Vatican Says Church Is Growing and Affirms Scripture Is 'Very Soul of Sacred Theology'

The Church yearbook is released, citing there were15 million new faithful in 2010; a new document for theologians has also been released. And conference reiterates Catholic teaching on dignity of human life.

The Catholic Church added 15 million new faithful in 2010, and the number of priests continued to steadily increase for the tenth-straight year, according to the latest edition of the pontifical yearbook.

The Catholic population increased from 1.181 billion in 2009 to 1.196 billion in 2010, a growth of 1.3%. The percentage of baptized Catholics worldwide has remained steady at 17.5%.

Priests increased from 410,593 to 412,236. There were about 227,000 diocesan priests and 135,227 religious-order priests. The growth trend has continued since the year 2000. The number of clergy increased by 1,695 in Asia and by 765 in Africa. Growth in the Americas and Oceania was only in the double digits, while priest numbers fell by 905 in Europe.

The figures come from the 2012 edition of the Annuario Pontifico, known as the pontifical yearbook, and the Annuarium Satisticum Ecclesiae. These provide a statistical snapshot of the Church.

The Holy See’s Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the substitute for general affairs to the secretary of State, presented the compilations to Pope Benedict XVI on March 10.

The number of bishops has increased from 5,065 to 5,104. Africa again showed the largest growth, adding 16 bishops, while the Americas added 15, and Asia added 12.

The permanent deacon population increased by 3.7% from 38,155 to 39,562. Almost 65% of this deacon population is in North America, while over 33% are in Europe.

The numbers of non-ordained male religious increased slightly and stood at 54,665. Female religious declined from 729,376 to 721,935, with almost a 3% drop in Europe, though their numbers increased in Africa and Asia.

The major seminarian population dropped by 10.4% in Europe and by 1.1% in the Americas, but showed a 14.2% increase in Africa, a 13% increase in Asia, and a 12.3% increase in Oceania.

The number of students of philosophy and theology in diocesan and religious seminaries has increased constantly over five years through 2010. They numbered 114,439 in 2005 and 118,990 in 2010.

The two works presented to the Pope also record new events in the life of the Church.

In 2011, Pope Benedict erected eight new episcopal sees, one personal ordinariate and one military ordinariate. One archdiocese and eight dioceses were elevated to the rank of metropolitan see.

In other Vatican news, Catholic theology can be judged by its fidelity to biblical revelation, the Vatican’s International Theological Commission affirmed March 8 in a new document on the role of theologians.

“Theology in its entirety should conform to the Scriptures, and the Scriptures should sustain and accompany all theological work,” the commission said in its document “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria.”

Fidelity to Scripture is essential, the commission stated, “because theology is concerned with the truth of the Gospel, and it can know that truth only if it investigates the normative witness to it in the canon of sacred Scripture.” Such investigation “relates the human words of the Bible to the living Word of God,” Jesus Christ himself.

The International Theological Commission assists the Vatican’s highest doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its examination of questions about Church teaching. The commission’s current president, Cardinal William Levada, is also the prefect of the congregation.

Cardinal Levada authorized the release of the new document, which has been in the works since 2004. Attributed to the commission as a whole, the text was drafted in accordance with further studies led by Msgr. Paul McPartlan, a theology professor at The Catholic University of America.

The document begins by acknowledging the growth in new areas of theology following the Second Vatican Council. During the same period, however, there has been “a certain fragmentation of theology,” making it difficult for the discipline to maintain “its own true identity.”

While there is room for a legitimate diversity of theological insights, the Church also needs “a common discourse … to communicate the one message of Christ to the world.”

According to the commission members, true Catholic theology “arises from an attentive listening to the word of God,” “situates itself consciously and faithfully in the communion of the Church,” and is “orientated to the service of God in the world” through the communication of revealed truth.

Remedies for the “fragmentation” of theology, they suggested, can be found in the Second Vatican Council’s official teachings, particularly in Dei Verbum, its text on the topic of divine Revelation.

“The ‘study of the sacred page’ should be the ‘very soul of sacred theology,’” the commission recalled, quoting Vatican II’s “core affirmation with regard to theology.” Thus, “biblical themes should have first place” for modern theologians, as they did for the early Church Fathers.

Catholic theology can also be judged by its faithfulness to the Church’s constant tradition, which includes its forms of prayer and worship, its formulation of creeds, and the moral rule of life which it sets out for its members.

While pursuing deeper insight into revealed truth, Catholic theology “recognizes the teaching authority of ecumenical councils, the ordinary and universal magisterium of the bishops, and the papal magisterium,” the theological commission recalled.

Theology, according to the commission, is essentially “a work of reason illuminated by faith,” involving both the acceptance of divine Revelation and the active engagement of the mind.

The harmony of faith and reason, a key theme of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, is strongly affirmed in the new document’s final chapter, which stresses the value of reason, in contrast with postmodern philosophies that devalue it.

“By the use of reason, the believer grasps the profound connections between the different stages in the history of salvation and also between the various mysteries of faith which illuminate one another,” the commission observed. “On the other hand, faith stimulates reason itself and stretches its limits.”

“Reason is stirred to explore paths which of itself it would not even have suspected it could take. This encounter with the word of God leaves reason enriched, because it discovers new and unsuspected horizons.”

And the president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care, Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, called for respect of human life in all its stages, especially for those who are terminally ill. 

“To be close to the last stages of life means bearing witness to love, respecting life by underscoring its meaning as a non-negotiable value, from its beginnings to its natural conclusion, accepting and loving vulnerability by showing closeness, empathy and mercy,” he said.

The archbishop made his remarks to participants of a recent congress on end-of-life treatment on March 8 at the Sacro Cuore Catholic University in Milan.

“Human fragility ‘properly understood’ is an invitation to man to open himself to broader horizons, to overcome himself,” as Blessed John Paul II explained in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On Human Suffering), Archbishop Zimowski said.

Fragility “does not diminish, but exalts the singular beauty of human life, and, at the same time, it makes the demand of caring for it in all circumstances and contexts even more strong and urgent, particularly in the face of grave and incurable illnesses,” he said.

For this reason, those charged with caring for the health of others should have a clear grasp of these concepts as they serve and should remember the words of Pope Benedict XVI in the encyclical Spe Salvi on hope: “The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer.”

As Archbishop Zimowski said, “May they be for you and for your dear sick ones a sign of comfort and hope in the difficult moments of the last stages of life as well.”