A beautiful Church for the poor

St Patrick’s, Soho: where beauty and service of the poor meet (Getty)

It is no secret that Catholic worship has become less beautiful. JF Powers, the impish Catholic writer, counted as dear friends many artists who were enthusiastic about liturgical reform at the time of Vatican II. As much as he loved and admired them, he could not approve their work. When he attended Mass at St John’s University in Minnesota, then a centre of reformist ferment, he would sit where the acoustics were worst, in order to minimise the sensory assault of the new church his friends were so earnestly singing into being.

Catholics assert the coincidence of truth, goodness and beauty. It should not surprise us, then, that at the same time Gregorian chant gave way to the guitar Mass, Catholic truth seemed to lose its splendour, suffering mockery and challenge on every side. Nor should it surprise that this crisis in the Church’s worship and teaching has coincided with an utter collapse in the Church’s ministry to the poor.

The ethicist H Richard Niebuhr called sects that appeal to the poor “churches of the disinherited”. Were he alive today, he would perhaps note that over the last 50 years the Catholic Church in the West has become a church for heirs and heiresses – less and less “here comes everybody”, more and more a country club.

Many will baulk at this suggestion. American Catholics like to see themselves as the striving sons of immigrants, and English Catholics are more likely to identify with the labouring Irish than with the aristocratic atmosphere of recusancy. Across the Catholic world, liberal humanitarians and liberation theologians vie to present themselves as heralds of the downtrodden.

Perhaps this is why so few have noticed that in the West, the Catholic Church has turned its back on the poor. In 2009, a team of researchers from Penn State and the University of Nebraska published a paper called “The Continuing Relevance of Family Income for Religious Participation”. It showed that the Church has become uniquely unable to attract low income people. Though it focuses on the US, every bishop should read it.

The researchers found that, whereas rich and poor Protestants attend church with almost equal frequency, church attendance for Catholics varies widely by income. The poorest Catholics attend Mass only a few times a year while the richest go two or three times a month. (The difference is much starker among white Catholics than among Latinos, whose ethnic parishes are better at bridging the class divide.) The effect of income on church attendance is especially strong for those who live on the margins – those with few social ties, part-time workers, the young and old.

Philip Schwadel, John D. McCarthy, Hart M. Nelsen








It was not always so. In the same study, researchers examined three Catholic age cohorts: those who were born before 1941, and so matured before the Second Vatican Council; those who were born between 1941 and 1960, and so came of age during it; and those who were born after 1960. Comparing these groups leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: Vatican II may have opened up a window to the world, but it closed the Church’s doors to the poor.

Catholics who came of age before the Council showed the same pattern of church attendance as Protestants. Income had little effect. During the Council that began to change. The researchers found that “the difference in attendance between low income white Catholics and middle/high income white Catholics is considerably greater for the post-1960 cohort than for the pre-1941 cohort” and that “low income white Catholics born after 1960 have particularly low levels of church attendance, regardless of age.” They then ask: “Did the Church do something to discourage attendance among low income Catholics during this time period? Are we seeing lagged effects of Vatican II?”

It is not that poor Catholics suddenly ceased to believe. Surveys find that they are more likely than rich Catholics to describe themselves as religious, to find strength and comfort in religion, and to view the Bible as the literal word of God.

They also remain stubbornly loyal. According to the researchers, one reason poor Protestants have higher religious participation than poor Catholics is that they are much more willing to try out a new denomination, while poor Catholics tend to attend a Catholic church… or none at all. In 2008, the US Religious Landscape Survey found that 35 per cent of people born in Protestant churches switched to a new church, while only 18 per cent of Catholics jumped ship from Peter’s Barque.

The researchers suggest a variety of reasons for the alienation of the poor. One may be that they feel a “stigma” because of their inability to conform to upper-class manners and dress. The researchers also suggest that a focus on social justice in religious contexts “can reinforce a hierarchical division between those who provide and those in need”. “Has the US Catholic Church been, consciously or not, pursuing a policy emphasising the suburban niche?” they ask.

Though they no longer come to Mass, the poor have not ceased to be with us. Ten per cent of US Catholics have annual family incomes of less than $20,000 (£16,000) and 20 per cent have annual family incomes of less than $30,000 (£24,000). These are the people to whom the Church can no longer speak.

Mary Douglas, a great anthropologist and devout Catholic, saw this coming. When the bishops of England and Wales lifted the obligation for Friday abstinence, they suggested there was something untoward in the gusto with which Irish labourers observed the fast. Surely, the bishops believed, such outward observance would be better replaced by the more careful and thoughtful cultivation of an interior state of penitence and sorrow, perhaps complemented by a charitable gift?

Such anti-ritualistic arguments were made all across the Catholic world during and after the Council. Douglas, who had studied ritual among primitive tribes, bristled at them. She believed the bog Irish were being treated unfairly because of “a blank in the imaginative sympathy of their pastors”. The hierarchy had been made, “by the manner of their education, dull to non-verbal signals, and insensitive to their meaning”. They came to prefer ethical stances to ritual observance, and so they forgot how to speak to the poor.

For people who have not had the time and training necessary for cultivating a refined interior life or exquisite set of ethical commitments, a simple task like abstaining from meat gives the Christian life a meaning and shape that is no less profound for being inarticulate. In abolishing practices that poor Catholics had treasured for so long, the bishops acted with such violence that it is hard not to see it in terms of class war.

Of course, the Catholic faith is about divine mysteries, not human rituals, however treasured. Thomas Aquinas distinguished ceremonial forms from what was essential to the sacraments. While the sacraments were instituted by God, the form of celebration was determined by man.

This distinction is what gave the fathers of the Second Vatican Council the boldness to tamper with the most ancient rites of the Church. Yet Aquinas saw something that too many in that time did not: ritual cannot be dispensed with and should not be disparaged. We need solemn ceremonial forms not because they are essential but because humans have always tended to comprehend the profound through the trivial.

We need fixed and tangible ways of perceiving divine mysteries. This is why Aquinas defends not only the importance of ritual but also the use of images in Church. He offers three arguments. First, images are necessary for the instruction of simple people. Second, they aid the memory by daily presenting the example of the saints. Third, they help to excite devotion.

Really, though, Aquinas’s three reasons are one. Though he first defends images as useful for the instruction of simple people, he then goes on to explain why they are useful to us all. For learned and unlettered alike, memory is imprinted and emotion aroused “more effectively by things seen than by things heard”. Aquinas was sophisticated enough to realise that all men are simple. If the poor need art and ritual, so does everyone.

It is beautiful to see when Catholics live out this truth. At St Patrick’s Church in Soho, central London, one can come for the reverent liturgies celebrated in the sanctuary, or for the hot food served at the soup kitchen in the crypt. Some come for both. When these homeless people arrive, they do not find any trace of condescension. At meal’s end, the volunteers sit alongside the guests of the soup kitchen and sing the praises of a God who took on humility.

Only when we realise our own poverty will there be a return to beauty, and only when the Church returns to beauty will she once again attract the poor. We welcome the poor into our churches whenever we greet with holy images and solemn rites One who approaches us from the east. If, however, we refuse proper welcome to the poor and their Lord, there will continue to be burning instead of beauty.

Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things

This article first appeared in the February 24 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here