Comment & Analysis

Catholicism in England and Wales: crunching the numbers
A recent report on Catholicism may make for grim reading, but should be welcomed, writes Greg Daly

It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition,” wrote Pope Francis in his 2013 exhortation Evangelli Gaudium, responding to 2012’s synod of bishops on ‘A New Evangelisation for the transmission of the Christian Faith’. 

The term “new evangelisation” was most famously defined by St John Paul II in his 1990 encyclical Remptoris Missio, in which he talked of the Church having a mission of re-evangelisation in its traditional heartlands “where entire groups of the baptised have lost a living sense of the Faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel”.

Pope Benedict XVI made this “new evangelisation” a papal priority, speaking of it often, calling a synod on the issue, and founding in 2010 the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelisation, to which in one of his last major decisions as Pope he gave responsibility for overseeing catechesis in the Church.

It seems fitting, then, that it’s an institute named after the Pope Emeritus – London’s new Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society – that’s taken a key step for engaging in the re-evangelisation of England and Wales by attempting to measure the nature and scope of the problem there. 


Without accurate figures for how many baptised Catholics have grown “disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition”, centre director Dr Stephen Bullivant wrote last year, the Church has no realistic hope of reducing, never mind reversing, this urgent pastoral problem. Last week his report ‘Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales’ attempted to address this gap. 

The report, drawn from data assembled over recent years by the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, paints a discouraging picture, but the fact that it has been done at all should be applauded, as the Church in England and Wales will now be able to address the pastoral reality armed with more than hunches, anecdotes and educated guesses. 

There is, in truth, little comfort in the report, which reveals that for every convert to Catholicism, 10 baptised Catholics repudiate the Faith, that just one Catholic in a hundred comes from a background of no religion whatsoever, and that men between the ages of 18 and 24 attend weekly Mass in such small numbers as to be statistically negligible.

The report’s most startling revelation is the headline finding that Christianity is in crisis in modern Britain, with more English and Welsh adults claiming to have no religion than being willing to identify as Christian in any sense. 48.5% of those surveyed said they had no religion, as opposed to 43.8% claiming to be Christian; 7.7% are members of non-Christian religions, notably Muslims, who make up 4.4% of the population.

Dr Bullivant divides the 43.8% self-identified Christians into three major categories: Anglicans are the largest group, with 19.8% of the population, and Catholics the next largest distinct denomination, at 8.3%, while all other Christian groups when clustered together come to 15.7%.


That members of England’s established Church would make up a mere 19.8% of the population might seem surprising, but the figures suggest the Church of England is collapsing. While the Catholic proportion of the adult population has remained generally steady since the first BSA survey in 1983, the Anglican proportion has declined by more than half, from 1983’s 44.5% to today’s 19.8%. 

With almost a third of the Anglo-Welsh Christian adult population – 32.7% – aged over 65, and just 6.9% being young adults between 18 and 24, there’s no sign of the Anglican situation improving, given how Anglicans comprise almost half of England and Wales’ adult Christians. The comparable figures for the population as a whole are 21.3% and 12%. 

This should be no cause of smugness for Catholics, as while the absolute proportion of self-identifying Catholics has remained fairly steady over the decades, this crude figure masks serious problems.

8.3% of the adult population of England and Wales – 3.8 million out of 45.2 million – may self-identify as Catholic, but 13.7% of the population claim to have been raised Catholic; in other words, of a ‘cradle Catholic’ adult population of 6.2 million, roughly 2.4 million no longer even assert a nominal link to the Church. 

Of the 44.2% of cradle Catholics who have disaffiliated themselves from the Church, 5.4% adhere to other Christian denominations, 1% are now linked with non-Christian religions, and the vast majority – 37.8% - now claim no religion. 

In other words, six out of every seven baptised Catholic adults who leave the Church abandon religion altogether. Those who argue that the Catholic decline in England and Wales could be stemmed by adopting the pastoral practices of other Churches should at least pause to ponder how for most Catholics who turn their back on the Church, it is as though they think God – or at least institutional religion – an irrelevance. 

It appears that this was not always the way, and that such mass repudiation of the Faith is a phenomenon of recent decades. Between 1993 and 2014 the percentage of adults raised as Catholics who still self-identified as such dropped steadily from 71.2% to 52.5%. 


Remarkably, disaffiliation does not appear to have taken place evenly across England and Wales. On the contrary, it seems far more Catholics hold to the Faith in the north of England, with 64.3% doing so in the North East and 62.8% in the North West, than do so in South West and the East Midlands, where just 44.2% and 42.9% do so respectively.

At the two extremes, that the North West, home to the old Catholic stronghold of Preston and such Irish-bolstered cities as Liverpool and Manchester, should show such high levels of faith retention compared to other areas might not be surprising, but it is difficult to see why the East Midlands – roughly corresponding to the diocese of Nottingham – seem to have been such an egregious blackspot for the retention of the Faith. 

A curious feature of cradle Catholic demographics in the South West – roughly corresponding to the Dioceses of Plymouth and Clifton – is how it is by some distance the part of England and Wales with the highest number of cradle Catholics to have joined a different Christian denomination, 13% of cradle Catholics in the region having done so. Catholics are, however, a tiny minority – just 1.8% - of Plymouth’s population, so it seems likely that a disproportionately high number of Catholics in the diocese marry Christians of other denominations, with many then joining their spouses’ churches. 

