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Posted June 20, 2006

How Bad/Good Is Mass Attendance in the Church?

John Allen Reporting from Rome
National Catholic Reporter - a paper well worth supporting

When I give talks in Europe or North America, I usually get some version of the following question: "What are the church's plans for dealing with the priest shortage, or the decline in vocations to the religious life, or dwindling Mass attendance rates, or the problem of transmitting the faith to the next generation?"

The premise is usually that the church is in a crisis, one serious enough to provoke a re-examination of current doctrines or disciplines.

While there's perfectly legitimate debate to be had on each of these questions, the underlying assumption of decline reveals a particularly Western focus. The reality is that worldwide, these are boom times for Catholicism, not bust.

The numbers are indisputable.

In 1900, at the dawn of the 20th century, there were 459 million Catholics in the world, of whom 392 million were found in Europe and North America, and just 67 million scattered across the rest of the planet, principally in Latin America.

In 2000, there were 1.1 billion Catholics in the world, with 380 million in Europe and North America, and almost 800 million in the global South. Roughly half of the Catholics in the world today live in Latin America alone. Given demographic and religious trends, this population realignment in global Christianity will continue. By 2025, only one Catholic in five in the world will be a non-Hispanic Caucasian.

Population growth explains some, but not all, of this expansion. The last half-century has also witnessed a striking wave of adult conversions to Christianity, especially in Africa.

Between 1970 and 1985, to take just one index, some 4,300 people a day were leaving Christian churches in Europe and North America. Over the same period, there were 16,500 conversions to Christianity a day in Africa, yielding an annual growth of some 6 million new African Christians. In Roman Catholicism, more than half of all adult baptisms in the world, generally considered the most reliable indication of conversions, are in Africa alone.

Moreover, the new growth in Africa and Asia, and to some extent in Latin America, is not merely replicating pre-existing European patterns of faith and practice. Instead, it's creating myriad new forms of Christianity as the faith mingles with indigenous customs and concepts. Experts have described this as the most important cultural transformation in Christianity since the period of Hellenization launched by St. Paul.

In other words, the central challenge for world Catholicism at the moment is not decline, but growth, and making sense of the new interactions between faith and culture this growth is generating.

"Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" has passed into the cultural idiom as a synonym for blithe indifference to an underlying crisis. I would suggest that much conversation in Western Catholicism these days is more akin to arguing over which buggy whips are best, while ignoring the emergence of the car; that is, a completely new world is taking shape, one destined to render many of this era's debates obsolete.

What I have called the "upside down church" of the future, one driven increasingly by the experience and priorities of the South, is likely to take scant interest in matters that have set the Catholic agenda in the West for more than a century, such as the balance of power between Rome and the bishops, or debates over various questions of doctrine. Instead, it will be the "cash value" of Catholicism in the confrontation with poverty, disease, corruption, war and cultural conflict that will increasingly be on the minds of most Catholics on the planet.

So why is the West still arguing over buggy whips?