Thursday, November 23, 2017

Disappearing 'Catholic Guilt' or disappearing Catholics?

Reposted from March 2013. This reflects the ecclesial situation before Pope Francis, but the observations about the nature of the 'Catholic population' identified in surveys is still relevant.
Venerating Our Lady of Walsingham at the conclusion of the LMS Pilgrimage
The Sensible Bond draws attention to a little-reported survey of attitudes which claims that Catholics feel little or no more compunction about immoral behaviour than the general population. He links that to the recent scandal about Cardinal O'Brien - which is very interesting, but here I'm just going to focus on the survey.

The Religion and Society Programme of the University of Lancaster has a helpful page with details of a long list of 'research findings'. The stuff about Catholic guilt is not to be found there, however, but in a press release. It is based, not on a study by sociologists, but an opinion poll by YouGov. The sample size of more than 4,400 sounds impressive, but it was conducted over the internet, and they only reached 391 self-described Catholics. This self-description, translated, in the Press Release, into the term 'practicing Catholic', comes down to whether they 'currently engage in religious or spiritual practices with other people, for example attending services in a place of worship or elsewhere, or taking part in a more informal group', where the 'group' etc. is Catholic for 'Catholics', or Anglican for 'Anglicans'. There is no reference to frequency of this vague spiritual interaction, so it would presumably include non-baptised people who go to their late work-colleagues' Catholic funerals once a decade. And if readers don't know a lot of serious-minded Catholics who'd never find themselves filling in an on-line poll, they need to get out more.

So I'd assume the survey would come out with results typical of the vast number of more-or-less lapsed Catholics, the sort of people who turn up at Midnight Mass and the occasional funeral. What does it say about them? This is the nub of it.

Would feel guilty if
All non-religious
All religious
Used pornography for sexual stimulation
Used contraception
Had pre-marital sex
Had extra-marital sex

It is clearly not the case that a (probably tenuous) connection with the Catholic Church makes no difference to attitudes. Catholics are twice as likely as non-religious people to see the moral seriousness of pornography, and nearly four times more likely to feel guilty about pre-marital sex. Fornication is not just accepted by secular society, it is pretty well required: to hold out against it is to make an extraordinarily strong statement, with huge implications for one's personal life. And yet a fifth of these 'Catholics' would feel guilty about it. Ok, so the Pentecostalists, Baptists and Muslims do better, but these groups are sociologically incomparable with the Catholic population, let alone the 'Catholic' population, and the sample sizes for those groups are scarcely statistically usable. The reported views of Pentecostalists, for example, are based on the mouse-clicks of only 25 people.

So to some extent we have a re-run here of the infamous survey in the USA which said that 98% of Catholic women were using contraception. (It turned out that NFP was taken as a form of contraception, and everyone wanting to conceive, unlikely to conceive, or not sexually active, was excluded.) However I don't entirely disagree with the Telegraph headline writer: 'Catholic Guilt is a Myth'. The reality is that we have two or even three 'Catholic Churches' to consider.

One is the hard core: the people who go to Mass every Sunday, and take it seriously. Yes, the do exist. I don't mean only people committed to the Traditional Mass, though they are certainly included in this. There are large bodies of very committed 'conservative' Catholics who can be found in selected 'conservative' parishes up and down the country. I've no idea how many there are - that's the frustrating thing. But they can be found among readers of the Catholic blogs and the Catholic Herald, they show up at Latin Mass Society, Evangelium, and Faith Movement events, they staff and support the pro-life groups, and they buy the books produced by Baronius Press, Ignatius Press, and Gracewing, sometimes from St Anthony Communications. We'd certainly notice if they disappeared. From what it is possible to tell, this constituency is growing, not declining.

Then there are the 'Catholics' who have some family connection with the Church, very often reinforced, rediscovered, or just invented for the sake of attending Catholic schools, or for the purpose of having a wedding in a Catholic church. There might be a religious image in the home because it was granny's. They are aware that the Church teaches that fornication and contraception is wrong, and they would describe people who follow this teaching as 'good' (perhaps as 'good-goody'), but despite being baptised and (often) confirmed, they take no notice of that at all. Perhaps a moral theologian could generalise about the likelihood of such people dying without a mortal sin on their souls. The existence of the Catholic school system maintains the numbers of this group, as a sort of penumbra around the visible Church.

