c. 2005 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Pope Benedict XVI’s recent statements about the death throes of Western Christianity suggest that the Vatican is using the same pre-Iraq war intelligence sources that claimed that Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk.”
Just as that assessment led to war, so the pope’s recent remarks to Italian priests are the equivalent of Benedict’s launching a “shock and awe” assault on the achievements and morale of Western Christianity.
He is reported to have said that “the mainline churches seem to be dying,” claiming that, because of the growth of sects, these churches “are facing an extremely serious crisis” in Europe, Australia and America.
Catholicism is a little better off, in his judgment, although “it also faces problems of this moment in history.” The pope has often spoken of the dangers of the modern world, whose forms of thought, in his opinion, undermine the authority of organized religion.
When I read such assessments, I check with Joseph Claude Harris, an independent research analyst from Seattle who has closely examined the available data on Catholicism and mainline Protestantism.
“One can honestly wonder,” he tells me, “whether the mainlines, at least in the United States, are truly floundering. The seven traditional mainline denominations raised $14 billion in 2001” and Protestants contribute at three times the rate of Catholics.
Despite all the negative publicity it has suffered in recent years, “Catholic Church membership will grow by 17.4 million over the next 20 years, to 82 million members in 2025. If 2,500 members is an ideal parish size, bishops must … open 6,960 new parishes over the next 20 years,” Harris said.
The clergy sex abuse scandal has not harmed collections that, Harris says, have “increased 4 percent annually since 2000,” adding that “total parish revenue amounted to approximately $8.3 billion for 2003.”
The “vocational crisis” seems dire if you count only priests, whose numbers “shrank by 2,597 between 1995 and 2002.” But the growth in permanent deacons and lay ministers suggests that interest in serving the Church is high indeed. “The total parish minister group,” according to Harris, “grew from 53,835 in 1995 to 60,508 by 2002, an increase of 6,673 professional ministers.” (Lay ministers and deacons cannot, however, perform the priest’s most important act, that of celebrating the Eucharist.)
The pope observed during the same session that papal infallibility applied in very few situations. He was clearly not tapping into it when he came close to damning the American Catholic Church with the faint praise that it is “not in as bad shape as historical mainline churches.”
Beneath the headlines about sex abuse and church closings that suggest a fire sale in a disintegrating institution, one finds a very different and far more dynamic reality. The biggest challenge to Catholic bishops is not to shutter old churches or consolidate schools but to build and staff enough of them to meet the needs of a dynamic and growing Catholicism.
“The challenge of the next two decades,” Harris observes, “will be to minister to 17.4 million new members.” The biggest demographic shifts in the church, like those in America at large, are toward the Southwest.
The truth is that religion in general and Catholicism in particular have flourished in the United States as they have in few other countries. The Vatican should overhaul its intelligence service much as the United States has since the pre-Iraq war failures.
They might begin by contacting Joseph Claude Harris for the fresh view of Western Christianity that emerges from the facts rather than from vague opinions. Readers can, too, at sharris7(at)earthlink.net.
(Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of “Cardinal Bernardin’s Stations of the Cross,” published by St. Martin’s Press.)
KRE END KENNEDY