Book Review: Mass Exodus

Source: District of Asia

Mass Exodus, Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II by Stephen Bullivant , Oxford University Press; 2nd ed. edition (July 30, 2019), Pp XVIII + 336. Price $32.95.

There is no dearth of books in contemporary literature regarding the present crisis of the Church. It is truly a healthy sign to see the intellectuals of our time are ready to ask ‘the politically incorrect’ question. They want to know the root cause of our problem. It is symptomatic of our time to have more and more works dedicated to studying the moral make-up of the ‘modern Church’. In this attempt to find the cause, only few successfully hit the mark. Many come close but some fail miserably even though their intention was noble. The work under review comes close.

Professor Stephen Bullivant is a professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion in St. Mary’s University, London. He is also the director of the Benedict XVI center for Religion and Society. In this new volume, published by the Oxford University press – he studies the question of why people are leaving the Church. Not all that he says is new, but many aspects of the Modern Church (since 1950’s) which we may have vaguely glimpsed, he sketches them in a statistical study with an insight and understanding that are revealing. His is a typical example of how a statistical study can show the grand disastrous period we are living through and also a serene and unsympathetic judgment of the deviation of the modern Church.

It is almost 55 years since the close of Vatican II. According to recently published British data nearly half of the born - and - raised Catholics no longer consider themselves to be Catholic. This is definitely not news to many. It is ostensible in every single country – perhaps not in the same intensity. Why is there such a disaffiliation? Or in the words of the author – Why is there ‘a mass exodus’? He limits his investigation to Britain and the USA. It is for practical reasons as these are the places he knew quite well. (p. 11). In seven chapters, the author brilliantly analyzes the problem and attempts a solution. The first two chapters deals with An sit? Is there a disaffiliation? With the help of a statistical study done by several experts he proves there is a massive disaffiliation and it happened exactly around the time of Second Vatican Council. These two chapters are loaded with jargon that makes for  no easy reading and is at a times somewhat repetitious (inevitably to some extent).  One must wade through the ‘demographical terminology’ and it may be a painful and patience – testing material for one who is not used to the ‘modern scientific’ study.

The third chapter on ‘why they say they leave’ presents and discusses the findings from the number of studies that have been made on the subject.  Though these are hard facts from the mouth of those who have lapsed, it stays very much on the sociological level. The social aspect is stressed, and the supernatural aspects are sidelined. It is definitely not the fault of the author – but those who were interviewing had no interest in ‘de gratia’. Purely natural elements eclipse and most times discard the supernatural element.

The fourth chapter ‘The night before’ is a fascinating historical survey of Catholicism in these two countries. In the few decades that preceded Vatican II, the USA did enjoy a period of ‘mini Christendom’ – at least externally. The Church was thriving – and as the author points out ‘as never before’. Lots of interesting history… but he fails to mention that the so called ‘Catholic experience’ in the US unfortunately and predominantly (not exclusively though) was built upon material causes and lacked very much a ‘formal cause’. If he had considered the question from this aspect, perhaps it would not be a mystery why a gentle push could bring the whole structure down. The shallowness in doctrine and devotion cannot make a stand for a long time. This is evident. In his study on the council itself, (chap. 5) the author devotes his investigation exclusively to ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’ and how instead of making people welcome into the Church, it turned people away. The other documents that also played a key role in the ‘mass exodus’ is not considered here.

The chapter on ‘the morning after’ studies the effects of the Council in daily life and how it accelerated the disaffiliation.

This work concludes with an epilogue: Did the Council fail? His answer is yes – but not as emphatic as what we would have wished. The epilogue is somehow not limpid. The style and the language are very technical, and it does require patience and a little familiarity with history of the USA and the UK in the early 50’s (at least some terminology like baby boomers, new breeds...). The bibliography appended does not intend an impossible completeness and will be useful as a guide for further reading. One will be surprised to see the works of Michael Davies quoted there, but not a single work of SSPX is mentioned.

Can this book be recommended to all? The author is right in seeking the cause of ‘the mass exodus’ in the concrete setting of the conciliar Church. But he seems to take a rather extrinsic and detached view of the situation – the sociological view cannot provide a complete picture of a society that is essentially supernatural. It is grace that is lacking and the reason for the mass exodus is to be searched for in the ‘Ecclesia Regens’ – when you strike the shepherd – the sheep flee.

The modern sociological and psychological consideration of the crisis somehow cannot encompass the entire hierarchical structure of the Church and thus is bound to provide an incomplete answer. This is why one hesitates to endorse all his judgments. A critical reader, however, will find here abundant material to further investigate and make a real contribution to the solution – which is much needed.

Fr. Therasian Xavier