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A post-Vatican II exodus

06 September 2019

Only an ‘inside job’ can explain the decline of Roman Catholic adherence in Britain and the US, Stephen Bullivant tells Madeleine Davies


Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) blessing the crowd while being carried on his throne through St Peter’s Square in Rome to open the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 1962

Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) blessing the crowd while being carried on his throne through St Peter’s Square in Rome to open the Second Vatican Co...

OPENING the Second Vatican Council 57 years ago, Pope John XXIII proclaimed the dawning of a new day for the Roman Catholic Church, “bathing her in radiant splendour”.

To “really succeed in bringing men, families and nations to the appreciation of supernatural values”, he said, there was a need for “timely changes”, to “keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world, and of modern living”.

Among the reforms that emerged were the simplification of the mass, the use of the vernacular, and the greater involvement of the laity — an insistence on “fully conscious and active participation”. The Council opened up many possibilities at parish level by granting churches discretion to decide what was “pastorally efficacious to the fullest degree”.

Surveying the evidence of the past half-century, Dr Stephen Bullivant, Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, concludes that the Council was a conspicuous failure. The sociologist Anthony Spencer has calculated that about 30,000 Catholics “dropped out” in the course of 1959, but, by the late 1960s, this had risen to 235,000 per year.

In Britain, nearly half of all born-and-raised Roman Catholics no longer consider themselves to be Catholic. Of all affiliates, fewer than one in three attend church each week (another third never go to church). Leavers from Roman Catholicism outnumber converts by ten to one. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales estimates that there are four million lapsed RCs in England and Wales.

In his new work, Mass Exodus: Catholic disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II (OUP), Dr Bullivant identifies “assimilation in the name of inculturation” as a key culprit. “Catholics became ‘like everybody else’ at precisely the same moment as ‘everybody else’ started rapidly to become less orthodoxly believing, less regularly practising, and, ultimately, less religiously identifying”.

IT IS a contentious theory.

“The reforms were ‘a return to the sources’ and a re-aligning of eucharistic theology, which was long overdue,” Sister Miriam, an Olivetan Benedictine nun of Turvey Abbey, tells me. “People seem to forget that it was not uncommon, pre-Vatican II, for the priest to be the only person receiving communion at mass.” She is keen to emphasise the theological underpinnings of the Council, developed in Europe decades before its gathering — the continuity as well as the change — and to warn of the danger of parodying the pre- and post-Council experiences of going to church, or seeking security in the “imagined past”.

Another Sister, Sister Judith, suggests that we turn the question on its head: “How many people have stayed in the Church, or come to the Church because of the reforms? I was born the year of the Council: everything valuable I’ve learned about Catholicism and about developing and nurturing an adult faith has come to me through the teaching of the Council. I am not the only person in that position.”

Dr Bullivant is quick to volunteer that, “had there been no Council, I would probably be writing a book about how there should have been a Council.” One way or another, the Church was in for a “fairly torrid time” in the second half of the 20th century.

Neither does he pin disaffiliation solely on the reforms. He gives significant space to documenting the wider sociological changes that were under way, and to the disappointment that greeted Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical that upheld the Church’s teaching on birth control.

Lapsation was “already a significant phenomenon” by the early 1960s, he writes. Close-knit parish life had already been ruptured by the Second World War and dispersal to new housing developments. There were other things to do on a Sunday, and the birth of the Welfare State meant less reliance on the social capital of the parish. Causality is, he notes, “notoriously difficult to prove”.

But it is also “absolutely implausible”, he tells me, that the Council had no effect. Only an “inside job” can explain “the startlingly swift collapse of the entire edifice, beginning in the mid-1960s”.


WHILE it concentrates on the Roman Catholic Church, Dr Bullivant’s work has implications for all Churches wrestling with questions of change and continuity. Given the context into which it was born, does he have sympathy with the aims of the Council?

“I think the Church needed to change. The reason the Council was called was right. . . The difficulty was the way in which the reforms played out in each individual parish or chaplaincy. . . It opened the doors for this crazy period of experimentation, this kind of desperate trying to keep the young people, and it didn’t work very well.”

Among the commentators quoted in Mass Exodus is the RC theologian Fr Joseph Komonchak, ordained in 1963, who observed: “The Catholic Church had ceased to be a rock and was now more like a raft, which went up and down with the latest waves, making many people very seasick.”

