Dermot Gogarty, head of St John's Beaumont, a boys' prep school in Windsor, said society treated Catholicism, like other religions, with "at best indifference and at worst contempt". Even among believers there was a noticeable lack of consensus, with the emergence of the "a la carte Catholic". And schools had to compete for children's attention against increasingly violent, immoral and foul-mouthed television.
Yet the number of pupils in independent Catholic schools, especially boarders, had never been so buoyant, links between Catholic independent and state schools were close in a way that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago, and inspectors' reports placed great emphasis on the moral and academic strength of Catholic schools, he said.
Mr Gogarty was speaking as chairman of the Catholic Independent Schools' Conference at its annual gathering in London last weekend.
He suggested that the popularity of independent Catholic education showed that parents recognised the value of schools that stressed commitment, virtue and a life lived in the service of others.
It was also a sign that parent were seeking out schools with "the common touch", he said. It was impossible to be a Catholic school and not have a strong social conscience.
The conference has 146 member schools, educating 42,000 pupils. Overall, numbers are stable but there have been striking increases recently in the numbers admitted to some of the more prestigious boarding schools, against a continuing downward trend in boarding generally.
At Ampleforth College in Yorkshire, there was a 25 per cent increase in the number of pupils joining the school at 13 in 1998, a rise which was maintained last autumn.
Worth School in West Sussex, Downside School in Somerset and Stonyhurst College in Lancashire (which has admitted girls for the first time in its 400-year history) have also seen pupil
numbers go up.
But the Catholic boarding sector is bracing itself for adverse publicity from a series of child abuse cases connected with Stonyhurst School.
Four out of the nine teachers charged are Jesuit priests and all have at some stage taught at Stonyhurst or its associated prep schools although only half of the alleged offences are said to have taken place during their time there.
The police investigation, known as Operation Whiting, has been described as the biggest of its kind into a Catholic institution.