Book Review: Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II

Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II

Stephen Bullivant

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019

I read this book on a return train journey from Edinburgh to London.  I couldn’t put it down, having lived through the period Bullivant describes.  I was a teenager during Vatican II; my Catholic boys’ school in the north of England broadcast the first Mass partly in English on the BBC World Service.  I was a university student in 1968, making me a soixante-huitard, and proud of it.  Then I studied for the priesthood in the heady days of the early to mid-Seventies, during which the only time I wore a clerical collar was when I played an Anglican vicar in a Christmas play.  Most of those who studied with me left, leaving me a member of that rare breed of seminarians who survived the Seventies – and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Bullivant’s narrative of numerical decline in the Catholic Church since Vatican II is complex and nuanced.  By no means a traditionalist diatribe against all that went wrong in the Church in the 1960s, it deserves to be read by anyone concerned about the future of the Church in Britain and America, and beyond.  The author is a sociologist of religion and he knows his stuff.  He prefers the term ‘disaffiliation’ to ‘lapsation’, as disaffiliates may include the lapsed, who retain some sense of belonging in many cases, but also includes those who have not just lapsed but have joined other churches or become ‘nones’, with no religious affiliation at all.  Disaffiliation casts a wider net.

The thesis of the book is a simple one: while there is evidence of numerical decline before Vatican II, and while other churches have also experienced a dramatic dip in numbers over the same period, Vatican II, and in particular the document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was the main catalyst for disaffiliation.  A watershed moment was ‘Vernacular Sunday’, the First Sunday of Advent 1964, when the liturgical changes began.  And these were implemented with more enthusiasm by bishops and clergy, generally, in the US and Britain than was probably anticipated by the drafters of the document.  The destabilising effect of these changes, with Humanae Vitae thrown into the mix in 1968, radically changed the coherent worldview of Catholics forever, according to the thesis.

Bullivant bases his argument on solid sociological grounds, using as his authority the work of Peter Berger, arguably the doyen of sociologists of religion in the English-speaking world.  Berger taught that the ‘worlds’ we inhabit are socially constructed and kept in place by ‘plausibility structures’ that reinforce our worldview.  The Catholicism of the 1950s, in both Britain and America, was one such worldview.  And the plausibility structures were many: church teaching, devotions, the unchanging nature of the liturgy, Latin as the universal liturgical language, sodalities, schools, and so on.  All that changed in the 1960s.  Even Berger himself was aghast at what the Catholic Church seemed to be doing to itself.

Once the socially constructed worldview of 1950s Catholicism began to crumble, as much from within as from without, there was no turning back.  The rate of disaffiliation accelerated and shows no sign of abating.  The statistics, many of them, that Bullivant quotes speak for themselves, compellingly, even allowing for variations and exceptions to the general rule, like the Poles in Europe or the Latinos in America.  One little giveaway is the author’s habit of peppering his narrative with Latin phrases: fairly obvious hints that the demise of Latin is part of the problem.

I confess I was exhausted by the end of the book, and not a little depressed.  So much of it seemed true, and yet somehow wide of the mark.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong.

After finishing the book, I still had an hour or so of my journey before reaching Waverley.  So I picked up the New Statesman, which I regretted buying thinking I wouldn’t read it, and started thumbing through until my eye caught an article titled, ‘I went to church three times this week – and the final time, I watched Aretha fly’.  The columnist, Tracey Thorn, an avowed atheist, had this to say about watching the film Amazing Grace on Aretha Franklin singing in a Baptist church in the 1970s: ‘Aretha sings of God, and to God, her voice rising up to the heavens…  [The people] shake their heads in wonder.  They are there to praise God…  They clap their hands… and they echo back her words.  For a moment you see what church is for, and amen to that. Amen’.

It now dawned on me what was wrong: I had no feeling that Bullivant understood what church is for.  It’s not about Latin, or even the vernacular.  Nor is it about any of the things he was talking about.  Church is for praising God, and thanking God, and doing it joyfully.  I can’t recall that happening to me before Vatican II, and I can’t imagine it happening to me during a Tridentine Mass; but it has happened to me since – in Africa, in South Korea where I worked as a missionary, and even in my previous parish in South Hackney.  Not often, but enough times to keep me going.  The Spirit blows where It wills.  Veni Sancte Spiritus.

Paul Graham OSA

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.