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Is a re-Catholicization of Britain underway?

While the number of Britons identifying as Catholics has been stable for for nearly two decades, the proportion of Anglicans has more than halved.

(CNS photo/Toby Melville, Reuters)

If present trends continue, the United Kingdom – one of the world’s most irreligious societies and long home to a Protestant majority – is bound to become a Catholic nation for the first time since the time of Henry VIII. To be clear: while the bulk of British society will undoubtedly remain unchurched, the decline of the Church of England, growing immigration, and Catholic vibrancy are poised to make Catholicism Britain’s largest religious body in the tangible future.

A recent article in the Guardian quotes a study titled “Religious London” according to which 62 percent of Londoners identify as religious, compared to 53 percent of Britons overall. Furthermore, the capital is more socially conservative than the rest of the UK: 24 percent of its inhabitants oppose premarital sex, 29 percent are against homosexual relationships, and 38 percent believe that euthanasia is “at least sometimes wrong;” the corresponding figures for the country overall are 13, 23, and 27 percent.

This must be, you might think, because of the Muslims. And, indeed, one in ten Londoners are Muslims, compared to just 2 percent of the rest of the UK. However, among Christian denominations in London, Catholics are in pole position: they make up 35 percent of the city’s Christians, more than Anglicans (33 percent), Pentecostals (7 percent), and Orthodox (6 percent). Furthermore, Catholics in the capital are more likely to pray regularly than their co-religionists in the rest of the Isles (56 versus 32 percent).

The “Religious London” project is no outlier. In 2018, two separate studies were published showing the number of Britain’s Catholics catching up to its Anglicans. According to a British Social Attitudes study, the number of Britons identifying as Catholics has been stable between 2002 and 2017, at about 8 percent, while the proportion of Anglicans has more than halved, sliding from 31 to 14 percent.

Meanwhile, according to an international study of religious identity among young people in numerous European countries published by St. Mary’s University Twickenham London, the number of Catholic Britons aged 18 to 29 dwarfs that of their Anglican peers by a rate of 10 to 7 percent.

The ascendant position of Catholicism in Britain is not new, even if not often noted. In terms of absolute numbers, Catholic churchgoers began to outnumber Anglican ones as far back as 2007.

Certainly, one reason for this trend is immigration. The last time I visited London was in July of 2019. I attended Sunday Mass at the lovely striped-brick Catholic Westminster Cathedral. Although it was an afternoon Mass, most of the pews were filled (how many other cathedrals in Western European capitals can say the same?). At least half of the congregants, however, were of visibly non-European origin, and the priest celebrating the Mass appeared to be from South Asia.

Of the Caucasian believers in the cathedral, many were likely from the less prosperous half of Europe, large swathes of which joined the European Union in 2004, 2007, and 2013, leading to massive migration from such Catholic strongholds as Poland, Croatia, or Slovakia.

This is no new phenomenon. As in the United States, Argentina, or Australia, the Catholic Church in Britain has long been a Church of immigrants. In the nineteenth century, when Catholics’ civil rights were restored in Britain following centuries of often-bloody persecutions, the nation’s Catholics mostly consisted of Irish immigrants fleeing famine.

Although the United Kingdom is one of the world’s most culturally diverse nations, migration cannot be the only explanation for this trend. Britain’s Catholics are not only growing in number, but in recent years many of them have been returning to God. Many British dioceses are seeing the largest numbers of seminarians in decades; Scotland in particular seems to be doing well in this respect. Meanwhile, the British Social Attitudes survey cited earlier reveals that monthly church attendance among Catholics is exactly double that among Anglicans (42 versus 21 percent).

In March, meanwhile, as churches around the world were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, more than half a million English Catholics live-streamed the rededication of their country to Mary.

It could be that as the Church of England has strayed far from tradition on such issues as homosexuality and an all-male priesthood (among new Anglican seminarians, women now make up the majority) and thus sowed discontent and confusion among its conservative-minded faithful, Catholicism has become one of the last anchors of tradition and unchanging values in a post-Christian society. Sociologists of religion agree that more traditional churches are more resistant to secularization. In the United States, for example, the Catholic Church is incomparably more vibrant than the (Anglican) Episcopal Church, which is literally facing extinction.

Although Catholics are set to become Britain’s largest religious group, only one in twelve Britons is Catholic. Still, they could something of a “creative minority,” a concept of the (fittingly) British historian Arnold Toynbee often quoted by Pope Benedict XVI as to the role of serious Christians in increasingly secularized Western societies.

Today’s Britain is one of the world’s least religious countries. The near total collapse of Christian morality there has led to scores of social problems, including high rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and homelessness. A strong Catholic minority could become a prominent voice in discussions on such matters.

As a Catholic and an Anglophile, I have often speculated what would have happened if Britain had remained Catholic, something that could have plausibly happened, as Henry VIII’s break with Rome was not so much about doctrine, as in the case of Hus, Wycliffe, Luther, or Calvin. While the Anglican Communion’s recent abandonment of tradition makes reunification with Rome seem like theological fiction, Britain will in a sense likely become a Catholic country once more in the coming years.


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About Filip Mazurczak 52 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, First Things, Tygodnik Powszechny, and other publications.

