Europe on ice, Africa on fire: Doing the global Catholic math in 2015

As economists like to say, when America sneezes Europe catches a cold. 

When it comes to culture the equation often works the other way around, with European trends infecting America. If that's the case, then American Catholic leaders must be doing the math after reading a sobering new study -- "Global Catholicism: Trends & Forecasts" (.pdf) -- by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. 

"These are the Vatican numbers and nothing in here will surprise the bishops," said Mark Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls and coauthor of the report. "They are aware of their sacramental numbers and their Mass attendance numbers. … They know that they face issues right now, and in the future, that are very serious." 

When it comes to church statistics, experts study life's symbolic events -- births, marriages and deaths. It also helps to note how often believers go to Mass and whether there are enough priests to perform all these rites. 

If so, the European numbers in the CARA report are serious business. While Vatican statistics claim Europe's Catholic population rose 6 percent between 1980 and 2012, infant baptisms fell by 1.5 million and marriages between two Catholics collapsed from roughly 1.4 million to 585,000. The number of priests fell 32 percent and weekly Mass attendance kept declining, from 37 percent in the 1980s to 20 percent since 2010. 

But the past lingers in brick and mortar.

Future nuns, priests face big questions

Once a month, female students pack the cozy chapel at the Holy Spirit Friary that overlooks the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

These gatherings are confidential, with no one discussing who is or who isn't among the 50 to 60 gathered in the pews. Students come to listen and to pray as they seek discernment about whether to pursue religious vocations -- as nuns.

"They keep this private for an interesting reason," said Father Seraphim Beshoner, a history professor. "If word gets out that someone is trying to discern if she has a vocation, then our guys are afraid to date her. I mean, how can you compete with Christ and his church?"

Meanwhile, the campus offers a similar program for young men considering the priesthood. In its 25 years of existence, this Priestly Formation Program has produced about 400 priests for various orders and dioceses and, at the moment, another 40 or more students are taking part.

Many of America's 244 Catholic colleges and universities offer similar programs, of course, in part because of rising concerns about the thinning and graying ranks of priests, brothers, sisters and nuns. The number of priests in America has declined from 59,000 in the 1960s to 40,600 last year. There has been an even sharper decline in the number of sisters and nuns, from 180,000 in the '60s to approximately 59,000 today -- with 90 percent of them 60 years old or older.

One factor that shapes Franciscan University life is the presence of three male and four female religious orders that maintain houses near the campus and its 2,040 undergraduates, noted Father Richard Davis, leader of the campus friary and former regional vocations director for the Third Order Regular Franciscans. Many other orders regularly send younger members to visit the campus or study there.

"Our students are very sensitive to this," said Davis. "New styles of habits and robes keep appearing here all the time. The students see that and it makes them curious. ... This campus produces a large number of priests, but I believe even more of our young women become sisters and nuns."

While the atmosphere is highly charged -- Franciscan is known for its standing-room-only Masses, even on weekdays -- students face the same tough questions that shape the decisions of young Catholics elsewhere, said the friar. Based on his experiences over four decades, these include:

* How to respond if family members say they will -- in one memorable phrase -- be "wasting their lives." In an era of increasingly smaller Catholic families, many parents worry about "losing" a child and future grandchildren. In February, the U.S. Catholic bishops released a survey noting that 51 percent of women who recently took final vows said their parents or other family members actively opposed this choice.

* After decades of sexual scandals and abuse, Davis said some students literally ask: "Will I be safe? ... If I visit a monastery or a convent, will someone hit on me?"

* Students often want to know which orders are "faithful to the Magisterium" -- meaning the Vatican and core Catholic doctrines -- and which are not. The majority of students today, he said, are seeking orders that emphasize a life of prayer and service to the poor, in America and abroad.

* Many students bluntly ask: "Do I have what it takes?" This question may center on celibacy, poverty, a rigorous prayer life or some other personal issue. The key, said Davis, is that "you don't take religious vows to run away from marriage and family, or from hard questions about your own weaknesses or talents. You have to face these issues."

* Another question -- "Will I be alone?" -- is especially poignant in an age of fading religious orders. Some students in this highly social generation fear that choosing the religious life will mean a shortage of friends and companions.

