Catholicism 'Faces Biggest Crisis since Reformation'

By Ruth Gledhill
The Times [United Kingdom]
July 4, 2006,,2-2254380,00.html

The Roman Catholic Church in Britain is facing its greatest threat since the Reformation, according to research.

Over three decades Mass attendance has slumped by 40 per cent, baptisms by 50 per cent, Catholic marriages by 60 per cent and confirmations by 60 per cent.

The 260-page study of the Church indicates that the number of adult converts fell by 55 per cent and first communions by nearly 40 per cent, described as the "greatest pastoral and demographic catastrophe" since the Reformation of the 16th century.

The study covers the period from 1963 to 1991. But more recent figures, from 2004, indicate little improvement.

In 1991 Mass attendance in England and Wales stood at 1.3 million, compared with 960,000 in 2004. Deaths among congregations rose by nearly 40 per cent between 1963 and 1991, reflecting the growing elderly profile. However, the Catholic population of England and Wales increased by 6 per cent.

According to the study, carried out by Anthony Spencer of the Pastoral Research Centre, the number of "late baptisms", of children aged 1 to 14, also increased.

Mr Spencer said that this was sometimes believed to "reflect the desire of parents who are no longer active members of the Catholic community to get their children enrolled in popular Catholic schools".

Mr Spencer collated the figures from statistics gathered by parish priests and dioceses, and published by the Church since 1911.

In a separate publication, a former senior press officer for the Catholic Bishops' Conference has called for better strategic thinking to lift the Church out of crisis in this country.

In The Future of the Catholic Church in Britain, Tom Horwood said: "The Church in Britain is suffering from a terminal decline in membership, irregular commitment among the remnant, and, in the wake of persistent child abuse scandals, a leadership of bishops and priests that has toppled from its pedestal with a mighty crash."

Mr Horwood's book draws on management theory to outline an approachaiming at "fundamental changes of attitudes and behaviour".

Mr Horwood called for more effective leadership from bishops, accusing them of an "inability to set a clear direction", and emphasised a need for "straight-talking honesty".

He continued: "It is clear that if the Catholic Church in Britain is to successfully communicate its messages and persuade an increasingly secular and cynical audience it must change its approach. Reactionary, defensive tactics have failed. The Church needs to become more of a proactive and positive force for building community in fragmented, 21st-century British society."

The publication of the two reports comes after weeks of international attention on the difficulties of the Anglican Church, which has 85 million members, a fraction of the 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church worldwide.


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