The Roman Catholic clergy in the United States report with dismay—and not a little self-pity—that their churches, once filled on Sunday, are now half empty. Some view this decline in Sunday Mass attendance as proof that the Catholic Church is falling apart, and many attribute the decline to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. But this view does not account for the fact that many of the people who do not attend Mass regularly—those who are under 40—were never weekly churchgoers in the first place. Why? Because they do not think it is a serious sin to miss Mass. And those over 40 have also changed their minds. “I don’t think my grandson will go to hell because he misses Sunday Mass,” said an elderly parishioner in one survey, “I don’t think I would either, but I’m not going to take the chance.”
American Catholics changed their minds about hellfire and missing Mass as part of the same decision-making process that led them to conclude that birth control in the name of married love would not send them to hell either. The changes are not the result of secularism, a consumerist culture, materialism or the loss of faith, as some would contend, but rather of a “Catholic revolution,” which immediately followed Vatican II and was continued by the “children of the council”—Catholics born since 1960. In both cases, those who do not attend Mass regularly do not believe that they are committing a serious sin. Data from several different sources illuminate this phenomenon: the National Opinion Research Center’s Catholic school studies of 1963 and 1974, the General Social Survey from 1972 to 2002 also conducted by N.O.R.C., a Knowledge Network survey of 2002 and the two General Social Survey religion modules of 1988 and 1998.
The Catholic Revolution
The moderate reforms of Vatican II—support for biblical research, seeing the church as the people of God, ecumenical engagement with Protestants, better relations with Jews, vernacular liturgy, support for religious freedom—would not appear to have caused the decline in Mass attendance among American Catholics. But the changes brought about by the council helped to destabilize the structures (the behavior patterns and supporting motivations) of Catholicism. While serious Catholic scholars knew that change is a constitutive part of the history of the Catholic Church, the mantra that governed Catholic life in the 19th and early 20th centuries was that “the church should not change, cannot change and will not change.” Catholicism was perceived as essentially a network of permanent rules enforced by the penalty of mortal sin and the possibility of eternal damnation for those who broke them.
This posture may have been essential to resist the powerful energies unleashed by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. As the church’s enemies strove to destroy it, it seemed necessary for the church to retreat into the stance of a besieged garrison under attack. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, it was clear that Catholicism had survived and prospered. The church was no longer under siege. Pleas for church reform to meet the new conditions in which the church and its people lived grew more frequent and stronger by the middle of the 20th century, especially in the aftermath of the Second World War.
The reforms of Vatican II were an attempt to meet this demand through a modest updating (aggiornamento) of the church. The changes, relatively minor and theologically sound as they were, destabilized the structures of a church that had been popularly regarded as changeless and whose popular authority was derived from the threat of mortal sin and condemnation.
The council fathers poured new wine into the old wineskins, and the wineskins burst. In the heady atmosphere of the postconciliar church, Catholics decided that if the church could change some rules, then it could change other rules too. If it was no longer a mortal sin that would send you to hell to eat meat on Friday or drink a glass of water before receiving Communion, then were you really likely to go to hell for missing Mass on Sunday or practicing birth control to hold your marriage together?
In the wake of Vatican II, the people changed the rules; hence the “Catholic Revolution.” It may be argued that the people had no right to change the rules, and that argument may be correct. The point is that they did it and that they are very unlikely to reverse themselves. Like it or not, as the result of the Catholic revolution the leaders of the Catholic Church are now sharing power with the laity, and the arrangement seems to be permanent.
Did the fathers of the council anticipate this revolution? Surely not. Yet in retrospect such a dramatic shift in the Catholic perspective was almost certain once change was introduced—any change—in an institution that had apparently not changed in 150 years.
Church Attendance and the Catholic Revolution
How did the Catholic revolution affect Mass attendance in the United States? Two studies from the National Opinion Research Center in the years 1963 and 1974 provide us with a before-and-after picture. Part of the picture is that weekly Mass attendance among American Catholics declined to 50 percent from 72 percent. Most of this decline, as measured by yearly studies from the Gallup polling organization, occurred after the release of Humanae Vitae in 1968, the papal encyclical that prohibited the use of artificial contraception, or birth control. Prior to Humanae Vitae, many Catholics had already decided that birth control was not sinful. The encyclical had the unintended consequence of persuading them that the threat of mortal sin and the fear of hell, which were for many years the principal elements of the church’s popular authority, should not be controlling motivations for their lives. In effect they appealed from a pope who they felt did not understand married love to a God who did. Reaction to Humanae Vitae joined the powerful forces for change set in motion by the council and set loose the full force of the Catholic revolution.
In the wake of the revolution, no one seemed to realize that sensitive and enlightened leadership would be necessary if the destabilized church structures were to be replaced with new ones. The fathers of the council had unleashed the revolution and then found that they lacked a strategy for directing and containing it. In the absence of perceptive and sensitive leadership, the laity and the lower clergy took control of the revolution by deciding that they, not the leadership, would set the norms for being Catholic. Subsequent attempts by church leadership to reassert control and even to restore the structures that existed before the council have proved ineffective.
The change in Sunday Mass attendance in the decade after the council is striking, not merely because it was a dramatic change of behavior but also because it was a trend that affected Catholics in every age group. The Catholic revolution affected even those who were born at the beginning of the 20th century, long before the council. Older Catholics, in fact the oldest group of Catholics in the N.O.R.C. studies, also changed their behavior and attended Mass less frequently. This fact calls into question the explanation offered by many European Catholic leaders that the cultural revolution of the late 1960’s is the cause of declining Mass attendance. They argue that the reforms of the council were commandeered by the secular cultural revolution and that it is therefore necessary to return to the way the church was before the council, if we are to interpret the council properly. Since their classrooms were taken over by the young radicals, one can understand the intensity of their feelings. But it hardly seems likely that the rate of church attendance by older Catholics would be affected by pot-smoking, obscenity-shouting young radicals marching in European streets.
