The Future Church

Peter Drucker, writing in the Nov. 3, 2001, issue of The Economist, described a revolution that will cause a restructuring of European and American economies and cultures for much of this century. In the developed countries, the dominant factor in the next society will be something to which most people are only just beginning to pay attention: the rapid growth in the older population and the rapid shrinking of the younger generation.

In every developed country and in China and Brazil, the number of births has fallen well below the replacement number required for any population to remain stable: 2.2 births per woman of reproductive age. As a result, immigration will become potentially divisive in all rich countries as businesses seek workers to augment a shrinking number of native employees.


A current and pending movement of millions of Muslims into Europe and a burgeoning Hispanic population in the United States will challenge church leaders to restate the eternal message of Jesus to non-European and non-Anglo cultures.

Population Forecasts for Europe

Population changes forecast for Germany illustrate the dramatic pressures western European countries will soon face. By 2030, people over 65 in Germany, the world’s third-largest economy, will account for almost half the adult population, compared with one-fifth now. The result will be that the total German population will shrink from 82 million to 70 million, with virtually all of the decline40 million to 30 millionoccurring in the working population group. The D.I.W. research institute in Berlin estimates that by 2020 Germany will have to import one million immigrants of working age each year simply to maintain its workforce.

These declining fertility rates have alarmed religious and secular leaders on the European continent. In the face of a total fertility rate of 1.2 lifetime births per female in Italy, Pope John Paul II exhorted Italians, in an address given in February 2000, to make more babies. The Bavarian premier, Edmund Stoiber, confronting a total fertility rate of 1.3 in Germany, one-upped the pontiff and offered a tangible program of cash subsidies per birth. Under Mr. Stoiber’s scheme, German parents would get the equivalent of about $484 a month, more than triple the current rate, for the first three years of life.

Both survey data and actual demographic information indicate that large families are a thing of the past. When young women and men are asked how many children they plan to have, almost all, in all relatively wealthy countries, reply two or maybe three. Fewer than 2 percent say they do not want children.

There seems to be little connection, however, between survey responses and actual birth data. In Germany 30 percent of women born in 1965 are childless. In the past, over 90 percent of women their age would have had children by now. Data also show a strong pattern of women having only one child. In the case of Italy, for example, Rosella Palombra, who has studied attitudes toward parenthood at the National Institute for Population Research in Italy, says that Italian couples feel strong pressure to become parentsbut one child is enough to fulfill this social duty. Everywhere in southern Europe, large families have been replaced by single-child families: 26 percent of Spanish and 31 percent of Portuguese women now in their late 30’s have just one child.

The low fertility rates of recent years may reflect a pattern in which women are postponing childbearing until careers have been established. In most western European countries, the birth rate rose between 1998 and 1999. Some demographers argue that the apparent fall in fertility rates has reached a plateau and that Europe’s true fertility rate may be 1.8 children per women. Even this optimistic fertility rate, however, still implies people having fewer children than the replacement of the population requires.

In general, present patterns point to a decrease in the population of western European countries from 388 million in 2000 to 368 million by 2025. Much of the decline will occur in Germany and Italy. Catholic Church membership in Germany will shrink by 2 million. In the case of Italy, the church enrollment loss will about equal the population decline, since 97 percent of Italians are baptized Catholic.

The impending birth dearth will lessen the historical Catholic dominance of the religious map of Europe. The present infrastructure of the worldwide Catholic Church reflects its European origins. In 1997 a little less than two-thirds of the world’s parishes were located in Europe. About a quarter of the world’s Catholic population lives in Europe. Non-European parishes register about three-quarters of the Catholic population. A total of 53 percent of the world’s priests staffed European parishes and programs. With 53 percent of the cardinals living in Europe, much of the management focus of the church reflects European cultural values and concerns. Many years of likely immigration patterns will result in Islam becoming a large European faith. Interfaith activities will cease to be esoteric endeavors.

Demographic changes have already led to an outbreak of xenophobia. In September 2000, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, the archbishop of Bologna, held a news conference at which he painted a picture, which he found bleak, of Italian civilization threatened by an onslaught of migrating Muslims. The cardinal spoke in favor of restrictive immigration policies. I have never had anything against the word crusade’ personally, he said, as quoted in TheTimesof London. We have to be concerned about saving the nation. These remarks subsequently struck a responsive chord with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, who said that Cardinal Biffi’s words were wise, very wise indeed.

