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Review: Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II by Stephen Bullivant

A few weeks ago, I was at Mass in my local Church on a Holy Day of Obligation – the Feast of All Saints. There were more than a few people there. However, looking around, aside from one family, I would be fairly confident in guessing that I was the youngest person there, by a reasonable distance. And, being in my mid-forties, I am no spring chicken either.

Being a weekday, of course people have to work. Mass was at 9 in the morning and most probably do not have the option of flexi-time that allowed me to go to Mass before starting work at ten. Those that were there, I would say aside from the young family, were, to a person, past working age.

This was the only Mass in the Parish that day. Possibly some that could not make the 9 am Mass that morning were able to find alternatives either before or after work. Being in Dublin provides such options.  But how many would manage this?

The situation looks quite stark. A Holy Day of Obligation for a Catholic is just that – an obligation – yet so many were absent. In the same Church, on a Sunday, there are three Masses, and one on a Saturday evening. They all get a fair crowd. Neither full nor empty. But the demographics are not representative of broader society. There is a mix, and the situation is not as extreme as it seems on the 1st of November, but the population pyramid would certainly be an inverted triangle.

In Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II, author Stephen Bullivant looks at the phenomenon of Catholics leaving the Catholic Church in both the UK and the US from the early 1960s to the present day. The parallels between the two geographies are striking. Disaffiliation, lapsing, leaving the Church, along with other religions, has been on a steady increase over the last sixty years.

That isn’t surprising. Anyone with any sense – even if not living in those countries – can tell there has been, and continues to be a marked shift. But the figures are startling. In the UK, 44% of people born and ‘raised’ Catholic (cradle Catholics) no longer identify as Catholic. Almost half. In the US, that figure is one third. Some have moved to other religions (switchers), but most, and in particular in the UK, have no religion.

In the United States, the % of cradle Catholics that attend Mass weekly is (as of 2016), 15%, down from 40% in the early ’70s. In the UK, the figure for 2016 is only slightly higher. Marginally. The % of cradle Catholics who no longer identify as Catholics outnumbers those that practice the faith by multiples in both jurisdictions.

The trends in both places are of constant, consistent decline since the Second Vatican Council. But the trend started before the Council, and indeed, was part of the urgency for having the Council. The author acknowledges this and dedicates his final chapter to assessing whether the Council helped or hindered in this regard. Much like the abuse crisis in both jurisdictions, it helped the process along, accelerated it slightly, but it was already in train.

What would the trend look like in Ireland if assessed over the same period. Without the data, but looking back to the 1980’s, a time which mirrored possibly the early 60s in the UK and the US, where nearly everyone went attended Mass weekly. Whether though devotion, social norm, or for other reasons, the decline probably started later in Ireland. But likely much more rapid when it eventually did happen, compressing decline into a shorter period of time, even more greatly accelerated by the clerical abuse crisis.

But where are we now? The 2016 census in Ireland found that 78.3 per cent of the population still identified as Roman Catholic although an Iona Institute (Amarach) survey in 2011 which probably gives a closer answer to how people feel they identify, put the figure at 69%. A 2012 survey of Irish Catholics undertaken by the Association of Catholic Priests found the weekly mass attendance rate to be 35% compared to the Iona  figures from 2011 at 30%. Ten years’ later, that figure is likely to be much lower although a European Social Survey in 2016 put the weekly figure at 36%.

None of this gives the same level of granularity or consistency that Bullivant is able to garner where data is collected regularly in both the US and the UK on these questions the British Social Attitudes survey, the General Social Survey (US), having access to data that asks two levels of questions: in what religion were you raised, and what do you identify as today (with all the additional information that can then be gleaned from have this differentiation).

While Bullivant is able to draw conclusions, which he admits are also assumptions, as to the myriad of intersecting reasons why religious practice for Catholics and non-Catholics has declined, due to internal and external reasons, the answers are not so easy to come by.

One area that stands out from his assessment, is that those born immediately after the Second World War, – the Baby Boomers- are a ‘watershed’ generation, in that these were the parents who produced the first wave of less religious children. This generation were brought up religious/Catholic but a myriad of factors contributed to them being less effective in passing those onwards – including how the Second World War affected their parents.

There is much to be learned, and many questions still to be answered from Bullivant’s research as the trend of leaving religion continues in Ireland and in our Anglophone neighbours. The perception from the 1st of November 2022 is only one anecdote, and the plural of anecdote is not data.

The situation of the Church in Ireland is likely to reflect that of the UK and the US after a much more precipitous decline. But the real question one may need to ask is how many young people are going to Mass at all, as the anecdotes point to a demographic cliff-face approaching.



Mass Exodus: Catholic disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II

  • Author : Stephen Bullivant
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ OUP Oxford; 2nd ed. edition (30 May 2019)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 336 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0198837941
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0198837947



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