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Is the Catholic Church in crisis?

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A survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) in February this year highlights three interesting findings on the state of Catholicism in the Philippines. First, that weekly church attendance has significantly gone down from a high of 64 percent in July 1991 to a low of 37 percent in February 2013.  Second, that only 29 percent of Filipino Catholics consider themselves “very religious,” compared to 50 percent among Protestants, 43 percent among Iglesia ni Cristo members, and 38 percent among Muslims. And finally, that 9.2 percent (one out of 11) “sometimes think of leaving the Church.” Are these findings indicative of a looming crisis of faith among Filipino Catholics?

It is futile to question the validity of these numbers. What is important is to understand what is behind them. While it seems natural to relate these findings to a recent surge in negative sentiments about the Church hierarchy, I believe the data indicate a constellation of realities that may have little to do with any current disaffection with the institutional Church.  In my view, they reflect a worldwide historical trend whose complex manifestations are often explained as outcomes of the process of “secularization.”

This is far from suggesting that the Catholic Church does not need to reform itself. Indeed, as Pope Francis himself has recently declared, the Church needs to break out of its “self-referentiality” by learning to see from the perspective of those in the “margins.” This is apart from the many organizational, disciplinal, and doctrinal issues that demand the urgent attention of the Church leadership.

One need only take a second look at the SWS findings to realize how difficult it is to guess what is behind them. First of all, not going to church regularly is not the same as giving up one’s faith. Social scientists prefer to call this phenomenon “de-churchification” to distinguish it from the nebulous concept of secularization. Second, it is difficult to guess how an individual would actually interpret the word “religious” when he/she is asked to rate the level of her religiosity. And third, how is one supposed to understand the response of those who admit they sometimes entertain the thought of leaving the Church? Does the thought of leaving signify a loss of religious belief, or is it an expression of a wish to transfer to another religion?

We are dealing here with three different realities: one, the transformation of religious practice from one that is Church-oriented to one that is solitary and private; two, the waning of religious faith in the context of a functionally differentiated modern society; and three, conversion to another religion. Indeed, the Church problematizes all three and precisely seeks to address them in its Year of Faith program. But, I would hazard the guess that it is the last—the conversion of Catholics to other religions, especially to the Evangelical Christian churches—that particularly troubles the Catholic Church today.

An article written by Robert J. Barro and Rachel M. McCleary, both of Harvard University (Inquirer, 4/8/2013), dealt with the threat posed by the aggressive Evangelical churches.  “Evangelicalism is the fastest-growing world religion by conversion—a trend that underlies the strong expansion of Protestantism in traditionally Roman Catholic Latin America….  In 1992, John Paul II referred to evangelical groups in Latin America as ‘rapacious wolves’ who were ‘luring Latin American Catholics away from the Church of Rome,’ and he decried the ‘huge sums of money… spent on evangelical proselytizing campaigns aimed specifically at Catholics.’”

Barro and McCleary argue that the Church of Rome has tried to fix this problem by increasing the number of saints who could serve as models of religious commitment for the young generation of Catholics. Accordingly, they contend, John Paul II beatified 319 individuals during his papacy, far exceeding the 259 blessed persons named by all the previous popes since 1585. Between him and Benedict, they elevated 124 people to sainthood, corresponding to 43 percent of the total number of Catholic saints at present. Many of the new saints are Europeans, but a significant number have been drawn from Latin America and Asia.

Beyond this, there seems little that the Church can do to reverse the steady decline in the number of Roman Catholics. The decline very much reflects the drop in religious vocations and the consequent shortage of priests everywhere. Benedict was realistic enough to concede that the modern Church could be a smaller church with deeply committed members. That is what happened in Europe. Still, he held out the hope that Catholicism would gain new adherents in other parts of the world.  He was also confident that the nihilism of an exhausted modernity could actually lead people to rediscover their faith.

Considering all this, we may ask if it is not being overly dramatic to refer to a crisis of the Church. In his book on religion as a social system, the sociologist Niklas Luhmann wrote: “One can only say there is a crisis if change is expected in the foreseeable future—no matter if it’s for better or worse.  Such a change, however, is not on the horizon.” As societies modernize, the place of religion in the scheme of society will become sharply defined and limited, but religious faith will not disappear. What we cannot know except in retrospect, Luhmann added, is what shape religion will take as it adapts to new circumstances.

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