Comment Comment and Features

It’s not Vatican II’s fault

Paul VI greets the faithful at the end of the Council on December 8 1965 (CNS)

It is no secret that a great many baptised Catholics are, in the parlance of one of our bishops, “resting”.

Forty-eight per cent never attend Mass; one in three claims to have “no religion”. A moment’s reflection, however, confirms that it cannot ever have been thus. The Catholic birthrate would need to be vastly above average (it isn’t) to break even, let alone grow, in the face of such attrition. So when, exactly, did the haemorrhage begin? And why?

One need not spend long in the left-footed reaches of the internet to find a definitive answer to both questions: Vatican II. Precisely how the Council Fathers conspired to commit “ecclesicide” might be endlessly debated, but the culprit itself is never seriously in doubt. And,it has to be said, a first glance at the evidence doesn’t look good for the council’s counsel.

Using British Social Attitudes data,it is possible to gauge the proportion of Catholics born in a given decade who still identified as such in adulthood. Seventy-eight per cent of cradle Catholics born between 1915 and 1924 retained their Catholic identity: a 20th-century high. In fact, every cohort prior to the end of World War Two has a retention rate of
more than 70 per cent. Not so for those born in 1945-54, however. The baby boomers were the ones approaching adulthood during Vatican II itself: their retention rate is only 61 per cent. The next two cohorts, the true “post-conciliars” born in 1955-74, fared even worse: 57 per cent apiece. The laity did not so much “come of age” at Vatican II, a cynic might say, as pack up and leave the family home.

Fortunately, I am not a cynic. And nor, I think, need you be. Post Concilium, ergo propter Concilium – the notion that because something happened after the council it is necessarily caused by the council – is by no means so obvious as such statistics might suggest. This is so for two reasons.

The plummeting graph lines one sees from the 1960s onwards (in all areas of Church life, not just regarding identity) are not at all exclusive to Catholicism. The Church of England, for example, publishes its statistics on all manner of things: confirmations per parish, number of baptisms as a proportion of live births, total of Easter and Christmas communicants, and so on. They all show the same pattern: consistent levels in the first half of the 20th century, perhaps even with a slight rise in the late 1950s, and then swift and unambiguous decline, from the 1960s to the present day.

Similar stories can be told for every major denomination – only one of which, be it noted, held an ecumenical council at more or less the watershed moment. What it was about the 1960s that precipitated all this is keenly debated among sociologists and social historians. Strangely though, none of them regard either guitar Masses or female altar servers as the primary drivers.

While decline since the 1960s has been dramatic, it certainly did not arise out of nothing. The pre-war retention rates may look aspirational to us, but they still amount to around one in every four cradle Catholics coming to see themselves as something else: in most cases, then as now, as having “no religion” at all.

Moreover, even in these early cohorts “disaffiliates” outstrip converts by around three to one. Immigration, of course, helped to mask the problem (as it still does, to a lesser extent). But beneath the shamrock wallpaper, the cracks were growing.

Elsewhere in Europe, swathes of France were designated “mission territories” in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1950s Germany, both Joseph Ratzinger and Karl Rahner expressed concern over, in the former’s phrase, “a new paganism, growing inexorably within the heart of the Church”.

St John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council “in order to give the Church the possibility to contribute more effectively
to the solutions of the problems of the modern age”. Theological Modernism had earlier offered its own, false answers to those problems. But the Church’s rejection of Modernism, necessary as it was, didn’t make the problems themselves disappear. Vatican II’s solutions, and the different ways in which they were interpreted and implemented, may or may not have helped: that is a wholly separate question – or rather, a whole host of them.

Nevertheless, the beginnings of our current pastoral crises assuredly predate the council, and in any case – as noted above – they are by no means Catholic-specific. (We might also observe that at least in certain areas, such as retention and church attendance, Catholics are doing somewhat better than most denominations.)

To accuse Vatican II of being the cause of disaffiliation and “resting”, therefore, is rather like blaming Trent for the rise of Protestantism.

Stephen Bullivant is consulting editor of the Catholic Herald and senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (27/3/15).

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