Pope worries about Europe 'hemorrhaging' priests, nuns: Spot big hole in short AP story? (updated)

I apologize for going on and on about this subject, but when it comes to the religion beat this is only one of the most important Catholic news stories in the world.

Come to think of it, questions about changing birth rates and demographics are important when covering Judaism, Islam, Pentecostal Christianity, Mormons, liberal Protestantism and other major faith groups, as well.

So let's connect some dots here, starting with another one of those formal Pope Francis statements that receives little mainstream news coverage, as opposed to the off-the-cuff or maybe even misquoted Francis statements (click for the latest) that leap into the headlines.

So here is the top of a short Associated Press report that probably didn't appear in your local newspaper. Yes, this is a summary of some very familiar trends:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis voiced alarm Monday at the “hemorrhaging” of nuns and priests in Italy and Europe, saying God only knows how many seminaries, monasteries, convents and churches will close because fewer people are being called to lives of religious service.
Francis told Italy’s bishops he was concerned about the “crisis of vocations” in a region of the world that once was one of the biggest sources of Catholic missionaries. He said Italy and Europe were entering a period of “vocational sterility” to which he wasn’t sure a solution exists.
The number of Catholic priests worldwide declined by 136 to 415,656 in 2015, the last year for which data is available. But according to Vatican statistics, the decrease was greatest in Europe, where there were 2,502 fewer priests compared to 2014. The number was offset by increases in priestly vocations in Africa and Asia, where the church as a whole is growing.

Let's pause for a moment and ask: Why are the statistics for vocations so much higher among Catholics in Africa and Asia? Might this have something to do with that familiar duo of doctrine and demographics?

So what did Pope Francis have to say, this time around, in terms of the cause of the current crisis in Europe?

In a speech to an annual assembly of the Italian bishops conference Monday, Francis blamed the priest shortage on such factors as demographic changes, scandals in the church and cultural trends that dissuade young people from making lifelong commitments and make them value instead the “dictatorship of money.”
“How many seminaries, churches, monasteries and convents will be closed in the next few years?” he asked. “God only knows.”

What demographic changes might he be thinking about? Hold that thought.

So what is missing in this story? What is the gigantic factual hole that exists in almost all of these stories on the vocational crisis? (Hint: I wrote an "On Religion" column about it just the other day.)

Let's look at this France24 report about a trend linked to this story:

France may be Europe's most fertile country but even there the birth rate is falling and mothers are choosing to wait before starting a family, according to data released Tuesday.
A total of 767,000 babies were born in France last year -- 17,000 fewer than in 2016, a fall of 2.1 percent. ... It is the third year in a row that the number of babies born in France has declined, with the average Frenchwoman now mother to 1.88 children.
France nevertheless remains the European Union's most fertile country ahead of Ireland. ...

So that 1.88 number in France, well below the replacement birth rate, is the HIGHEST in the postmodern EU? Of course, what we really need to know is the birth rate among the French who are Catholics or are of Catholic heritage. But you see the point.

Now, in my recent column on this topic I noted that Pope Francis has had some rather blunt things to say about this birth rate issue, especially its implications for Catholics.

I could also mention that -- with the 50th anniversary of Humanae vitae in July -- this is a rather newsworthy subject on several levels, in all Catholic zip codes.

So consider this flash back to a Francis sermon to a group of Catholic couples, a congregation of people in Rome to celebrate their 25th, 50th or 60th wedding anniversaries.

... The pope delivered a blunt homily on a painful family issue. The bottom line: Many Catholics do not want children.
"There are things that Jesus doesn't like," said Francis, in a 2014 service at the Vatican guesthouse he calls home. For example, there are parents who simply "want to be without fruitfulness."
Today's "culture of well-being," he said, has "convinced us that it's better to not have children! It's better. That way you can see the world, be on vacation. You can have a fancy home in the country. You'll be carefree." Apparently, many Catholics think it's easier to "have a puppy, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the puppy. … Have you seen this?"

Reporters and editors: Is there a Catholic school closing near you? More than one? How about historic parishes being closed or combined? Any strategic properties up for sale? What is the status of the local seminary? How many priests have been ordained by the local diocesan bishop? Are there local parishes with lots of converts and children, while others have very few?

This story is not going to go away. You see, it's shaping the future.

AN UPDATE: The report at Crux has a more complete version of the pope's remarks and, sure enough, it is more specific. See: 

Francis blamed the crisis in vocations on many factors, including “a culture of the provisional,” a “culture of relativism,” the “dictatorship of money”, a “demographic inversion” in which families are having fewer children, the impact of Church scandals, and the “tepid witness” given by some priests and bishops.
In any event, the pontiff said frankly, “we’re not succeeding” at generating a sufficient number of new vocations.
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