Did World War II undermine Catholicism?

A walking pilgrimage is a good example of a ‘Credibility Enhancing Display’ (mazur/

Mass Exodus
By Stephen Bullivant
OUP, 302pp, £25/$32.95

Why Catholics Leave, What they Miss, and How They Might Return
By Stephen Bullivant
Paulist Press, 168pp, £15.71/$19.95

Was Vatican II in some way responsible for declining Catholic practice and “affiliation” (people calling themselves Catholics), or is this phenomenon a matter of trends beyond the Church’s control? Focusing on Britain and the United States, Professor Stephen Bullivant, a sociologist of religion at St Mary’s University, London, presents the evidence with precision, while still producing a highly readable book. The thesis of Mass Exodus is that the Church, like other ecclesial bodies, has clearly faced considerable headwinds since the 1960s as a result of wider social forces, but has also made things worse for itself.

Bullivant’s analysis revolves around three key sociological concepts. The first is the role of networks in nurturing belief, or “social network theory”. The denser the social network of believers, the more they are connected with each other (as opposed to non-believers), and the lower will be the rate of lapsation and disaffiliation. The Amish, for example, with their distinctive way of life and close-knit community, have a very low level of disaffiliation. Catholics were never like them, but up to the 1960s there was, to some degree, a “Catholic ghetto” in both the US and Britain where, in a hostile world, they had social support from fellow believers. The community was marked out by customs such as eating fish on Friday, distinctive forms of worship and spirituality, and interest in a common history, particularly of persecution.

The second concept is that of “Credibility Enhancing Displays” (Creds). When a believer does something which manifests his or her faith in a costly way, this demonstrates to others, believers and non-believers alike, that the faith is real. The ultimate example is martyrdom. Others include getting up in the middle of the night to watch before the Blessed Sacrament, completing a long walking pilgrimage, or the community coming together to build a church.

The third concept is the opposite of a Cred: scandals, like clerical abuse, which demonstrate that some well-placed person in a community defined by certain values does not believe those values, or at least does not live them.

What Bullivant shows is that social changes flowing from the Second World War undermined the Catholic community as a social network. War service, evacuation and war-inspired migration mixed the population in unprecedented ways, undermining links of family and place. Post-war slum clearance and suburbanisation, increased travel possibilities, widening opportunities for tertiary education and radio and television took the process several steps further. A less densely networked community is also less able to inspire, and benefit from, Creds.

So much, so inevitable. What difference did the Council make? The set of attitudes, policies and initiatives which have dominated the Church since the Council are characterised by the idea that Catholics should look beyond the community, talk more, and more open-mindedly, to members of other faiths, and not worry about markers of Catholic identity.

Catholic churches have been made to look much less distinctive. Those aspects of Catholic worship and the devotional life most unlike other denominations have been dismantled, and the Catholic martyrs have been downplayed. Many of the largely jettisoned devotions – Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and walking pilgrimages among them – were the very things which had provided opportunities for Creds. And Creds of the past, from the cult of the English martyrs to fine church furnishings provided by the pennies of the poor, were downplayed or actually destroyed.

Those leading these changes thought of themselves as being “with it”, because the younger Catholics were indeed more open-minded, less ghettoised and, being less committed to the faith, less inclined to undertake Creds. Failing to see the downside to this process of community disintegration, the Church’s leadership pushed it on faster and further, at a moment when it would have been wiser to look for ways to counter the effects of unavoidable social changes. In this very simple way, the post-conciliar “orientation” made things worse.

And then, starting in the 1980s but rising in importance over time, came the counter-Creds of the clerical abuse crisis. As Bullivant shows, this has not been a decisive factor in Catholic disaffiliation, but it is a measurable one. In the closing pages of the book, Bullivant notes that in 1955, 75 per cent of self-identified American Catholics told researchers that they had attended Mass in the previous seven days, compared with 42 per cent of Protestants. The Catholic level has since “roughly halved”, while Protestant practice has fallen less sharply, from a lower point. Catholics have weathered the storm less well – in Pope Paul VI’s words, there has been an “auto-demolition”.

Alongside this book Bullivant and a number of co-authors have published the shorter Why Catholics Leave, What They Miss, and How They Might Return, which looks in detail at a survey of lapsed Catholics they undertook for the Diocese of Portsmouth. In this they provide some hints about how parishes can respond to the crisis.