Vatican II and the internet have brought consumer choice into churchgoing. Some see that as a danger – but with imaginative leadership, it could be an opportunity

When you go to Mass on Sundays, do you shop around? Thirty years ago, that question would have struck most Catholics as bizarre, even in poor taste. They supported their local parish, even if they didn’t feel terribly comfortable there.

If they “shopped around”, it was only between Masses, not churches. They might go to the 10 o’clock because it was a folk Mass and they liked “Colours of Day”. (Note to younger readers: there was a time when some people genuinely enjoyed singing that stuff, whose jazzy harmonies they found excitingly “edgy”. They thought Russ Abbot’s Madhouse was edgy, too. A different world.)

Alternatively, they might give the folk Mass a wide berth and go to the more staid services at 8am or 6pm. Either way, the vast majority of Catholics were at the mercy of their parish priest and his curate. If they preached a good sermon – this was before the ghastly holier-than-thou word “homily” was universal – then fine. Of course, opinions differed as to what constituted a good sermon. My strong preference as a child was for ones lasting less than ten minutes, and I suspect I wasn’t alone. In any case, you put up with what you got.

Likewise, if the church building was a gloomy 1950s barn savagely “re-ordered” on the instructions of the bishop, then you just shrugged. You could, in theory, drive to a Catholic church whose vaulted nave made the spirits soar – but, unless you lived in London, that would involve a round trip of 150 miles. (Not entirely the hierarchy’s fault, despite their taste for suburban neo-brutalism: our buildings are ugly because our heritage was stolen from us.)

And, anyway, the vast majority of the faithful didn’t expect, or even want, the Mass to meet their aesthetic requirements. They were there because attendance was an obligation – maybe a tiresome one, maybe a sacred one, often a mixture of the two.

The power of that obligation was tremendously strong. My parents never missed Mass. Nor did their parents. Whenever we were visited by a pious relative whose child had stopped going to church, “prayers for a lapsed daughter” would be added to the priest’s Mass intentions. Lapsed! The horror of that word. The same relative had strong views on priests – “Oh Lord, not another stage Irishman” – but she would never have risked her immortal soul by missing a Mass said by even the most annoying cleric.

Putting up with a dislikeable PP was part of being a “Roman Catholic”, as Catholics were invariably called by Anglicans labouring under the misapprehension that the apostolic succession had survived the Reformation intact. The burden became even heavier after the Second Vatican Council, when you might find your dyspeptic parish priest, big on Novenas, First Fridays and hellfire, replaced with no warning by Fr Look At Me, who would set his eyes to twinkle mode before leaving the sanctuary to deliver his “homily” à la Bruce Forsyth.

Lots of Catholics welcomed the change, which was rarely as dramatic as I’ve just suggested; equally, lots didn’t. But there was no easy solution. Moving to a neighbouring parish was nothing like as unthinkable as missing Mass, but a big step nonetheless. Did you really want to abandon the building (unlovely to architectural critics, but not to you) where your parents had married and you’d been baptised?

It was many years before patterns of Catholic church attendance changed, except in one predictable respect. Young people stopped going to Mass, in such numbers that observant parents gave up the fight; I doubt there have been many “prayers for a lapsed daughter” (or son) announced from the lectern over the past two decades. The loss of young worshippers coincided with a growing shortage of priests.

That left old and middle-aged practising Catholics in a strong position. In the jargon of Vatican II, they became “empowered laity” – two words that always send a chill down my spine. There are few places more depressing than a parish effectively run by a circle of bossy lay people for whom the opinion pages of The Guardian are Holy Writ.

All over Britain, local churches were taken over by cliques of liberal Catholics who shared out various “ministries” between themselves. There was no grand conspiracy: in lots of places, these were the only Catholics remotely interested in doing anything. If priests hasn’t deferred to them, parish life would have ground to a halt. Also – and this is an uncomfortable truth for conservative Catholics – many of these “spirit of Vatican II” activists were also kind and self-sacrificing folk who visited lonely pensioners and brought the Blessed Sacrament to people in hospital.

The real problem was an ossified institutional culture that sucked the life out of Catholic parishes all over the developed world. In England and Wales, that culture seemed impregnable.

Although we were spared the worst of the paedophile scandals, and the emptying of churches was not quite so dramatic as in continental Europe, nearly every time a see fell vacant it was filled by a middle-manager bishop who was determined to preserve the status quo. He might talk about evangelisation, but in practice this simply meant inviting locally entrenched busybodies to form yet another committee to study “best practice”.

