FRANCIS RIPLEY NO Pope for centuries has been as popular amongst Christians of all denominations and. for that matter, amongst non-Christians also, as the late Pope John. His personality as well as his outlook appeared to have caused the Catholic Church in the English speaking world to have been more popular than at any time since the Reformation.
One would have thought that this popularity would have shown itself in the number of converts received into the Church, but the opposite has been the case. In North America as well as in the British Isles the decline in conversions has been quite startling.
Anxious to discover the cause of this, I as Director of the Catholic Information Centre in Liverpool, .invited readers of the Catholic press to write and state what they thought were the reasons for it. In passing it is well to remember that this decline has taken place at a time when new efforts to reach our separated brethren have been made by the Church, for example the expensive and widespread programme of advertising by the Catholic Enquiry Centre in London.
The response was very gratifying. Well over 300 letters were leceived. The report that follows is based on an analysis of the first 312. Of these 173 were written by males, 23 of whom were priests. Ninety-seven of the correspondents stated that they were converts, five of these being priests. Twelve of the letters were from people who stated they were non-Catholics.
They came from all over the country, the only counties not represented being Westmorland, Oxford, Huntingdon and Buckingham. Forty-four letters came from London, 35 from Lancashire, 28 from Yorkshire, 22 from Surrey, 19 from Sussex, 14 from Hampshire, 12 each from Kent and Middlesex, 11 from Essex, 8 from Devonshire and 5 C ach f rom Northumberland, Cheshire, Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire. A total of 145 were from the province of Westminster, 76 from the province of Liverpool, 55 from the province of Birmingham, 12 from Wales, 11 from Scotland, 8 from Ireland. 3 from France and 1 each from Germany and British Honduras.
By far the most outstanding reason, mentioned in over half the letters, for the decline of converts is judged to be the effects of the Second Vatican Council. Seventy-six letters attribute the decline to the present friendly attitude of officials in the Church to non-Catholics and judge that this has had the effect of leading the separated brethren to believe, not only that one church is as good as another but that we am coming to think that way also.
Views of converts
In no less than 74 letters there are complaints about statements and actions by Bishops, articles by well-known writers plus reports and features .in the Catholic press which have given the impression to those outside the Church that we will soon be prepared to give way on certain matters over which we have previously refused to compromise. Seventy of those who wrote allege that the impression has been given that the ecumenical movement will lead to reunion between the churches so soon that there is no need to make a change but that it is better to wait and sec what is going to happen. In 55 letters we found strong expressions of regret that the Church is apparently failing to insist that she is still the one and only way to salvation. Fortyeight writers allege that the decline of converts is due to misrepresentation of the Council in the reports of it which have reached the public.
The following are quotations from letters which are typical of many which arc to be classed under this heading: "The ecumenical movement plays right into the argument so beloved of the British that it does not really matter which church you belong to. This attitude will continue to grow in popularity as the various churches draw together.
"1 often used to quote to Protestants St. Irenaeus 'No reformation can be as advantageous as the sin of schism is pernicious' I don't feel I could quote that now. Appeasement was tried with disastrous results in the political field and I feel it is not likely to work differently in the ecclesiastical realm".
AN EX-ANGLICAN WRITES: "The whole Anglican attitude Is one of compromise, even within their own body. As a result of the Council I feel convinced that the vast majority of the High Church party really believe that the Church will compromise over Papal Infallibility, doctrines concerning Our Lady and contraception and that the terms of reception into the Church will be eased up".
Also from a convert. "Already the Liturgy decree authorising the use of (he vernacular is regarded by Anglicans as a
form of victory for what they have championed. Catholic writers are also a contributory factor — too many indulge in wordy exaggerated criticisms of the traditions of the Church, many of which are much prized by High Anglicans. Hans Kong and theologians like him are not highly thought of by these people who have had to struggle to express traditional Catholic formulas within the C. of E. Now it appears that the Church is betraying her traditions and the authority they expect from her".
