News Analysis

The Polish exodus from the UK could contribute to Catholic decline

Pentecost Sunday Mass in a Polish parish in Ealing, west London (Mazur/Catholicnews.org.uk)

Many of the Poles who moved to Britain over the last 15 years are considering a return to their home country, according to recent reports.

When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, Britain offered great opportunities to the young people of a country afflicted by an unemployment rate of about 20 per cent.

Even Poles fortunate enough to have a job earned on average less than a quarter of the salary their compatriots were paid in the UK once Tony Blair had opened the British labour market to them (some seven years before the EU required it).

It was hardly surprising that Poles soon became the largest migrant ethnic group in the UK, peaking at about a million people in 2017.

Since then numbers have fallen to 800,000 and, according to Arkady Rzegocki, the Polish ambassador to the UK, only 27 per cent of those remaining have applied for settled status following Brexit, indicating that vast numbers might be planning to go home.

Some may no longer feel welcome but others might be responding to the same economic imperatives that prompted their migration in the first place – work and a decent standard of living.

Today, the Polish job market is buoyant with unemployment now just over three per cent, meaning that the right conditions exist not only to end the migration but also to entice overseas workers to return.

Should a Polish exodus from the UK occur, it will inevitably affect attendance in Catholic churches and places available at Catholic schools, though it is difficult to predict exactly by how much.

At present Catholics constitute seven per cent of the UK population, compared to 10 per cent in the early 1980s, whereas decline in the Church of England is precipitous, with membership plummeting from 40 to 12 per cent in the same period.

Some commentators have suggested that the stark difference in rates of decline can be explained by the large numbers of Catholic migrants residing here.

Not all Poles practise their faith, but if, for argument’s sake, they tend to lapse at the same rate as British-born Catholics, and if just a quarter of them choose to remain in the UK, then the Church here might lose about 150,000 worshippers.

This would present a sharper rate of decline that would surely give a more accurate picture of the true health of Catholicism in Britain.

Migration is only one part of the picture, of course. The British Social Attitudes survey for 2019 offers penetrating analysis of comparative rates of decline, including for instance a tenacious tribal identity of British Catholics which explains why more than half profess their faith even when they do not go to church.

It also explains that the decline in Christianity is largely generational, with younger people more likely to reject religion than older people.

This is seen most starkly in the Church of England where just one per cent of worshippers are aged 18 to 24 compared to 33 per cent who are over 75.

Atheism and its accompanying ideologies are on the rise, with 52 per cent of people recorded by the latest survey as having no religion, and 33 per cent saying they were either “very” or “extremely” non-religious.

Amid this phenomenon of secularisation, migration from and to EU nations may in the long run prove less relevant than the ability of the Church to persuade children of both indigenous and migrant Catholics to keep the faith.