Mike Pence's Spiritual Wanderings Should Be a Wake-Up Call to Catholics

COMMENTARY: In the 21st-century West, God has no grandchildren. Faith is not simply inherited, but personally chosen. Therefore, cultural Catholicism by itself is dead as a retention strategy.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, wave to supporters at CPAC in Washington, D.C.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, wave to supporters at CPAC in Washington, D.C. (photo: 2015 Wikipedia/Gage Skidmore)

When low-profile Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana was chosen to be the 2016 Republican candidate for vice president, one of the first things the public learned about him was that he was a devout, unapologetic Christian ... with a twist. Pence was raised in a highly committed Irish-Catholic family, had served as an altar boy, and even considered becoming a priest at one point.

But now he considers himself an evangelical Protestant whose faith permeates his life. As a July 20 story in The New York Times recounted, the turning point was the moment when, as an undergrad at Hanover College, Pence said, “I gave my life to Jesus Christ ... and that’s changed everything.”

“Mr. Pence came to feel that something was missing from his spiritual life,” the Times said. “The Catholicism of his youth, with its formality and rituals, had not given him the intimacy with God that he now found himself craving.”

“I began to meet young men and women who talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said in a 2010 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “That had not been a part of my experience.”

This is the sort of story that often makes serious Catholics want to tear their hair out. One reason is because some Catholics do experience intimacy with God through the form and rituals.

In my early days as a Catholic, I remember lively conversations with my first pastor, who just couldn’t take in what I was telling him: that many Catholics were leaving the Church for the evangelical world. He was incredulous. How could they leave the Eucharist? Father demanded that I “tell them to stop it!” I’ve been working on that ever since.

We must grasp that Mike Pence is the 21st-century norm, not the exception. We live in an era in which the majority of Americans raised as Catholics have left the Church at some point in their lives. According to Pew Research in a Sept. 2, 2015, study, 52% of Catholic adults have left the Church; and so far, 11% have come back. The same survey indicates 41% have not yet returned. It is essential that we understand that many think about leaving for months or years before they exit stage right — and that many leave not because their faith in God is declining, but because it is growing; and they honestly believe, based upon what they have experienced, that there is little or no help to be found in the Catholic community.

A friend in parish ministry told me the true story of six men and women — all unrelated to one another — who came to her one at a time in a single month to say, “I’m thinking about leaving the parish for the mega church down the road because I have these questions, and there isn’t anyone in the parish that I can talk to about this.”

My friend was able to talk four of the six out of leaving on the spot, simply by listening and connecting them with someone in the parish who understood that God was at work in these people’s lives. After sustained evangelization had begun to change the parish culture, the two who had chosen to leave came back.

Mike Pence has a lot of company in the evangelical world. The Pew 2014 U.S. “Religious Landscape Survey” found that 13% of adults raised Catholic now consider themselves to be evangelicals (roughly 6 million people). And leaving the Church as an undergrad is all too normal. White college-age Millennials (ages 18-24) are 17 times more likely to leave the Catholic Church than to enter it. Young Catholic Millennials are also 10 times more likely to leave the faith of their childhood than a college-age white evangelical, according to the 2012 “Millennial Values Survey” sponsored by the Public Religion Research Institute.

But where Catholics proactively evangelize, there is real hope. A fascinating new finding is that 6% of American adults are cradle Catholics who now call themselves Protestants or “nones,” while still feeling at least partially Catholic. Pew has a term for adults who don’t think of themselves as Catholic in terms of religious practice but who do think of themselves as “partially Catholic” for other reasons: “cultural Catholics.”

While most committed cradle Catholics don’t have a mental category for “Bapticatholic” or “half-Catholic none,” many 21st-century spiritual wanderers do. It is no accident that Mike Pence called himself an “evangelical Catholic” for years.

What is both astonishing and hopeful is that 43%, or just over 6 million, of these cradle Catholics-turned “cultural Catholics” told Pew surveyors that they were open to the possibility of returning to the faith. They either feel connected to Catholic culture or to the Church through family, or they identify with certain Catholic beliefs or practices. As evangelizers, it is essential that we remember that those who do leave often retain significant emotional, spiritual and/or cultural connections or bridges to Catholicism over which they could return with our help.

Another reason that Mike Pence’s story causes many Catholics to feel consternation has to do with the most startling finding of the 2007 U.S. “Religious Landscape Survey.” It is this: Only 60% of Catholic adults believed in a personal God, and less than half were not certain that they could have a personal relationship with God. The survey also found that 78% of Catholics who eventually left for the evangelical-Protestant world said that their spiritual needs weren’t being met. According to the survey, teens who had been raised Catholic and later become Protestant as adults experienced a huge 49% growth in the “very strong” faith category. In fact, Catholic adults-turned-Protestant measured 25% higher in “very strong” faith than those raised Catholic who had retained their Catholic identity. Catholics who become Protestant also report 21% higher church attendance. It is a terrible irony that the best guarantee of regular adult church attendance at the moment among Americans raised Catholic is to become Protestant.  

I have no problem at all believing that the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” had not been part of Mike Pence’s spiritual experience before he went away to college. That’s because the language of “personal relationship” with God sounds either odd or suspiciously Protestant to many Catholics. Since my book Forming Intentional Disciples was published four years ago, I have had many conversations with Catholic leaders — bishops, seminary faculty, priests, religious and lay leaders — who told me that they were not yet disciples when they began their ministry. A disciple is someone who is intentionally seeking to follow Jesus Christ as Lord in the midst of his Church. One man, who was in full-time ministry forming clergy, told me, “Until I read your book last month, I didn’t know it was possible to have a personal relationship with God.” When I recovered from my shock, I responded, “Help me understand why you think this came about.” He said that his parents were very faithful, practicing Catholics. “We never talked about [our] relationship with God,” he told me. “I just didn’t know.”

The wonderfully hopeful news is that I have seen an extraordinary change over the past four years. Catholic leaders at all levels are beginning to seriously deal with our failure to make disciples of our own, as the last four popes have asked us to do. Pastors and leadership in hundreds of American parishes and whole dioceses are deliberately breaking the cultural silence about having a personal relationship with Christ and banding together to make intentional disciples of the already baptized in parishes, campus ministries, families and schools. Increasingly, we get it.  

In the 21st-century West, God has no grandchildren. Faith is not simply inherited, but personally chosen. Therefore, cultural Catholicism by itself is dead as a retention strategy. If we forget and fall back into maintenance mode, we now have Mike Pence as a living reminder that if we don’t make disciples of our own, someone else will do it for us.


Sherry Weddell is the co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute,

creator of the institute’s “Called & Gifted” discernment process and the author of

Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.