FROM ANOTHER CONVERT: "The Catholic Church no longer speaks with authority in the minds of those seeking in it a one true Church. Although Catholic Bishops protest that it is not so, the watering down is accepted as a fact by those outside the Church".
From yet another convert: "As a recent and very deep-feeling convert, it grieves me to see this apparent weakening of the Catholic position. I know this weakening is not so, but nonCatholics do not know that and it plays merry hell with potential converts".
A life-long Catholic writes: "No non-Catholic is going to take steps to join the Catholic Church if he believes that he is already part of it. Only as soon as those outside the Church realise that they are outside will conversions rise. Unless there is a stop to this 'we are all in good faith' business, we will find a growing leakage".
A former Anglican writes: "The average convert is attracted to the Church by its changelessness in a world which is changing so rapidly, If the image of changelessness becomes obscured as is the case at the moment in the minds of the separated brethren it is pretty obvious that the attraction in this respect is likely to become far less and even cease to exist".
• An Anglican clergyman writes: "One of the marvels of English History is the recovery, progress and achieved prestige of the Roman Church through some 400 years. Driven underground she had by say, 1938, reached a position remarkable for any religious body anywhere. Those most opposed to Roman teaching and practice paid tribute saying 'You know where you are with Rome'. Rome was accepted as 'different'. "Up to the outbreak of war in 1939 numbers of converts had been for a long time rising practically every year. And what has to be noted is that throughout those 400 years or so in the darkest days as well as in times of success, Rome was definite, dogmatic, exclusive and intolerant,
"Then came the change. In the early days of the 'Sword and the Spirit', for the first time since the 'Reformation' there was a measure of 'inter-denomination collaboration'. In those years the number of converts dropped. Certainly, Rome is better liked nowadays, but I am sure she is less respected".
FROM ANOTHER CONVERT: "We talk about Unity, and so do other churches, but we are still talking about two different things. It could be that if we talked a little hit less about Unity, and a bit more about reconciliation, thus preserving more dearly the Church's traditional position. we might lose a few of our newly-found friends. hut we would be a little bit nearer to the only kind of Unity which is aceeptable Iii God".
A Hampshire convert: "Incomparable harm has been done to the Church by the talk of Unity which has created an atmosphere of uncertainty and has fostered a belief that the Catholic Church may make concessions to achieve unity. It has thus become, in the eyes of many, merely one of many denominations and has lost the prestige which it previously held. One religion is as good as another is a view now often expressed".
A convert from Surrey writes: "I am aged 41, how fortunate I was that my enquiry and instruction took place in 1945 when the doctrine and claims presented were absolutely uncompromising and the Church was shown to be the 'Rock of Peter'. The words 'convert' and 'submission' were still normal.
"I should not like now, as a convert, to have to weave my way through the tortuous paths of the new 'unity' campaign about which the old hands are having to be reassured. I consider that converts are being deterred by watering down. Perhaps they feel like Micawber 'something will turn up' to make such a decision unnecessary".
• A gentleman from Essex says: "This watering down of our Faith and worship, and glossing over the defects in Anglicanism has greatly disappointed many educated converts to Catholicism. and Catholic laymen, like myself. are indeed indignant; and what is more they are beginning to lose faith in their clergy".
Eighteen correspondents complained about the Catholic press and many others do so by implication, here are some examples: "When the' . . solicits articles and reviews from Dr. Stockwood and the . . . allows Dr. Robinson to lecture supporters of the Catholic Missionary Society. it cannot be a cause for wonder that Anglicans themselves, looking to us for a vindication of the Faith, turn away in despair and stay where they are, nor can one blame them".
An official of the Catholic Evidence Guild writes: "To a large extent the Catholic press must hear the blame for this situation. It has made 'submission' a dirty word and in its desire to foster the so called 'dialogue' with non -Catholic bodies together with a reluctance to say anything which could be construed as 'unfriendly' to them, it has been led to the publishing of statements which are not in accord with traditional Catholic teaching".
