Several years ago, I had a chance to go to Italy for a quick first visit. The work I was there to do involved lots of churches, naturally, and riding around in a van that seemed to pass 100 churches for every church that we went in.
For two days, I kept thinking the same thing: In a land with a sinking birthrate of about 1.40 -- that number would be lower for non-immigrant populations -- who was going to be worshiping in all of these lovely sanctuaries? You know, the whole demographics (and doctrine) is destiny equation.
This led to another thought: If there were no people to worship in these buildings, then what (Hello P.D. James) was going to happen to these treasures?
So with that in mind, reporters in the audience, look at this amazing little Religion News Service story from the other day.
ROME (RNS) -- Italy may be the spiritual home of 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church around the world, but a new poll shows only 50 percent of Italians consider themselves Catholic.
The poll, published in the liberal daily L’Unita ... challenges long-held perceptions that Italy is a ”Catholic” country, despite the popularity of Pope Francis and the historic role of the Vatican City State in the heart of Rome.
In addition to the 50 percent who consider themselves Catholic, the poll, conducted in Italy by research firm SWG, found that 13 percent defined themselves as “Christian.” Of the 1,500 respondents, 4 percent said they were Orthodox or Protestant, 2 percent were Buddhist, 1 percent were Jewish and 1 percent were Muslim.
There are all kinds of shocks in that block of material.
Alas, the story -- or perhaps the poll on which it was based -- provided no information about the crucial statistic that would offer a deeper insight into the spiritual health of the center (supposedly) of the Roman Catholic Church.
The missing question: How many of those Italian Catholics are in Mass in a given week? How many are involved in the other crucial sacrament in the life of a practicing Catholic (the one Pope Francis keeps talking about), which would be Confession?
Now, do these statistics indicate a decreasing interest in things, well, "spiritual"? Of course not. They point toward the rising power of a kind of Catholicism in reverse, with the growth of "personal spiritual inquiry" over a need for spiritual community. So long Body of Christ.
Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said they did not feel part of a religious community. Of those, some said they believed in destiny, horoscopes, reincarnation, Tarot readings and miracle cures.
Monsignor Bruno Forte, archbishop of Chieti-Vasto near the Adriatic Sea, and an adviser to the pope, said the data was “worrying but not surprising.”
“It is not that those who do not believe in God don’t believe in anything; on the contrary, they risk believing in everything, as a ‘surrogate’ to faith, ” Forte, a prominent theologian, told news agency AdnKronos. ...
Bonus question: Who originally came up with that "believing in anything" equation? Leave the answer in our comments pages.
And while we are at it, think like a journalist and tell me what major trend in American religion is clearly linked to these numbers in Italy. Hint: Think of a word with five letters.
Well that was pretty obvious, wasn't it?