British Catholicism

Marianus Kullu FAITH Magazine January-February 2006

Many believed that after the Second Vatican Council, there would be a day of sunshine in the history of the Church. There came instead, especially in developed countries, a day of clouds, of uncertainty. Why has this happened? How can we move forward?

In 1968, Pope Paul VI publicly expressed a fear that the Church may have become engaged in a process of self-harm. Cardinal John Heenan warned in 1972 that, “One does not need to be a prophet to realise that without a dramatic reversal of the present trend there will be no future for the Church in English-speaking countries”. Has that reversal happened? Cardinal Danneels of Brussels stated in an interview with the Catholic Times (12 May 2000) that the vocations crisis has become so severe in Europe that the sacramental life of the Church was in danger of disappearing. Our late Holy Father, John Paul II, himself accepted that in the West there is a crisis in priestly vocation due to a diminishing “faith and spiritual fervour”.

The most evident characteristic of the British Catholic Church is that it is shrinking at an alarming rate. It starts with low population growth. The birth rate necessary for a nation to reproduce itself is 2.2 children per couple. The legalisation of abortion and the development of contraceptive devices changed the practice if not the minds of good Christians who ignored the anti-abortion teaching of the Catholic Church. This “Culture of death’, as our late Pope John Paul II termed it, has brought down the birth rate of England to only 1.64. Many are killed by abortion, creating more coffins than cots. The Catholic birth rate conforms to the national pattern. Catholics are contracepting their Church towards extinction. It is the same story for most other developed nations.

Contraception and abortion bring social as well as religious evils in so many ways and yet the subject now almost seems to be taboo in this country. Muslims are filling the void created by the collapse in the Christian birth rate. On current figures, by the year 2039, Muslims attending their mosques will outnumber all British Christians who worship on Sundays.

The fact that the Catholic population of England is declining is made clear by the awful figures for marriages and baptisms. The number of ordinations to the priesthood in England and Wales rose to 230 in 1964, but in 1999 ordinations had plunged to 43. Meanwhile 121 priests died in the same year, that is three deaths for every ordination. By any traditional measures this is not a crisis but a catastrophe. There may soon be only two seminaries in England in place of the five we had before Vatican II. Ireland has supplied many priests for this country, but in September 2002 came the sad news that only one of the six pre-Vatican II seminaries in Ireland remains open.

Loss of the Young

It is true to say, even what we have, is taken away. It cannot be presumed that all the children who are baptised will be practising their faith by the time they reach their teens. An examination of the figures of a typical English diocese indicates that less than half the children who are baptised receive the sacrament of confirmation. A report in The Universe, as long ago as April 1990 gave an estimate of only 11\% of young Catholics practising their faith when they leave school. My personal impression of the texts used in Catholic schools across a number of diocese is of an extremely watered down Catholicism.

Our young people can hardly be said to be lapsing from the faith, because they have not been effectively taught what the faith is. Neither parents by their words and actions, nor the education curriculum has informed them. In such an environment secular practice can easily determines a young person’s world-view and the distinctiveness of Gospel values or Christian ethics is simply lost. We have lost influence over the knowledgeable 21st century mind. We can only say “Don’t!”, but cannot argue the reason Why! And a liberalised child easily goes astray, beyond any sense of morality. His moral consciousness and faith dies off.

As the marriage rate and birth rate continue to decline and the lapsation rate among the young continues to increase so the average age of the Catholic population becomes older each year. If the decline continues at its present rate the Church in Britain will, to all intents and purposes, could have ceased to exist within thirty years.

Catechetical needs.

During Vatican II, Pope John XXIII, in his opening speech made it clear that the teaching of the Church was not to be changed, but simply to be made more comprehensible to the contemporary mentality. But sadly the traditional catechism was replaced with an endless series of new texts which soon reached the point where the suitability of the adjective Catholic was in doubt. The genuine need for new methods of teaching the Catholic religion was met by the introduction a new version of Catholicism. Any protest was unheard. In the 1970’s the Vice-Chairman of the Department of Catechetics for England and Wales resigned from his post. He stated bluntly. ”Modern catechesis is theologically corrupt and spiritually bankrupt. Its structures and innovations are irrelevant and unmeaningful for theCatholic Faith, and can achieve nothing but its gradual dilution.”

Conversely in India the importance of integral catechesis is very much emphasised. Sacramental preparation is thorough. Only the prescribed textbooks, carefully approved by Catholic Bishops Conference of India, or by the local Ordinary, are used in schools and parishes across dioceses and states. The diocesan Education Boards take an annual examination. As a result I believe that our young people who go to Church with their parents are mature enough to live the Faith.

Faith in the sacraments is of high importance in Catholicism. I feel I can say that for the vast majority of Indian Catholics the Eucharist is seen as the centre of Christian living. Children need to be taught its sacramental value and its uniqueness for Catholic living. Such imparting of knowledge is essential. It is something like supplying fuel to a lamp. It also awakens respect for the sacrament of reconciliation. Parents, clergy and the wider Catholic community need to live the sacraments, witnessing by word and example to the young.

In a report in The Catholic Herald (3 September 1999) Cardinal Hume was quoted as having said shortly before his death that there had been a decrease in devotion to the Eucharist in this country. He blamed the way children are taught the faith by adults.