Given high disaffiliation rates – only slightly lower than those experienced by Anglicans – it might seem odd that the proportion of the population identifying as Catholic is roughly the same as that in 1983. 

This, however, is easily explained by immigration, something pointed to by how self-identifying Catholics – at 14.8% of the adult population, second only to the North West – seem to be the single largest religious group in inner London. 

London’s immigrant population is more than three times the national figure, and it’s striking that while the general population is just 3.5% black, the Catholic population is 6.3% so. 

Similarly, while the proportion of the category of Asians that would include Filipinos and Vietnamese in the general population is barely above 1%, it is almost 3% of the Catholic population. Immigrant Poles, Irish, Spanish, Italians and Lithuanians would also be boosting the national figures.


Overall it can hardly be said that the story of faith retention in England and Wales is anything other than bleak, showing how an effective ‘new evangelisation’ is desperately needed, and this is without addressing the issue of traditional lapsation: many of those who self-identify as Catholic, while not disaffiliating from the Faith nonetheless scarcely engage in religious practice. 

Only 27.5% of self-identifying Catholic adults in England and Wales attend Mass – leaving aside baptisms, weddings and funerals – once a week or more, with a further 15.6% attending at least once a month. 17.8% attend less frequently, but at least once a year, while 39.2% never attend or almost never do so.

Two out of five self-identifying Catholics, then, don’t even attend Mass once a year, and when the disaffiliated are taken into account, at most 17.1% of all those raised Catholic attend Mass on a weekly basis or more frequently.

Disaffiliation and lapsation figures are far worse for men than for women: just two out of every five self-identified Catholics are male, and of those self-identifying Catholics, under 23% of men attend Mass at least weekly, with almost 31% of women doing so. 

In some ways, of course, this imbalance is unsurprising – as far back as 1908 G.K. Chesterton wrote that “it was their great sneer at the Church on the continent that ‘only women’ went to it” – and it should not be seen as a uniquely Catholic phenomenon, since across the general adult population of self-identifying Christians in England and Wales, 58.5% are female and just 41.4% male. As Dr Bullivant told The Irish Catholic in April, “men are less religious than women more or less across the board in all cultures and all religions”.

Despite this, however, it’s staggering that Mass attendance is a rarity for men aged between 45 and 64, who make up just 7.5% of the typical weekly congregation; needless to say, they make up a rather larger proportion of the notional Catholic population. Religious practice for that age bracket is strikingly low anyway: just one in five self-identifying Catholics in that age range attends Mass at least weekly. 

In contrast, roughly a quarter of those aged between 25 and 44 attend Mass at least once a week, and more than two in five of those aged over 65 do so.

With such a high lapsation rate for Catholics born between – roughly – 1950 and 1969 and with fewer than one in seven of those who have disaffiliated from the Church in recent decades having embraced another denomination, it is hard to avoid concluding that huge numbers of people raised Catholic have come to believe that religious practice is, in effect, pointless. 

The major challenge for the new evangelisation is to convince people otherwise, and to do so before they walk away.


Making sense from statistics

If it’s true, as Stephen Bullivant thinks it is, that the Church must mend its nets if it is serious about being a fisher of men, then it makes sense to start by trying to figure out what’s wrong with those nets.

The BSA data gives a real sense of the problems facing the Church in England and Wales, and in pondering it a handful of things stand out.

The difference in Mass attendance rates between older Catholics and those aged between 45 and 64 is highly significant; allowing that the most recent data in the survey comes from 2014, it seems Mass attendance is only half as common among those whose adolescence began in the 1960s or 1970s as it is among their predecessors.

This could be explained a number of ways but I suspect catechetical and liturgical uncertainty in the years of and immediately following Vatican II is the chief culprit; tellingly, Mass attendance recovers somewhat among those self-identified Catholics whose adolescence began in the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when matters were stabilising. It is this cohort, a quarter of whom attend Mass each week, from whom the current Anglo-Welsh vocational surge is coming.

Mass attendance drops dramatically again for those whose teenage years were in the 2000s; these are those who have never known a church not embroiled in scandals, and perhaps more importantly, are the children of the low-attending 45-64-year-olds. They almost certainly grew up thinking of Catholicism as a cultural badge or tribal identity rather than a living reality.

It’s clear from the data that any notion that the aisles would be packed once more if only the Church changed its teaching, pastoral practice, hierarchical structure or style of worship simply won’t bear much scrutiny.

Catholics in England and Wales live in a denominational supermarket: if they want to worship God in communities with married priests or women priests, or ones where the divorced can remarry, or ones where Communion is seen as a sharing of symbolic bread, or even ones where contraception is acceptable and abortion simply regrettable, they can do so. They don’t.

It may well be that barely one cradle Catholic in six attends Mass at least weekly as an adult and that three out of five cradle Catholics hardly ever darken the door of a church – baptisms, weddings and funerals aside – but fewer than one cradle Catholic in 15 joins another denomination.

Three quarters of cradle Catholics don’t go to religious services even once a month. Suggestions that these are somehow “searching” simply won’t cut it. On the contrary: they’re not looking for God, at least not knowingly, and if they believe God is real, they don’t think he matters enough to worship.

The challenge, then, for those who would re-evangelise England and Wales, is to convince people that God is real, that he matters, and that worship has a point.

As for those who would like to re-evangelise Ireland, it is surely time to start gathering facts.