Future of Catholicism
Taking the Catholic Church's Pulse: From Vatican II Forward
The quality of many seminaries improved considerably under John Paul, with seminarians almost everywhere described as more traditional than their predecessors. The religious communities that attract the most members, like the Missionaries of Charity, also tend to have a traditional understanding of their mission.
Lay people also now play important roles in almost every aspect of church life, including the liturgy, the social apostolate, and the intellectual life. Through diocesan and parish councils they exercise various responsibilities, and most of these councils show a spirit of harmony between clergy and laity. John Paul strongly encouraged what he called "the movements" -- predominantly lay organizations that in a sense exist parallel to the hierarchical structure of the Church, welling up from below and promising spiritual and apostolic renewal -- Opus Dei, Focolari, Communione e Liberazione, and the Neocatechumenate. In the United States, the pro-life movement is the single most effective lay apostolate of the post-Vatican II period, working with the bishops but independent of their authority, officially ecumenical and even non-sectarian. Both Eucharistic piety and Marian piety have also experienced major revivals within the lay communities in the past ten years.
Benedict now presides over a Church that has doubled in size since the Council. There are well over a billion Catholics in the world -- about 17 percent of the total human population -- the second largest religion after Islam. But many people have noted that the future of the Church seems to lie primarily in the Southern Hemisphere. Europe still accounts for a quarter of all Catholics, but the growth of the Church there falls well short of the overall population growth, while in Latin America it barely keeps pace. By contrast, while Catholics are only 17 percent of the population of Africa, their number has multiplied fifteen times since Vatican II and, while they are only 3 percent of the population of Asia, their number has tripled during the same time.
The Church also appears to have more spiritual vitality in parts of Asia and Africa, especially as measured by religious vocations. Although India by no means has the largest Catholic population in the world -- Catholics are barely 1 percent of its huge population -- it has the largest number of seminarians and female religious in the world and far more Catholic schools and hospitals than all of North America together. Yet, in many places in the Third World, Catholics are subject to violence, murder, and systematic persecution, as bishops protest but also remind their flocks that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.
The dramatic resurgence of Islam puts it in conscious rivalry to Christianity, a rivalry potentially as formidable as Communism once was. A major theological issue is Vatican II's statement that Muslims, like Christians and Jews, "adore the one merciful God." Massive Muslim immigration to Europe, combined with a very low birth rate among nominal Christians, seems likely, in time, to make Islam the majority religion in what was once called Christendom.
Benedict, who perhaps chose his papal name in homage to the founder of Western monasticism, who is also the patron saint of Europe, is especially concerned to remind his fellow Europeans of the religious basis of their civilization. But although the Holy See supported the formation of the European Union, in its constitution the Union refused to acknowledge Christianity as even a historical influence in Western civilization.