Unless we truly understand why thousands are leaving the Church in Britain any attempt to spread the faith will flounder

Here are some not so fun facts about Catholicism in contemporary Britain: 1) Two out of every five cradle Catholics now no longer identify as Catholic; 2) A Catholic upbringing is a stronger predictor of having “no religion” in adulthood than it is of being a once-a-month-or-more church-goer; and 3) For every one convert the Church attracts, 10 Catholic children grow up to regard themselves as non-Catholic adults. These are hard facts, in both senses of the phrase.

The numbers come from the respected British Social Attitudes survey. Since 1983, the BSA has been a crucial resource for policymakers and social scientists. Each year around 3,000 adults are interviewed on a wide range of topics, including a number of items relating to religious identity, belief and practice. Pooling several years’ worth of data yields a sizable number of Catholic respondents (in this case, nearly 2,500 cradle Catholics from 2007 to 2011).

Such statistics provide a stark illustration of what St John Paul II began pointing out a quarter of a century ago, in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio: “Entire groups of the baptised have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church.”

Hard numbers do not simply explain why, as John Paul II said, a “new evangelisation of those peoples who have already heard Christ proclaimed” is needed; they also indicate the greatest barrier to it ever making any serious gains in secularised cultures like our own. Simply put, if we don’t address the crisis of transmission and retention, then the “new evangelisation” is doomed before it has really begun. What Benedict XVI referred to as the “creative minority” of Catholics will, by sheer force of numbers, just keep getting more and more minor.
Far be it from me to downplay the urgency of attracting new converts – I am, after all, proud to count myself among the “newly evangelised”. But like the sons of Zebedee in Mark’s Gospel (1:16-20), we ought first to mend our nets if we are serious about becoming fishers of men.

We cannot start mending anything, however, until we gain at least a working knowledge of the nature and scope of the problem. Currently, it would be fair to say that much of our mission – including things into which the Church often pours vast amounts of time, effort and money – is not massively informed by what one might call evidence. That has to change, and fast. That will require paying special attention to what can be learned from the social sciences.

Lapsation and disaffiliation, the very hallmarks of our new mission fields, are a case in point. Everyone agreed with Pope Francis when he said, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, that “it is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition”. But how many are there and who are they? Without accurate answers to these questions, we can have no realistic hope of actually lessening, still less reversing, this urgent pastoral problem.

A large-scale survey like the BSA’s is an admittedly blunt tool. Religiosity is a far richer and more complex thing than can be captured with a small suite of tick-box questions. Nevertheless, it is far more
incisive than mere anecdote and common knowledge, which are all too often the only foundations for our evangelistic endeavours.

As a first step in the right direction, let’s see what pointers might be gleaned from the BSA data. Headline figures first: 62 per cent of those who say they were brought up Catholic still reply “Catholic” when asked if they “regard themselves as belonging to any particular religion”. Meanwhile, slightly over 32 per cent avow “no religion”, with the remaining five or so per cent claiming a different (mostly Protestant) religious identity. Retaining less than two thirds of cradle Catholics is not exactly something to celebrate.

But a bit of perspective can be, if not cheering, then at least illuminating. When compared with the retention rates of Anglicans (52 per cent), Presbyterians (52 per cent), “non-denominationals” (48 per cent), Baptists (36 per cent) and Methodists (34 per cent), it becomes clear that the Catholic Church is clearly doing something right in an evidently challenging context for all Christian denominations. Don’t get too encouraged, though: less than half of “Catholic retainees” attend church at least monthly, and a significant chunk do so “never or practically never”.

But if the Catholic Church is relatively good at maintaining at least some connection, however intangible, with its own, it is markedly less good at attracting anyone new. Of all those in the sample who currently identify as Catholic, only seven per cent were not brought up as one: the second worst conversion rate of all the main Christian groupings. Around 40 per cent of current Baptists and nearly 20 per cent of Methodists, for example, were not raised as such. Given the prominence of the idea of the Catholic convert – Newman and Manning, Chesterton and Greene, Widdecombe and Blair – this ought to give us pause for thought.

When we put both sets of numbers – retentions and conversions – together, the picture looks pretty bleak for all the denominations. Catholic “disaffiliates” dwarf Catholic converts by a factor of 10 to one. Just think at your next Easter Vigil: for every new person coming through the RCIA – over whom we are right to rejoice – 10 people have drifted so far away that they no longer even tick the “Catholic” box on surveys.

The same ratios hold true for Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists. There are no success stories here. The nearest one gets is the non-denominationals only losing two, and the Baptists only losing three, for every one they gain. By painful contrast, the “no religion” category gains 25 for every one it loses. Even less encouraging is that the vast majority of converts to one of the Christian denominations already have had some form of (other) Christian upbringing. Less than one per cent of current Catholics, for instance, were brought up in a non-Christian household.

But who are all these Catholic disaffiliates? It will surprise no one, I think, to learn that they are disproportionately men. Fully 41 per cent of male cradle Catholics, but only 24 per cent of female ones, now identify as having no religion. (Conversely, 32 per cent of female cradle Catholics, but only 21 per cent of male ones, are Catholics who attend church once a month or more.) One need not be patron of the Order of Malta to recognise a “man crisis” in figures like these.

More surprising, perhaps, is the age profile of those who leave. Received wisdom tends to think inactivity and disaffiliation is most prevalent among those in their twenties and thirties. The BSA says differently. Only 54 per cent of cradle Catholics in their forties, and 60 per cent of those in their fifties, still identify as Catholic. Compare those to 66 per cent of twenty-somethings, and 62 per cent of thirty-somethings. None of these proportions give particular cause for complacency, of course. But how many dioceses do you know with vibrant middle-age ministries?

Statistics such as these barely scratch the surface of the kinds of problems the Catholic Church – and pretty well every other Christian community – is facing. My aim is simply to flag up the areas where further research is needed.

Others realised the necessity of this kind of rigorous yet pastorally relevant research a long time ago. The American Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) has been doing it for five decades, and the Australian bishops’ Pastoral Research Office since 1996. Even the Church of England has a longstanding Research and Statistics department. It is high time that the Catholic Church in England, Wales and Scotland caught up. We owe it to the thousands of real individuals – Catholics, former Catholics and maybe even some who are not yet Catholics – that all these numbers actually represent.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/2/15). Also in this week’s issue: John Charmley on how to respond to those who claim Catholicism is not compatible with British values, Mary Kenny glimpses the future of the family and Freddy Gray says we must beware the wristbands that are ruining our lives

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