“ONCE a Catholic, always a Catholic,” is a familiar saying. But the hold of the Roman Catholic Church over its members has weakened dramatically over the years, and now just 13 per cent of British Catholics now attend mass weekly. Just as startlingly, 37 per cent of baptised Catholics answered “None” when asked whether they had a religion.
That Rome has so powerfully lost its grip is the subject of the theologian and sociologist Stephen Bullivant’s Mass Exodus, which examines what he calls disaffiliation among American and British RCs since the Second Vatican Council (Features, 6 September). Bullivant distinguishes between those who have lapsed — who still identify as Roman Catholic and might attend family weddings and funerals — and those who sociologists of religion call “nones”.
Bullivant points out that decline had begun before Vatican II — that brave new dawn of the 1960s which rocked the RC Church with its greater part for the laity to play, more emphasis on scripture, and mass in the vernacular. But, while there was decline, for him, the age before Vatican II seems a golden one, of close-knit communities, popular devotional practices, and congregations flocking every Sunday to the Tridentine Latin Mass.
I am old enough to (just about) remember being shocked when the priest faced us across the altar for the first time. I can also recall how large numbers of people did not fully participate at mass, and spent their time fiddling with their rosary beads. It’s hard to believe that they stopped going at all because they could now recite the Creed in English.
Certain things were lost, however. As Bullivant argues, Vatican II encouraged a more middle-class Church, in which the laity helped to run parishes through numerous committees, while the less educated felt excluded. In Britain at least, however, recent arrivals from overseas have changed the Church again. I’ve watched as kissing statues, the rosary, and Stations of the Cross have become popular once more.
Bullivant’s eventual conclusion is that Vatican II was indeed the cause of decline. Change came too fast; people were unsettled; obligations were abandoned.
Yet as he admits, change was everywhere in the ’60s, and other denominations suffered decline, too — indeed, more so than the Roman Catholic Church. I’m inclined to think you’d need a parallel universe, with no Vatican II, to really discover its impact (or otherwise) on mass-going; and neither Bullivant nor, I think, anyone else has explained why the very things that cause some people to leave — church teaching on birth control, say, or liturgical change — cause others merely to shrug their shoulders and carry on attending mass.
What has undoubtedly had an impact on mass-going in recent years is something else of equal historical importance: the abuse crisis, and not just assaults on children, but cover-ups by bishops. Vatican II encouraged a rethink about ecclesiastical authority, and the abuse crisis then destroyed many Catholics’ belief in it. And the pre-Vatican II Church certainly played its part in the current crisis: a sizeable number of cases recently investigated go back to that era.
Bullivant’s analysis is dense, but, nevertheless, filled with fascinating detail. Yet it lacks something: that sense of hope that fills the Christian heart, and the faith that needs to be transformed by love if it is to move mountains.
Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet and the author of The Keys and The Kingdom: Britain and the papacy from John Paul to Francis.
Mass Exodus: Catholic disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II
Church Times Bookshop £22.50