Mass exodus: why Catholics are packing their bags

Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II
Stephen Bullivant. Oxford University Press. 2020. 336 pages.

“The man who marries the spirit of the age will very soon find himself a widower.” G.K. Chesterton

Professor Stephen Bullivant is a prolific scholar with doctorates in theology and sociology. His forensic work of sociological data-gathering and analysis, Mass Exodus, can be overwhelming for the general reader in some ways. Its essential thrust is to caution against the temptation to draw easy conclusions, such as attributing declining church attendance to its most proximate cause, or mistaking causation for correlation. B may follow A, but may not necessarily be a consequence of A or only partially so. Both A and B are the result of many other factors, historic and contingent.

In other words, things unfold as they do for a complexity of reasons. It was Tolstoy who first warned chroniclers of history against the temptation to join dots neatly to form satisfying, closed theories. History is a continuum that we tend to break into increments for narrative coherence, but its starting points are arbitrary. This is a useful caveat to bear in mind when discussing the collapse of religious observance as much as anything else.

Tracing decline in attendance to the church’s over-readiness to comply with lockdowns during the COVID pandemic is not meaningless, but it is important to remember that this is part of a broader, ongoing pattern. Much has been written about the counter-witness of locked churches at a time when people needed the comfort of prayer and a place to find spiritual solace, where the sense of aloneness and isolation could be dissipated in the presence of the Lord of all.

Recent articles by British journalists writing about the Anglican church make similar observations, deploring the lockdown messaging of telling people they could “pray just as well at home on their sofas” as they tuned into services. Despite Pope Francis’ emphatic statement that remote or virtual participation could never be equated with personal attendance and engagement, there is little doubt that Catholics, like other Christians, have been affected by a new sense of opt-in observance.


But as Bullivant would have surely noted, if his book were to be written a few years later, there is always a bigger picture, and one can usually find positive effects among the negative. One could argue, for instance, that Mass viewed by a single family member could, at some point, gain the attention of the rest of the household.

Also, people “shopped around” for good quality liturgy and homilies during the lockdown, and visited some beautiful places of worship, gaining spiritually and deepening their appreciation of the universal church, its diversity within unity. Many people who tuned into Mass from monastic communities were drawn to return and hear those same communities pray the divine office later in the day.

So trends in religious observance, when examined more closely, can’t be explained as summarily one may initially think. An example Bullivant cites early in his book is the assertion that Humanae Vitae was responsible for the lapsing and disaffiliation of many Catholics post-1968. He observes that other Christian churches with liberal teaching declined even more in the same period. He also points out that many Catholic couples had been living with the contradiction between their behaviour and the Church’s teaching before Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae without any public controversy.

When the issue is closely probed, Bullivant finds that the crisis was triggered by the undermining of the Church’s authority rather than the encyclical per se as many theologians, priests, and even bishops loudly challenged the Pope. Bullivant points out that in a single parish, even “in the same confessional,” people could receive very different counsel from different priests.

In wider society, many other things were changing too, bringing their own influences to bear on how Catholics practised their faith. Bullivant lists factors such as expanding access to education with a secular ethos, prosperity, and of course, in time, the shameful story of sex scandals and their cover-up.

A recent article in America magazine looks at declining religious practice among Generation X (people in their forties and fifties) since the lockdowns, and finds they are becoming less and less distinguishable from Millennials. Alongside the effect of the lockdowns, the writer ascribes the same general factors cited by Bullivant, with the important rider that the decision to skip Sunday Mass may not be ideological at all, but simply because “life gets in the way.”

There is simply far more going on, far more choice about how we spend our weekends, far more money to pay for it all, and far more pressure from children to be taken to sporting events or parties when the parish is celebrating Sunday Mass. A lot of the self-justifying “reasons” people advance for dropping out of church may be closer to excuses, according to the author of the America article.


