leaving the Church with all of its collective intelligence and inspiration from God. The real question is why is the Church not acting to retain Catholics? Is the Tridentine Mass needed in more parishes? Is a more bold witness of the Truths of our faith needed? Are more manly priests and bishops needed? Yes! Yes! Yes! And much more.