Church must address challenges
Pontifical Yearbook provides data about Catholicism around the world
The central office of church statistics at the Vatican has recently released the 2017 edition of the Pontifical Yearbook, an annual document that shows the state of the Catholic Church globally.
Concurrent with its publication was the release by the Holy See press office of a summation of the main statistical findings. It states, “The data shown in the Pontifical Yearbook enables some new developments to be inferred in relation to the life of the Catholic Church in the world, from 2016.”
The Catholic Church is both hierarchical and sacramental. Its prime responsibility is to tend to the pastoral needs of the faithful through teaching, governing and sanctifying. To do this effectively the church needs sufficient ordained ministers.
Do we have that capacity at the present time? What about future capacity? The Pontifical Yearbook and the Holy See press office synopsis give valuable insight.
Between 2010 and 2015, the number of priests worldwide increased by less than one per cent. However in 2015, there was an actual decline in the number of priests from the previous year. Whether this decline indicates the beginning of a trend is a matter that will need to be determined through future investigations.
The Pontifical Yearbook also shows a continuation of the decline in the number of men discerning a priestly vocation. However, over those same five years the number of bishops increased globally by nearly four per cent. This is in response, at least partly, to a continuing increase in the number of baptized Catholics worldwide.
It is interesting to note that the number of permanent deacons globally increased by more than 14 per cent between 2010 and 2015. The Holy See press office release recognizes this to be “a significant evolutionary trend” and one that “is improving on every continent at a significant pace.” This is having a particularly positive impact throughout the Americas and Europe.
As the press office statement suggests any number of things can be inferred from these statistics. It is not enough to just infer however. We must also discern. That involves another dimension of insight entirely.
Certainly we can infer that the church will need to address the pastoral challenges presented by a priesthood that is growing minimally or at the worst in decline.
We can even infer that the significant and sustained growth in the permanent diaconate may be telling us something about the value and need of having married clergy in the church.
The relevancy and efficacy of the church, however, will be determined by its view of modern culture.
Does the church wage a culture war against secularization or engage the culture? A few interesting insights can be extracted from a recent Angus Reid Institute survey that was carried out in conjunction with the Cardus think tank’s Faith in Canada 150 program, part of a series of surveys assessing the role of religion and faith in Canadian society today.
It determined that 21 per cent of Canadians are “religiously committed” meaning that they take an active and committed role in their religious tradition and teachings. At the other end are the 19 per cent of Canadians who believe neither in a transcendent reality nor institutionalized religion. The remaining 60 per cent is divided equally between the “spiritually uncertain” who concede that there are spiritual realities but choose not to engage a particular creed or religious institution and the “privately faithful” who hold that faith and faith communities can constitute a personal and societal good but that belonging to such is just not their thing.
Cardus co-founder and executive vice-president Ray Pennings inferred two things from this survey in his comments to The Catholic Register, “We live in a religious society and we may have a secular state but our society is not secular.”
He is able to infer such because the survey shows that 81 per cent of Canadians consider themselves to be religious, spiritual or faith-filled.
And here again the church needs to discern what this means for its mission. It has often complained that Canada has become a thoroughly secular society and has abandoned its Judeo-Christian heritage. But can this be supported in light of the findings of the Angus Reid survey? If it cannot then to continue to engage in a culture war is a counter-productive and even pointless exercise.
Is it not time to discern the need for a new mindset, one which recognizes that this is the moment to engage a society which is more open to religion and its place in the public square than we had thought?
What we need, as a take-away from both the Pontifical Yearbook and Angus Reid Institute/ Cardus reports, is to discern whether we are willing firstly to adopt a new model of being church and secondly whether we have the courage to implement such for a culture that apparently still overwhelmingly embraces the spiritual, albeit in some non-traditional ways and yearns for its relevance.