Is Vatican II to Blame?

Last week, Pew released a survey showing that fewer than one-third of American Catholics believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ during Communion. You’ve got to take such surveys with a grain of salt; people can misunderstand what’s being asked. And I wonder what percentage of adherents in any religion in America today really knows the religion’s core doctrines. Still, the results are striking. The belief that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood is a major doctrine of the Catholic Church–the Reformation was fought over it, in part.

On Twitter, there was a lot of discussion about the role Vatican II had in encouraging ignorance of Church teaching. Moving to a more modern, accessible liturgy was supposed to increase religious participation and knowledge, after all. Perhaps, by encouraging an informality and lack of seriousness in the liturgy, it has led to the opposite? I’m a liturgical traditionalist, myself (though not a Catholic), so I’d like to believe liturgical modernization is a mistake. But maybe Vatican II can’t be blamed on its own–perhaps other factors played more of a role. A new book from Oxford, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America Since Vatican II, addresses the general fall-off in observance among Catholics since the Council and suggests the Council was actually more successful than critics allege. The author is theologian and sociologist Stephen Bullivant (St. Mary’s University-London). Here is the description from the Oxford website:

In 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with the prophecy that ‘a new day is dawning on the Church, bathing her in radiant splendour’. Desiring ‘to impart an ever increasing vigour to the Christian life of the faithful’, the Council Fathers devoted particular attention to the laity, and set in motion a series of sweeping reforms. The most significant of these centred on refashioning the Church’s liturgy–‘the source and summit of the Christian life’–in order to make ‘it pastorally efficacious to the fullest degree’.

Over fifty years on, however, the statistics speak for themselves. In America, only 15% of cradle Catholics say that they attend Mass on a weekly basis; meanwhile, 35% no longer even tick the ‘Catholic box’ on surveys. In Britain, the signs are direr still. Of those raised Catholic, just 13% still attend Mass weekly, and 37% say they have ‘no religion’. But is this all the fault of Vatican II, and its runaway reforms? Or are wider social, cultural, and moral forces primarily to blame? Catholicism is not the only Christian group to have suffered serious declines since the 1960s. If anything Catholics exhibit higher church attendance, and better retention, than most Protestant churches do. If Vatican II is not the cause of Catholicism’s crisis, might it instead be the secret to its comparative success? 

Mass Exodus is the first serious historical and sociological study of Catholic lapsation and disaffiliation. Drawing on a wide range of theological, historical, and sociological sources, Stephen Bullivant offers a comparative study of secularization across two famously contrasting religious cultures: Britain and the USA.

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