Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-rn2sj Total loading time: 0.231 Render date: 2022-08-08T02:36:25.023Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

Article contents

Deconversion and Disaffiliation in Contemporary US Roman Catholicism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 January 2014

William L. Portier*
University of Dayton


Disaffiliation—when members of religious communities leave—has recently become a popular topic for theological and social scientific investigation. Today, fewer Roman Catholics than in recent memory describe themselves as strong members of their church. Many have left to seek other spiritual paths, and many of those who remain do not believe and practice as the Church teaches that they should. These essays propose that the theoretical framework of “deconversion” provides a broader and more effective way to understand forms of religious change that are occurring in contemporary America. In the classroom, teaching theology can take on a specific productive shape when the surrounding culture challenges theologians to take deconversion seriously as an element of, and larger context for, spiritual identity today. Theology remains vital when patient curiosity about the current adventure of religious identity is foregrounded pedagogically. Concluding thoughts sketch some important characteristics of an evangelical church, more concerned with its mission and witness in the world than with maintaining its internal life.

Theological Roundtable
Horizons , Volume 40 , Issue 2 , December 2013 , pp. 275 - 292
Copyright © College Theology Society 2013 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


47 This article began as the first Annual Bishop Simon Bruté Lecture at Marian University, Indianapolis, on March 22, 2012. It developed in presentations to the Ohio State Seminar for Diocesan Staffs of Religious Education in April 2012 and the Columbus Diocesan Association of Religious Educators in March 2013. I am grateful to the participants in all of these programs.

49 Hennesey, James SJ, American Catholics, A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 59, 68Google Scholar.

50 Ibid., 126.

52 Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, chap. 4.

53 See Pew Forum, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” http://religions.pewforum/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf, for the full report.

54 Michael Gerson, “The American Loss of Faith,” Washington Post, March 26, 2013, A21; and Gerson, “Polarized by Religion,” Washington Post, March 29, 2013, A15. These two columns are based on a presentation by Luis Lugo of the Pew Forum on recent changes in American religion since the 2008 survey.

55 Putnam, Robert and Campbell, David, “God and Caesar in America, Why Mixing Religion and Politics Is Bad for Both,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2012): 3443Google Scholar, at 41.

56 See the 2011 National Black Catholic Survey, National Black Catholic Congress, Inc., Compared with 31 percent of white Catholics, 48.2 percent of African American Catholics report they attend Mass weekly.

58 “Catholics in America, Persistence and Change,” special insert in the National Catholic Reporter, October 28–November 10, 2012, 1a–28a; hereafter cited by page number only in the text and notes. The survey, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5, was conducted online with a sample of 1,442 self-identified Catholics. Fifty-six percent of the Hispanic part of the sample responded in Spanish. The Pew Forum survey of 2008 was conducted by interview and based on a sample of 35,000 Americans.

59 Based on analysis of the General Social Survey, Pew reported that in 2012 strong Catholic identity was at the lowest it had ever been in the four decades of the GSS. Only 27 percent of Catholics called themselves “strong.” When the General Social Survey began in 1974, 47 percent of Catholics reported weekly Mass attendance. In 2012, the figure for attendance was only 24 percent. In 1974, 85 percent of “strong” Catholics reported weekly Mass attendance. In 2012, the figure had dropped to 53 percent. “Highly committed” and “strong” are no doubt based on responses to different sets of questions, but the downward trend in commitment seems clear. See

60 The 2011 NCR research team, led by William D'Antonio, is at pains to avoid this conclusion in favor of a stable picture of American Catholics. For example, based on comparable numbers of Hispanics and non-Hispanics who agree that Catholics can disagree with aspects of church teaching and still remain loyal to the church, Michelle Dillon suggests that “the growing presence of Hispanic Catholics is unlikely to alter American's Catholicism's rich blend of theological substance, doctrinal autonomy, and institutional loyalty” (12a). As Dillon shows, the data bear this interpretation—which could also serve as a description of the research team—but it is hard to avoid concluding that the team tends to downplay aspects of the data that point in the direction of instability and disaffiliation.

