Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Statistical decline of the Church

Inspired by some discussion on Twitter about the Church's failure to oppose the legalisation of abortion in the 1970s, effectively, I'm reposting this from April 2013. And with apologies for not posting for so long.


Counter-cultural young ladies at the Family Retreat
 As I wrote in the last post, contrary to the gremlins which have falsified the figures for mid-century ordinations in England and Wales on the Vocations Office website, the Catholic Church was riding high by every conceivable measure in the middle of the 20th century. Figures for ordinations and the like peak in or shortly after the 1960s. This is true all over the West: outside the Communist bloc, throughout Europe and North America. Vatican II and the subsequent reforms took place at precisely the time the decline commenced. QED.

Actually, it is not as simple as that. For the Church's difficulties coincided with very similar problems for a whole range of other organisations. As I have blogged before, membership organisations of all kinds grew rapidly in the first half of the 20th century, and began to decline in the 1970s. Not only that, but a number of other measures of 'social capital', such as whether people trust strangers or know their neighbours, rose and declined in exactly the same way. It is an extraordinary phenomenon.

A public sign of penance, on Ash Wednesday in Oxford
 Previously I blogged about how commuting times and television have made it much harder to get people to come to face-to-face meetings, which were so characteristic of life in the mid-century: clubs and dinner parties, or of course sodalities and parish groups. Another important factor is the increased female rate of participation in the workforce: women who didn't go out to work had more time to maintain the social fabric of their communities. These go some way to explaining the decline of the Freemasons, poker-playing clubs, and what have you.

At least to some extent, trends of church-going can be explained in the same way: people don't want to spend their time in that way. And church-going has declined across the denominations.

Can the difficulties of the Catholic Church be put down to social factors, then? No. The explanation won't work.
Counter-cultural young men, Good Friday with the FSSP in Reading
Robert Putnam's great study of this phenomenon, 'Bowling Alone', looks with great care at all sorts of correlations to see what can explain the general decline of what he calls 'social capital'. TV, commuting, and female participation in work are all important factors, in that order. His figures show, interestingly, that Americans, at least, don't work longer hours, or move house more frequently, than in former decades, so those factors can be set aside. But there are two other issues: one is a huge correlation to the baby-boom generation. The other is that his efforts leave about 20% of the shift in behaviour unexplained.

Looking at what people did when at the age of 20, 30, 40, or 50 allows us to detect changes in behaviour between generations: people who were 20 in 1975 behaved differently from those who were 20 in 1955, and so on. Putnam says the baby-boom generation, coming of age in the late 1950s onwards, are less sociable: they do less of all the 'social capital' things he is interested in, including church-going. This observation is not exactly an explanation: why did they behave differently? The closest Putnam comes to an answer is 'values'. Annoyingly, he doesn't compare his results with surveys of social attitudes; perhaps comparable historical data does not exist. But he must be right: there was an ideological shift.

This would also explain the 20% gap of explanation in everyone else. Why, says Putnam, do even those people living essentially 1950s lifestyles in the 1980s - wife not going out to work, living in a small town, not watching TV morning noon and night, etc. etc. - why do even these people, once statistically isolated, still show declines of church-going, dinner-party giving etc.? Well, if the baby-boomers had a distinct ideology, it is hardly surprising that even some of the older generation picked this up to an extent as time wore one.
Putnam's summary pie chart, from 'Bowling Alone' p284.

(Putnam's pie: 'Work' includes women going to work; 'Sprawl' includes commuting to work and also to less local shops. The overlap between TV and 'Generational Change' is the difference made by growing up with TV in explaining why the younger generation is less socially engaged. Other factors, which Putnam attributes vaguely to 'values', explains the rest of the 'Generational Change' segment. 'Other' is the part he can't explain at all.)

In other words, the 'social change' explanation of the Church's decline gives a very large space for change as a result of changing values or ideology, as well as things like commuter times and the invention of the telly. We cannot say that the Church is simply a victim of this change, because, particularly looking back to the mid century, the Church is a major player in the formation of values. And as we all know, one of the effects of the 'Spirit of Vatican II', in the lead up to the Council and after it, was a deliberate policy of not resisting the values of the new generation.

Canon Meney ICKSP joins the Walsingham Pilgrimage last year.
It is true that other churches were also effected. But then other churches took very much the same line, for similar reasons and at the same time.