"They don't want to join a community in which the life they will live looks pretty much like the life they would have lived if they had never joined a religious community in the first place," said Father Seraphim, dressed in his plain black Franciscan habit.

"However, they also want to join a community that has other young people in it. They don't want to be the ones left to turn out the lights someday when their order dies."

Seminaries, celibacy and doctrine

When it comes to nightlife in Washington, D.C., Dupont Circle is one of the places where people go to be seen.

So Amy Welborn wasn't surprised to see familiar faces while visiting the hot spots with a friend in the late 1970s. It was easy to spot the Catholic University seminarians -- with their girlfriends -- even though the future priests were not wearing clerical garb.

"It was the spirit of the times," said Welborn, now a popular Catholic writer and online apologist. "Dating was pretty normal for seminarians and some seminaries did little to discourage it. Some actually encouraged dating because that was supposed to help seminarians get in touch with their sexuality. ...

"People thought celibacy would take care of itself and, of course, some people thought the whole celibacy thing would disappear at some point in the future."

Times change. One thing is certain as teams of Catholic examiners begin a wave of confidential "Apostolic Visitations" at the 229 U.S. seminaries. While rumors swirl about a Vatican crackdown on homosexuality, the insiders who examine seminary life will follow 12 pages of guidelines that repeated focus on preparing priests for life without sex.

The celibacy issue is hot, according to the "Instrumentum Laboris."

While the document -- as posted on the World Wide Web -- contains one or two clear references to homosexuality, there are a dozen or more direct or indirect references to mandatory celibacy and its role in the training, or "formation," of priests.

Layers of Catholic denial

Every day the headlines and cartoons seem to get worse.

Every night stand-up comics crank out more nasty one-liners.

So it's sad, but not shocking, that a Catholic priest told the Boston Globe about a partygoer who dressed up as a pedophile priest at Halloween.

It's open season. Even though priests know they shouldn't take it personally, it's hard not to, said Father Donald Cozzens, a veteran Catholic educator who led a graduate seminary in Ohio.

"It's hard to imagine how this can end any time soon," he said. "It's incomprehensible to me that some people continue to believe that we have to be careful about talking about this crisis. There are people who are still afraid that honesty will do more damage than silence."

Back in 2000, Cozzens published a book called "The Changing Face of the Priesthood" that openly discussed trends -- such as the thriving gay subculture in some seminaries -- that reached mainstream news reports during 2002. Now he has written a sequel entitled "Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church."

Once again, it is tempting to focus on the sexual details in this ongoing scandal, which actually began in mid-1980s. But Cozzens said recent headlines must be read in a larger context.

News reports are "unmasking a systemic or structural crisis that threatens the lines of power that have gone unchallenged for centuries," he said. "This in itself is enough to make some prelates and clergy afraid, very afraid. Another is the Catholic anger rising from conservatives, moderates and progressives alike against the duplicitous arrogance of some prominent archbishops and other church authorities."

Underneath the fear and anger are deep concerns about changing times and statistics.

For example, one or two generations ago middle-class or poor Catholic parents were proud when one of their sons and daughters decided to become a priest or a nun. Today's suburban Catholic reality is radically different. The numbers just don't add up.

"We have known for some time now that the birth rate for Catholic families in the U.S. is less than two children (1.85), the same rate for families in general," he noted. "It is likely, then, that many Catholic parents will have but one daughter. Parental support, let alone encouragement, for a daughter considering the religious life is likely to be weak."

And the same is true for Catholic sons. As the former vicar for clergy in Cleveland, Cozzens knows all of the statistics about the falling number of American priests and the rising number of Catholics in their pews. He also knows that some dioceses are faring better than others and that, at the global level, vocations may actually be up.

Nevertheless, 6 percent of U.S. priests are 35 years old or younger. The age of the average priest is creeping closer to 60 and Cozzens believes the number of priests 90 years of age and older may soon be larger than the number under 35.

Anyone who studies modern Catholics must face other stark realities, said Cozzens. The number of single-parent Catholic homes is rising, with the rest of the culture, and approximately "half of the young men and women making vocational ... decisions are doing so in an environment that has been marked by separation, divorce or death."

