Organised religion is in the spiritual business. And like any business, it’s ultimately about numbers.
Now, if you are the chief executive officer, or rather the Pope in Rome, surveying the state of your global Catholic business in terms of customer base, what do you see?
Well, growth trends have been negative across Europe for decades and are likely to be irreversible. How sad, you tell yourself, when not too long ago, the West was still referred to as Christendom.
You see growth in North and South America, but it has been sluggish or is decelerating.
In Oceania, that is, in places such as Australia and New Zealand, the numbers are holding up. But their relatively low populations could never make up a key part of the business. Africa and the Far East? Now that’s where all the real growths is!
For people who may be puzzled by what appears to be a “sudden” rapprochement between China and the Vatican, or if you are just interested in Catholicism as a global institution, I urge you to consult a 2015 study called “Global Catholicism: Trends & Forecasts”, by the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research group under Georgetown University in Washington.
Read it like a business report, because it is written like one.
The growth in the Catholic population between 1980 and 2012 was a staggering 238 per cent in Africa, 115 per cent in Asia, but just 6 per cent in Europe.
During the same period, the number of parishes more than doubled in Africa and Asia, but declined by 12 per cent in Europe.
Interestingly, the study argues differences in the fertility rate, rather than immigration or evangelisation, account mostly for the diverging Catholic population trends between the continents.
Given this global picture, China remains the dream market for the Vatican, just like it is for most other big Western businesses: 1.37 billion souls to be saved!
But growth on the mainland seems to have peaked in 2005 at 12 million Catholics, according to the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, and has since dropped to 10 million.
Like Apple investors who fret at the slightest sign of slowing sales in iPhones on the mainland, Vatican bosses are no doubt worried. Any Western corporation knows if you want to do business in China, you have to make nice with the communist state. The Vatican is ready to bite the bullet.