15 Comments

  1. we read that, “Although Catholics are set to become Britain’s largest religious group, only ONE IN TWELVE Britons is Catholic. Still, they could something of a “creative minority…”

    When Constantine (and Licinius) issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., legalizing Christianity (alongside the pagan religions), it likely was the religion of only ONE IN TEN persons in the Empire. Yes, a creative minority.

    The tipping point for increased Muslim assertiveness, however, is also reported elsewhere to be about ten percent, but we read here that this ratio is limited so far to London (something to watch) and remains a lesser two percent for all of Britain.

  2. a big thank you to the author, Filip Mazurczak,for this excellent article. I need to say, one of the most uplifting I have read in a long time!!!
    Brilliantly researched and well written.

    It gives great joy to me, my family and my friends to read this and know that indeed Catholicism is rising thankfully in the UK. There is only One, True, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church – and thankfully many are returning to Her, and others finally understanding this.
    Indeed we can make a difference just as Christendom has done all throughout the centuries from the Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ..

    I hope this can be translated in many languages – many will benefit from it.

  3. Great article Filip. Just a couple of quibbles:
    The Catholic Church is not a “denomination”.
    “Teen pregnancy” is not a social problem. Unmarried pregnancy is a social problem.

      • Well the way our culture is headed, most pregnancies eventually will be unmarried pregnancies. Some sectors of the population are already there.
        Peters point is well taken. Teenagers aren’t the problem, falling marriage rates are. Shoot, many teenagers aren’t even having real relationships nowadays, much less babies. If you look at global fertility rates, that’s applying more and more to the rest of us.

  4. Oh, ABSOLUTELY. Just look around! We are in the springtime of the Church that Pope St. John Paul I talked about! And any day now, the Titanic will surely reach New York!

    We must not despair, but we MUST acknowledge the reality of our situation.

  5. If the Catholic population in Britain appears stable it is probably due to immigration from Catholic countries like Poland. However, their children, exposed to a secular culture in Britain are likely to fall away from the faith of their parents. Therefore the number of Catholics is largely kept up by a steady flow of first generation practicing Catholics from elsewhere who inadvertently add their children to the ranks of the irreligious.

  6. Hey Flip,
    Nice read and yes you are really young! Catholics have dominated British culture for the last 150 years, right after Cardinal Newman turned up. Ever heard of J.R.R.Tolkien, Graham Greene, Evelynn Wahl, Sir Alec Guinness, G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Ronald Knox, Anthony Burgess, Tony Blair, Terry Wogan, Paul McCartney? I lived in Britain from 1974-1982, even back then, just as you said, though only around 10% of the population, Catholics represented like 70% of regular church goers.
    Of course you are correct, that when there numbers do fall down, they’re made up by immigration, but that doesn’t mean they have any less influence in politics or culture. Just in the 70’s as is today, may be even more so, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster has more importance then the archbishop of Canterbury.
    But as said, great read, great article, but as you are young, yes do a little more research before writing. God Bless

  7. A timely and germane article. And, you did not mention the Ordinariate in England, the future of which is to be determined. It may have a very big impact on Catholicism in England.

  8. I think some young adults in Britain are attracted to the faith. The popular narrative may be secular but I think some young adults have lost faith in that narrative and are attracted to Catholicism.

  9. In breadmaking, a small amount of yeast is essential. . . but, when the risen loaf is baked ,the yeast is destroyed.In winemaking too, yeast is essential, but when the sugars are exhausted (or the alcohol level very high) the yeast also dies. . . or becomes dormant.
    A dormant yeast can become productive again. . . in the right environment.

  10. Overconfidence might feel good, but it is unmerited and makes us lazy and discourages proper action. We should not overestimate the growth of Catholicism. We should instead focus on purifying our own understanding of the teachings of the Church, become competent apologists, and evangelize in our daily lives first through signs that inspire interest, next by sharing what we believe, and finally to respond to questions when asked. At the opportune moment, we must invite these people to attend mass. Don’t expect immediate success. You’re not here to secure everyone’s conversion. If you lead but one person, you’ve already managed to accomplish a great deal (though do not rest on your laurels; besides, many converts also leave the Church). Generally, the laity needs to shore up its own Catholicism. Naturally, as I wrote above, we must begin with ourselves. But then we must become active in fostering this true Catholicism. Classical education, social clubs, lectures, trips, events, writing to bishops, the media, writing to politicians, refraining from giving money to heterodox organizations like failed Catholic universities. The list goes on. If we shore up our own Catholicism, we will stand a chance of smothering the heretical and heterodox evil out of the Church, both lay and within the ranks of the clergy. And remember, all of the clergy comes from the laity. So if you want better priests, be better Catholics yourselves so that you can raise better Catholic children who will then become that better clergy.

    You reap what you sow. What you feed will grow.

    So, in that vein, what I see is a spiritual vacuum. This is the time for Catholics to evangelize boldly through word and deed. That means those of no faith, but also Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, everyone! Learn about the people you’re evangelizing to. Know where the flaws are, the misconceptions, that keep them from the Church. Don’t force anyone. Don’t yell at them. But don’t be a coward either. Be patient. Be Socratic. Lead them to the truth.

  11. The catholic church is not the true church. I have left this faith due to deep and honest study. Do not be deceived.

    • We are not deceived, but, sadly, you are, or you would never have left the true Church. Your “deep and honest study” was neither deep nor honest or it would never have pulled you away from the truth for a pale shadow of it.

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