The need to Inculturate

It seems to me that much of the development of civilization and culture is a good thing and not to be blamed for secularization. Rather the western Church’s failure to adapt and to inculturate appropriately, in doctrine and in liturgy, has been a key problem. Today, more than ever, we could say in regard to faith that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Many believe that the decline of Catholicism results from the changes introduced into the Church since the Second Vatican Council. Traditional Catholics see the Second Vatican Council as a Council whose documents were marked by an ambiguity, which has led to error, or even that it contained errors. But the Council’s new attitude towards ecclesiastical tradition has in fact led to changes in catholic practices, the liturgy, and even the Church’s pastoral orientation, which represent a new dawn today.

In my view, the Council brought a revolution in the Asian countries. India in particular is a country where there is lot of diversity of culture, language and tradition. Indianisation or inculturation or adaptation, especially in divine worship, has helped Indians to understand what Christian faith is. As a result of such a faith foundation the Church flourishes in all directions.

Materialistic and traditional teachings of Hinduism have not been obstacles to the development of Christianity. Belief in traditional practices of piety are deeply rooted in Asia, as in many of the countries in the world. Our effort in India has been directed towards reviving and updating our approach, from time to time, accordingly to contemporary needs. It is my conviction, that not only here in England but in all the countries where faith is dying, our dynamic, rather than traditional pastoral approach, can bring some energy to the revival of Catholic faith.

I do not believe that poverty or simplicity is the key catalyst for fervent faith and vocations in the developing world. There was, no doubt, a time of material enticement, perhaps a century ago when competing European colonials imposed Christianity forcefully. But after a certain process of maturing our faith remains fervent and alive. Vocations come from both rich and poor sections of society.

Doctrinal development

The French Revolution shook the faith in Europe but religion in England began to decline significantly from the time of the Industrial Revolution. The Reformation had driven the Catholic faith underground in this country. During the following two centuries the struggle for revival of Catholicism kept the faith alive. But at the time of the Industrial Revolution thinking patterns of religion began to change in significant ways. Ways of understanding human life took a radically new direction. A materialistic understanding of ‘quality of life’ began to overpower the inherited faith. The Catholic Church also came into the grip of the new thinking. The theological foundation of orthodox doctrine became less understood. Religion came to mean only moral obedience to the will of God. Thismodernisation, which was condemned by Pope Pius X, no longer supported the traditional practice of faith. Consequently, the present generation easily finds the traditional tenets incompatible with deeply held assumptions.

In my opinion, a careful doctrinal development and representation is needed. A new orientation of Catholicism and the modern culture would be beneficial for our present generation. Our effort to restore faith in our present time should involve a policy of conciliation with the best of modern learning and culture.

The Catholic Family

At the heart of Christianity is the teaching of Christ on the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. It is the religion of Jesus, rather than a religion about Jesus. Traditional Christianity, with its emphasis on the Church as institution, Christology as dogma and worship as sacramental, is, as Cardinal Hume said, a development of the original simple Gospel which the reformation failed to ‘recover’. When we speak of the essence of Christianity let us not ignore its ecclesial and sacramental foundation.

Modern man, especially in the developed world, has lost his concern about the eschatological, ecclesial kingdom of God in Jesus. Our community has become typically individualistic, not prepared to be our brother’s keeper. Each one minds his own business. Guiding our unwilling youth, who are the future of the Church, seems an impossibly tall order.

The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is the necessary form in which the Gospel is to he preserved, expressed and developed, if it is to survive. In current circumstances the Church universal, East and West, North and South, must come together to maintain the dying faith in the West. The Universal Church will overcome.

When compared with England I would finally emphasise the importance of the family in India. The family of course plays a vital role in the Christian and personal development of a child. In the present situation here, many children are without a foundation in faith and are being led astray by the fear of losing their security, and by a false dream regarding the quality of life. When both of these influences affect the mind of a person there is no room left for good conscience and faith. If the catholic faith has to be revived in this country, it has surely to start from the family. To help a plant to grow straight when it is tiny is easier than when it has grown into a huge tree.

In these circumstances regular attendance of parents with their children at Mass and other Church activities would be a basic antidote. The children need to be able to understand and relate to the traditional Faith, particularly to a reverent liturgy, and to profess the sacrificial nature of the Mass. In my opinion this is the practical beginning of counter-balancing the decline of faith and the moral sense today.

Without divine intervention, any hope of a recovery of British Catholicism must be considered a delusion. Although, it seems, the Church has no long-term future in this country, she will, of course, survive her present afflictions elsewhere in the world. We can be certain of this because the Church is indefectible. The Catholic Church will persist until the end of time. It can never totally become corrupt in faith or in morals, and never lose the Apostolic hierarchy or the sacraments through which Christ communicates grace to men.

Individual Churches may become corrupt in morals, may fall into heresy, and may even apostasize. But the defection of isolated branches does not alter the character of the main stem. This does not mean that the Church in England will wither away completely. I cannot imagine that. It may well be that it will receive help from the Church in Africa or Asia. We should be quite certain that the Church will survive and the gates of hell will never prevail against it, because our Lord has promised to be with us until the end of the world.

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