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Where Have All the Catholics Gone?

Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II
Stephen Bullivant
Oxford University Press
336 pages
$32.95 hardback, $24.99 e-book

If you want to start a heated debate in Catholic circles, just state an opinion about the Second Vatican Council’s impact on attrition rates in the modern Church. While many implicate Vatican II as the cause of millions of people leaving the Church, on the other extreme are those who blame societal changes for the exodus, absolving the Council of all responsibility.

mass exodusStephen Bullivant takes a well researched, comprehensive look at this debate in his book, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II (Oxford University Press: 2019). To skip to his conclusion, Bullivant essentially says that both extremes are wrong…and right.

Bullivant, a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St. Mary’s University in London, decided to focus on two countries where the decline has been dramatic: the United States and Britain. In both countries, the decline has been similar in reach, although in Britain, more Catholics leave to become non-religious, while in America, it’s more common for leaving Catholics to become Protestant (although in recent years, America has become more like Britain in having increasing numbers of “nones” — i.e., those with no religion). Bullivant divides his study of the state of the Church in these countries into four main parts: (1) in the decades before Vatican II; (2) during the 1960s; (3) during the 1970s and 1980s; and (4) from the 1990s to today. He is particularly interested in how the Faith is passed on from generation to generation, and how cultural changes within one generation, both inside and outside the Church, impact the next.

The Impact of a Changing Society

For those traditional Catholics who are quick to blame Vatican II for all the Church’s defections, Mass Exodus is an important corrective to that simplistic view. In his review of the state of the Church in the decades leading up to Vatican II, Bullivant convincingly shows the impact of World War II on the life of the average Catholic. Before the War, many — perhaps most — Catholics in Britain and America lived in Catholic “ghettos” in which their entire lives revolved around their parish, which was located in their predominantly Catholic neighborhood. Sociologists have found that such an atmosphere is highly conducive to successfully passing on one’s religion to future generations.

Bullivant shows that World War II and its aftermath changed all that. Young men joined the army and were shoulder-to-shoulder with Protestants and Jews and maybe even a few atheists. Young women joined the military effort by leaving their homes each day to work alongside non-Catholics in factories. Then, after the war, many veterans took advantage of government grants to get a higher education, often the first in their family to do so, and often at a non-Catholic university. These factors led to a much greater exposure to different beliefs and religions than their parents had.

Two more factors also influenced the practice of religion: the growth of the suburbs and the increase in entertainment options. The new suburbs were full of non-Catholics as well as Catholics, and the parish might not even have a church yet; it might be celebrating Mass in the school gym. Further, instead of walking down the street to attend the only thing going on — the parish’s Wednesday night devotions — now a Catholic could choose to go to the drive-thru, or even stay home and watch TV. The Catholic ghetto was disintegrating — and with it, Catholics’ attachment to their religion — before Vatican II even began.

The Impact of Vatican II

Church leaders of the time saw this happening, and, in fact, Bullivant argues that this was a primary reason Vatican II was held in the first place. Although by today’s standards, the rate of people leaving was minuscule, at the time, it caused consternation among the hierarchy. Vatican II was to be a response to this troubling trend, a way to reverse the losses and even make gains in order to revitalize the Church.

We all know what happened. Instead of reversing the losses, the time after Vatican II saw exponential increases in those losses. And Bullivant demonstrates that the idea that Vatican II had no impact on (or even minimized) the losses is a pipe dream. By looking at the numbers as well as the detailed studies of why people left, Bullivant demonstrates that Vatican II, in spite of its announced intentions, actually had the reverse effect: it accelerated the decline that had started and made it far more pronounced.

Bullivant focuses on three changes in particular that had an impact: (1) the changes to the Mass; (2) the de-emphasis on traditional Catholic devotional practices; and (3) the effective abolition of meatless Fridays. He also considers the impact of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae (particularly the fact that most Catholics believed that Paul VI would change that teaching along with all the other changes taking place). It would take too long to review his analysis of each one here, but we can look briefly at his analysis of the changes to the Mass. 

Many people consider the implementation of the Novus Ordo in 1969 as the start of the liturgical revolution, but in fact many of the changes most associated with the Novus Ordo Mass — for example, vernacular, versus populum, receiving Communion while standing — began to be implemented before the Council was even over, in 1964. This “inaugurated a decade of seemingly endless — and endlessly unpredictable — changes[.] … [A] profusion of instructions and guidelines began appearing out of Rome, spawning still others at both national and diocesan levels, supposedly improving this or that aspect of Catholic pastoral or liturgical life,” according to Bullivant (p. 151). At the same time, the Church began to see massive decreases in Mass attendance. In the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, for example, Mass attendance went from its peak of 130,000 in 1965 to 107,000 in 1975 — a 17% decrease (and for reference, it was 74,000 in 2017, a 43% decrease since 1965, during a time frame when the population of the city almost doubled). Bullivant argues that this was no coincidence.

Bullivant directly addresses those who claim that the changes in the Mass had no impact on Mass attendance by essentially asking, then why did they make the changes? The whole purpose of the changes was to foster more “active participation” at Mass, but many Catholics instead chose not to participate at all. To say the changes in the Mass had no impact on Mass attendance is to deny the very motivation of those who changed it in the first place.

Accelerating the Decline

Beyond just a look at the upheaval of the 1960s, Mass Exodus also takes an in-depth look at why people continued to leave after that terrible decade. After all, the reason a Baby-Boomer left in 1969 is likely very different from why a Millennial leaves in 2019. (Related to this example, Bullivant addresses the impact that the sex abuse scandal has had on the Church in recent years.)

To repeat Bullivant’s conclusion: Many cultural and societal factors had begun to weaken the attachment of many Catholics to the Church in the years before Vatican II, but Vatican II (and the widespread changes it inspired) accelerated this weakening to the point of breaking for millions of Catholics. 

We cannot slow down or even reverse this decline without understanding why it happened in the first place. Mass Exodus by Stephen Bullivant is an excellent resource to answer that question so we can begin to move the Church in a better direction.

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