THE REPORT that 27 out of 37 Cambridge freshmen, formerly pupils at a Catholic Public School had already "lapsed" from the faith before reaching university is, on the face of it, depressing and alarming. It is unfortunately no complete answer to claim that mere non-attendance at the university chaplaincy should not be taken as proof that any given person has abandoned the faith.
There are, however, several important but possibly hidden and, in some cases, unknowable factors to be considered before one can draw final conclusions from the figures given. Young men, for example, do not go straight to Oxford or Cambridge from a public school. Under the present Oxbridge examination system nearly a year elapses in between school and university. It would be necessary to eliminate that period as having been the occasion for discontinuing regular attendance at Mass• before being able to assert categorically that the lapsing was due to some defect in public school education.
In practice, however, many young men find that their travels and studies in the "off year" between school and university make it a significant one for their religious development. One sceptical public school leaver mixed with men and women of different religions, particularly in India, while waiting to go up to university. He later visited his old school and reported that it was only then that he saw the value of the religious teaching he had had at school and he is now studying for the priesthood.
But he did have some criticism to make. He felt that the fundamental frame of mind necessary for preservation of faith can only be laid if it has been made clear, from the first day at public school, that religion is not a "subject" to be learned, but is rather the whole point of his life there and later. In practice it has been found that a public school boy can gain an A grade A Level in Theology — and even go to read Theology at University — without being an unquestioningly believing Catholic. As Thomas a Kempis, however, put it in The Imitation of Christ, it is less important to know a lot than to love a lot.
The question, then, is how much spirituality is left with public school boys when they got to university? For "spirituality" is that elusive but vital attribute from which "lapsing" is not easy. The role of the parent, moveover, is often ignored when blame is put on public schools for producing lukewarm Catholics.
There are more divorces among the well-to-do and there are more public school than comprehensive and grammar school boys who belong to split families. This throws an unnaturally heavy burden on "smart" schools which often find themselves dealing with "difficult" individual boys, with little or no cooperation from the parents, in spiritual matters.
What, finally, does "lapsing" really mean? It clearly does not mean a cold blooded denial of the faith. In Germany, for example, all citizens are obliged to pay a tax which will contribute to the upkeep of their own particular church. The only way they can avoid paying this tax is to affirm in writing that they are no longer practising members of that church. Few, even the "lapsed", ever actually do this.
Though attendance at Sunday Mass is still a matter of obligation and, of course, the minimum requirement for being considered a practising Catholic, the threat of mortal sin is, nowadays, rarely uttered. Is this a mistake, or are we right in hoping that Catholics, young and old, will come to Mass out of love rather than fear?
The report, in any event, means that no Catholic public school headmaster, can afford to be complacent on the subject. And the same obviously applies, only much more so, to the parents of the boys concerned. let it never be said that the old are fearful of the young in their care when approaching the most important of all aspects of their life.