Figures due to be published in Catholic Directory 1997 show that the Catholic Church is, in fact, facing a crisis of empty pews. The faithful are leaving their church in considerable numbers and the decline shows no signs of abating.
The directory reveals that there was a drop of 55,000 in the average Mass attendance between 1994 and 1995 in England and Wales, with numbers falling from 1.19 million in 1994 to 1.135 million last year. This follows a fall of 200,000 since 1988. Cafod, the Catholic development agency, predicts that by 2005 Sunday observance will have fallen even further, to 600,000.
These figures challenge the claims of Catholic triumphalists such as Paul Johnson, the right-wing Catholic historian and columnist. He has led a chorus claiming that the long-dreamed of conversion of England is at hand.
"Here is a providential event," Mr Johnson has declared, "for which St Thomas died in the Tower and St Edmund Campion at Tyburn, for which Wiseman planned, Manning fought and schemed, Newman prayed and preached, and a host of great writers - Belloc and Chesterton, Maurice Baring, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Dawson and Ronald Knox, devoted their splendid talents to promote."
The latest statistics mean that the conversion of the high- profile few must be set against the flight of the many. In recent years the Duchess of Kent has converted, as have government ministers Ann Widdecombe and John Gummer, with vociferous proclamation. The Princess of Wales, it is said, has whiffed the smells, heard the bells, and, like many a fellow Sloane Ranger, been tempted. Even Tony Blair has illicitly taken Communion in his local Roman Catholic church.
There is worse news for the triumphalists, who have gloated over the recent exodus to Rome of 300 Anglican priests, men who could not stomach the ordination of women. Their cheer-leader has been William Oddie, a former Anglican vicar who converted to Catholicism because he believed the presence of women priests turned the Church of England into a narrow sect.
The triumphalists have been damning of Anglicanism. Last month, in the Spectator, Mr Johnson said it was "now so damaged and corrupt, so obviously morally diseased, and the infections from which it suffered so catching, as to constitute a leprous liability to other churches, even my own".
Yet the latest figures suggest that Anglicanism is picking up as Catholicism's decline deepens. Within a couple of years, there are expected, for the first time in decades, to be more Anglicans attending church on Sundays than Catholics, even though attendance is obligatory for the 4.5 million baptised Catholics. And the crisis in the Catholic priesthood is deeper than for Anglicanism. Just 52 Catholic priests were ordained last year - far too few to replace those who died or left and a fraction of the 400 Anglican ordinations that year.
"When you attend a Catholic church, you find there is a generation missing," said John Wilkins, editor of the Tablet, a liberal Catholic weekly. "You tend to find that the 30- to 40- year-olds are not there."
The reasons for this decline are many. Traditionalists blame a watering- down of doctrine. Another factor may be the anglicisation of Irish working- class immigrants, who have been the mainstay of the Catholic Church, presided over by a top-dressing of English clerical aristocrats. Feeling more secure in less hostile times, the children of Irish Catholics may be less worried about hanging on to their religious identity: it is notable that Mass attendance has fallen most dramatically in Liverpool, where only a fifth of the baptised population are in the pews on Sunday.
It may, however, be that many, though still calling themselves Catholics, no longer feel obliged to attend Mass every Sunday. Mass-going may be considered more optional than in the past, a new phenomenon making the figures look worse than the reality.
But many Catholic intellectuals argue that there is further, deep-seated problem. The authoritarian, fundamentalist pose struck by the current Pope, John Paul II - an image that so appeals to a tiny minority of Anglicans disillusioned with liberalism - is turning off the rest of the Catholic faithful. The Pope has retreated from many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which democratised Vatican decision-making and held the promise of a softening on many doctrinal issues.Ordinary people's lives and beliefs are increasingly at odds with the Vatican's pronouncements on, for example, contraception, priestly celibacy and women.
Cardinal Basil Hume has largely succeeded in keeping tensions contained by turning a deaf ear to Rome's most provocative statements. Public attention has thus focused more on the Church of England as it has torn itself apart over the challenge of existing in a secular age. But the crisis has still grown within Catholicism.
"There is a truce about all this in the English Catholic Church," said Mr Wilkins. "But it is an agreement not to talk about the problem. If you are not careful, you find the church pulling you one way and your life pulling you the other way.
"The ones that leave feel divided. They say, `To hell with this', and go quietly. I think we have lost some of our best women, because this church is particularly vulnerable to challenges to patriarchy. These disaffected people don't show up in public battles. But they show up in the statistics."Reuse content