14 November 2013, The Tablet

Endangered species

by Linda Woodhead

Last week we presented the findings about sex, marriage and the family from three new surveys of Catholic opinion. This week, we reveal that as the days of mass churchgoing and obedience to doctrine decline, new patterns of Catholic belonging are emerging

What it means to be a Catholic has changed. There is now significant disparity between older and younger believers. Over-60s fit a model closer to that officially promulgated by the Vatican, while under-50s believe, behave and belong in different ways. This is not a case of young people drifting away from the faith, but of them forging a new way of being Catholic. These are the findings of three major surveys into the beliefs and values of English, Scottish and Welsh Catholics, aged over 18.

The proportion of Catholics in the population remains fairly constant at around 8-10 per cent. Inward migration of Catholics has helped boost overall numbers, but the fact remains that when the 2011 census revealed a fall in the number who call themselves “Christian” – from 72 per cent to 59 per cent over a decade – it was Anglican, rather than Catholic, losses which were responsible.

Compared with only 62 per cent of Anglicans and 46 per cent of the general popu­lation, virtually all churchgoing Catholics believe in God, as do 70 per cent of Catholics in total. Four-fifths of Catholics aged over 60 believe, as do two-thirds in their 20s, 30s and 40s. So, Catholic young people are not becoming atheists in droves. What has changed is the certainty with which they believe: a third in their 20s say there is “definitely” a God, compared with 57 per cent of the over-60s. Figure 1 shows the breakdown of belief by age.

Catholics also report a relatively high level of spiritual practice outside of a church context. Over 40 per cent say they have prayed during the past month, a fifth that they have visited places which feel sacred or holy, the same number that they have taken regular time to be alone and still the mind, and 8 per cent that they have meditated. More than one in 10 read sacred and spiritual writings on a monthly basis, and the same number report “feeling a deep connection with nature/the earth”. These figures are all higher than for the general population.

Regular churchgoing is holding up less well among younger Catholics. Although my surveys suggest a greater overall decline than previous polls have reported, the large sample size means the findings should be taken seriously. They show that Catholics are now split roughly 50:50 between those who go to church and those who never go or hardly ever attend, except for events like weddings and funerals.

Over-60s are slightly more likely to attend than under-60s, but the most dramatic difference is in the pattern of attendance. Among churchgoers aged over 60, nearly 60 per cent retain a pattern of weekly attendance, whereas only around a quarter of under-60s churchgoers do so. The most common pattern for the latter is less than monthly but at least once a year (e.g. for Christmas). The remainder say they attend on a monthly basis. So, among British Catholics as a whole, about one in three over-60s attend weekly, but only one in eight of those under 60. 

It is also clear that few Catholics now think of themselves primarily as “religious”. A fifth describe themselves as such, a tenth as “spiritual” and another fifth as “both”. But the greatest proportion, one third, say: “I would not describe myself, or my values and beliefs, as spiritual or religious.” Just over half the British population say the same, with roughly the same proportions (a tenth) opting for “spiritual”, “religious” and “both”. Religion – by which most people understand official, institutional, religion – has become a rather toxic brand, especially among younger people.

When it comes to social justice, younger Catholics are more likely than older ones to be broadly in line with Catholic Social Teaching. As to politics, they are more ­centre-left than the general population, and noticeably more so than Anglicans. Although people’s voting intention fluctuates, the Catholics we sampled in June 2013 favoured Labour more strongly than the general population.

When we dig deeper into Catholics’ socio-political values, we find that half are broadly supportive of the more left-wing concerns about social welfare and the common good, while less than a third support a more right-wing emphasis on welfare reform and individual responsibility. A fifth fall into a neutral category between the two. As such, Catholics are more likely to sympathise with the social values of The Guardian or the Daily Mirror than The Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail. This concern with the common good is more pronounced among women, non-churchgoers and younger Catholics.

This concern with social justice and equality helps to explain why younger Catholics are also less obedient to official church teaching on issues of personal morality. In relation to same-sex marriage, for example, four-fifths invoke the principle of equality to explain why they disagree with the Church about its permissibility. As detailed last week, Catholics are now in favour of allowing same-sex ­marriage by a small margin, and the margin increases with every generation – though churchgoers are less favourable than non-churchgoers.

Another influential general principle is liberalism, where that is understood as the belief that individuals should be free to make up their own minds about issues which affect them personally (seeing them as a matter of individual conscience). Three-quarters of Catholics cite this principle to explain why their views diverge from the Church’s over euthanasia: our poll finds that a majority of all Catholics say the law should be changed to support assisted dying in tightly controlled circumstances. A majority of all Catholics are also in favour of allowing abortion. These views are increasing with every generation, including among churchgoers, even though fewer of the latter express liberal views.

There is little evidence that Catholic attitudes about these matters are more influenced by acceptance of teaching about natural law than anyone else’s. Even among those opposed to same-sex marriage, for example, fewer give as a reason that it’s “unnatural” than do opponents from other Christian denominations. However, Catholics are slightly more likely than other groups to say that human life begins at fertilisation.

Catholics have also strayed from magisterial teaching when it comes to the issue of authority itself. When asked where they look for guidance in living their life and making decisions, over half of Catholics say their own reason, judgement, intuition or feelings, and another fifth say family or friends. More narrowly religious sources of authority are much less popular, even with churchgoers. The most cited is “tradition and teachings of the Church” (8 per cent), followed by God (7 per cent), the Bible (2 per cent) , the religious group to which a person belongs (2 per cent), and religious leaders, local or national (0 per cent).

Among the minority of Catholics who attend church weekly, more are likely to cite tradition and teachings of the Church (23 per cent) and God (16 per cent ), but such churchgoers are similarly dismissive of the other traditional sources of religious authority. Here again, the age difference is striking: over-60s are twice as likely as under-50s to take authority from religious sources.

Overall then, British Catholics have moved further from a Vatican-approved model of a faithful Catholic with every generation. This does not mean that most have become secular, atheistic, or even non-Catholic – it means that they have become Catholic in a different way. They are much less likely to go to church every week and to think of themselves as “religious”. They are likely to support the Church’s social teachings, but are increasingly unlikely to support its natural-law-based teachings about sex, gender and the traditional family.

Far from endorsing their Church’s highly critical remarks about mainstream “secular” culture, they actively embrace some aspects of its ethical progress, including its widening commitment to principles of human liberty and equality – albeit tempered by considerations of the common good.

The result is a Britain in which “faithful Catholics”, according to official teaching, are now a rare and endangered species. If we measure such a person by the criteria of weekly churchgoing, certain belief in God, taking authority from religious sources, and opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, only 5 per cent of Catholics fit the mould, and only 2 per cent of those under 30.

Catholics, in other words, have come adrift from Roman Catholicism. The latter hold fast to a model they believe to be endangered and unchanging, while the former have forged a new way of being Catholic in the conditions of contemporary culture. From a sociological point of view, such a vast chasm between religious institution and religious people weakens both. From a human point of view, it is tragic for all involved.

The research reported here was generously funded by two of the UK’s research councils, designed by Linda Woodhead and administered by YouGov. The first surveys are available on the Westminster Faith Debates website (www.faithdebates.org.uk).

Three separate surveys were carried out in January and June 2013. Two are representative of adults aged 18-plus in Great Britain, excluding Northern Ireland. Each was completed by over 4,000 people, including 350 Catholics in the first and 260 in the second. They were supplemented by a third survey completed by a nationally representative ­sample of 1,062 Catholics.

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