Statistics for the Catholic Church in England and Wales are sometimes difficult to find. As I discovered, when I tried to hunt down the repeated claim that 90 per cent of Catholic young have lapsed by the time they leave school. I consulted every organisation I could find, without succeeding in tracking the source. I have provisionally concluded that it started as an impressionistic guess which has gained a life of its own.
But the same cannot be said for the Latin Mass Society’s (LMS) splendid collation of statistics culled from the Catholic Directory. They stretch from 1847 to 2011. And they show some interesting trends. We do not in this case need to be concerned with precise accuracy. Nor do we need, for our purposes, to apply sophisticated mathematics. We can even live with occasional unavailable data. But some of the trends over recent years challenge us to think about the factors which have been at work.
I am not going to take you through all the statistics because they are available at http://www.lms.org.uk/resources/statistics-from-the-catholic-directory, together with commentary by the LMS. And you can download a spreadsheet to get a more detailed picture. I want to focus on certain areas which I think to be significant in trying to understand what has happened over the last several years.
The first concerns the estimated weekly church attendance. Here, figures from 1993 to 2010 are available. The total has reduced by about a third over that period. Between 1965 and 2010, baptisms dropped by more than a half. Conversions dropped by around 40 per cent. Catholic marriages in total are now less than a quarter of those reported in 1965. Marriages per 1,000 Catholic population are now 2.55 compared to 11.65 in 1965.
I imagine that most readers will have been aware of such declines. Nevertheless, I found facing up to this statistical record alarming. In his useful comments on the overall figures, Dr Joseph Shaw, the chairman of the LMS, considers two reasons for such declines over the last five decades. One is the effect of the Vatican Council (which he suggests was often erroneously applied) and the other is “the effect of dissent from the Church’s teaching is particularly manifest in relation to contraception”. I would suggest a third, which is the massive change in our culture’s attitude in matters of marriage and sexuality generally. It was for this reason that I chose 1965 as a starting point – because it comes at the end of the Vatican Council and before the publication of Humanae Vitae. It is also the decade when the contraceptive pill began to be used more broadly.
I undertake no critique of Vatican II here. Indeed, the constant papal view has been that we have yet fully to understand and implement its teaching. But there was certainly upheaval which can, at least in part, be attributed to a failure to grasp the Council’s deep continuity with tradition. The effect, on the one hand, was to stimulate extreme reform positions and, on the other, to cling tightly to old structures which were seen, often indiscriminately, to be the gauges of orthodoxy.
The issue of contraception, to which Dr Shaw refers, has undoubtedly played its part. In the face of widespread dissent, the pastoral response was to allow the application of the individual conscience, given that a hard line pastoral approach would have risked a mass exit. Unfortunately, the recipients of this clemency had learnt up till then that their consciences should only be formed indirectly by simple reference to the Church’s moral teaching. They had no experience of direct formation of conscience. Nor indeed, as far as I know, has there been any organised guidance in this vital spiritual skill since then.
The outcome of this was twofold. The first was that acceptance of the Church’s authority in moral matters was often seen as optional. The second was that a large body of the laity, while not excluded formally from Catholic life, could not rid themselves from the feeling of being second-class citizens, bought off with a concession.
The undigested Council and the dis-ease of much of the laity was fertile ground for the reception of changing attitudes within our society. Since I have written recently about this, I will confine myself to mentioning the recent survey work carried out by Linda Woodhead in connection with the Westminster Faith Debates, at http://faithdebates.org.uk (click on a topic, and look for the Resources pdf). It would seem that Catholic attitudes towards pornography, contraception and pre-/extra-marital sex are not that different from our general population. The groups which stand out in their sexual virtue by comparison are the Baptists, the Pentecostals and the Muslims. You may also explore our attitudes to the traditional family, abortion and same-sex marriage on the link above. And you may be surprised.
Currently our bishops are consulting us on marriage and the family. From the drafting of their questions, it is clear that they have little experience in gathering reliable information. So we may hope that they will make use of all the professionally culled information already available. They will then no doubt realise the extent of the disconnection between the ordinary teaching of the Church and the reception by the average Catholic. Finding the right answers, whatever they may be, must start with the right information, and be followed by asking the right questions.