Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Belgium: Church Statistics for 2022 Are Concerning

The Flag of Belgium: History, Meaning, and Symbolism - A-Z Animals

In Belgium, as in a number of European countries, Church statistics are in a steady decline. 

The annual report published by the Church in this country (for 2022) shows that, overall, Sunday attendance has dropped by 40% since 2017. 

This phenomenon was accelerated by the public health crisis, but, despite a post-pandemic recovery, the numbers have not succeeded in picking up again.

Sacramental Life

The level of Sunday religious practice in Belgium dropped in a spectacular way in comparison with the state of things before the COVID pandemic. 

Although the lifting of restrictions in 2022 permitted the halt of that drop, Sunday Mass presence is still 40% less than that of 2017, according to a study published this month.

In raw numbers, there were 286,393 practicing Catholics counted in 2017 - on the 3rd Sunday of October - but only 172,968 in 2022 - a count made on the same Sunday, which creates a decrease of 40%, which is truly enormous for a gap of six years.

Baptisms, confirmations, and marriages are also in clear decline, but less important.

Between 2021 and 2022, the number of baptisms rose 17%, but compared to 2017, they dropped 15%. 

The number of marriages rose 72% from one year to the next, due to the ceremonies which couldn’t be celebrated during the years of the public health crisis. 

Compared to 2017, there was also a drop of 12%. As for confirmations, they dropped by 21% over six years.

Personal and Structural

If we compare the numbers of 2022 to those of 2017, the data is devastating. In six years, the Church lost 915 diocesan priests - a loss of 33%: a third. As for the number of religious clergy, that “only” dropped by 22%.

Despite that, the number of people who consider themselves Catholic remains relatively stable (-5%), representing half of the Belgian population. 

However, the number of parishes also dwindled (-6%).

Among the positive points, we must note an increase in pilgrimages in 2022. The four principal Marian shrines of Belgium - Banneux, Beauraing, Oostakker, and Scherpenheuvel - received a total of 1.27 million visitors in 2022.

Another positive point is that the number of “debaptism” requests clearly diminished between 2021 (5,237) and 2022 (1,270). 

In Belgium, when a Catholic asks to leave the Church, it is noted in the margin of the baptism register.

Lessons Not Learned

Unfortunately, the commentary given about this situation by the authors of the annual report is more than disappointing. 

It focuses on the national synthesis of the synodal process and on the criticisms that it could emphasize: “a feeling of injustice is highlighted regarding the place of women in the Church,” we read in this report.

Elsewhere it says: “The young people wish that the Church would relate to her time. [...] The credibility of the Church as an organization is questioned: she is perceived as outmoded, rigid, and a stranger to the world.” 

The annual report concluded that “the Church is in a true examination of its mode of operation.”

With such trends, unfortunately the statistics are not likely to immediately improve.