Belmont

Newly released statistics show the decline of the Catholic Church in England and Wales in 1960s and 1970s

Download the spreadsheet of the full figures in tabular and graphic formats

Research by the Latin Mass Society has demonstrated the striking decline of a range of statistical indications of the health of the Catholic Church in England and Wales in the 1960s and 1970s. To our knowledge this data has never been made available in collated form before: the number of ordinations year by year since 1860, the number of priests since 1890, and baptisms, marriages, and receptions, and estimates of the Catholic population, since 1913.

Among the findings are:

Marriages: The number of marriages collapsed by a third between 1968 and 1978 (from 47,417 to 31,534), and has continued a rapid decline since then, now standing at less than 10,000 a year, a quarter of the 1968 level in absolute terms, and even less in relation to the estimated Catholic population (from 12 per thousand in 1968) to 2½ per thousand in 2010). Conversions fell off a cliff in the 1960s. From a peak of 15,794 in 1959, it fell to 5,117 in 1972; in relation the Catholic population, it fell by more than 70% between those two years. It has not recovered.

Baptisms halved between 1964 and 1977 (137,673 in 1964 to 68,351 in 1977), and are even lower today (oscillating around the 60,000 mark). This is not just the effect of the end of the ‘baby boom’: considered in relation to total live births for England and Wales (using data from the Office for National Statistics), the first half of the 20th century saw steady growth, with Catholic baptisms peaking at nearly 16% of all live births in 1963. This was followed by a decline of a third between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s. A more gentle decline has continued to the present: today fewer than 10% of babies born alive in England and Wales are being baptised in the Catholic Church.

Ordinations fell by more than 56% between 1965 and 1977 (from 233 to 101), and the decline has continued. Even on the more optimistic figures supplied by the National Office of Vocations (compared to the Catholic Directory) for the current year, showing an increase on recent years, numbers are at scarcely 30% of their 1964 level. (Counting only ordinations to the diocesan clergy, there were 134 in 1964; the NOV predicts 41 this year.)

Dr Joseph Shaw, the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society, who led the research, comments:

‘Anyone with an interest in the future of the Catholic Church in England and Wales will find these figures illuminating. They show unambiguously that something went seriously wrong in the Church in England and Wales in the 1960s and 1970s. Catholics ceased quite suddenly to see the value of getting married, having large families, and having their children baptised. Non-Catholics no longer perceived the Church as the ark of salvation, and ceased to seek admission. Young men no longer offered themselves for the priesthood in the same numbers as before.

‘It is not fanciful to connect this catastrophe to the wrenching changes which were taking place in the Church at that time, when the Second Vatican Council was being prepared, discussed, and, often erronesouly, applied. As Pope Benedict wrote in the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum (2007):

in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion. And I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.

‘The theological and liturgical fashions of that era were invariably justified by the hope of positive pastoral results, and these results manifestly failed to materialise.

‘The effect of dissent from the Church’s teaching is particularly manifest in relation to contraception, which has had a direct consequence on the Catholic birth rate, as reflected in the number of baptisms, compared to the national birth rate.

‘The Church in England and Wales today has fewer than half the ordinations each year than it had in the 1860s, but more than double the number of priests. A large proportion of those priests, however, will die or have to stop work over the next decade. In this respect we are still living on our capital, and this capital is about to run out.

‘The Extraordinary Form has not lost its power to attract young men to the priesthood, and the communities which have grown up around it today provide disproportionate numbers of vocations, marriages, and baptisms. Thirteen young men from England and Wales are currently studying for the priesthood in the different religious orders committed to the Extraordinary Form; three more should join them in September; these are numbers which many dioceses would envy.

‘We believe that the Extraordinary Form (the Traditional Mass) has an important role to play in resolving the crisis in the Church.’

Notes on the statistics

Unless otherwise indicated, the statistics are taken from the Catholic Directory.

Statistics for ordinations can be recovered only by manually counting the lists of men ordained each year; some of this work was done by the Rev. Stephen Morgan and a team at the Diocese of Portsmouth. The Latin Mass Society has filled in the gaps in Rev. Morgan’s figures and extended the range of dates covered in both directions.

In addition, the LMS has added the total number of clergy, and the numbers given in the Directory’s ‘Recapitulation of Statistics’ since 1913, which include Baptisms, Marriages, Adult Conversions (renamed ‘Receptions’ in 1976), and estimates of the Catholic population. We are very grateful to the Rev. Stephen Morgan for letting us use the fruits of his research, to the Fathers of the London Oratory for giving us access to their library, and to a number of Latin Mass Society volunteers for their time.

For further information contact: Mike Lord, General Manager, on 020 7404 7284 or michael@lms.org.uk.