The 1960s saw a social revolution which was fundamentally hostile, not only to the Church, but to all kinds of institutions essential to social cohesion. It was precisely this moment which the Church chose to give up, or seriously tone down, its campaign against these values. The new values could, I suppose, be summarised as materialism, or alternatively an interest in crack-pot spirituality (or sometimes both); and an individualism which rejected all kinds of rules. On the one hand, the Church seemed to be doing extraordinarily well, with full seminaries and lots of converts over the previous decades; on the other, there was great pressure to let people off the leash a bit. So the Church (speaking loosely) did what schools, universities, professional associations, governments and religious groups of all kinds did: let things hang out a little.

I don't think it was the Holy Spirit. The fruits of it speak for themselves. Now we are picking up the pieces, Bl. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict have had to remind us that the Church must be counter-cultural. We can't afford to accommodate the culture of the day, because it is hostile to the Faith. We must stand up against it, and teach our children to stand up against it. We need to do, in fact, what was second nature to the Church before the Second World War, which also existed in a hostile environment, not so much one of hedonistic materialism but of anti-Catholic bigotry: we have to make sure we have a completely secure grip on the facts and arguments of the Faith, conform ourselves to Christ, and put up with the enemies of the Faith ridiculing us for it. And this is something we can and must do in the liturgy itself.

Bishop Rifan at Mass for the LMS Pilgrimage to Holywell, North Wales

Let me end with two quotations.

Pope Benedict:
It may well be that kneeling is alien to modern culture—insofar as it is a culture, for this culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the One before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture. The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel...

Bl. Pope John Paul II:
the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.

See the FIUV paper on Western Culture.


  1. It is now becoming increasingly difficult for Catholic to live in the spirit of the world and to continue to be a faithful Catholic. Sooner or later they will have to chose between the Church and (post) modern society. This has already started to happen with gay marriage and things are likely to get much worse.

  2. Personally, I think we will, as Pope Benedict XV1 said, have to accept a smaller Church, and start again.

    A Church in which Catholic Faith and doctrine are clearly and authoratively taught to generations and expressed though a living Continuing liturgy, whether that standardised by St Gregory the Great or the N.O. re-formed in line with inherent intent of Sacrosanctum Concilium.
    They will not be so different!

  3. However, one could as well say "The 1980s saw a social revolution which was was fundamentally hostile, not only to the Church, but to all kinds of institutions essential to social cohesion. It was precisely this moment which the Church chose to give up, or seriously tone down, its campaign against these values. The new values could, I suppose, be summarised as materialism, or alternatively a conviction that the market would resolve all problems; and an individualism which rejected all kindness. On the one hand, the Church seemed to be doing well, with full seminaries and lots of converts over earlier decades; on the other, there was pressure to concentrate on the defeat of communism and socialism at the expense of any efforts at alertness to the scandal of sexual abuse, or of efforts to pay any attention to social justice."

    1. Every decade brings fresh challenges to the Church. But the 1980s can't be described as a social revolution, and the statistics tell us that the decline began in the arly 1960s - 20 years earlier.

    2. In a sense, the 1980s saw a revolution in terms of ideology. The defeat of Soviet Communism and subsequent ending of the Cold War, meant that people no longer saw the world as split by ideological differences that represented the Good and the Bad very clearly. I wonder whether this has caused many people to adopt a relativistic worldview - ideals and idealism are just not part of culture and religion is, consequently, incomprehensible.

    3. The decline kicked in before that. Cardinal Heenan is very good on the American problem as early as the 1950's. He also encountered problems with John XIII and the Italian curia in 1960. (Italy and West Germany were both vassal states controlled by Washington). In crude terms, the Council was a a sort of "debt for equity" swap and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

  4. More please Joseph! We need your clarity.

  5. is it really quite as simple as: Traditional Catholicism all good and perfect in every way (so that only idiots would ever want to change anything in it), the modern world all bad? Many people in the modern world who probably do not subscribe to a religion are more and more concerned for the natural world and its survival, seeing the human race as stewards of creation, as the churches should have taught, but did not always, even encouraging the opposite of view of dominance and lordship. Is this not a sign of an authentic God-centred spirituality? You cannot confine the latter to believing doctines and practising rituals. Religion can so easily became a matter of mere Sunday observance with no connection with the rest of life - and what is the point of that?

    1. Once again the mask slips, Savoranola. You want us to think you are a sincere reader who deserves engagement, but you some out with a statement about my views you know perfectly well, as a regular reader, is false. Please stop commenting on my blog.