Meanwhile, worship patterns are changing. A generation ago, 70 percent of U.S. Catholics attended mass each week. Today, about a third do so.

Is there a link between the size and shape of suburban Catholic families and the drop in the number of candidates for holy orders? Can these trends be reversed?

This leads Cozzens to other tough questions: Will the clergy sexual abuse crisis start a "domino effect" that combines with other trends to cause sweeping changes in the church? If so, what should those changes be? Perhaps married priests?

Two years ago, a Vatican archbishop told Cozzens that his work was raising eyebrows. Vatican insiders were convinced he was attacking mandatory celibacy.

"We cannot avoid that issue," said Cozzens. "Truth is, we already have a married priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, just not in the west. We may need to draw on the traditions of the Eastern Rite Catholics and the Orthodox, as well.

"But most of all, we can't be afraid to talk about what is actually going on."

A priest keeps his collar

Father Mark Pearson can see trouble coming as he walks the sidewalks of Boston.

He can see some faces harden after people make eye contact and then see his clerical collar. Some look away in disgust. A few men deliberately switch to a collision course. Pearson said one or two angry pedestrians have spat on him.

"If someone is upset, they may find a way to bump into you or give you a shove," he said. "Then they say sometime like, 'Oh excuse me, FATHER. Hey, did you molest anybody today, FATHER.' ...

"I try to just say something simple like, 'God bless you anyway, my friend.' "

Pearson is not a Roman Catholic priest, but other Bostonians don't know that. He is a veteran Anglican renewal leader who is now a canon theologian in a global body called the Charismatic Episcopal Church. Nevertheless, he still wears clerical clothing as he goes about his life and work. He also encourages other clergy in his church -- many of whom are former evangelical or Pentecostal pastors -- to do the same.

This latest round of Catholic sex-abuse scandals have caused Pearson to reflect on what it means to be visually labeled as a priest.

The tensions in his hometown are unbelievable, he said. Ordinarily, Boston is the kind of place where police may call for priests to help break up fights. Now the mighty Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is considering filing for bankruptcy due to its mounting legal woes. And in the pews, devout Catholics are experiencing shock and grief. Others have crossed over into fury.

Pearson tries to remember this when hit with an icy stare or a sharp elbow.

"Some people are jerks," he said. "Right now they're being a jerk about this. Next week they'll be a jerk about something else. But you never know when you are dealing with someone who is truly in spiritual pain, someone who has experienced abuse or who has a loved one who was abused."

Innocent priests are in pain, too. They feel like they have targets pinned on their black jackets. Some priests -- in Boston and elsewhere -- have reportedly stopped wearing their distinctive clerical garb much of the time.

Pearson is convinced this is a tragic loss, both for the priests and the communities they serve. A clerical collar is more than a symbol, he said. It is a sign that God is present in the gritty and numbing realities of daily life.

"There are still many people who need to see someone is available and 'on duty' for them," wrote Pearson, in a Charismatic Episcopal Church newsletter. "While the general mood ... has changed, there are still people who come up to me for a word of comfort or for prayer.

"I'll risk the abuse of some in order to be available to people in need."

The Protestant pastor Pearson knew as a child always blended into a crowd, with his standardized "brown suit, white shirt and brown tie with blue blobs on it." This pastor was dressed for work, but only the members of his flock knew who he was.

Wearing a clerical collar is different, for better and for worse.

Some people are offended and some are encouraged. But everyone knows a priest is in their midst, said Pearson. It is sad that some Catholic priests are even considering leaving their clerical clothing at home. They are hiding from the needy.

A few months ago, Pearson said he visited a "very Italian Catholic parish" in Boston's north end. In the foyer, a troubled man rushed up and asked when was the next time for confessions. Pearson looked around and did not see a priest in the empty sanctuary. So he borrowed a confession booth.

Afterwards, the parish priest approached -- wearing a simple blue sports shirt -- and thanked Pearson for hearing the man's confession.

"That troubled soul didn't know to approach this other priest, because he couldn't see that he was a priest," said Pearson. "But I was wearing a uniform that said, 'I am a priest. Approach me. That is what I am here for. Approach me.' That is what wearing that clerical collar is all about."