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Vatican II was meant to be the laity’s ‘coming of age’. So what went wrong?

Vatican II was arguably the biggest meeting in the history of the world (CNS)

We need to understand why there was a 'Mass exodus' after the Council

On October 11 1962, St John XXIII formally opened the Second Vatican Council. Its avowed purpose was, he told the thousands assembled in St Peter’s Basilica, to “really succeed in bringing men, families and nations to the appreciation of supernatural values”. While this would require some “timely changes” to “keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world, and of modern living”, John declared that the Church must “never for an instant lose sight of that sacred patrimony of truth inherited from the Fathers”. Though not oblivious to the crises threatening humanity “at the threshold of a new age”, the future saint’s optimism was both palpable and – as it soon proved – contagious: “For with the opening of this Council a new day is dawning on the Church, bathing her in radiant splendour.”

Vatican II ran until December 1965, outliving its convoker by two and a half years. The Council has a serious claim to being (in John O’Malley’s phrase) “the biggest meeting in the history of the world”. It is not surprising that its teachings, spread across 16 documents and broaching a huge range of topics, defy easy summary. That said, among the more prominent themes is undoubtedly that of the role of the laity: “all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church” (Lumen Gentium 30). That is to say, the laity are the overwhelming majority of baptised Catholics, without whom “the Church would look foolish”, as Newman famously quipped. (Incidentally, this bon mot was not, as often claimed, uttered in response to Bishop Ullathorne asking him: “Who are the laity?” Newman’s elegant formulation, as recorded in his diary, is rather what he wished he had said.)

The prominence Vatican II accorded to the laity is striking, especially in light of prior councils’ reticence on the subject. It declares, for instance, that “the laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvellously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them” (Lumen Gentium 34). As befits those called to ‘‘consecrate the world itself to God’’ (ibid), and possessing their own “apostolate of evangelisation and sanctification” (Apostolicam Actuositatem 6), the laity are thus “not only bound to penetrate the world with a Christian spirit, but are also called to be witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society” (Gaudium et Spes 43).

This stirring vision of the laity has been enthusiastically received among commentators. I have lost count of the number of times I have read that it was only at Vatican II that the laity finally and fully “came of age”.

It is now more than 50 years since the end of Vatican II. According to recently published data, nearly half of all those born and raised in the UK as Catholics no longer consider themselves to be Catholic; the vast majority of these – almost two out of every five British cradle Catholics – claim to have “no religion”. Those leaving Catholicism outnumber converts by a ratio of 10 to 1. Furthermore, among those who still identify as Catholic to pollsters, somewhat fewer than one in three attend church on a weekly basis – roughly the same proportion as attend “never or practically never”.

Meanwhile in the United States, a third of cradle Catholics no longer identify as such, with half of these now being religious “nones”. In the US, there is roughly one convert for every seven who leave.

Towards the end of his detailed and nuanced study of “the collapse of Boston’s Catholic culture”, Philip Lawler observes:

“Today, former Catholics constitute the largest religious bloc in the Boston area. Some of these ex-Catholics have joined other religious bodies. Others take no interest in religious affairs. Still others think of themselves as Catholic, but they neither practise their faith nor honour its teachings. In the opening years of the 21st century, practising Catholics are once again a small minority in Boston.”

Once America’s archetypal Catholic town, Boston may perhaps be a special case. But it is not that special. Leading American sociologist Michael Hout notes: “More than ever, people raised Catholic are leaving; most drop out of organised religion altogether.” In the view of the Fordham historian Patrick Hornbeck, moreover, “deconversion – the process of moving from identification and active engagement with Roman Catholicism to disaffiliation and disengagement – is one of the most theologically significant phenomena in contemporary American Roman Catholic life.”

The same is true not only of Britain, but of a good number of other nations too, and on several continents. This fact has been acknowledged for at least 40 years by the highest levels of the Catholic hierarchy. As early as 1975, Paul VI could observe that “Today there is a very large number of baptised people who for the most part have not formally renounced their Baptism but who are entirely indifferent to it and not living in accordance with it” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 56). In 1990, Pope John Paul II reiterated these concerns: “Entire groups of the baptised have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel” (Redemptoris Missio 33).

