Figures for ordinations and other sacraments in Britain over the last century have been compiled for the first time.
According to the figures, gathered by the Latin Mass Society, the high point for Catholicism was the 1960s, with high numbers of baptisms, ordinations and marriages in 1964, 1965 and 1968 respectively, before a dramatic fall-off in each case. Receptions into the Church peaked in 1959; in recent years they have been just a third of that level.
The number of baptisms today is less than half those in 1964, and the number of Catholic marriages is less than a quarter of those in 1968. But it is ordinations of new priests that have shown the most alarming fall, to only a tenth of the 1965 figure.
Most of the figures in the study go back as far as 1913, giving a remarkable picture of the state of the Catholic Church in England and Wales over a century.
Dr Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, who led the research, said the figures “show unambiguously that something went seriously wrong in the Church in England and Wales in the 1960s and 1970s. Catholics ceased quite suddenly to see the value of getting married, having large families, and having their children baptised. Non-Catholics no longer perceived the Church as the ark of salvation, and ceased to seek admission. Young men no longer offered themselves for the priesthood in the same numbers as before.”
Dr Shaw suggests a connection to “the wrenching changes in the Church at that time introduced by the Second Vatican Council”.
The number of priests in England and Wales rose steadily from 3,838 in 1912 to a peak of 7,887 in 1965, before beginning to tail off. It recovered for a while in the mid-1990s, but fell to 5,264 in 2011. “In this respect we are still living on our capital, and this capital is about to run out,” he said.
In 1965 there were 233 ordinations but since then there has been a steady fall, reaching double figures by 1981. The lowest point was reached in 2009, with only 14 ordinations. 2010 showed a marked improvement, with 23, only to drop again to 16 in 2011.
Because the number of Catholics in England and Wales has increased, the number of priests per 100,000 Catholics has halved since 1947, from 268 to 135 in 2010.
In contrast, the numbers of both men and women joining religious orders, although small, have increased in recent years, according to Sister Cathy Jones, religious life promoter in the National Office of Vocation of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
“The past few years have seen an upturn in people joining the religious life rather than continuing the downward trajectory,” she said.
In 2012, 30 men joined priestly orders, a rise from 19 in each of the three previous years, and the most since 1996. There has also been a significant rise in women joining active orders, from six in 2009 to 23 in 2012.
Sister Cathy attributed this rise to “the way many young Catholics are confident about their faith and want to give their all”, along with “more support structures for people thinking of joining the religious life”.
In the figures released by the Latin Mass Society, baptisms rose to a peak of 137,673 in 1964 before falling to 63,962 in 2010. Catholic marriages rose from 13,201 in 1913 to a peak of 47,417 in 1968 before falling to a low point of just 9,932 in 2008.
Receptions into the Church were at their highest in 1959 with 15,794, but fell away dramatically to a low of 3,829 in 2005 before rising to 5,809 in 2010.
The estimated number of Catholics in England and Wales has increased from 1.8 million in 1912 to just over four million in 2010. When this is taken into consideration, the fall-off in ordinations, baptisms, marriages and receptions is even more stark. From a high point of 10.6 ordinations per thousand Catholics in 1937, the proportion fell to 0.6 in 2010, though this was an improvement on the previous year at 0.3.