In particular one of our Catholic weeklies has been singled out by name for most of the criticism—several correspondents allege that it has become "the forum of cranks and disaffected people" and that "its columns have been abused by the socalled progressive, liberal Catholics'.
The next main cause for the decline is alleged to be what may generally be termed the growing had example of Catholics. Most prominent in this section. and it is mentioned by no less than 32 writers. is the failure and apparent inability of Catholics to discuss religious matters and answer questions about their own tel igion Second in this section comes the image we present and which is apparently resented, that being God's "chosen people" we are necessarily better than others. The publicity associated with certain Catholic scandals, the number of Catholics in prison, the percentage of illegitimate children born to Catholic mothers and the influence of lapsed Catholics, who seem to be on the increase, are all mentioned.
Quite a surprising emphasis has appeared in some letters on
the decline of Benediction in the emotional life of Catholics. Some converts say that they first came to know the Church through the popular devotions at evening services which usually finished with Benediction. The popularity of evening Mass has crowded out these devotions which were always attractive to non-Catholics.
As might have been expected the liturgical changes and especially the introduction of the vernacular arc alleged as causes for the decline. But the letters under this heading more or less cancel one another out. Those who complain that the services in Latin deter converts usually miss the point of the enquiry which is concerned not with the reason why we are not making more converts but with the reason for the sharp decline.
For years it has been alleged that services in Latin which are generally unintelligible to outsiders in our Churches acted as a deterrent to would-be converts. But now 23 people write to say that the change from Latin means that. in the minds of prospective converts, the Church has at last acknowledged the 16thcentury reformers to have been right.
Of course, there have been many letters saying that Catholics do not stress the Liturgy enough, that there is too much ceremonial in the Church, that non-Catholics are allergic to ritual, that we do not sing enough hymns and that the hymns we do sing are atrocious, and so on.
Rather surprisingly less than 10 of our correspondents refer to devotion of Our Lady or the Church's teaching on confession, indulgences or Papal Infallibility. but the Church's teaching on contraception is cited as an obstacle 21 times.
Reasons concerning priests. some of them also connected with money, are mentioned 134 times. The most frequent complaints are that priests as a body seem to be too indifferent about making converts and too casual in their treament of them.
The image of the zeal of Christ is not as prominent in the lives of priests as it ought to be. In the last few years, it is alleged by 20 writers, the gulf between priests and people has widened. Almost as many allege thaa the manners of the clergy are getting worse.
More complain that priests seem to be more interested in tinning games of chance, like bingo and football pools, than they are in making converts. A general complaint is that home to home visiting has greatly declined.
Several mention that whereas fund-raising campaigns are supposed to leave the priest free to devote himself more to his spiritual duties their coming has in fact coincided with a notable decline of visiting. This complaint is joined with the suggestion that priests do not know how to visit In visiting they lose many opportunities of making converts.
All this, 25 writers suggest, is particularly retevent in this materialistic age. They put the decline of converts down to the propaganda of humanism, and increase in the number of immoral plays on t 'evision, the growing popularity of the scientific approach to life, the poor showing the Church gets or makes on television and the failure of Catholic leaders to get to grips with the so called new morality.
The sum total of the reasons for the decline of converts advanced in the letters was 923. When analysed these were resolved into 85 different particular reasons. some of which were different aspects of the same subject. Classified they appear as follows:
The Council cited 367 times
Bad example of Catholics 146 Deficiencies of Priests 103 The Church's Teaching 99 The Liturgy 89
The rest 118
We may sum up by saying that the most dominant note throughout the letters is the appeal for firmness. Even the non-Catholics 'who reply echo this.
There is very evidently grave anxiety about the publicity given to progressive ideas which seem to be emanating from those parts of Europe where, 400 years ago, reforms were initiated which had such catastrophic results.
Typical is the conclusion of a non-Catholic from Cornwall:
"You will, I think, find once the Holy See makes it clear that there is no weakening.
cancelling or accommodating the Faith to the modern age
but boldly declaring it, that converts will increase".