More recently, Pope Francis observed in 2013 that “[We cannot] overlook the fact that in recent decades there has been a breakdown in the way Catholics pass down the Christian faith to the young. It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition” (Evangelii Gaudium 70).

At least in certain areas, it would seem that the post-conciliar laity have not so much “come of age”, as that they have packed up, moved out of the family home, and rarely – if ever – call.

This is the situation that I examine in my new book, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II. It will not please everybody. It might well, at least in all its detail and arguments, not please anybody.

It attempts to do two things. First, to quantify both the scale and “texture” of the problem – ie, the great “Mass exodus” of the laity over the past 50 or more years – with a good deal more precision and nuance than has hitherto been attempted. This is a topic that Catholic Herald readers will be used to hearing about from me: several of the book’s analyses were originally road-tested in these pages. Secondly, and much more ambitiously, it strives to give a properly plausible, three-dimensional account of how things came to be quite so bad.

There are, of course, no shortage of suggestions already out there. Very broadly speaking, these tend to cluster into three main camps.

The first lays the blame at the door of the Council, either as a whole, or – more often – due to one or more specific reforms flowing from it.

The second camp views the Council and its reforms as an unalloyed good, but sees its full flourishing as stymied by cowardice (hence, it is argued, Paul VI’s promulgation of Humanae Vitae) and conservative crackdown (under John Paul II and Benedict XVI).

The third, represented by many leading non-Catholic historians and sociologists, doesn’t recognise any specifically Catholic story to tell at all, except as a bit of “local colour” in a story of across-the-board mainstream secularisation, due to wider social and cultural changes, beginning after World War II and accelerating in the 1960s.

My own account, worked out over the book’s final four chapters, recognises merit in all three approaches. Catholic lapsation and disaffiliation in Britain and America is, let’s be frank here, an enormous pie: there are plenty of slices to go around. In fact, a central argument of my book is that, over and above each of the myriad specific changes (and, in the case of Humanae Vitae, the single specific non-change) going on in the critical ferment of the 1960s, the sheer chaos and speed of it all happening at once is itself a major factor.

This was, moreover, the very moment at which vast numbers of Baby Boomers started coming of age. Given what we now know about the significance of “emerging adulthood” as a stage of social and religious development, on top of the moral, cultural and political turbulence of the era, it was hardly a propitious moment to initiate a decade or so of sweeping pastoral, liturgical and theological experimentation too.

If I had had my way, Mass Exodus would have opened with two quotations from a recent Nobel laureate. The first comes from 1964 – a febrile year for both the Church and world, though nothing compared to what would soon follow: “The present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fading / The first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin’.” A fervent cry of both frustration and hope: distaste for the past juxtaposed with excitement at the inbreaking of a bright new dawn, all summed up with a biblical turn of phrase … How better to encapsulate the effervescence of these years than in Bob Dylan’s words? So perfect is it, in fact, that it has become almost a cliché among commentators on “the Catholic Sixties”.

The second quotation, taken from the 1986 song Brownsville Girl, strikes a rather different note: “You know, it’s funny how things never turn out the way you had ’em planned.” This too, however, speaks authentically to the prevailing “signs of the times” – ones already by then very different from those discerned and interpreted by the Council Fathers.

It is the Council’s great tragedy that, having focused so much time and attention on the laity – those in whose name and for whose benefit so many of the most sweeping changes were enacted – it is precisely the laity who are most conspicuously absent from our churches (at least in Britain, America and other Western and/or Anglosphere nations).

John Henry Newman, our soon to be saint, has sometimes been described as “the Father of Vatican II”, not least because of his far-sighted theology of the laity. He certainly got one thing right: the Church does look very foolish without them.

Stephen Bullivant is professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and a consulting editor of the Catholic Herald. Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II is published by Oxford University Press in the UK this week and in the US on July 30