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Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

It's a statistic tourists in Rome often hear while gazing at centuries of glorious architecture: The eternal city contains more than 900 churches.

Other statistics will affect those holy sites in the future.

For example, a record-low 458,151 births occurred last year in Italy. The fertility rate -- currently 1.32, far below a 2.1 replacement rate -- is expected to decline again this year. Meanwhile, the number of marriages fell 6 percent, between 2016 and 2017, and religious marriages plunged 10.5 percent.

"Currently we are at a roughly terminal stage. It would not be bad if the Church, the first to pay the price, would understand this and get moving," noted demographer Roberto Volpi, quoted in the newspaper Il Foglio.

Thus, lots of Rome's 900-plus churches will be empty in the next generation or so.

That was the context of remarks by Pope Francis during a recent Pontifical Council for Culture conference, a gathering with this sobering title: "Doesn't God dwell here any more? Decommissioning places of worship and integrated management of ecclesiastical cultural heritage."

Francis stressed: "The observation that many churches, which until a few years ago were necessary, are now no longer thus, due to a lack of faithful and clergy, or a different distribution of the population between cities and rural areas, should be welcomed in the Church not with anxiety, but as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt."

The church has problems, but there are "virtuous" ways to deal with them, he said. Bishops in Europe, North America and elsewhere are learning to cope.

"Decommissioning must not be first and only solution … nor must it be carried out with the scandal of the faithful. Should it become necessary, it should be inserted in the time of ordinary pastoral planning, be proceded by adequate information and be a shared decision" involving civic and church leaders, he said.

Pope Francis appears to be advising Catholics not to worry too much as "For sale" or even "Property condemned" signs appear on lots of sanctuaries in some parts of the world, said Phil Lawler, a conservative journalist with 35 years of experience in diocesan and independent Catholic publications.

"The sentence that triggered me was when the pope said we shouldn't be ANXIOUS about all of this," he said.

When it comes to recruiting Catholic priests, doctrine often shapes demographics

When it comes to recruiting Catholic priests, doctrine often shapes demographics

The couples gathered for this Mass with Pope Francis knew a thing or two about marriage, since they were celebrating their 25th, 50th or 60th wedding anniversaries.

Still, 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?"

Yes, Catholic leaders can see that reality in their pews and they know falling birth rates are linked to many sobering trends, from parochial-school closings to once-thriving parishes needing sell their sanctuaries.

Then there is the annual survey from Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reporting the number of men poised to be ordained as Catholic priests in the United States.

The class of 2018 is expected to be 430, and 25 percent of those men were foreign-born.

It's an often quoted fact: The number of men ordained each year is about a third of what's needed to replace priests who are retiring, dying or simply leaving. Two decades ago it was common to see between 800 and 900 ordinations a year.

Birth rates are the "overlooked factor in all of this," said sociologist Anne Hendershott, who leads the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. "It's kind of difficult to talk about this, because Catholic families used to be huge, which meant parents were willing to give up a son who wanted to enter the priesthood. Things have changed, obviously."

Catholic families in America are shrinking.

Religious liberty in crisis -- almost everywhere

Here's a tough question for American pastors: If local school officials voted to limit the freedom of Muslim students to publicly practice their faith, would you urge your flock to protest? Those who believe in religious liberty must answer "yes," according to the Rev. Rick Warren, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

"If a school district tells me that a Muslim girl can't wear a headscarf to school, I'm going to oppose that rule," he said, during a recent forum held by the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

"If they say she can't wear a headscarf to school," he said, then "tomorrow they're going to say that I can't wear a cross and carry a Bible."

This raises another question: If the leader of one of America's most prominent megachurches headed to the barricades to defend the rights of Muslims, would the press coverage say that he is taking a "liberal" or a "conservative" stand?

Then, would Warren receive the same label if he protested in support of a local Christian college's rejection of the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover all FDA-approved forms of contraception, sterilizations and even "morning-after pills"?

Both protests would be in support of freedom of religion.

"The worse thing that could happen" in public discourse today, he said, would be for the term "religious liberty" to become a "code word for one side or the other, for liberals or conservatives, or Republicans or Democrats. ... That would be a fatal mistake for the party that didn't support the first freedom of this country."

Recent American debates about religious liberty have centered on whether the White House or any other branch of the government can decree that "freedom of worship" is more worthy of protection than the "free exercise" of religious freedom, a much broader constitutional concept.

While the HHS disputes will almost certainly reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the organizers of the Georgetown forum dedicated just as much attention to limitations on religious freedom worldwide, a trend being documented in annual reports by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The most recent survey noted: "Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, three-quarters of the world's approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, up from 70% a year earlier. ... The rising tide of restrictions ... is attributable to a variety of factors, including increases in crimes, malicious acts and violence motivated by religious hatred or bias, as well as increased government interference with worship or other religious practices."

