If we are to believe the British Social Attitudes surveys over many years, we may accept that Christianity is gradually dying in this country. Those who record themselves as Christian slowly but regularly decrease in numbers. The Anglican Church has been hit the hardest, but Catholics decline steadily as well. Their percentage in 1983 was 10 percent; it is now down to 7 percent. Or, if you wish, 30 percent lower.
We can see some reasons why this is happening. Perhaps the most obvious is generational. Those who are Catholics all their lives tend to continue, but the number of young people from Catholic families is distinctly fewer. Nor does the evidence support the optimistic thought that such young people return to Catholicism at a later date.
Perhaps, a factor in this is that people who once thought that claiming a denomination of some sort was respectable no longer think this to be so. Indeed, they may think humanism or agnosticism is a respectable position – perhaps even more respectable than religious superstition or imposed moralities.
There has also been a considerable change in general attitudes towards sexual practice. It would appear (and I have seen this in my family) that the young, perhaps starting from university, move quickly into full sexual activity, often living together, before marriage is considered as a probability. The rule for our children, some forty years ago, was that they might entertain their ‘friend’, but the bedroom door had to be open. Nowadays that simply sounds quaint.
But we must also consider how successful we are at presenting Catholicism. Do we present our beliefs in a way which attract people, while being clear about the value of our moral beliefs? For example, in the matter of abortion we may well be seen as enemies to human rights when we remind people that the last time an identifiable group of humans lost their right to life was in the Thirties, in Germany.
And the Church needs to look at itself too. The scandals of child abuse have, and indeed should have, been broadly condemned. And this related not only to the actual abuse but how the Church again and again failed to manage it.
Do we see the active Church in this country as an enthusiastic community, led by fine bishops who work with the laity for the greater good of God – or just an administrative organisation – with its eye always open to Rome? Do our friends envy our Catholicism, or just put up with it as an acceptable quirk?
What do we have to do to increase our percentage in the population rather than to watch it gradually decrease as an old fashioned superstition?
(There is a fine article on this subject by Stephen Bullivant in the Tablet, 27 July, if you can get hold of a copy.)