Any church programme designed to enliven the faith of the Catholic laity has to face an uncomfortable reality check. The great majority of lay Catholics in Britain are not anything like they are supposed to be. Even those who meet the minimum requirements laid down by the Catholic rule book, such as attendance at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, have in other respects deviated from the straight and narrow.
Catholics used to be familiar with a hard and fast distinction between “good Catholics” and “bad Catholics”, with the latter beyond the pale because of their disobedience and disloyalty, and the former strict in their pious observance even to the point of obsession. An extensive research project by Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University, details of which are published in this week’s Tablet, reveals that this distinction is melting away. If the old categories still applied, priests might well find that an average Sunday congregation consisted almost exclusively of “bad Catholics”.
Some priests who understand and accept this, and others in denial, refuse to notice that substantial numbers have left. But the research suggests that even the categories of “lapsed” and “practising” are no longer meaningful. Many Catholics attend Mass most weeks, while others do so monthly, some annually, some almost never. Some marry in church, while an increasing number prefer cohabitation or civil marriage. Are they all “lost sheep”? All those surveyed still identified as Catholics. They are all part of the family of the faithful. And in several respects, Professor Woodhead’s survey shows them to be still a distinct minority who differ in attitude and religious practice from the British population at large. What they do pick up from the majority, however, is a dislike at being thought “religious”.
Catholics still apply moral judgements to the issues they face, with social justice regularly trumping more “official” Catholic attitudes on such issues as gay marriage. Younger Catholics – whether weekly Mass attenders or not – particularly take the view that discrimination is always unjust and counts more heavily than the preservation of traditional marriage patterns. Similarly, respect for individual choice counts more heavily than official teaching when considering abortion or voluntary euthanasia.
What stands out from these findings is not an absence of moral values, but of values – such as respect for individual conscience that in other contexts Catholics have been taught to admire – being differently applied. There is a willingness to play down the official church line on sexual or “life” issues. The notion of a hierarchical Church with unique access to the truth through its Magisterium seems to be dying out.
There are the facts on the ground – the “smell of the sheep”, to use Pope Francis’ striking metaphor. Those involved in the huge investment in Catholic education should also be given pause for thought by this survey’s findings. The challenge to the Church is not necessarily how to reverse these trends, but how to understand what the Holy Spirit, which inspires and animates the whole body of the faithful, is trying to say by them. How must the institutional Church change if it is to move closer to its own people, and they to it? And what does it mean to be a “good Catholic” in 2013?
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