The bottom line is that religious liberty is important for believers and unbelievers and is linked to the success of any state or government, said Thomas Farr, director of the Berkley Center. Studies indicate that religious liberty promotes economic development, women's rights, political stability and improved care of the poor and the vulnerable.

But severe restrictions on religious freedom, especially for religious minorities, are increasing and not just in the developing world, he said.

"Christians are the most likely victims and Muslims come in a close second. While most of the persecution takes place outside the West, neither Europeans nor Americans can afford to be complacent," said Farr. "Social hostility toward religion is rising faster in Europe than any other region of the world. And here in America, where religious liberty has long been considered the first freedom of our constitution and our history, both social hostility and government restrictions on religion are on the rise."

For Warren, the key is for Americans to be willing to stand up for the rights of others, even those whose religious beliefs they believe are eternally in error. Many American Christians "need to repent" because they have failed to display that kind of true tolerance, he said.

"God gave us the freedom to chose. ... We make moral choices," he noted. "God gives me the freedom to choose what I believe. God doesn't even force me to love him -- he gives me the choice to love him or reject him. He gives me the choice to obey him or to disobey him. If God gives me that choice, then I owe you that choice and you owe me that choice."

Searching for "Catholic identity" on campuses

St. Ignatius Loyola was clear from the beginning that a Jesuit education would involve more than texts and classrooms, teaching that students should "absorb along with their letters the morals worthy of a Christian." Thus, the motto of the Society of Jesus can be found in gilded letters across the front of Georgetown University's famous Gaston Hall: "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam Inque Hominum Salutem (For the Greater Glory of God and the Salvation of Humanity)."

In other words, a Jesuit university should be judged on its impact on souls, as well as the quality of its research and scholarship. Attempting to balance this equation has caused intense and often bitter debates at Georgetown and other Catholic schools across the nation -- with the Vatican listening in.

The key is to follow St. Ignatius in linking morals and academics, according to the founder of the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown, a program dedicated to building character and virtue in students. This strategy is also linked to Vatican demands that Catholic educators maintain a "Catholic identity" on their campuses.

"For far too many students today there is a huge gap between what happens in our classrooms and their experiences in their dormitories, in the dining hall and in the rest of life on and off campus," said Patrick J. Deneen. Thus, it's time for Catholic administrators and faculty members to remember that the "state of our students' lives has as much to do with the state of their souls as the state of their bodies and their minds."

Growing concerns about "Catholic identity" issues played a role in Deneen's recent decision to leave Georgetown and accept a similar political science post at the University of Notre Dame. While stressing he doesn't want to "become the poster boy for Georgetown bashing" the political science professor said he was increasingly concerned about the impact of years of clashes between Georgetown and church leaders over issues of doctrine and public life.

These debates could reach Rome, if a prominent Georgetown graduate has his way. Academy Award winner William Peter Blatty, best known for writing "The Exorcist," is leading a petition drive requesting that the Archdiocese of Washington and perhaps the Vatican investigate 20-plus years of complaints about the university's compliance with guidelines in the 1990 "apostolic constitution" on education issued by Pope John Paul II entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)."

"We may choose to file a canon action again, one much larger in scale and seeking alternative forms of relief that will include, among others, that Georgetown's right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit be revoked or suspended for a time," noted Blatty, in his online appeal (GUpetition.org) to supporters. "What we truly seek is for Georgetown to have the vision and courage to be Catholic, but clearly the slow pastoral approach has not worked."

The Georgetown administration did not respond, earlier this week, to repeated requests for a response to the Blatty effort.

Among its many requirements, Ex Corde Ecclesiae states: "In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching." However, the pope also said the "freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected."

Georgetown is not alone in struggling with the tensions created by these kinds of statements, stressed Deneen. The key is that administrators must be willing to seek faculty who are committed to a school's "character and mission," as well as to their own research and careers.

At the same time, Deneen said he has found that today's students "crave input" on subjects that are both highly personal and academic -- such as dating and marriage, as well as how to blend career ambitions with concerns about building strong families in neighborhoods and communities that mesh with their personal values.

The goal is for Catholic educators to find a way for dialogues about these kinds of moral topics "to infuse campus life at every level," from the dorm room to the classroom.

"It used to be normal for students to hear about these kinds of moral and spiritual issues from faculty members, not just from campus ministers," said Deneen. However, on far too many Catholic campuses "they are no longer seen by faculty members as being important to their work. Some even consider them off limits."