We simply do not know how many Catholics' there are in Britain or the age and type of person who has been leaving the Church or even why they have done so. This has emerged in the debate on Anthony Spencer's demographic research, a third of which was recently published in the Jesuit' journal The Month. He found that the lapse rate in England and Wales had averaged a quarter of a million a year between 1967 and 1971.
The Church's own Mass attendance figures, compiled from an annual head-count each May, showed that the number of practising Catholics had dropped by over 100,000 between 1971 and 1973.
This clear fall, beginning before the Second Vatican Council, is in sharp contrast to the rise one would have expected from the number of marriages and baptisms recorded over the period.
Any political party or business organisation, faced with a fall of such drastic dimensions, would have immediately set about investigating it and worked out proposals to halt it.
The Church has admitted that parish priests know that at least twice as many Catholics live in most parishes as the two million known to attend Mass. The National Conference of Priests, from its very first meeting five years ago, requested that a survey be carried out to help guide pastoral policy.
The need was recognised by the joint working party of bishops and priests planning pastoral policy to the end of this century, but they were unable to meet it. Their second discussion document is to be published at the end of this year lacking many hard facts about the Catholic ppopulation it is designed to serve. It is difficult to see how scarce Church resources can be most effectively employed in future pastoral strategy if nothing is known of those who choose to leave the Church in such large numbers.
These are surely the lost sheep whom Christ instructed us_ to spare no energy in winning back. The most fruitful field for evangelisation is surely among them.
Mr Spencer's ten-year attempt to set up a pastoral statistics office for the Church received no real support and ended in 1964. While there is no doubt that a single "once and for all" survey would cost many thousands of pounds, the cost of maintaining a small statistics unit would be far less.
This would keep a watching brief on Catholic demography as well as being able to undertake specific projects to help say, in planning educational investment or predicting manpower needs. There is only one thing more demoralising than being a member of a Church whose membership is thought to be leaking away at a rate of up to 250,000 a year. That is being a member of a Church that is not even interested enough to measure professionally what that loss really is and take practical steps to arrest it.
If England and Wales is to be the missionary area the Bishops' Conference declared it to be 10 this month, the first thing we need to win it is an accurate picture of the terrain.