The decline depicted in the N.O.R.C. studies is so dramatic that when it was first reported, many Catholic leaders simply dismissed it without any supporting data of their own. But as Professor Michael Hout of the University of California at Berkeley and I have argued, changing attitudes on sex, authority and sin are closely linked and can be used to account for the decline in Mass attendance. Changing attitudes with regard to Humanae Vitae and the authority behind it appear logically and chronologically prior to the change in Mass attendance.
Church attendance is more than just a factor of age. The data from the 1963 and 1974 N.O.R.C. studies, which group Catholics in cohorts by the decades in which they were born, suggest that Sunday Mass attendance declined among American Catholics for three reasons. First, the older cohorts, those likely to attend Mass frequently, were diminished by mortality in the time between the two studies, and the younger cohorts, those less likely to attend Mass frequently, increased in number by the entrance into the sample of those who were too young to be in the 1963 sample. Sheer demography thus accounts for one-fifth of the change in church attendance by the 1970’s.
Second, attitudes toward artificial contraception and birth control account for much of the decline in church attendance in the early years of the Catholic revolution. Some Catholic commentators dismissed this finding with ridicule. The birth control issue, they insisted, was not that important. (Marital sex wasn’t that important in human life?)
Third, changes in attitudes toward church authority account for part of the decline as well (e.g., changes in the conviction that Jesus passed on to Peter and his successors authority in the church and changes in the belief that God condemns sinners to hell for all eternity). The Catholic revolution, launched by the destabilization of structures occasioned but not caused by the council, provided the context in which this dramatic, not to say traumatic change in church attendance occurred.
The Children of the Council
The decline measured in the N.O.R.C. Catholic school studies appeared at first to be a one-time event, a brief, single shock. However, N.O.R.C.’s General Social Survey for the last 30 years shows that the decline in Mass attendance continued well after 1972, even into 2002 (the most recent G.S.S. survey year). At the same time, Protestant church attendance held steady. These different phenomena suggest that something had happened to Catholics that had not affected Protestants. Hence there had been a special Catholic revolution distinct from the general cultural revolution in the larger U.S. society and in the Western world.
The decline in Catholic attendance at Sunday Mass since 1972 is a function of demographic change—the emergence of younger Catholics, the children who were born and raised during and after the council. These cohorts are the cause of the continuing decline. Their parents had made the decision that, since birth control was not a mortal sin that would damn them to hell for all eternity, missing Mass would not send them to hell either. Hence it was relatively easy for their children to make the same decision. The response from some Catholic writers, like Hans Küng, that one should go to Mass on Sunday out of devotion and loyalty fell on deaf ears. For Catholics, either mortal sin and hellfire motivated them to attend Mass or they did not go. There was no middle ground.
The question remains, however, whether younger Catholics, like their predecessors, were also less likely to attend Mass because of changes in attitudes to sin, sex and authority. The data suggest that issues of sex and authority have had little impact on the church attendance of Catholics born since 1960—the children of the Catholic revolution. Sunday Mass attendance of Catholics born during the 1970’s is 41 percentage points lower than that of those born at the beginning of the 20th century, 20 percent versus 61 percent.
But when the figures are adjusted to take into account attitudes toward premarital sex and confidence in church authority, the attendance rates are the same for all the cohorts born before 1960 save for the cohort born in the 1920’s. Or, to put the matter differently, the variance in attendance rates among these pre-1960 cohorts (save for the 1920’s cohort) is the result of the difference among them in attitudes toward sex and authority.
So the break in church attendance rates for Catholics, once sex and authority changes are taken into account, is between those born before the council and those born after it. The latter presumably do not attend Mass every Sunday because they are even less likely than their parents to consider nonattendance a mortal sin and to lead to eternal damnation.
Most social research demonstrates that the young and the unmarried are less likely to engage in religious behavior than those who are older and married. Thoughts about mortality and the formation of family tend to increase religiosity. There may therefore be some reason to hope that church attendance by the children of the council will increase as the years go on, but hardly to the level of attendance of their parents or grandparents.
The data show that in addition to their youthfulness, the children of the Catholic revolution are also less likely than their parents to approve of the quality of preaching (Knowledge Network Project, 2002).
Finally, further N.O.R.C data from the G.S.S. religion modules of 1988 and 1998 confirm the impact of the belief among Catholics that church attendance is not important. Catholic attendance over the period 1988-98 declined by seven percentage points. Church attendance did not decline among Protestants or among Catholics who believed that weekly attendance was “extremely important” for religious faith, but a statistically significant decline to 20 percent from 30 percent occurred for those who did not believe it was “extremely important” to go to church regularly.
The Blame Game
So who is to “blame”? The fathers of the council for reintroducing change into the church? Their predecessors, who governed the church with threats of sin and damnation? Leaders who postponed change for so long that the release of pent-up pressures caused a revolution? Leaders of the church after the council, who, having lost their nerve, tried desperately to restore some of the status quo ante through more rules and condemnation? Parish priests who believed that they could keep people in church on Sunday no matter how dull and boring the “celebration” was? Priests who denied the evident truth that their homilies bored the laity to death? Liturgists whose fussy rubrical games were indifferent to the religious needs of the laity? All of the above?
Make your own choice. But do not blame the laity, as many priests and bishops do. The laity neither preserved the old wineskins beyond due time nor poured the new wine into them, nor did they fail to lead wisely in the years after the wineskins broke.