Dechristianity by the numbers

'In the US, levels of religiosity are traditionally high. But Americans aren't somehow hard-wired to preserve their faith in a high-tech world. They are just behind the curve'

Damian Thompson

In 1959, Lou Groen, president of the Cincinnati Restaurant Association, opened the first branch of McDonald’s in the area. Immediately he ran into a problem: sales of hamburgers dropped sharply every Friday. That was because the restaurant was in Montfort Heights, a suburb full of Catholics. Sixty years ago, no Mass-goer would have dreamt of eating meat on Fridays. So Groen, himself a practising Catholic, approached Ray Kroc, the control-freak founder of the McDonald’s franchise, who flew into a rage if unused ketchup sachets were thrown away and spent his last years spying on his local McDonald’s with a telescope.

Groen suggested that his branch should sell a non-meat sandwich, with fish instead of beef in the middle. That was a brave thing to do. Old Ray had an almost religious devotion to McDonald’s hamburgers, finding “grace in the texture and softly curved silhouette of a bun”. He didn’t want “my stores stunk up with the smell of fish”, but he agreed to an experiment. On Good Friday, 1962, Groen sold his fish sandwich alongside an alternative of Kroc’s own devising: the Hula Burger, which substituted a slice of pineapple for the beef. The Catholics of Montfort Heights chose fish over pineapple by an enormous margin. And so the Filet-O-Fish was born, and survives today—unlike the Hula Burger, which Kroc launched nationally and then had to kill off quietly.

I knew nothing about the Filet-O-Fish’s Catholic origins until I read Stephen Bullivant’s Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II. This is an academic study of the catastrophic decline in Catholic churchgoing on both sides of the Atlantic since the 1960s; it is full of statistics, illustrated by tables and qualified by caveats about their reliability. And quite right, too. The business of sifting through the evidence can’t be skipped, curtailed or conducted in footnotes. Mass Exodus is the social scientific equivalent of a procedural crime novel. Bullivant, a theologian and philosopher by training, is trying to find out who or what has killed the faith of two out of five British and American Catholics. His meticulous methodology is essential to the plot. Without it, he couldn’t get away with his shocking conclusion—shocking, that is, coming from a highly regarded young professor at the closest thing Britain has to an official Catholic university, St Mary’s in Twickenham (chancellor: Cardinal Vincent Nichols). Right at the end, Bullivant points an accusing finger at the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), the gigantic global reform of Church teaching and liturgy that the Catholic establishment has pretty much elevated to the status of Fourth Person in the Holy Trinity.

He doesn’t, of course, say that Mass-going would have been unaffected if Pope, now Saint, John XXIII hadn’t convened the Council, most of which happened under the anxious gaze of his successor, now St Paul VI. (These days saint-making operates like the honours system; an ex-pope has to mess up pretty badly to miss out on his afterlife peerage). Secularisation has eroded established denominations throughout Europe in much the same way. Attendance at mainstream Protestant churches has fallen off a cliff since the 1980s. Whether this is despite, or because of, their frantic liberalisation is hard to say: people aren’t particularly fussy about the type of service they stop going to. 

In the United States, levels of religiosity are traditionally high. But that doesn’t mean that Americans are somehow hard-wired to preserve their faith in the high-tech world they have created for us. They are just behind the curve. As the culture of the red states withers, so will Sunday churchgoing (about which Americans in any case have a habit of lying to researchers—try counting the number of cars in the church parking lot rather than relying on self-reported figures). Bullivant gives us one interesting piece of information to support this thesis. Catholics in the different regions of the United States “disaffiliate” (that is, consciously leave the Church as opposed to lazily lapsing) at roughly the same levels. But in the urban north-east, which most closely resembles Europe, ex-Catholics are far more likely to become what he calls “nonverts”, converts to staying in bed on Sunday mornings. In the rest of the US, by contrast, they tend to join lively Evangelical denominations. If the secular liberalism of New York continues to creep across the continent, as it will, then European-style unbelief will become the norm.

