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Is faith declining? A Vatican expert thinks so

There are conflicting surveys and no consistent measurement, but the Vatican's chief statistician thinks the number of practising Catholics is falling.

  • Cindy Wooden
  • Vatican City
  • August 22, 2012
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The percentage of Catholics practicing their faith is declining almost everywhere around the globe. Almost all bishops report it, but it's difficult to prove statistically.

Each year, the Vatican's own statisticians compile mountains of data about the number of Catholics, baptisms, priests and religious, weddings and annulments in each diocese and country.

The numbers illustrate trends over time, but many factors lead to the variations, said Enrico Nenna, the chief statistician in the Vatican's Central Office for Church Statistics.

"It's very difficult to quantify Catholic practice, although many have tried with many different formulas," he said. "The only way to get an accurate picture of religious practice would be to carefully choose a cross section of the population, do a census, and then conduct interviews repeated over time."

He said in his parish "over the last five years there has been an amazing increased heterogeneity" with young and old, married and single, Italian and immigrant worshippers.

However, one cannot say his parish is the average Rome parish any more than the parish in the historic center of the city where, he said, "the 5 p.m. Mass is known as the 'widows' Mass.' In that neighborhood, the population is elderly, and women live longer than men."

The number of baptisms and Catholic weddings reported around the world also are influenced by too many factors to be unquestionable indications of Catholic practice, Nenna said.

For example, the declining number of Catholic weddings worries the church because it indicates, at least in part, that some Catholics are forgoing a sacramental marriage in favor of a civil union or are simply living together, he said. But it also reflects that people around the world are marrying older and, especially in a time of economic crisis, are waiting to start a family of their own.

Similarly, he said, while a declining number of infant baptisms can indicate a weaker faith commitment among a generation of new Catholic parents, it also is a natural result of declining birthrates.

The working document for the upcoming world Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization contains more than a dozen references to a "weakening of faith" or "declining practice," but it includes no numbers.

Full Story: Statistically speaking: Vatican numbers hint at fading faith practice

Source: National Catholic Reporter
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