Posted by: L. E. Barnes | May 11, 2011

Dealing with Lapsed Loved Ones

What is a Catholic to do when a family member leaves the Church? For starters, the following clip shows how NOT to respond:

Obviously, the poor woman is quite shocked and upset, but blowing up like that is definitely going to prove counterproductive–even if she had not used profanity. What’s a better approach? Eric Sammons, writing for Our Sunday Visitor, offers some helpful advice. Aside, of course, from praying and not being combative, he suggests being supportive and living your faith joyfully:

When a loved one has left the Church, that sad reality often dominates our thoughts about this person. But it is important also to see the total picture: Is your son a good husband to his wife, a good father to his children? Does he work hard and care for the needs of others?  

Especially when it comes to loved ones who have become evangelical Protestants, there can still be a lot of good in a person’s life, even if they have left the visible confines of the Church. And it is important that they know that we still recognize and honor those good things.  

If every time a family member arrives he is constantly on guard against challenges to his life decisions, how welcome do you think he feels? Again, this is not a matter of accepting bad choices made by loved ones. Instead, it is about affirming the good choices they have made. 

In the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Church declared that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” (No. 8). We must recognize this fact, and understand that even if a family member has left the Church, there can still be elements of sanctification and truth in his life. These elements, which Vatican II furthermore says are “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ,” are means by which people draw closer to Christ and thus to his Church on earth.  

So, if an evangelical Protestant family member is praising the goodness of the Lord, don’t nitpick his theology — instead embrace his love for Christ and encourage him to deepen it, for everyone who draws closer to Christ draws closer to his Body on earth, the Church.

Finally, there is no better “advertisement” for the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith than someone who lives it joyfully and enthusiastically. If a Catholic parent is always complaining about the state of the Church, or constantly critiquing the latest decisions of our bishops, do you really think his fallen-away children are going to be tempted to return? 

This is not to say that one must always present a rose-colored view of the Church; acknowledging the failures of our leaders — as well as our own failures — proclaims one of the fundamental truths of Catholicism: that we are a fallen race in need of a Savior. But there is so much good going on in the Church and so many means within it by which we can become closer to Our Lord.  

This should be the main focus of our conversations about the Church with our fallen-away loved ones. So, instead of criticizing how another Christian body practices its faith, rejoice in the power of the Eucharist to change lives. Instead of disputing the actions of your bishop at every opportunity, be grateful for the gift of apostolic succession which has handed on the Truth for 2,000 years. 

And most important: Strive for personal sanctity. I was once asked at a parish talk how the Church can attract more former Catholics back to Mass. My answer was simple: become saints. St. Josemaría Escrivá, who lived during the great crises of the 20th century, wrote, “A secret, an open secret: these world crises are crises of saints” (“The Way,” No. 301). The answer God gives to the world whenever trouble abounds is to raise up saints to counteract it. The great crisis we face today — the mass exodus of young people away from the Church — can only be overcome by saints in the Church. Will you be one of them?

Catholic parents are likely to ask themselves, “Why are they leaving the Church? Where did we go wrong?” In fact, all practicing Catholics (myself included–and I’m a convert) probably wonder about all the Catholic dropouts. Again, Sammons comments on this:

Why so many former Catholics?

How did this happen? Why have so many Catholics — our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters — left the Church?  

The answer to such a question is, of course, one that is complex and cannot be fully explored in a short article like this. However, I have noticed one predominant theme with many of the parents I have encountered whose children have left the Church. These parents themselves grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, usually living in Catholic neighborhoods and attending Catholic schools. In many ways they learned their Catholicism by osmosis; everyone around them took their faith at least somewhat seriously, and their parents could just send them to school — or out to play in the neighborhood — assuming that Catholicism would be respected and practiced. 

When they grew up and started having their own children, they (understandably) chose to raise their children the same way: by sending them to Catholic schools and allowing them to play with the neighborhood kids, assuming that Catholicism would be taught and respected. However, between the time of their own childhood and their children’s, the world — and the Church — underwent dramatic changes. By the 1970s and 1980s, no longer could one assume that a child was receiving a solid Catholic education in the Catholic schools, and solid Catholic role models were harder and harder to come by. 

So although, like most people, these parents chose to raise their children the same way they had been raised, the results were often quite different. Instead of remaining in the Church, many of the children who grew up after the 1950s found nothing compelling to keep them there and left. 

In a way, the loss of a strong Catholic identity has had one fortunate side-effect: Most practicing Catholic parents today understand that their children will not learn their faith by osmosis. They know that the methods used by Catholic parents in the 1930s and 1940s will no longer work; they must be vigilant in teaching their children the Catholic faith at home so that when they grow up they will not be like so many Catholic children in the 1970s and 1980s who abandoned a Faith they never really got a chance to embrace.

Why They Leave

Of the 32 percent of Catholics raised in the faith who leave the Church … 

46% have no affiliation. 

Of those people, here are the reasons they gave: 

54% – gradually drifted away 

65% – stopped believing in the teachings

56% – were unhappy with teachings on abortion/homosexuality

54% – are now Protestant.

Of those people, here are the reasons they gave: 

71% – felt their spiritual needs were not met in the Church 

70% – found a religion they liked better

54% – gradually drifted away 50% – stopped believing in teachings

In my case, my parents don’t wonder why I left the Church–they wonder why I joined it in the first place! But my heart goes out to all Catholics struggling with the pain of seeing their loved ones jump ship. St. Monica, pray for us…



  1. Omigosh! Why would someone even post that on YouTube? What were they THINKING?????????

    • Good question. I’d like to have the answer to that too…

  2. I think this quote is particularly telling: “If a Catholic parent is always complaining about the state of the Church, or constantly critiquing the latest decisions of our bishops, do you really think his fallen-away children are going to be tempted to return?”

    • Exactly. Parents need to be careful what they say! If they don’t set the right example, it shouldn’t surprise them when their kids go in the wrong direction.

  3. I wonder how much of our loss of young adults is really a matter of young adults having choices. There was a time when people lived, as the post says, in Catholic communities, immersed in Catholic culture. If someone out and out rejected the Church, there was a social cost to pay. After the move to suburbia in the 1960’s and ’70’s, that social cost lessened, sometimes to the point of disappearing. Today there are few non-faith reasons to be Catholic, to show up at church, or, in many places, to send your kids to Catholic schools.

    • Doubtless that’s a significant factor. Some will remain purely for social/family reasons, so when those reasons diminish, they’ll leave.

  4. A very thought-provoking post. Yelling and screaming is not the answer. St. Jose Maria was right. We must be saints. That is, actually living the gospel so everyone we meet will know what it is to be Christian.

    I’ve met “recovering” Catholics. In every case, the persons involved were dedicated to holding on to a particular sin or sins and they knew they couldn’t remain in the Church as still commit those sins.

    In other cases, bad example and very poor catechesis takes people into the evangelical realm, which shows the thirst people have to understand sacred scripture. But our seminaries don’t teach Latin and Greek any more for the most part, and the formation of diocesan priests lacks a foundation in patristics and an understanding of our Jewish heritage. A priest friend of mine said that when I was in the seminary they were taught that social work was their main focus. Just WOW on that!

    We can do the most good by living joyfully in Christ and offering up our pain and suffering for our loved ones to discover what true Catholicism is.

    • They don’t Latin and Greek in the seminaries any longer?! And they told the students that social work was their main focus??!! Yikes…

      How in the world did the seminaries drift so far off course?

  5. We just had the Catholic Come Home program in our diocese this past Lent and I heard there were good results. I hope so.

    • I pray they did!

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