New research shows that the Catholic population in Britain is falling dramatically, despite Church claims that new immigrants from Eastern Europe are bringing about a revival.
The new figures, from the Pastoral Research Centre, show that the numbers actively participating in Catholic life in England and Wales has fallen by more than half a million in the last 11 years. The statistics — compiled independently of the Church — are based on the number of people baptised in the last 50 years and more recent marriages, baptisms and deaths. It shows that many of today’s Catholic adults are not returning to the Church to marry or baptise their own children or bury their dead.
Anthony Spencer, who runs Pastoral Research, said the Church’s own figures were little more than guesswork, based on rough estimates of mass attendance.
Mr Spencer said: “Mass immigration is masking a huge alienation among the Catholic community. There is a huge unexplained loss of people to be found when you look at those who were baptised as babies, but who are not getting married or holding funerals and subsequent baptisms in Church.”
Mr Spencer said that his statistics showed that 530,000 Catholics had ceased even minimal involvement with the Church since 1997, whereas official Church statistics put it at 72,000. Mr Spencer has been checking the official figures and finding many errors. In official Catholic Bishops’ Conference figures he identified one diocese in which a group of five parishes appeared to have increased their Catholic population by 277,000 in the course of one year. On investigating, he found typographical errors were to blame. He also said that many parishes refused to co-operate with the collection of statistics. Mr Spencer challenged the recent claim that there are now more practising Catholics than there are Anglicans because counting systems for the two denominations were different.
The new figures show that in 1958 almost 68,700 couples were married in a Catholic Church, whereas in 2005 just 14,700 Catholic weddings took place.
Most controversially, he found the number of late baptisms had risen over the last 50 years. In 1958 there were fewer than 5,000 baptisms of children between one and seven. In 2005 this had risen to 16,000. Mr Spencer attributed this to the need to prove baptism in order to get a place in a Catholic school.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “These figures show a very different situation to that fed to us by Church propagandists. The Catholic Church in Britain is dying on its feet and yet we are constantly told that the new intake from Poland has revived it. Of course, it is in the Church’s interest to keep alive the impression that it is big, powerful and representative of significant sections of the population. The Government is afraid to confront it on so many issues because it fears that the Catholic hierarchy will tell Catholics to vote against it. Well, we now know that the Church does not have that power any more. Increasing numbers of Catholics are repelled by the reactionary nature of the Church they were forced into. Taken together with recent opinion polls it shows that the majority of Catholics don’t share the Vatican’s dogmatic approach to issues such as contraception, abortion, homosexuality, condoms to fight AIDS and so much more.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: “As Ed Balls made clear only this week, it is for local communities to determine the types of schools that they want. All schools are bound by our new admissions code which stipulates fair admissions policy for all schools. Schools are under a legal duty to promote community cohesion, understanding and tolerance.”
Mr Sanderson said that the late baptism phenomenon reinforced the idea that the selection criteria that faith schools enjoy are forcing people to be dishonest, underhand and to act against their conscience in order to get their children a place in a state school of their choice. We do not accept that any admissions criteria are ‘fair’ which are religiously discriminatory or privilege religious schools to the detriment of community schools.