Why have Catholics in the UK and US been leaving the Church since Vatican II?

Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

Theologian and sociologist Stephen Bullivant says a big part of his argument in Mass Exodus is “that the ‘social architecture’ that had sustained and strengthened Catholic life and identity was well on the road to passing away by the time the Council came along.”

Image: Andrew Dong

Stephen Bullivant is Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion at St. Mary’s University in London, where is also Director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society. He studied theology and philosophy at the University of Oxford, and prior to joining St Mary’s in 2009 he held posts at Wolfson College, Oxford, and Heythrop College. He is the author of several books and numerous essays on topics including faith and skepticism, atheism, the Trinity, and Catholic spirituality.

His most recent book is Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America Since Vatican II (Oxford University Press, 2019), which is “a comparative study of secularization across two famously contrasting religious cultures: Britain and the USA.” He recently corresponded with CWR about his research into Catholic lapsation and disaffiliation over the past several decades.

CWR: Tell us about your background

Stephen Bullivant: I’m a British college professor (at St Mary’s University in London) in my mid-30s, with three young children. My original studies were in philosophy and theology: I completed a theology doctorate at Oxford on Vatican II’s engagement with atheism and secularity in 2009. For too-long-to-explain reasons, though, I’ve always had what you might call a “side hustle” in sociology, and that’s become a bigger and bigger part of my work over the past few years. I finally got round to getting a second PhD in the sociology of religion this summer, from the University of Warwick. I’ve published some short books over the past few years, on topics from the Trinity to the Fátima prayer to an Oxford Dictionary of Atheism – but, alongside all that, I’ve been chipping away at bits of evidence and argument that I’ve finally managed to crystallize into one big, “proper” book.

On a more personal note, since I dare say it’s relevant here, I was brought up a “none,” began my university studies in theology as a Bertrand Russell-inspired atheist, then – long story! – was baptized and received into the Catholic Church while a grad student in 2008. My wife of 12 years, raised an Anglican, followed two years later. She’s also a college professor: in music history at Oxford, working at the moment on Edward Elgar (England’s national composer and also a Catholic).

CWR: What led you to writing Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America Since Vatican II?

Bullivant: For a Catholic theologian/sociologist, who works a lot on atheism, indifference, secularity, and related topics, the topic of the new evangelization is of great interest to me — including how and why we got to the point of needing a new evangelization in the first place. From the sociological side there is an overwhelming need to understand secularization and religious change/decline, and the period around the 1960s is of particular importance.

CWR: Your introduction says that leavers from Catholicism outnumber converts to it by 10:1 in the UK. You describe these people as disaffiliates and the process as disaffiliation. Tell us a bit about why you opted for those terms and how you understand the relationship between belief, belonging, and practice.

Bullivant: The book foregrounds affiliation – that is, how people identify, religiously speaking – for a number of reasons. In the first place, it’s normally the last thing to go. As we know all too well, there are lots of people who no longer believe anything especially Catholic (or even Christian), and who haven’t been to church or prayed in many years, who nevertheless still feel that they’re “Catholic” to some degree – at least to the extent of ticking a box on surveys.  But the phenomenon of large numbers of people who were raised (to varying degrees) as Catholics, who no longer even feel connected to the Church to a very minimal extent: that seems to me to symbolize quite an important shift. So disaffiliation (i.e., having previously regarded oneself as Catholic, but no longer doing so) is being used as effectively the extreme case of lapsation.