61 On evangelical Catholics, see William L. Portier, “In Defense of Mount Saint Mary's,” Commonweal, February 11, 2000, 31–33; Portier, , “Here Come the Evangelical Catholics,” Communio, International Catholic Review 31 (Spring 2004): 3566Google Scholar; Portier, , foreword to New Wine, New Wineskins: A Next Generation Reflects on Key Issues in Catholic Moral Theology, ed. Mattison, William C. III (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), ix–xiiGoogle Scholar; Portier, , “Rising to the Evangelical Moment,” Current Issues in Catholic Higher Education 26, no. 1 (Winter 2007): 4957Google Scholar; Portier, “More Mission, Less Maintenance,” Commonweal, April 12, 2013, 29–31. The latter is a review of Weigel's, GeorgeEvangelical Catholicism, Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (New York: Basic Books, 2013).Google Scholar

62 Allen, John L. Jr., The Future Church, How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 57, 58Google Scholar. Allen draws freely on the ideas in my article “Here Come the Evangelical Catholics.”

63 Stephen S. Schneck, “My Take: The Myth and Reality of the Catholic Vote,” CNN Belief Blog, February 20, 2012, Schenk divides Catholic voters into three groups: Latino Catholics, ethnic and cultural Catholics from the Northeast and Midwest, and what he calls intentional or “distilled” Catholics.

64 Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, 120, 121, 123.

65 Gerson, “The American Loss of Faith,” A21; and Gerson, “Polarized by Religion,” A15.

66 Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, 132.

67 Gerson, “Polarized by Religion,” A15.

68 Patricia Wittberg, SC, “A Lost Generation?,” America Magazine, February 20, 2012, 13–16. Wittberg relies on data from the annual General Social Survey (2002–8). She discusses possible responses the church could make: “Women could be ordained deaconesses and, with the appropriate change to canon law, could even be appointed cardinals—ideas that have been discussed for decades” (15). In his motu proprio Omnium in Mentem, Pope Benedict XVI revised canons 1008–9 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law to make clear that bishops and priests act in persona Christi capiti, while deacons serve the church in liturgy, word, and sacrament. This separates permanent deacons from the clerical state and makes clear that they are not “transitional” deacons. See Gerald O'Collins, “Unlocking the Door,” The Tablet, May 25, 2013, 4–5. According to the 2011 NCR survey, “Persistence and Change,” 75 percent of Catholics are in favor of women deacons (9a). Pope Francis has already made known his intention to appoint more women to important posts in the Vatican.

69 See Public Opinion Research Institute and Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Georgetown University, “2012 Millennial Values Survey,”

70 Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, 133.

71 Ibid.

72 See “U.S. Catholics See Sex Abuse as the Church's Most Important Problem, Charity as Its Most Important Contribution,” Among the “most important problems,” contraception was designated “most important” by 3 percent of respondents; “priest shortage/priests can't marry/no women priests” by at 2 percent. Twenty-seven percent of respondents thought the “most important way the Catholic Church helps society today” to be “helps the poor, sick, needy, charitable works.” Despite the miniscule sample, these numbers are worth thinking about.

73 The research team does not break out the figures for “hurts credibility a great deal” and “somewhat” in these responses. Perhaps the total of 83 percent was just too irresistible. Nevertheless, the figures 15 percent and 22 percent total for “only a little” and “not at all” on these respective issues is striking and telling.

74 Weigel, George, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (New York: Basic Books, 2013).Google Scholar

75 Murray, John Courtney, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960).Google Scholar

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Deconversion and Disaffiliation in Contemporary US Roman Catholicism
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Deconversion and Disaffiliation in Contemporary US Roman Catholicism
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Deconversion and Disaffiliation in Contemporary US Roman Catholicism
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *