Thursday, April 18, 2013

Statistics and the decline of the Catholic Church

2010 04 16_5757
Catholic Voices has picked up some interesting statistics from the Office of Vocations. These show that, while the number of entrants into seminary and ordinations declined precipitously from the 1980s to 2000, it has crept up since then. Last year we had nearly 40 ordinations: well done to everyone who made this possible. This is not, however, news to induce euphoria: we still have a long way to go before we start replacing the priests who are retiring or dying, so many of whom, as everyone knows, were ordained in the glory days of the 1960s.

But what's this? Catholic Voices claims in its headline

'Ordinations to priesthood in England and Wales now higher than the 1950s'
The writer of this headline is displaying what one might charitably call a lack of common sense. The high number of vocations between the 1940s and 1960s is not just an urban myth: just look at the age profile of the clergy, or the physical plant they needed when at seminary. They were building new accommodation wings at Ushaw in the 1960s; they closed it down just a few years ago. The Royal College at Vallodolid, again, was once a seminary in its own right, it now functions as a venue for a propaedeutic year for seminarians - ie they go from there to another seminary. All our seminaries were established before the 20th century (Allan Hall dates from 1975, but it was just moving from Old Hall Green). Now a smaller number of them cater, not only for the seminarians of England and Wales, but also for the Scots not sent to Rome, who now go to Oscott in Birmingham.

Catholic Voices should, therefore, have realised that there is something seriously dodgy about the figures given by the Vocations Office for ordinations before 1980. The first problem is that none of their figures include religious orders, who attracted another set of vocations and put so many of their priests into parishes. These now make a far smaller contribution to our priesthood: many orders in England and Wales have either collapsed to the point of no return, or have actually ceased to exist.

2010 04 16_5798

But even taking this into account - and the priests we used to get from Ireland - the Vocation Office figures are still weirdly low. They give only an 'average', decade bu decade, before the 1980s: 6 a year in the '30s, 18 for the '40s, 45 for the '50s, 65 for the '70s. At a guess, I'd say that these are figures for just one diocese or seminary, say Westminster.

The Rev. Stephen Morgan (@trisagion) has been able to get figures from old Directories which show that between 1930 & 1940 1,539 secular (diocesan) and 794 regular (religious orders) priests were ordained. For that decade, therefore, there was not an average of 18 per year for secular clergy: actually, the average was more than 150. It was more than this in the 1950s.

It is, of course, true, as Catholic Voices says, that we may want to discount the surge in vocations after the Papal Visit in 1982; by the same token we'd discount the surge of convert Anglicans following the ordination of women in the Church of England in the early 1990s, and the current surge following the debate about women bishops in the CofE. One might wonder, with all these blips, if looking at number of ordinations is really the most helpful measure of Catholic life. Why not look at numbers of baptisms, marriages, or Mass attendance?

2010 04 16_5735
This is what Michael Davies wrote in an appendix to his book 'Liturgical Time Bombs' (with my emphasis):

The most evident characteristic of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is that it is shrinking at an incredible rate into what must be termed a state of terminal decline. The official Catholic Directory documents a steady increase in every important aspect of Catholic life until the mid-sixties: then the decline sets in. The figures for marriages and baptisms are not simply alarming, but disastrous. In 1944 there were 30,946 marriages, by 1964 the figure had risen to 45,592-----but by 1999 it had plunged to 13,814, well under half the figure for 1944. The figures for baptisms for the same years are 71,604 (1944), 137,673 (1964), and 63,158 (1999). With fewer children born to Catholic couples each year, the number of marriages must inevitably continue to decline, with even fewer children born-----and so on. Nor can it be presumed that even half the children who are baptized will be practicing their Faith by the time they reach their teens. An examination of the figures for a typical diocese indicates that less than half the children who are baptized  are confirmed, and a report in The Universe as long ago as 1990 gave an estimate of only 11% of young Catholics practicing their Faith when they leave high school.
     Apart from marriages and baptisms, Mass attendance is the most accurate guide to the vitality of the Catholic community. The figure has plunged from 2,114,219 in 1966 to 1,041,728 in 1999 and is still falling at a rate of about 32,000 a year.

      In 1944, 178 priests were ordained; in 1964, 230; and in 1999 only 43-----and in the same year 121 priests died.

Note that figure of 178 ordinations for 1944 Davies gives corresponds to the c.233 average for the 1940s, including regular clergy, which Rev Morgan has established, allowing for the depressing effect of the War. Numbers were presumably higher in the second half of the decade.

Would someone from the Vocations Office or Catholic Voices like to produce comparable figures for the last decade or so, so we can bring Davies' picture up to date?

I think one 'myth' which needs destroying here is that 'gloom-mongers' have ever relied just on the statistics for vocations (or ordinations), and I think that quotation from Michael Davies destroys it pretty comprehensively. 

2010 04 15_5896
What I will say is that there are some very interesting factors at work in this peaking of numbers in the 1960s, not all to do with the Catholic Church. I will look at this in a post tomorrow. What can't be denied is that the numbers did peak at around that time. 

The pictures show the Latin Mass Society Priest Training Conference in St Cuthbert's Seminary, Ushaw. Before it closed. There aren't going to be any more ordinations out of Ushaw, sadly: the cavernous chapel and refectory are silent, the side altars abandoned. The saddest thing is that its reputation for liberalism was so dire that, when it closed, many people pointed out the positive result that it would no longer serve to destroy the vocations of conservative seminarians. 


  1. One word describes the reason for all these declines-contraception. The clergy only have themselves to blame for giving so-called pastoral advice contrary to Catholic teaching for fifty years. How many women do I know who told me their priest said contraception was OK?

    The English Catholic Church has been weakened from within by disobedience clergy and laity. And, it has not changed in recent times...

  2. Another example of a seminary that had an influx in the 1960s and then had to close is St Peter's Seminary in Scotland. Do you know what is to happen to Ushaw? Would be a shame for it to be sold off or left to decline

  3. Andrew was one of the 63,158 baptisms in 1999, though. :-D

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. (Grammar a bit awry first time round.)

    Assuming that this issue arose from a simple mistake, (which is why the UK Vocations site said it would take the tendentious figures down to concentrate instead on those from the last twenty years) I can think of two reasons for the gleeful use of the dodgy statistics: first, to get at/wind up/insult anybody who (or a straw man which) says that a major crisis in the Church in E&W was triggered soon after Vatican II by those who claimed to be acting in its spirit. The other is to advance an agenda of Laicism: the arrogation of priestly functions to lay people.

    Anybody still using the dodgy figures needs to be able to defend himself against that assertion.

  6. The Catholic Directories (Burns, Oates) have the Ordination figures...

    I have dug up 3 sets..

    1964 / 1965 Secular Priests Ordained 129

    1869 / 1870 Secular Priests Ordained 31

    1874 / 1875 Secular Priests Ordained 56

  7. These lucid and accurate paragraphs by Joseph Shaw will, one hopes, be forced upon the attention of the increasingly preposterous blogger David Lindsay, whose sub-Chestertonian paradox-mongering in recent times has included the fantasies (a) that Obama is pro-life, (b) that Ireland, never having really been the right sort of Catholic nation anyhow, should once again be an English colony, (c) that Jimmy Savile was innocent, and (d) that Eric Gill possessed moral stature. Only when demanding complete strangers' money are Mr Lindsay's utterances, however obnoxious, still at least related in some degree to matters of fact.

    Just the other day Mr Lindsay, who used to be capable of thought and with whom I thus sympathised, was rabbiting on about a golden age for the Church - and above all for ordinations - in England and Wales: "There are more Ordinations to the Priesthood in England and Wales now than there were in the 1950s."

    I have no reason to charge Mr Lindsay with conscious dishonesty which might not have occurred. Therefore I shall simply allude to the Houyhnhnms' description of a conspicuous falsehood: "the thing which is not." Sad, sad, sad.

  8. I have never said that Obama was pro-life. I have said, for it is a fact, that Romney wasn't, so that the American Presidential Election was not about abortion, since, hardly for the first time, neither party had nominated a pro-lifer. Romney even derives an income from abortion.

    On Ireland, note the fact that no representative of that government turned up to Sunday's consecration of the Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh. But then, well, see here -

  9. Now Mr Lindsay I think it might be possible that you are using the wrong measures of identity when you question the assertion that Ireland is a Catholic Country. You point to political and material power to support your position. What exactly makes a country Catholic? Is it Catholic because Catholics are in power or possess the wealth or do not face discrimination? I do not think these appropriate measures, I would imagine God wouldn't either.

    As regards the consecration of the Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh, no member of government would dare show up at this event while they are colluding in passing laws that kill the unborn. They would not dare show their faces at this time because they live in a Catholic country and they are trying to pass a law that is against the faith. Furthermore, Cardinal Brady is quite vocally pro-life. So I think their absence is more to do with the Catholicity of the country than anything else.