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What decline?

You may have heard that the Catholic Church is dying. That with the advance of science and secularism, Catholicism is doomed. That the faithful are dwindling to a tiny remnant in the 21st century. New figures suggest these propositions are utterly wrong. What is growing in the Catholic Church? A lot, according to the 2016 edition of the Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican yearbook. It’s notoriously difficult to collect reliable statistics on such a sprawling body, but these are the most accurate we have. They say that the number of Catholics worldwide has grown to 1.27 billion.

The rise is not simply due to population growth: the Church is growing at a slightly faster rate than global population. To put the new figure in context, if the faithful were gathered into a single nation, it would be the second-largest in the world, behind China (1.36 billion) and ahead of India (1.25 billion). To look at it another way, there are 20 times as many Catholics as there are Britons.

Yes, you may be thinking, we know that Catholicism is expanding in the developing world, but isn’t it contracting in the developed world? Not so,

according to the Annuario, which reports that the number of Catholics in Europe has actually increased. What about the number of priests? For decades we’ve worried about the “vocations crisis”, so surely priestly numbers are in free fall. Apparently not: the yearbook insists that global numbers are statistically “stable”, around the 400,000 mark. The number of diocesan priests is rising in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

According to the Vatican, the Catholic population of Europe is actually growing

The permanent diaconate is also expanding, up two per cent in a year to 44,566. There’s also an eight per cent rise in bishops, from 4,841 to 5,237. What is shrinking? Religious brothers are down from 55,253 to 54,559. Female religious orders have declined overall (but are growing in Africa and Asia). Priestly numbers are falling in North America, Europe and Oceania.

The number of candidates for the priesthood has also dropped, from 118,251 to 116,939.

These last statistics suggest we should not be triumphalistic about the Church’s growth. But the bigger temptation for most of us is to assume – wrongly – that Catholicism is in retreat. Why did we accept the narrative in the first place? Partly because of the atmosphere of crisis that pervaded Catholicism in the 1960s and 1970s, and partly because we’ve unconsciously absorbed critics’ claims that the Church is crumbling. We’ve developed the cognitive bias known as declinism: a belief that the Church is in a permanent slump, regardless of all evidence to the contrary.

It’s not easy to overcome an ingrained habit of thought, but we must try. When we speak about the Church, among ourselves and to the wider public, we should avoid declinist myths.

The premise of most discussions about Catholicism, in pubs and radio studios, is that the Church is in decline. Thanks to the new Vatican yearbook, we can perform some verbal jiu jitsu and flip these conversations on their heads.

Mission with no limits

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna said in a television interview on Sunday that more and more Muslims are seeking to become Christians in Austria, and that he has personally seen many of them baptised. The cardinal’s words were accompanied by remarks about freedom of conscience and the freedom of women (both of which, he implied, are not observed in Muslim countries) and the need for prospective converts to spend a year as catechumens before baptism, to test that their conversion is genuine.

The cardinal gave no statistics, and neither does the Austrian Church publish, one imagines, the exact breakdown of where those who join the Church come from. But what the cardinal had to say, anecdotal as it is, supports similar anecdotal evidence from other sources, in countries including Germany, Italy and even Britain. In Italy it is thought that many convert on marriage to Catholics; in Britain there are large Pentecostal churches whose language of worship is Farsi; in Germany there have been reports of Muslims seeking baptism in the Lutheran Church. These stories should convince us that it is by no means impossible to make converts to Christianity among Muslims and those from a Muslim cultural background.

The Catholic Church, lest there be any doubt on the matter, takes as its charter the closing words in St Matthew’s Gospel, the Great Commission to go out and “teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Not only should we be receptive of converts who come to us seeking baptism, but we should also be active in seeking them out. There are no nations that we should not seek to engage in conversation about faith.

Cardinal Schönborn’s words indicate what can be done. It is for all of us, whatever our position in the Church, to follow his example.


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