As pointed out in Catholica on Saturday, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has released a "Summary Report" of its study of Catholics who have stopped attending Mass, and the reasons they offer for stopping. Here it is: www.acbc.catholic.org.au/documents/20061201472.pdf. The purpose of releasing the summary is to invite feedback, which will then help to shape the final report.
For instance, 80% of those participating in the study, although they no longer went regularly to Mass, continued not only to identify themselves as Catholic, "sometimes vehemently so", but also to have real links with Catholic life and faith, such as
I find this high continuing involvement surprising. It suggests that measuring Catholicity simply by Mass attendance is simplistic, and I think has significant implications on how we as a church might reach out to those who no longer attend Mass.
But maybe we'll look at that another day. A Catholica commentary has to be reasonably short, and I really only want to explore one point out of the many that are to be found in the report.
First of all, a couple of points about what this study isn't
What the Study Isn't
It isn't a quantitative study. It makes no attempt to measure how representative its data is, what proportion of Catholics ceased attending Mass regularly for this reason, or for that reason, or for the other. It is qualitative; it attempts to explore in some depth the reasons that people offer, to understand them,.
Secondly — and it is easy to lose sight of this — it is not a study which looks at the broad sweep of the more-or-less non-regular-attending 85%. It looks specifically at people who, as adults, were regular Mass attenders, but who stopped within the past five years or so.
This is a small sub-group of the total; it excludes
So the group studied here is not necessarily typical of non-attending Catholics, and the concerns which affect them are not necessarily the concerns which affect the wider group.
What this tells us is that the bishops are being defensive. This exercise is not really concerned to understand the concerns of the great bulk of non-attending Catholics, with a view to evangelising them. It focuses on the concerns of those who have recently stopped attending, because — the Report is quite open about this — of a desire to "stem the flow". The assumption is that factors which led adult Catholics to cease attending within the recent past could lead more adult Catholics to cease attending within the near future, and the primary object is to prevent further attrition.
The group studied is also untypical in one other respect; although they do not attend Mass regularly, they were sufficiently motivated to take part in the survey, which would have involved a lengthy interview, and for many of them some preparation beforehand. Presumably there would have been others who would have declined to take part in the survey, either out of active hostility to or distaste for the church, or because of indifference.
OK. Having said all that, what can we learn from the concerns expressed by this particular group?
The Concerns that Weren't Expressed
Again, we can learn something from the concerns that weren't expressed.
Although the group was on average highly educated — more educated than regular Mass attenders as a whole — only one person mentioned any conflict between scientific knowledge and faith. It doesn't seem, then, that the Intelligent Design movement addresses something that is in fact damaging peoples' faith, at least so far as this study shows. People in the survey group suffered crises of faith for a variety of reasons, but not because they felt that evolutionary theory — or any other scientific claim — was incompatible with Christian faith.
Another concern that wasn't expressed — and this will disappoint in certain quarters — was any desire to return to the Tridentine liturgies, any distaste for modern hymns, female altar servers or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, any nostalgia for the days before 1969, or any complaint that moral or doctrinal teaching or preaching today is excessively lax. So far as the report shows, such things were not mentioned at all, by any participant, as a factor affecting their attendance at Mass.
Now, there could be a few reasons for this:
Nevertheless, so far as it goes, the report provides no support at all for the view that low Mass attendance rates are a product of liturgical, theological or other changes since Vatican II, and it certainly doesn't seem that those concerns are likely to cause many more people to stop attending in future years.
The Concerns that Were Expressed
In truth, pretty much the reverse was the case. A factor which was mentioned frequently, and which had a powerful impact on decisions regarding Mass attendance, was "the perceived misuse of power and authority in the church". Specific examples included:
This perceived misuse of power and authority was in fact the biggest factor mentioned; the next biggest was 'irrelevance', meaning the irrelevance of the church to the lives of its members. In brief, the critique here was that the church and the message offered by some of its teachings and some of its practices seemed distant from, and therefore irrelevant to, the lives that its members actually lived. The message of the church was not informed by the experiences of its members. Specific examples offered included:
And the third biggest factor mentioned was "lack of intellectual stimulation" — poor sermons, ill-prepared, theologically unsound, badly delivered and irrelevant. In some — but not all — cases people complained of an anti-intellectual environment fostered by the parish priest, in which critical thinking was discouraged.
The report goes on to list other factors, but these were the three most-commonly mentioned, and which had the most powerful impact on Mass attendance decisions.
The picture which this builds us is completely the reverse of the traditionalist critique of contemporary Catholicism, and flatly contradicts the traditionalist explanation for declining attendance rates .
It seems to me that 'traditionalists' and 'progressives' react differently when they experience dissatisfaction with the church. Traditionalists talk, but progressives walk.
By this I mean that unhappy traditionalists will complain, and complain volubly. They expect and demand that their complaints will be listened to. They have a sense of ownership of the church, which leads to outrage when their perceptions do not appear to be reflected by the church, but which also leads them to expect that their complaints will be listened to. It also makes them very reluctant to leave 'their' church.
Progressives, by contrast, will at first soldier on uncomplainingly. The report paints a picture of people who cease attending Mass only after years of dissatisfaction and disappointment. Often the occasion which leads to their finally stopping Mass attendance is comparatively trivial, but concerns and problems which they have in fact experienced for many years then become a real barrier to returning to Mass attendance.
But, mostly, they don't complain. They do not experience a sense of outraged ownership when all is not to their taste in the church, but a sense of alienation. The church seems more and more distant from them, and they do not complain because they have no expectation that their complaints will be listened to. When they finally walk, they generally do so quietly.
If the bishops are concerned to "stem the flow", there are some important lessons for them here.
This is, of course, what some commentators have being saying for a long time. This report will provide them with welcome support for their views.
What are your thoughts on this commentary? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.