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Sea Change

On February 29, Vatican Secretary of State, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, presented Pope Benedict XVI with the 2008 edition of Annuario Pontifico, the pontifical yearbook. Various figures recorded therein are instructive for discerning trends in the Catholic Church.

Between 2005 and 2006, for example, the worldwide Catholic population increased from 1.115 billion to 1.131 billion souls, a 1.4 percent increase. Nothing lost, not much gained.

Catholics account for 17.4 percent of the world’s population, holding at a fairly stable rate. Only now, for the first time in history, Islam has overtaken Catholicism as the world’s largest religion. Muslims now make up 19.2 percent of the world’s population. “It is true that while Muslim families, as is well known, continue to make a lot of children,” Msgr. Vittorio Formenti told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano (March 30), “Christian ones on the contrary tend to have fewer and fewer.”

The number of Catholic bishops increased from 4,841 to 4,898 from 2005 to 2006 — a 1.2 percent gain, slightly below the rate of increase of the entire Catholic population. More significantly, however, the number of religious and diocesan priests flagged behind, increasing by a rate of 0.21 percent, from 406,111 to 407,262. This is indicative of a troubling trend.

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