Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The challenges facing the Church/2: Follow the numbers

Yesterday I started a series on some of the forces that will shape the world the next Pope, and the Church more generally, will have to deal with in the future.

The first post in this series looked at the potential impact of the shift in the balance of economic power away from Europe and back to the East, and whether the Church is well positioned to respond to this shift.  The answer, I suggested, was no.

Today, I want to look at the demographic forces that are changing the dynamic that the Church faces.  Note that unless otherwise indicated, I'm quoting figures from the Catholic Hierarchy site, which uses figures from the Vatican Annuario.

Mission and maintenance

The Church always has two competing priorities.

The first is serving its own members, ensuring they are educated in the faith, have access to the sacraments and are growing in grace.

But the second, just as important if not more so, is reaching out to non-Catholics and converting them.

The key issue is whether the Church is really focusing its efforts where it needs to, with effect, and allocating its resources appropriately across the world.  If it is trying to rebalance things, it is not that obvious yet!

Top three Catholic countries are...not European!

The first and most obvious point to make is that, just as Europe is becoming less important in the world economy, as is well-known, it is also rapidly de-Christianizing.

According to the Wikipedia, Europe as a whole is only 38% Catholic these days, and even in Western Europe, the numbers have fallen to 55.4%.

Yet that reality isn't really reflected in Church structures as yet, such as the number of dioceses or, more immediately, in the numbers of Cardinal-electors.

It is not that long ago that European nations topped the list of Catholic countries.

These days the three countries with the most Catholics are Brazil (145.4 million), Mexico (123.4m) and the Philippines (69.6m).

Italy does still get in the top ten, coming in at number 5, with 57.6 million Catholics.  But the USA has more, at least notionally, claiming 64.6 million adherents to the faith.

The remaining countries in the top ten are a curious mix of European and Latin American.  In order they are, in order, France, Columbia, Spain, Poland and Argentina.

No wonder, then, that Cardinals from Brazil and the Philippines are being touted as serious candidates for the papacy.

Growth regions

Yet the other key demographic force is the rapid growth of the Church in some regions and countries, most notably Africa.

According to Agenzia Fides, the world percentage of Catholics increased by 0.04 % last year overall, to 17.46%.

By far the biggest the largest increase, once again was in Africa (+ 0.21), followed by the Americas (+ 0.07), Asia (+ 0.06) and Oceania (+0.03).  Numbers in Europe fell.

Catholics as a minority

The other striking thing about the statistics on the number of Catholics is just how many Catholics live in countries where they are a minority.

In fact there are only two 'countries' that claim today to have 100% Catholic populations, viz the Vatican (well duh!) and the tiny French overseas territory of St Pierre et Miquelon (located near Canada).

Of the top ten list, the only country where Catholics are a minority is the USA (22.6%).  But as soon as you get below the top ten list, you find large numbers of Catholics living in countries where they make up less than half the population.

The most extreme case is India, which has the sixteenth largest number of Catholics in the world (17 million), yet they still constitute only 1.55% of the total population.

But there are many other countries where the religious freedom of Catholics is likely to be at risk either because they simply don't have the numbers to be an effective political force (one benchmark I've seen suggested is around 10% of the population, so for example, that explains the situation in India, the UK, Vietnam, Indonesia and China), or because the Church has failed to effectively capitalize on the numbers the do have because of poor catechesis and indifferentism (think France, the USA and Australia for example).

Is the Church responding to its demographics?: The Cardinal voters

The most obvious short-term test of how well the Church is placed to assess the forces it faces in the world will be in the Pope picked to deal with these issues.

We will soon see whether or not the severe under-representation of Latin America, Asia and Africa, and extreme over-representation of Europe (with 60 of the 115 electors) will have on picking a pope appropriate to the challenges the world faces.

Rumours about the Italian voting bloc aside, one might hope that Cardinals would vote for the best candidate regardless of where they come from, not least since the college of Cardinals is not necessarily meant to be representative.

But there are some geo-political realities at work here, as a number of public comments by Cardinals have acknowledged.  And the bottom line is that the number of both bishops in total, and Cardinal-electors in particular, seems severely imbalanced.

In terms of Cardinal-electors from those top five countries, according to the Vatican website, Brazil has five this time around; Mexico has three and the Philippines has one.  By contrast the US has 11, and Italy 28!

Maintenance and the New Evangelization: that's a big fail!

The reality the Church faces is that most of its dioceses are still in countries where Catholicism is collapsing.  Yet most Catholics actually live in regions where the reverse is true.

Moreover, most of those dioceses notably failing.  The legacy of the 'great grace' that was apparently Vatican II in the minds of some - has been the collapse in the number of believers.

In Australia, over 69% of all marriages are now civil rather than religious, and Catholic marriage numbers continue to fall.  The proportion of those calling themselves Catholics that actually turn up to Mass on Sunday is at a historic low, somewhere around 13%.  Those low levels of practice is consistent with the rejection, by most nominal Catholics, of Church moral and doctrinal teachings  such as on contraception, homosexuality and co-habitation.

Nor have things turned around in the wake of the 'New Evangelization'.

It is true that the number of priests being ordained is on the rise.  But it is not even close to sufficient to replace the generation currently dying out.

It is also true that the Churches vast social welfare empire of schools, hospitals, nursing homes and more is, on the face of it, thriving.  Unfortunately the reason these institutions continue to experience such high demand is, in the main, because they have entirely lost their genuinely Catholic character.

The problem is that Catholic schools are not actually turning out practising Catholics.  Instead, new 'catholic' schools, in particular, continue to be opened in many places in Australia, driven by a seemingly unquenchable demand for a private school education at a considerably cheaper price than the Anglicans have to offer, and open to all comers regardless of whether they even vaguely support Catholic values.

In the UK not to long ago, a so-called 'Catholic' school reportedly had a student population that was 90% Muslim.  I doubt there are any cases in Australia where Muslims outnumber Catholics yet, but the pew survey results suggest that children of non-Catholics, either de facto (ie lapsed), protestants or atheists, do make up around 90% of most of almost every 'Catholic' school in Australia.

Just how much a failure the New Evangelization really is is nicely illustrated in an email today from my own diocese.

Somewhat ironically, just underneath an ad for a conference on 'Vatican II: The Great Grace' comes a report on this year's Rite of Election and Enrolment at the Cathedral.  Apparently our diocese of some 551,000 souls, only 29% of them catholic, could only round up nine catechumens and 17 candidates this year!

I'm sure the numbers are higher in some other dioceses around the country - but I'm betting they are in the hundreds rather than the thousands!


Are things any better when it comes to the potential mission/growth countries?

The reality is that there are huge disparities in the number of dioceses, priests: people, and religious between countries.

Consider for example those top three countries.  Brazil has 268 dioceses.  But Mexico, with a not dissimilar population has only 90, while the Philippines has 86.  By contrast Italy has 225 diocese and the US, 194.  These disparities are reflected across the world.

No doubt there are many countries where overt missionary activity is effectively impossible.

And one can make a good case for ignoring countries where Orthodox Churches dominate (though these should surely be mission fields for the Eastern Catholic Churches).

The reality though, is that there is no good reason for ignoring protestant dominated countries in Europe and elsewhere, as has been the de facto policy for the last several decades.

And Africa aside, just how many converts - as opposed to social justice wrongs righted - are our 'missionaries' actually making?

More on this anon.

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