This is the argument many make when speaking of the number of Catholics in the world. We are technically big in number (based upon baptism certificates and other estimates), but what does that number really mean? Especially if—easily—most Catholics aren’t even going to Mass every Sunday?
How many are actually living a Catholic life? This is the number that matters more.
I love thinking of Catholicism as being “mainstream” Christianity. After all, it has—by far—the most nominal adherents when compared to any other denomination of any other sect of an organized, unified religion. It would seem to reflect the whole, hey God founded our Church thing. But is that a paper tiger argument?
When we go to work, when we go to Mass, when we walk through the neighborhood, when we examine the halls of congress, when we go to the voting booth ... the Tiger is nowhere to be seen. I come across a few fierce kittens now and then, though. And for those of us who spend a great deal of time within our own Catholic circles and echo chambers, and depending on what part of the world/country we are in, it can be difficult to get a real assessment of the situation.
On the other hand, I can’t think of too many organizations (if any) that have literally millions of people show up from around the world for something like World Youth Day or a papal Mass. Or an organization that has contributed to science and art and human sociology over millennia like that of the Catholic Church. Or any organization that has more consistently been recognized as a moral and spiritual authority around the world like that of the Catholic Church. Or any single organization that has given back to the sick and poor and stood up for innocent human life out of the voluntary generosity of its own members as that of the Catholic Church. And the notable distinctions go on.
So while she may be a paper tiger on some level, there’s a divinely impressive real tiger inside that stands alone in a largely paper world. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) has questioned whether or not the Church may need to get nominally smaller before it gets bigger? Maybe so.
What do you think?