Mass Exodus: Catholic disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II
by Stephen Bullivant, Oxford University Press, 2019, 309 pp

Stephen Bullivant is Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion, and Director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society. He holds doctorates in Theology (Oxford, 2009) and Sociology (Warwick, 2019). He has written several books on the Catholic faith, the loss of faith, and atheism.

The book is essentially a dispassionate, intensely scholarly examination of the question whether the unprecedented “mass exodus” of Catholics from the Church since the 1960s is a direct consequence, as many believe, of the reforms inaugurated by Vatican Council II (1962-’65).

Bullivant begins his investigation by looking at one of the great aims of the Council: to stir the lay faithful of the Church from passivity and insularity and to waken in them their baptismal call to holiness and apostolate. Instead, the Council appears to have succeeded only in having the faithful disaffiliate as never before in Church history.

From this unprecedented falling away in the years following the Council, it is tempting to draw the inference: post concilium, ergo propter concilium (after the Council, therefore because of the Council). And so “One of the primary purposes of this monograph is to investigate whether, how, and to what extent that implication is true — at least, in Britain and the USA” ( p. 12).

The author takes an in-depth look at the complex quantitative research into Catholic disaffiliation in Britain and the USA, and how it compares with other religions. The research shows clearly that all religions have haemorrhaged members since the 1960s, and “Catholicism in fact has the highest rate of retention among the main Christian groupings”(p. 35). Catholics who disaffiliate will opt for no religion more often than non-Catholics, whose preference is to shift allegiances.

The quantitative research (statistics) is fleshed out by qualitative research (personal experiences garnered through questionnaires etc) to gain a deeper understanding of why significant numbers of Catholics either lapse or disaffiliate entirely. While the loss of “one’s Catholic identity is typically a gradual process, and one marked by ambivalence and ambiguity” (p. 84), moral and doctrinal matters relating to marriage, family, and sexual ethics loom large as motives of disaffiliation. This is so especially in cases where a person lives, or is close to another person who lives, a lifestyle in conflict with Church teaching.

After the close study of the data related to disaffiliation, Bullivant takes us chronologically through the periods before and after the Council. The post-war years were marked by a boom in religiosity — in Britain and the USA at least. In this period, religion was reinforced by a very favourable “deep architecture” of social supports in the form of family, friends, parishes and wider communities.

That said, the astute could see the cracks hidden in this architecture. In 1958 the young Joseph Ratzinger “worried in print that Catholicism was increasingly becoming ‘a Church of pagans who still call themselves Christians but in truth have become pagans’” (p. 140). Those cracks became gaping fissures in the 1960s. The historian of religion Callum Brown observed that:

For organised Christianity, the sixties constituted the most concentrated period of crisis since the Reformation; but what was at stake became perceived as the very survival of Christian society and values. In this respect certainly, the sixties may turn out to have been more important than even the Renaissance and Reformation. (p. 135)

Within the feverish atmosphere of that decade the Church undertook to reform many aspects of her life and practice, in particular the liturgy. Bullivant contends, correctly I think, that “the liturgical reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Council were in large measure motivated, and justified, by what later Catholics would come to call the ‘new evangelisation’” (p. 138).

Bullivant describes in great detail the disconcerting and often misguided liturgical reforms and experimentation which “conciliar thinking” seemed to mandate. The decade 1964 to 1974 was marked by “seemingly endless — and endlessly unpredictable — changes” (p. 151). These liturgical experimentations with the Mass, combined with a suspicion of popular devotions, ended up creating a “piety void” that left many Catholics detached from, and even disaffected with, the Church. This ongoing crisis in piety was joined by a crisis in Church authority centred on the explicit or implicit rejection of Pope Paul’s 1968 declaration on artificial birth control Humanae Vitae by innumerable Churchmen and theologians.

In the years following the Council (“The Morning After” as the author terms it) disaffiliation from the Church began to snowball. The Council did not deliver. As Pope Paul VI said in a 1972 homily: “It was believed that after the Council would come a sunny day in the history of the Church. Instead, a day of clouds, storms, gloom, searching, and uncertainty has arrived.” (p. 221)

No measures taken in the 70s, 80s or 90s were able to stem the exodus of the faithful. And when it appeared that things could not get worse, the clerical sex abuse scandals were unleashed on the Church with drastic results. Bullivant quotes findings from a previous study done by him on disaffiliation in the British diocese of Portsmouth, which showed that “Around half of all respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that the scandals in the Catholic Church were a factor in their decision to stop attending Mass.” (p. 228)

The Church’s social standing has been greatly altered by these scandals, but also by her profoundly counter-cultural sexual morality, especially on matters LGBT, to the point that Catholicism has become a badge of shame in the eyes of some. He quotes a study of the Irish situation as saying that “avowedly ex-Catholics often view cultural Catholicism as a form of culpably allying oneself with a ‘foul, tarnished institution’.” (p. 235) Membership of the Catholic Church has become so culturally unacceptable that now it is Catholics who have to “come-out”. The (Catholic) head of the UK LGBT-rights charity Stonewall is quoted as saying in an interview: “It’s been harder for me to come out as a Catholic than it was to come out as a lesbian — easily.” (p. 242)

Summing up the history of the Council reforms: a storm of secularisation was brewing in the post-war period and it hit just as the Council opened her windows for a renewal; the timing, but also the naïve manner in which she embraced reform, meant that she got much more than she bargained for.


For anyone interested in the history of the Council and its aftermath, this is an indispensable book. The writer’s engaging style — with occasional delightful humorous asides — makes even potentially dry chapters of sociological analysis quite readable. It is evident that he dominates both sociology and theology (he has doctorates in both). It is refreshing to see an academic who not only understands theology deeply, but who even has a sensitivity to the pastoral intricacies of the matters he deals with.

My only quibble with the book is that Ireland was not included in its scope. The author explains that he had considered adding Ireland, Canada, or Australia but rejected the idea “so as not to dilute the depth of analysis.” (p. 11) Given however the central role Ireland has played in the Catholicism of both USA and of Britain, there might have been extra reason for including Ireland. A similar study of Ireland’s dramatic falling away from the Church is much needed.

Fr Gavan Jennings

Rev. Gavan Jennings studied philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He is co-editor of the monthly journal Position Papers. He teaches occasional...