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Addressing the impact of the Second Vatican Council, Bullivant argues that a strong case can be made for both perspectives. Vatican II, he reminds us, was called to address existing challenges from modernity that demanded a radical overview of how the Church delivers its mission. Decline was already setting in in the more advanced western countries. Arguably, the reforms of Vatican II decelerated that decline.

On the negative side, much of what happened in “the spirit of Vatican II,” as it has been termed, cheapened and trivialised the liturgy. Bullivant, however, does not accept the argument that the Council documents were misunderstood or misapplied by modernising enthusiasts. On the contrary, he finds that local churches were given the freedom to interpret and implement the Council’s decrees “by the (conciliar) documents themselves.”

On the positive side, too, Bullivant argues that the Council intensified the apostolate of the laity, promoted more pastorally efficacious liturgies, and shared the heritage of Christian truth with greater efficiency and efficacy. He further argues that while the Council’s reforms failed to achieve their aims, the same can be said of earlier councils too – “The Council of Nicaea did not end Arianism […] Trent did not fully accomplish the extirpation of heresies.”

Another argument often advanced for the decline of religious observance is the poor quality of catechesis. Bullivant pushes back against assigning undue or disproportionate blame to this factor. He believes that the counter-forces of contemporary culture and media, their hostility to religion, and Catholicism in particular, and “the competing claims to truth and (alternative) belief systems” of the internet are more consequential than the dearth of catechesis or its poor quality. 

The Christian message

What struck me when reading this book was the lack of attention to the problem of what may be called, charitably perhaps, mediocrity in church life – not just in catechesis but in homilies and church music; in the fuzzy equivocation about new secular doctrines; most of all in the sometimes unedifyingly perfunctory nature of our worship.

This is the spiritual mediocrity that turns our churches into “house(s) of (conversational) traffic” up to the moment Mass begins and immediately after it, the unease that leads people to ask themselves if a celebrant actually believes what he is doing. Poorly trained and poorly prepared lay ministers can also be major stumbling blocks, or at least distractions for churchgoers of every level of conviction. 

To argue that a truly authentic, committed, and joyous witness of faith cannot face up to the discontented clamour of the culture that surrounds us presumes a battle according to the world’s terms of engagement. The Church in its infancy would not be considered a match for the Roman Empire. It had, however, Christ’s pledge to be with it “till the end of time”. That pledge has never been revoked. The Spirit has guided the Church through times as turbulent as our own. Of course, it is us, its members, who are Christ’s eyes and hands and feet in the world, just as our forebears were. We can draw people to Christ, or we can repel them from Him.

While carefully and forensically analysing the many influences on faith observance and belief, Bullivant does not hesitate to identify the direction of travel – the ongoing, exponential drift away from faith, the net growth of the lapsed and disaffiliated. He finds that the legacy of faith is being “diluted” more and more with successive generations. Children are no longer socialised into the faith in a way that is immersive. Bullivant does not draw hope from residual “fuzzy fidelity” or “believing without belonging”, which are but “stages en route to secularism.” 

Apart from the confidence Christ’s words inspire, the book does suggest to me a point of hope. Most of the negative factors Bullivant identifies trace back to a crisis in credible, authentic witness. It is the messengers, not the message, who are failing to win hearts. The Church, and that includes its rank and file faithful, must be seen to “walk the walk as well as talk the talk,” as Bullivant puts it. The hypocrisy Christ trenchantly condemned, and which Bullivant alludes to, is not always blatant, shameless and unmissable. Its more insidious and equally damaging form can be masked behind the mediocrity that is often judged to be, at worst, harmless. 

Jesus warned us that “lukewarm” witness was the worst of all: “Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16). Arguably, it is this as much as, if not more than, any other single factor that is corroding the Irish and western church in our time. The synodal path needs to focus more on the witness of the messengers instead of adapting the message to align with the ever-shifting spirit of the age.

Margaret Hickey is a regular contributor to Position Papers. She is a mother of three and lives with her husband in Blarney.

