Stephen Bullivant, “Mass Exodus”

Stephen Bullivant, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2019

This valuable book examines why a lot of Catholics have abandoned their faith since Vatican II. Bullivant quite fairly makes a point of not simply assuming that they left because of Vatican II, tempting as this might be because of the coincidence of dates. After all, as he shows, there had been some decline in the Catholic Church before the Council, but it had been outperforming the Protestant Churches, with some significant evidence of growth, even in the UK (87), whereas after the Council, the decline became a collapse which matched and sometimes outpaced even the Protestant debacle (260). In particular, he notes the collapse of a Catholic culture, and that as the Catholics abandoned their whole-of-life culture, the Evangelical “megachurches” filled the gap with just the sort of profusion of activities and groups which the Catholic Church once had (31, 213-217, 240-241).

Bullivant investigates the question of why the collapse of the Catholic Church in the last sixty years has occurred. He examines many factors, and properly notes that many matters contributed to the decline. He has the best analysis of the effects of the sexual abuse scandals and the effect of Humanae Vitae which I have seen. His conclusion is quite balanced: without attempting to assess the merits of Vatican II, its documents, or their implementation from a religious perspective, he concludes that Vatican II intended to have a big effect on the Church, that it did have a big effect, but that it failed in its stated object: to reverse the perceived increasing irrelevance of the Church to modern people, as shown by the incipient decline in Church attendance.

I think that any other conclusion would be an idle denial of an obvious reality. Bullivant recommends for “serious consideration,” a conclusion of Dean Kelley, made as long ago as 1972, yet obviously true then as for today. After asking whether the accelerating decline in church attendance and vocations could be a “direct consequence” of modernization, Kelley concludes:

… the declining churches are not victims of changing times but of internal failure – the inability to provide a needed product or service. They have not adequately understood or performed their essential business: the dispensing of religion (261)

It should be obvious: no one will go to a church for politics or social analysis alone. They will attend for religion, or they will go for no good, lasting and unique reason. The faith has to be squarely in the centre, and then other things can take their place, viewed in the light of the faith (rather than vice versa). Problems occur when the margins invade the middle. Even if I can find political reflection at the church, and in papal encyclicals, yet I can find it in very many other places, and invariably in a more compelling format. However, if I want the faith, there is nowhere to go but the Church – or its competitors. It only stands to reason that if people keep going to church looking for spiritual nourishment, and are given ideologies instead, they will eventually look elsewhere for their spirituality. And the proof of this is that this is exactly what we have seen.

Having been born in 1957, I well remember what we were told by our school teachers and the clergy: that the changes to the church were going to attract lots of people, especially young people, on whom, incidentally, the authority figures were quite obsessively fixated. The hesitance or opposition of older people was dismissed, often with some harshness, at best exasperation, on the simple basis that they were old, and they just had to learn to adapt, getting out of the way of the crowds of youth who would flock back into the churches. The sort of attitude which was rampant in the Church is exampled in the Elvis Presley movie Change of Habit, where Mary Tyler Moore, a modern nun performing charitable work in deep disguise as a social worker, tells an intolerant old priest: “We can always rely on you to tell it like it was.Have you ever thought of having a folk Mass to attract more people?” or words to that effect. I recall a clergyman being quoted as saying to some nuns who had dropped the habit, and adopted “modern ways,” that they would have to build more residences to cope with all the vocations which would pour in. How ironic it seems now. A search of the contemporary culture would find many such examples.

My chief critiques of Bullivant are that, although he mentions them, he actually understates (1) the conviction of the innovators that they would attract large numbers of enthusiastic and creative worshippers to the churches, (2) how the very fact of change, especially in a religious context, undermines the force of custom and the legitimacy of authority, and (3) the spirit of disdain with which the changes were implemented, with the emphasis as much on the destruction of the old as the innovations themselves. I would add two other matters: (4) he does not ask whether the incidence of sexual abuse was higher in the modern Church than in the pre-VII iteration. I have seen some incidence which suggests that it became much higher, and that there may be a causal connection. (5) The people tend to follow the clergy: if the clergy are faithful, so are the people.

Now, Bullivant does realise that the revolution led to a view that if these things could change, then everything could change:

(In 1968) Catholics were by now used to things changing that had, only a few years before, appeared immutable. After all, if such totemic aspects of Catholic identity as Mass in Latin or fish on Fridays could change from one week to the next, if Tabernacles and plaster statues of the Virgin Mary could disappear from sight, if High Altars could be abandoned in favour of cafeteria-style tables, and if altar rails could be ripped out altogether, what wasn’t susceptible to a radical overhaul? (378)

I would add that the incoming tide of change naturally enough led both to a desire to see more change, and to want one’s personal preferences introduced, and what we personally do not like taken out. It is remarkable, in retrospect, how much bitterness was turned on what had overnight become the old ways. The way that altar rails were demolished in a cloud of dust was barbaric. Devil worshippers could hardly have performed the work with a worse will. I remember these days quite well, because young and stupid as I was, I had sense enough to see that people were being swayed by a superficial mob mentality, although I could not then articulate it like that. The situation in Eastern Churches is quite different: in future posts I shall explore why.

There is a good Youtube recording of Professor Bullivant presenting his thesis at

[p.s. Joseph Grayland wrote a thesis on the liturgical changes as implemented in New Zealand (New Life, Old Churchskins, 1996) which attempts to be objective, concluding that the New Zealand Church saw no need for the VII changes, and was ill-equipped for them. This strengthens the impression, from other sources, that the changes were imposed, top-down, by an elite upon the people for whom they professed an extravagant devotion.]

For Part two of this series of four, see

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