Rorate Caeli

The Springtime of the Church: a statistical reckoning

Following on from my earlier post on Rorate Caeli about the strange, and optimistic, statistical comparisons being made on the internet about the number of ordinations to the priesthood in England and Wales, I and a number of Latin Mass Society volunteers have spent a lot of time among dusty tomes extracting statistics on a whole range of things which have appeared in the Catholic Directory over the years. Various articles have appeared on statistical measures of Catholic life in England and Wales over the years and it is clear that the researchers didn't have these numbers. They have lain uncollected in successive volumes of the Catholic Directory, and very few places have a complete set of old Directories.

Readers in England will see a good-sized article on our research in the print edition of the Catholic Herald out today, on p3.

So we now have numbers for Catholic baptisms, marriages, and conversions, as well as ordinations, numbers of priests, and numbers of places of worship. Some of the series go back to 1912 or 1913; others go back into the 19th century. Here I am going to talk about marriages; I've written on conversions on my own blog; you can download the raw data here, and see the press release here.

We all know the numbers of pretty well everything good in the Catholic world went south in the 1960s and 1970s. Here's a typical graph, recording the number of marriages in the Church in England and Wales, 1913 to 2010 (the latest date for which numbers are available).

Catholic Marriages in England and Wales (1913-2010)
Yes, you read that right: fewer Catholic weddings took place in 2011, in England and Wales, than in 1912. Since the population of the whole country has increased hugely in the meantime, the numbers per 1,000 Catholic makes for an even more dramatic graph.

Marriages per 1000 of the Catholic population of England and Wales (1913-2010)
The estimates of the Catholic population published in the Directory are necessarily a bit subjective. In 1993 they started to collect numbers for weekly Mass-goers as well, and it turned out that only a 28% of the 'Catholic Population' bothered; in 2011 is was 22% of a smaller total. However, if the liberals want to say that the number of Catholic marriages remained stable as a proportion of a sharply dwindling band of zealous Catholics, that would simply replace one depressing graph with another.

Now, what a lot of people will say, looking at these graphs, is that marriage declined across the whole population since about 1970. And it's true, it did: you can even see some of the same kinks in the graphs above in this one, for the population as a whole, published by a conservative British newspaper, The Daily Mail.

So, does the general decline of marriages, and similarly of religious commitment, the birth rate, and other things of that sort explain what happened in the Church? Was the Church in the 1960 and 1970s just a victim of social change?

No. We can adjust for this, at least where marriages are concerned, with the help of the same statistics from the UK's Office of National Statistics which the Daily Mail used.

Catholic marriages as a percentage of all marriages in England and Wales (1913-2010)
This shows Catholic marriages as a percentage of all marriages. The growth of the first half of the 20th century is replaced by a steep decline, a decline to a level unprecedented since these records began. You've never had it so bad.

If you want an explanation for the levelling off at the end, incidentally, it is largely thanks to the Poles and other Catholic immigrants who have arrived in the UK in increasing numbers since 1997. Christian immigrants have masked a catastrophic fall in the percentage of people identifying as Christians of any kind in the UK between the 2001 census and the 2011: at least, that was the headline in the papers yesterday. (Numbers of Muslims are up, of course.)

The Catholic Church in England and Wales can still be viewed as a victim of course: the social changes of the 1960s and after were very negative, they invaded the Church and had a disproportionately bad effect on her, to the extent that she had been a safe haven from them up to then.

They called it 'opening the windows of the Church to the values of the world.'

(Nb the gaps in the graphs in the early 1970s is because for two years the Catholic Directory was not published; statistics weren't published for a small number of other years as well. We are going back to the archive to complete some of the series of numbers going back into the past, so look out for more historical statistics and analysis.)