And then, to everyone’s surprise, the forces of what economists call “creative destruction” were unleashed – thanks to the internet.

To cut a long story short, the homogenised parish culture embraced by the Bishops’ Conference began to dissolve, as previously isolated Catholics who yearned for a more orthodox but dynamic spirituality seized the opportunity to talk to each other.

Arguably, blogs and social media merely reflected changes that were already quietly under way. Shrinking religious groups – and no one could dispute that Western Catholicism fell into this category – tend to become more conservative and culturally distinctive: witness the growing prominence of charismatic Evangelical Christians, strictly Orthodox Jews and Salafi Muslims in their respective communities.

Conservative Catholics were beginning to benefit from this trend. Unlike Evangelicals, Jews and Muslims, however, they had to confront many layers of hierarchies ­– including the lay hierarchy of their local parishes.

Digital communication enabled them to bypass those hierarchies. Suddenly they could compare notes, draw public attention to the mediocrity of their pastors and make direct contacts with Vatican officials (including cardinals) who shared their vision of revived orthodoxy.

“Disruption”, the buzzword of online entrepreneurs, arrived in local parishes. Sometimes it took the form of traditionalist Catholics demanding the access to ancient liturgies that had been granted to them by Pope Benedict but was being blocked by their bishops and parish priests.

But far more significant was a move towards shopping around.According to research by the new Benedict XVI Centre at St Mary’s University, Catholics aged 24 to 45 are more observant than those aged 45 to 64. And, although the research didn’t address this question, my strong impression is that in certain respects they are also more conservative.
They demand a more disciplined and prayerful liturgy than they find in their parents’ parish churches; they are turned off by the naïve, left-wing platitudes of the “justice and peace” lobby. Some of them carry rosaries with them – a useful devotional distraction should they find themselves trapped in a Mass where caterwauling ex-hippies are still in charge of the music.

For Catholics in this age group, shopping around is second nature. Until recently, their opportunities to exercise consumer choice in their spiritual lives were limited. Now, however, the barriers to choice are disappearing.

Priests of their own generation share their preferences and celebrate liturgies that offer them a satisfying aesthetic experience (which is not to say that they are reducing Mass to an aesthetic experience, though it may look that way to older liberals).

But the chances are that these Catholics won’t find the worship they enjoy in the parish where they live. Since they tend to be concentrated in or around London, where high-quality liturgy and evangelisation is relatively easy to find, this doesn’t bother them too much. They take their custom elsewhere.

The Bishops of England and Wales aren’t happy with this pattern of churchgoing. That’s understandable. The territorial parish has been the foundation of Catholic life for nearly 2,000 years; to replace it with mobile congregationalism endangers the precious catholicity of the Church.

But we can’t escape reality. The old model is broken. The bishops helped to break it, thanks to their own control-freak tendencies, but it would have collapsed anyway, just as its equivalent has in the Church of England.

Can it be reconstructed? Should it be? These are difficult questions to answer, but the first step is to ask them. This is not really happening.

Recently I met Cardinal Péter Erdő, the Hungarian president of the bishops’ conferences of Europe, whose magisterial address at the opening of the recent family synod stopped it falling into factional chaos. He would like to see the Church hold a synod on the parish, which he recognises is in crisis all over Europe.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen. But if our bishops were to spend more time reflecting on the changing culture of the parish – as opposed to merely working out how many they need to close – then they might begin to move in the right direction.

Put crudely, they need to swim with the tide of revival. Instead of relying on tired secular ideology for examples of “best practice”, they should fix their gaze on the parishes where traditional Catholic spirituality is attracting young worshippers. They need to ask why this is happening. Again, the answer is not obvious – but the thing these parishes have in common is the very high calibre of the priests who lead them.

These priests are not held hostage by “empowered laity” – yet, paradoxically, they seem to have deeper and more productive relationships with their flock than old-style pastors who make a great show of devolving ministry to activist parishioners. They are natural leaders, though only rarely are they given the opportunity to exercise those gifts as bishops.

For over 20 years now, the calibre of new priests has been steadily rising, to the point where the Church in England and Wales no longer faces a crisis in the priesthood.

Given this happy situation, we should be able to solve the crisis in the parishes. The Catholic Church is, however, an organisation divinely ordained to be led by bishops. Unfortunately, our bishops are wary of leadership. So perhaps the most pressing question of all is: how do we break this vicious circle?

Damian Thompson is associate editor of The Spectator and editorial director of the Catholic Herald.

This article first appeared in the July 1 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.