When it comes to Catholic demographics — think birth rate, membership and new clergy — researchers know where to look if they want to find the good news and the bad news.
It you are seeking new life and growth, all roads lead to Africa — where the Catholic population has grown by nearly 250% since 1980.
Anyone seeking bad news can examine trends in Europe.
Take Germany, for example. The Catholic church lost 216,078 members in 2018, according to the German Bishops’ Conference. Researchers at the University of Freiburg predict that Catholic membership totals will fall another 50% by 2060. How is the priesthood doing? Things were already pretty bad in 2005, with 122 diocesan priests ordained in Germany. That number fell to 58 in 2015.
So here is a question for journalists: If you were writing about the rising influence of German Catholic bishops in the bitter global debates about the future of Catholic doctrine, worship and tradition, how much material would your story need to include about the health of the German church? Would you assume that the Catholic world needs to be more like Germany, if the goal is growth and “reform”? Would it be wise — when discussing efforts to modernize the faith — to quote Catholic leaders from Africa (and Asia)?
This leads us to a fascinating report from the international desk of The Washington Post, with this headline: “German bishops want to modernize the church. Are they getting too far ahead of Pope Francis?”
That headline says it all. The German bishops are the good guys, but it appears that they may be moving too fast and, thus, are hurting the “reform” efforts of the ultimate good guy. The story notes that the German bishops are plunging forward on four topics — church authority, the “priestly way of life,” the role of women in the church and various sexual morality issues.
The overture is a masterpiece of semi-editorial writing:
ESSEN, Germany — Among those who believe the Catholic Church must liberalize to save itself from perpetual decline, some of the staunchest advocates are church leaders here in Germany.
Some German bishops have spoken in favor of abandoning the celibacy requirement for priests and vaulting women into leadership roles that are now off-limits. Some have urged updating the Vatican’s stern stance on sexual morality, saying the church can’t afford to be out of touch or alienating.