Sociologists of religion such as the late, great Peter Berger were arguing something like this back in the 1960s. But they focused disproportionately on Protestants. The Catholic Church remained sui generis despite ditching Latin: Rome possessed a unique structure of authority. But everything changed with Vatican II, an Ecumenical Council that imposed four radically new “constitutions” on Catholics, relating to the sacred liturgy, dogma, divine revelation and relations with the world. The Church’s teaching that its doctrine never changes, merely “develops”, became hard to sustain, despite Paul VI’s defence of transubstantiation and his decision to set in stone the traditional ban on artificial birth control. All this was terribly confusing. Wiser scholars, listening to the rhetoric from both supporters and opponents of Vatican II, suspended judgment.

Stephen Bullivant, born two decades after the Council began, has no such inhibitions. He understands the process of disaffiliation from British Catholicism better than any other social scientist. Mass Exodus draws on his own rigorous fieldwork in the diocese of Portsmouth, made possible by Bishop Philip Egan, one of the few bishops of England and Wales who doesn’t instantly genuflect at the mention of Vatican II. Bullivant is also an expert in the demographics of American Catholicism. He’s struck by the differences, but even more by the unarguable fact that the Church in both countries is in catastrophic decline.

In Britain, he writes, “nearly half of all born-and-raised 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’’. These leavers from Catholicism outnumber converts to Catholicism by a ratio of ten to one.” (Like most sociologists, he italicises compulsively.) In the US, Pew research suggests that “two in every five born-and-raised Catholics no longer identify as such; around half of these—i.e., one in five of all cradle Catholics—are now religious “nones”. There is roughly one convert for every seven who leave.” Why? Bullivant does not play down the sex scandals, but disaffiliation was already thriving before the headlines hit. His basic thesis is rooted in the fundamentals of the sociology of religion.

I found it entirely satisfying, and not just intellectually. Finally a British scholar has used statistics to determine the scale of the wreckage of the Catholic Church in the West since Vatican II. Ironically, the Catholic establishment, appreciating the non-polemical tone of Mass Exodus, have welcomed the book. I can only assume that they didn’t make it as far as the Epilogue, entitled “Did the Council fail?” Bullivant doesn’t spell it out, but even a cursory reading between the lines, well within the capabilities of the dimmest English bishop, reveals a one-word answer: yes.

Let’s go back to the Filet-O-Fish, described by one food writer as “that strange but satisfying snack”. McDonald’s was forced to introduce it in 1962, the year the Council began, because Catholics everywhere lived in what Peter Berger called a “plausibility structure”. This is shorthand for the network of people, institutions and practices that make it easy for individuals to “believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast”. That was literally true for Catholics, who were forbidden to eat until after Sunday Mass. After Vatican II that ban was swept away, along with meatless Fridays. Indeed, a whole spiritual universe of traditional devotions was put out of reach by “reforming” bishops.

Bullivant nails it when he says that Catholic devotionalism was pitted against “authentic liturgical participation” in a kind of zero-sum game that favoured the literate middle class: “More physical and material ways of practising one’s faith, such as lighting candles or (the bête noire of liturgical progressives) praying the rosary during Mass, were increasingly replaced by the verbal and cerebral.” Soon afterwards, Catholics stopped going to Mass—for many reasons, but the sudden loss of strange but satisfying traditional devotions must have been a factor. Meanwhile, another plank of the plausibility structure disappeared. The Council did not dismantle the authority of the Church, but it permitted its fragmentation. By the time Humanae Vitae banned contraception in 1968, vast numbers of bishops and priests had been emboldened by the “spirit of Vatican II” to advise Catholics to ignore the encyclical. Which they did.

Bullivant, a convert to Catholicism, believes that much of this damage can be repaired, but he is saving his arguments for another book. I’ll be surprised if it convinces me, if only because Mass Exodus is so effective at breaking bad news; it is the finest work of religious sociology to appear in Britain since 1984, when Eileen Barker’s The Making of a Moonie killed off the academic myth of brainwashing. The myth of Vatican II, alas, seems more indestructible than the Catholic Church itself, which since 2013 has acquired the extra handicap of Pope Francis, a Supreme Pontiff who is determined to fragment every authority except his own and whose pronouncements are about as spiritually nourishing as a Hula Burger. But that is another story. Perhaps Stephen Bullivant will write it one day.


Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II
By Stephen Bullivant
Oxford, 336pp, £25

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