Image: Pexels


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  • mrscracker
    Hello Mr. Jürgen,
    Yes, that was a sad day to be sure, but I believe Bishop Strickland will have many new opportunities to spread the Gospel & perhaps in a larger sphere than Tyler, TX which is hardly a center of the Catholic universe.
    I hope we’ve learned something about the dangers of dueling Catholic blogsites that depend upon outrage & distrust to create revenue & the importance of discretion which can be the better part of valor in the strange times we live in.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2023-11-12 02:43:00 +1100
    Dear Mrs Cracker,
    I have just read that Pope Francis fired Bishop Strickland.
    From the distance, I have read only good things about Bishop Strickland.

    Nearby is Cardinal Marx of Munich, the promoter of the “Synodal Way”. That “Way” is clearly a road to heresy, to another reformation, to another division in our Church.

    Marx is still in office.

    Greetings from Europe.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2023-11-11 23:24:40 +1100
    Dear Mrs Cracker,

    Yes, the traditional Catholic community is growing here as well. But it is still a small community that is being discriminated by the main Catholic church – in some dioceses more in others less.

    Look at the total picture, we have many countries in Europe, with a strong christian history, where the atheistic portion of the population is now between 20 and 60 percent.

    And I suppose there are faithful Africans coming to. Europe that are going to loose their faith when they see what Europe has become.

    So, while the traditional community grows from a small base, the atheistic and modernistic cancer still grows as well.
  • mrscracker
    I would take anything in the publication “America” with a large grain of salt.
    Devout & traditional US Catholic parishes are booming & growing demographically with young families. We have a Latin Mass down the road & the pews are absolutely packed with children. People are literally packing their bags to move to our area to be able to attend the TLM. So, it depends which Catholics we’re talking about. And it’s not exclusively Latin Mass Catholics that are growing but all Catholics who take their faith seriously & not just a choice to tick off a box with on a survey.
    The Church is universal & the ageing West isn’t the only part of the globe that has Catholic populations. In spite of terrible persecution, violence, & general neglect from the West, Catholics are growing steadily in the Global South.
  • Ken Madsen
    commented 2023-11-11 03:50:54 +1100
    A very good article. Thank you, Margaret!

    My wife has made this point as well: Jesus warned us that “lukewarm” witness was the worst of all: “Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16). She is a convert to Catholicism; she was a non-denominational Christian when we started dating. On many occasions, she will point out the lack of enthusiasm or fervor in the messages during the homily. She also bemoans the lack of scriptural exegesis within a homily. She states “The Bible is God’s words for us to lead a more fulfilling life.” Her caution is always “Why would a young person want to join this Church?”

    We are the Church and it’s up to us faithful Catholics to go out and spread the message of Christ, which is just as revolutionary today as it was two thousand years ago with fervor and excitement.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2023-11-10 17:53:47 +1100
    I am always surprised that so many authors invest so much time and intellectual effort to minimize the big elephant in the room.

    The Desaster in the Catholic church that manifests itself in hard facts nobody can dispute, from church attendance to vocations to even practice of those who go to mass, most importantly the ever smaller number of children to married catholic couples and the rise of divorces of married catholic couples, began when?

    Yes, everybody knows the answer. Hint a church council in the 60s that basically opened the doors of the church to … (You know what).

    So trying to calm down the concerns by claiming something like “the message is still ok, the messenger is really only temporarily in bad shape”, so do not worry, sounds really like Jesuit doublespeak to me.

    No. The bitter truth is:
    - the messenger has tried to change the message, dethroned Christ the King,
    - the messenger has destroyed important pillars on which the bride of Christ stands, specifically the trust in the absolute truth it carries,
    - the bad messengers need to be held accountable for what they did. These messengers in the bride of Christ, our mother, destroyed and abandoned so many of its children.

    The time of being friendly to everybody needs to end!