It’s important for two other reasons, too. Catholic identity has, for a long time, been (I think rightly) viewed as being especially tenacious – ‘tribal belonging’, you might say. This is the idea that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic” (which is, I might add, absolutely still the case in terms of sacramental theology): that being brought up Catholic ingrains something in you that, even if you no longer believe or practice, is hard to shake. With the growth of disaffiliation, however, we’re beginning to see how that “Catholic difference” has, over the past couple of generations largely dissolved away. It only works if you get a sufficient dose of normative Catholic belief and practice when growing up. But that has, for all sorts of reasons, become rarer and rarer over the past decades. “Cultural Catholicism” in this sense doesn’t survive more than one generation. And this is a pattern we see a great deal: practising, believing grandparents; non-practicing or irregularly practicing parents who still feel Catholic, baptize their kids, and perhaps send them to Catholic schools; but then the most recent generation who’ve basically only inherited a weak or “dead” strain of Catholicism, which means nothing to them, and perhaps inoculates them against ever catching a live strain.

And finally, the “rise of the nones”, which we hear so much about these days. (The book I’m currently working on, called Nonverts, is looking at precisely this phenomenon across the whole US religious landscape.) These nones or unaffiliateds – who now make up about a quarter of the US adult population, and a third of the under-30s – are precisely the result of this long-term processes of disaffiliation and secularization, played out across various US Christian denominations.   

CWR: Tell us a bit about how you came to narrow your study to the US and the UK, and why.

Bullivant: Two main reasons. The first is purely practical. I live in Britain, and spend as much time as I can possibly get away with in the USA. I know both contexts reasonably well, and am fairly well up on the sociology and social history of both Catholicism and various forms of “nonreligion” in both countries. With the kind of depth I wanted to go into in the book I didn’t really feel I could do more than two countries. That said, I am very interested in the various ways in which the arguments of Mass Exodus would or wouldn’t apply to other places.

More than that though, Britain and America have long been juxtaposed in both academic and popular writing as religious polar opposites: with the former typifying “godless Europe”, and the latter more-or-less still justifying Alexis de Tocqueville’s assessment nearly 200 years ago that “there remains here a greater foundation of Christianity than in any other country in the world”. Given that the two countries share so much in terms of language, culture, and history, I thought it would be a fruitful comparison to see how some of the same factors played out differently in each.

CWR: You nicely frame one of the key Catholic debates of the last fifty years as “post concilium ergo propter concilium?” You note that Catholics generally divide into “three broad tendencies” in how they answer that question. Give us a brief sense of those tendencies and whether you think one of them has stronger arguments than the others.

Bullivant: In very rough, stereotyping terms: There are those who chiefly blame something – normally something liturgical, but not necessarily—that Vatican II directly brought about, whether intentionally or not. Then there are those who chiefly blame some stifling, thwarting, or mitigating of the Council’s positive vision – Humanae Vitae is often the culprit here, often as the harbinger of some bigger “conservative crackdown” under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. And finally, there are those who really play down there being a Catholic-specific story to tell at all, pointing instead to wider social and cultural trends already well afoot before the Council, and affecting many of other mainstream denominations too.

One of the real motivations for writing the book was my conviction that, actually, each of these basic stances has a good deal going for it. Which is why, I suppose, serious scholars and commentators can be cited in support of each.  What I try to do in the second half of the book is to offer an historical account of British and American Catholicism “since Vatican II” – though, in fact, to do that you have to start with the Second World War and its aftermath, since neither the Council nor its aftermath make any sense without that background.

That brief description perhaps makes the last four chapters sound a lot more boring than (I hope) they actually are. The progress – or rather, ultimately, regress – of postwar and then post-conciliar Catholicism in Britain and America is a fascinating story in its own right. And I hope I’ve retained enough of the interest and (occasionally) entertainment in trying to narrate it, while underpinning the logic of it with a handful of key sociological ideas (all explained clearly and interestingly for the non-sociologists!).

That appeal to theory is important. It’s notoriously difficult to assign causation within history (hence ‘post hoc, propter hoc’), but equally I don’t think history is best understood as being simply “one damned thing after another”. By appealing to some well-established principles of sociological theory we can, at least, make a plausible argument as to how “one damned thing” caused – or went some way towards causing, in combination with a whole host of other, mutually interacting “damned things” – another.

