It is no secret that Catholic worship has become less beautiful. JF Powers, the impish Catholic writer, counted as dear friends many artists who were enthusiastic about liturgical reform at the time of Vatican II. As much as he loved and admired them, he could not approve their work. When he attended Mass at St John’s University in Minnesota, then a centre of reformist ferment, he would sit where the acoustics were worst, in order to minimise the sensory assault of the new church his friends were so earnestly singing into being.
Catholics assert the coincidence of truth, goodness and beauty. It should not surprise us, then, that at the same time Gregorian chant gave way to the guitar Mass, Catholic truth seemed to lose its splendour, suffering mockery and challenge on every side. Nor should it surprise that this crisis in the Church’s worship and teaching has coincided with an utter collapse in the Church’s ministry to the poor.
The ethicist H Richard Niebuhr called sects that appeal to the poor “churches of the disinherited”. Were he alive today, he would perhaps note that over the last 50 years the Catholic Church in the West has become a church for heirs and heiresses – less and less “here comes everybody”, more and more a country club.
Many will baulk at this suggestion. American Catholics like to see themselves as the striving sons of immigrants, and English Catholics are more likely to identify with the labouring Irish than with the aristocratic atmosphere of recusancy. Across the Catholic world, liberal humanitarians and liberation theologians vie to present themselves as heralds of the downtrodden.
Perhaps this is why so few have noticed that in the West, the Catholic Church has turned its back on the poor. In 2009, a team of researchers from Penn State and the University of Nebraska published a paper called “The Continuing Relevance of Family Income for Religious Participation”. It showed that the Church has become uniquely unable to attract low income people. Though it focuses on the US, every bishop should read it.
The researchers found that, whereas rich and poor Protestants attend church with almost equal frequency, church attendance for Catholics varies widely by income. The poorest Catholics attend Mass only a few times a year while the richest go two or three times a month. (The difference is much starker among white Catholics than among Latinos, whose ethnic parishes are better at bridging the class divide.) The effect of income on church attendance is especially strong for those who live on the margins – those with few social ties, part-time workers, the young and old.
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