More problematic is the third group. I am thinking of more or less 'churchy' people who go to Mass and perhaps get involved in their parishes, but, when asked, turn out not to believe in biblical inerrancy, transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, or the Virgin Birth. Their moral attitudes are those of their secular neighbours, but being more self-conscious about their faith than the second group, they don't just ignore the teaching of the Church, but positively reject it. Their understanding of their relationship with the Church, and the Church's teaching authority, is essentially Anglican. You find these people everywhere, but the age-profile of this group is very tilted towards the 'Vatican II generation', and the Grim Reaper is cutting them down in rows. In twenty years time they will have all but vanished. The letters pages of the Catholic press will be unrecognisable.

The Sensible Bond is correct in saying that Catholic schools and parishes, and the Church in general, have failed to inculcate into most of the 391 people taking this survey the truths of the Faith. But once we break it down, it is easy to see why. For the second of my three groups, there hasn't been any real interest in the Faith since granny passed away, and catechising them at a Catholic school must be like preaching to the heathen. For the third, they postively rejected the teachings of the Church, or most of them, forty years ago (maybe when Humanae Vitae came out), and linger in the pews solely in the expectation that the Church will come round to their own way of thinking. Teaching them, from the pulpit of a Catholic church, must be like appearing on the podium at a Humanist Association meeting.

I'm not saying that catechism in schools and the teaching coming from bishops and others has been as clear and forceful as it should be - certainly not. But there is a reason for this lack of clarity and forcefulness. It is designed, quite deliberately, to keep the second and third groups on board.

What happened in the 1970s was an unprecedented collapse of church-going by adult Catholics. But that was, in fact, only the visible half of an even bigger apostasy. A whole lot more people ceased to believe the Faith in and around that decade, but carried on with some nominal affiliation to the Church; thanks to the allure of Catholic schools, this nominal affiliation can even be passed on to the next generation. In order to maintain the fiction that the Church is far bigger than my first group alone, bishops and catechists have gone to a lot of trouble not to frighten them off, even if they are not members of the second or third groups themselves (as most 'Catholic' school teachers today probably are).

Of course this has made the situation much worse, over time, and has delayed and minimised the revival which is today, finally, beginning to be visible. But rather than say that more than three quarters of Catholics think fornication is morally fine, let us recognise that more than three quarters of the people ticking 'Catholic' on on-line surveys are nothing of the kind, and (with their parents) in most cases haven't been for forty years.

It is a very open question whether the second and third groups will stick around as the great pincer-movement we see beginning really starts to bite: I mean the pincer-movement composed of state persecution, from one side, and newly appointed, orthodox bishops and priests, on the other. I would guess they will find things too hot for them, and their nominal affiliation to the Church will be withdrawn. When that happens, we should recognise that this is to a large extent the after-shock of the apostasy of forty years ago.

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. (1 John 2:19)


  1. From my experience this is a very representational view of the current make-up of the Church at the moment. The question is, how do we go about converting the second two categories to the first, or is that too much to ask?

  2. Well, it could be argued that the behaviour of the Catholic Church and the various sex related scandals which have emerged, made people realise that it was fuelled by a great deal of hypocrisy. In addition, as society became more educated and affluent, it was less willing to be bound by a code of conduct it could see little value in. Has the Church failed to teach theology and religion properly? Perhaps. However, if you look across the world and through history, religion only had a strong grip on morality in poor, uneducated places.

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    2. I fail to see how the recent scandals in the Catholic Church can have any bearing on the rejection of moral values by society(which after all had made up its mind to do so forty years before the scandals came to light). Even if we widen the time-band to include historical misdeeds in the Church we come up against a stumbling block because we must ask ourselves why, despite mocking the moral failings of the Catholic Church for 450 years, its enemies only decided to have a free for all in 1963.
      We can debunk the idea that the rejection of morality has any connection with better education. A large proportion of Britain's children leave school illiterate and with little more knowledge than when they entered, yet neither morality or religion seems to have any grip on them. However, in one sense secular education does act as an effective bar to morality and spirituality in that it purports that it teaches all that there is to know and thereby renders its pupils incapable of acquiring knowledge outside the parameters it has set (what was the other word for it? Are yes, indoctrination!).

  3. Spot on, Joe. A thought-provoking article. Thank you.

  4. Peter B.: why would people follow a code they think has little value if they aren't affluent? I don't get it.

    As it happens, historically a lack of moral principles is more often associated with poverty and lack of education.