Pope Benedict XVI’s state and pastoral visit to Britain from 16 to 19 September 2010 seems to have done little to improve the religious practice of English and Welsh Roman Catholics, to judge by average weekly mass attendance over four weekends in October 2010 which was 1.5% lower than in October 2009. At 885,169 mass attenders represented 1.6% of the national population and 21.9% of the estimated Catholic population.
The number of attenders fell in 14 of the 22 dioceses (and by as much as 10.0% in Northampton, 9.3% in Middlesbrough, and 7.5% in Leeds). Five dioceses (Birmingham, Clifton, Liverpool, Plymouth, and Southwark) returned identical figures for both years, and three (East Anglia, Salford, and Wrexham) reported modest growth (ranging from 0.4% to 1.9%).
This assessment derives from a comparison of the ‘recapitulation of statistics’ section of the recently released 2012 edition of the Catholic Directory for England and Wales with the 2011 volume. They print, respectively, pastoral data for 2010 and 2009. The Catholic Directory is published by Gabriel Communications on behalf of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and is thus quasi-official.
Among the other statistics included in the Catholic Directory are estimates of the Catholic population, practising or lapsed, as known to and returned by parish priests. In 2010 the number was 4,034,069, 1.2% down on 2009 and equivalent to 7.3% of the population of England and Wales.
A note which has appeared in the Catholic Directory for several years claims that the aggregate of priests’ figures for Catholic population is a generally agreed underestimate and suggests 12% as the correct proportion. This seems to equate to the number of self-identifying Catholics in some, but by no means all, opinion polls. In the 2010 British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey it was 9% (as it has mostly been in the BSA for the past two decades).
Decline between 2009 and 2010 was also manifest on some other indicators, with diocesan priests down by 6.9%, parish and other churches open to the public by 3.8%, and baptisms to seven years by 0.1%.
But receptions into full communion rose by 10.7% (perhaps this was the fabled ‘Benedict bounce’?) and marriages by 3.3% (the latter mirroring the Church of England’s recent experience).
We should, perhaps, end this post on a note of caution. Although the contemporary data in the Catholic Directory may be the best we currently have, they have not been compiled by professional statisticians, and they can present deficiencies and anomalies.
From this perspective, BRIN readers are encouraged to look at Tony Spencer’s criticisms in his Facts and Figures for the Twenty-First Century: An Assessment of the Statistics of the Catholic Community of England and Wales at the Start of the Century (£10.00 from Pastoral Research Centre, Stone House, Hele, Taunton, Somerset, TA4 1AJ).