CWR: In his 1967 lectures at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne later published as Secularization and Moral Change, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that industrialization and urbanization were the major drivers of changes in moral views and religious practices in the UK from the end of the Victorian era onward. Does your research delve into the role played by socioeconomic factors, and if so how prominent are they?

Bullivant: Wider socioeconomic factors are a very major part of the story in both countries. The immediate postwar period, especially, saw some very profound social changes: the Baby Boom, suburbanization, slum clearance and urban renewal, growing prosperity (not least in the form of car and television ownership), new educational opportunities with the GI Bill in the US, and the expansion of university places and funding in Britain: all these and more were having subtle but far-reaching effects on many areas of life, very much including Catholic religious life. One big argument of the book is that the Council’s reforms, and especially the chaotic nature of their implementation, were largely a response to these kinds of factors. Also important here is that, in the wake of the 1960s, religious groups were not merely passive in the face of wider social, cultural, and economic trends. A big argument of the book is that, in fact, a great deal of what the Church has tried to do has been counter-productive, making the pastoral situation significantly worse than it could otherwise have been.

CWR: In your chapter “Why They Say They Leave,” you review different studies from different decades. Are there continuities in the answers people give as to why they leave, or do different eras have significantly different reasons?

Bullivant: There are a great many reasons people give, although they do tend to group into certain themes. Generally speaking, they hold fairly consistent across both time and space, albeit with different emphases.

I draw particularly on four detailed surveys on lapsed and/or “former” Catholics. One sponsored by the American Bishops’ Conference in the late 70s, two undertaken in the past few years by a couple of US dioceses (Springfield, IL, and Trenton, NJ), and one that Hannah Vaughan-Spruce, Catherine Knowles, Berna Durcan and I did in the English Diocese of Portsmouth in 2015 (the full book-length write-up of which has also just been published by Paulist Press: Why Catholics Leave, What They Miss, and How They Might Return).

CWR: One of the things people are expecting in the aftermath of McCarrick and other revelations is that more and more Catholics will disaffiliate from the Church. But your last chapter shows that the sex abuse crisis has been a factor for quite some time, and headlines about abuse, like other factors, do not always play out in a straightforward causal manner, yes?

Bullivant: Yes, I think that’s a fair summary of my position. In the book I dwell a lot on 2002 and the Boston Globe revelations, and then more briefly – literally it was all going on as I was writing it – talk about 2018.    

What we don’t tend to see in the immediate aftermath of new revelations is an immediate, significant, permanent fall in, say, Mass attendance. This makes sense if you think about it, because the people likely to be most deeply hit by shame and anger are practising Catholics. But ipso facto, they’re also the ones with the strongest other reasons to stay.

But what we do see coming out in people’s own testimonies is a kind of slow-burn distancing from the Church in the wake of these scandals. That may manifest itself in a gradual lessening of Mass attendance, or ultimately not going at all and possibly looking into other churches.

The Mass attendance statistics in the wake of 2002 seem to bear this out. (Incidentally, I went to a great deal of effort to try to track down accurate Mass counts for every US diocese for the book. All the statistics I managed to obtain are given in an Appendix, which is a fascinating record in itself.) What we see in a fair few dioceses is a slight but clearly noticeable sharpening of the average annual rate of decline from October 2002 onwards. It’s not the only possible explanation of the data, but I think it’s a reasonable one.

CWR: Your fourth chapter, “The Night Before,” has to go back to the decades before Vatican II, and it draws on what I found to be an unexpectedly hugely fascinating book, David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain 1945-1951, which helped me understand what my Glaswegian grandparents lived through. My grandmother often mentioned the very strong sense of “close-knit community life” in parishes that you mention in the late 1940s and 1950s. What are some of the factors that have caused the disappearance of that in many places, leading one of my students (who left the Church for an evangelical church) to call the Catholic parishes she once attended “anonymous sacramental gas stations”?