Change should have been “much slower, much more organic”, Dr Bullivant argues. “The liturgy seemed to change every week, and from parish to parish, and it was different wherever you went. . . Things that people thought were absolutely immutable — customs like fish on Friday — suddenly, everything was out of the window or up for grabs, or you’d get one version from one newspaper and another one from a different Catholic newspaper, or a different bishop, or a different priest.”


MASS EXODUS is packed full of statistical analysis, but it also cites studies that have asked Roman Catholics themselves to explain their lapsation (with a heavy caveat that these may not tell the full story).

Doctrinal issues loom large, particularly regarding marriage, sexual ethics, and family life. “Such issues are taken personally,” Dr Bullivant notes. Abuse was also a prominent theme: in a study in Portsmouth diocese, more than half agreed that scandals were a significant factor in the decision to stop attending mass.

Dr Bullivant describes himself as “fairly conservative theologically”; but, as a sociologist, he is sceptical about whether changes in the Church’s teaching would turn around the numbers: “If we look to those Churches that have run the experiment of what happens if we do change . . . it doesn’t really seem that that is the solution to the declining Christian practice or belief.”

There is a note of eulogy in his book, which laments that, after the Council, “so much of what had made Catholics different, to both outsiders and themselves, was determinedly stripped away.”

Bishop Robert Barron, the conservative founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, has decried a “beige Catholicism”, saying: “it seemed to be an overriding concern of the teachers, nuns, and priests who formed my generation to make our Catholicism as non-threatening, accessible, culturally appealing, as possible.”

Dr Bullivant paints an attractive portrait of parish life in the 1940s and ’50s: they were close-knit communities that enjoyed a “richly elaborate devotional life”. It was a world in which missing mass would have been noticed, and doubts could be “dismissed or shrugged off well before they risked encountering the scorn or ridicule of others”.

What this life offered, Dr Bullivant suggests, was “plausibility structures”, in which beliefs were reinforced by being held in common. Roman Catholics were surrounded by “credibility enhancing displays” — defined as costly actions that bolster the faith of those who witness them.

Among the stories he tells is that of a friend who, aged nine, accompanied his father to the 2 a.m. watch before the Blessed Sacrament, kneeling and praying for an hour. His father got only a wink of sleep before getting up to work at the Dunlop factory. Vatican II led to the “neutering” of popular devotions, including Marian devotion, he argues.

Dr Bullivant’s next book, which explores “signs of hope”, will look at the “Benedict Option”, proposed by the American writer Rod Dreher, a former Roman Catholic who was received into the Orthodox Church, which includes radical prescriptions for constructing Christian communities as a form of “resistance” against the secular tide.

Is there a danger that of romanticising the parish life in the past, which some people might have experienced as claustrophobic or controlling? Sister Judith grew up on the west coast of Scotland. She recalls “sectarianism and tribalism”, and speaks of “the darker side of this cultural Catholicism, and the exclusion and the brutal violence it engendered”. Sister Miriam speaks of “a frightening legalism, which moved further away from the intention of the practice”.

Dr Bullivant says: “What I am not trying to do in the book is to say we just need to go back to how things were. In a sense, the very enthusiasm with which people left behind all this suggests that this clearly wasn’t working. . . But, equally, I think we need to be quite honest and realistic about the kind of ways in which that kind of social architecture undergirded religious belief and practice and identity.”

We need an understanding of “how grace can operate socially”, he suggests. “It’s always difficult to believe on one’s own, and this is why Christ founded a Church in a community rather than an aggregation of free-standing individuals.”


DESPITE the bleak statistics, the Roman Catholic Church continues to have the highest rate of retention among the main Christian groupings — slightly better than the C of E. But Dr Bullivant is quick to praise aspects of other Churches.

Noting that lack of community is a recurring theme in surveys of the lapsed (“nobody noticed, or cared, whether they were there or not”), he observes that megachurches offer a “rich web of activities and meaningful interactions from Sunday to Sunday”.

It is “ironic”, he suggests, that the mass used by the Ordinariate (former Anglicans taken into the RC fold under a special arrangement in 2009) — “the Book of Common Prayer with a bit of catholicising” — has “much more of the feel of the Tridentine mass than a modern Catholic mass does, in terms of the structure of it; and the reverence of the kneeling for communion, which is perfectly common in lots of Anglican churches.”

It seems that the interest goes both ways. Intriguingly, it was bishops of the Church of England, rather than those of his own Church, who invited him recently to give a presentation on Mass Exodus.

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