Statistics are always interesting, but the real question is how they are to be interpreted and the use we make of them. The Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, based at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, has produced a report on the state of Catholicism in this country derived from the British Social Attitudes Survey, which makes fascinating reading. But it is not always heartening reading, though it contains a few pointers in it to a brighter future.
A lot of what the report tells us we already knew, though it is good to have a sound basis for what previously may have only been a hunch. For example, though many people who are brought up Catholic remain Catholic, an awful lot do not: the rate of lapsation is terrifyingly high, and these are people who are not simply “lapsed” in the classical sense, Catholics who do not go to Mass, but baptised Catholics who now deny that they are Catholics at all.
And why does it help to know this? Because, quite simply, it is an antidote to all those who tell us that everything in the garden is rosy, and that what we are doing at present is working and we should continue doing it. Well, it isn’t rosy, and it isn’t working: we need to make profound changes in the way we do things. People who argue for the status quo have, thanks to this report, just had their position seriously undermined, and every Catholic who cares about the Church should rejoice at this.
So it is not all bad news. Moreover, the report points us in the direction we need to take. To quote our report on the report:
The age group most likely to attend Mass weekly or more often is the over-65s (43 per cent). The group least likely to is 18-24-year-olds, at just 14 per cent. But the trend is not straightforwardly one of older people being more observant. Perhaps unexpectedly, the 24-45 age group (about 27 per cent weekly Mass attendance) is more observant than those aged 45-64 (about 21 per cent).
Why are people between 24-45 more likely to go to Mass than people in the 45-64 age group? Is it because the younger generation have been better catechised that their seniors? My guess is that it is so. There may of course be other reasons, such as the availability of places in Catholic schools. But the truth is that people go to Mass because they see a reason to do so; and that reason is made real to them through effective catechesis, and it has long been acknowledged, in some circles at least, that Catholic catechesis has been in the doldrums. That is where the difference needs to be made, and can be made.
The other revelation is that we make so few converts. This too raises questions. Is RCIA too much of a big ask? Again, it is interesting to see where the converts come from: it is very discouraging to see that only a tiny proportion are from “no religion”. Given that we spend so much energy (or so it seems to me) trying to engage with unbelievers, it is very disappointing that our efforts have born to so little fruit. Yet there are places where the Catholic Church makes converts in considerable numbers. One example is South Korea. So what are they doing that we are not?
In the end we need to face up to the fact that our efforts at evangelisation are not as effective as we would wish them to be. This means we need to change. This report is a timely reminder of that, and should be a spur to action.
The full report can be read here.