Bullivant: Several factors, on both sides of the Atlantic, combined to erode those classic, urban Catholic neighborhoods That’s a very big part of the book’s argument: i.e., that the “social architecture” that had sustained and strengthened Catholic life and identity was well on the road to passing away by the time the Council came along.

The full story is too big to précis in any detail here, but consider just one US case. Suppose you were brought up in an inner-city Polish or Italian neighborhood in the 20s or 30s in somewhere like Chicago or Milwaukee, where the parish was the centre of social and cultural and educational and (quite probably) sporting life just as much as it was of your religious life. Then you go off to war, meet – and live and serve alongside – non-Catholics for the first time. Maybe you meet a girl while stationed somewhere – the first romantic interest you’ve ever properly spoken to not from your or a neighboring parish. Anyway, you come back from war with much wider horizons than you left with, and – thanks to the GI Bill – the prospect of going off to college. When you do get married you’re a) significantly more likely, on average, to be marrying a non-Catholic than in your parents’ generation; and b) unlikely to be moving back to your home neighborhood. You’re a graduate now, remember, and hey – don’t those new suburban communities look just a swell place to raise Junior? When they do get round to building a proper Catholic Church in Levittown – a Catholic school was the main priority – it’s a good couple of miles away. And while you have got a shiny new car to get to Sunday Mass, there’s plenty of more exciting places you can drive to in it than the just the round of parish rosary sodalities and fish fries that your parents still frequent back home.

I could go on, but you get the picture: Junior is brought up in a very, very different world than you were, and even if you’re still faithful Massgoers, it’s a far less close-knit parish than your parents’ was. (Their parish, incidentally, ends up being merged with several others in the 1980s, before being sold off as luxury condos – as, I might add, was the Chicago church that adorns the front cover of Mass Exodus).

CWR: I read with keen interest the details in your fifth chapter on liturgical changes at and after the council along with the decline in Marian devotion and fasting. You seem to suggest that all these changes (and others) were damaging to what Mary Douglas calls “thick” religious identity and the take-it-for-grantedness of Catholic life. Do you see any ways to repair some of this damage?

Bullivant: Well, a great deal of the damage cannot simply be undone. The whole rich tapestry of Catholic devotional life was very swiftly torn away. But a re-emphasis on things like the rosary, lighting candles for sick friends, reinstating Friday fasting (as the bishops of England and Wales did a few years ago) – all the little day-to-day things that were de-emphasized because they (supposedly) distractions from the Mass, but which in truth help the “source and summit” to stand out even more clearly. All these are things that, I think, could be easily rediscovered. In fact, I think that’s what a lot of younger Catholics are doing by themselves anyway. I believe it’s what the Fathers of Vatican II would have called a ressourcement.

CWR: Tell us a bit about your hopes for the book, and who would benefit from reading it

Bullivant: There are two implied audiences, I suppose. Catholic people who take a keen interest in how the Church is, and how it got here – and coming from all kinds of starting assumption about what the real ‘answer’ is. If I’ve done my job right, then everyone will come away with something worthwhile from it.

And academics and students with an interest in either Catholic theology, sociology, and/or social history, or more broadly, on religious change in Britain or the US (the book is a kind of case study of how big-picture secularizing trends get played out).

CWR: Having finished such a book as this, what is next for you? What are you working on now?

Bullivant: Working on too many things. The next book I’m hoping to finish up is the one I mentioned earlier – looking at “nonverts” from all kinds of denominational backgrounds, from right across the USA. One of the fun parts of my job this past couple of years had been travelling round the States – New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Oregon, Louisiana, Florida – interviewing America nonreligious folks, but who were brought up in some religion, with all manner of stories to tell. Something else I’m working on is essentially a sequel to Mass Exodus, looking at “signs of hope” within the Church (focusing on just the UK this time). With one of my other hats on, I’m also co-editing a big, two-volume Cambridge History of Atheism with the philosopher of science Michael Ruse. So keeping out of trouble, mostly