One may hope that this initial bout of fear will subside as immigration to Europe becomes more commonplace. Church leaders will then have to contend with concerns about how to run an average parish when the median age of the adult portion of the congregation is 65. In the past, baptisms and weddings have in most places dominated parish life. Pastors typically focused much of the energy and resources of a parish on schools and religious education programs for youth. In the future, funerals may outnumber weddings. Parish programs will also need to reflect the fact that a substantial portion of the population of an average parish will be retired.

More Hispanic Catholics in the United States

A much different situation exists in the United States, where Catholic membership rolls seem to be surviving turbulent times rather well. The Official Catholic Directory counted the Catholic population as 47 million in 1980; it increased to 55.6 million by 1995. Catholics have maintained a 23-percent level among the growing American population. At the risk of raining on such a happy parade, two trends in Catholic membership data suggest at least a challenging future for diocesan and parish leaders. Yes, the Catholic population is growing, but much of the increase6.5 millionhas occurred among Hispanic communities. The picture for non-Hispanic membership is not quite so robust, with the non-Hispanic Catholic population increasing only about 1.5 million.

Rapid growth of the Hispanic community has influenced parish programs in all parts of the country. Five years ago there were only two Spanish-language Masses offered in Indianapolis each Sunday, both in the same parish. Today 80 different parishes in the city offer Hispanic Masses; the number would be larger if there were sufficient Spanish-speaking priests. While these changes affect every community, the truly large growth in the numbers of Hispanics has happened in southern California, Texas, southern Florida and metropolitan areas like New York and Chicago. For example, one Hispanic Catholic in six in the entire country presently resides in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Ernesto Zedillo, then president of Mexico, referred to Los Angeles as the world’s second most populous Mexican city during a 1999 visit to southern California.

U.S. Census Bureau forecasts point to a more diverse ethnic distribution in the American population over the next 50 years. Government demographers expect the Hispanic population in this country to quadruple from 27.3 million in 1995 to 96.5 million by the middle of the next century. CARA researchers report that 56 percent of Hispanics say they are Catholic. Should this proportion remain constant, the projected growth pattern cannot help but affect the operation of Catholic parishes in this country. At present American Catholic Church membership may be about one-quarter Hispanic; if present patterns continue, Catholic Church mailing lists in 50 years could well top 100 million, with perhaps half the names showing Hispanic origins. Both the effects of migration and the considerable natural increasethe excess of births over deathsof the Hispanic population will contribute to a rapid growth pattern for Hispanics.

Nowhere is the increase of the Latino population more evident than in southern California. The total population for the three-county area that makes up the Archdiocese of Los Angeles increased by 561,851 between 1990 and 1996. At the same time, the Catholic population increased by 688,257. The number of non-Catholics thus declined by 126,406. Since the increase in the number of Catholics accounted for more than the entire population growth, the number of Catholics as a share of all residents increased from 28.5 percent to 33.5 percent. The pattern of a growing total of Catholics closely paralleled growth in the Hispanic population in the three counties. Should present patterns persist for two decades, Los Angeles residents would be 52 percent Hispanic and 43 percent Catholic by the year 2020. The archbishop of Los Angeles would then serve as pastor of one of the largest Hispanic communities in the world. The transition to a Latino community will come about because of two factors that cause population shifts: the impact of natural increase and the effect of migration.

Natural increase means the number of births exceeds the total of deaths. Migration describes population arrivals and departures over a specified period of time. The total population in the three counties of the Los Angeles Catholic Church grew by 561,851 between 1990 and 1996. Since there were 834,491 more births than deaths during the period, the fact that the population only increased by 561,851 means that a total of 272,640 residents moved from the area over a six-year period. There was a net growth in population for the counties that comprise the Archdiocese of Los Angeles because births outnumbered deaths.

When Catholics came to America in the 19th century, they settled in cities and founded parishes to preserve their culture and language. A system of national parishes emerged, from Little Germany on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to the Italian neighborhood of North Beach in San Francisco. These churches offered sacraments and a community association in a language intelligible to the immigrants. Granddaughters and grandsons of the immigrants subsequently moved from the cities to the suburbs in the 1950’s and founded distinctively American parishes. National congregations gradually grew to be anachronisms.

American church leaders today face a unique organizational challenge, particularly in the four states that border Mexico. It is not a matter of some national parishes ministering to the needs of Hispanics. In Los Angeles Hispanics presently make up two-thirds of the Catholic population, and the proportion is rapidly rising. Given the fact that the non-Hispanic population is shrinking, there may well be a market for national parishes in Los Angeles that offer liturgies in English. Dioceses in the border states have become Hispanic enclaves that function like national parishes in the 19th century.

It is difficult to predict trends, but what is sure is a markedly changed church in the next generation.

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