Italian Catholics on the Decline Despite Pope Francis’ Popularity

When people think of Italy, a few things often come to mind—pasta, wine, coffee, and the pope. It might come as a surprise, then, that a recent poll found that only fifty percent of Italians call themselves Catholic. A recent RNS article highlights several other key findings of this poll, such as the fact that only thirteen percent of respondents identified as “Christian,” and that sixty-four percent of the respondents felt as if they were not connected to a religious community.

Today, I want to comment on this phenomenon in itself, but I also want to look at this article through the lens of the Church as “Herald” and as “Community.” As I shared in my introduction to this blog, Cardinal Avery Dulles’ six “models” are a fascinating way to look at the Church. Such a view will hopefully help those of us who work in the Church to discern how current trends can influence how we carry out our pastoral ministries.

Italy and the Lens of “Herald”

Understanding the Church as Herald is to understand the Church as the primary voice that proclaims the Gospel message throughout the world. Clearly, in Italy other voices are drowning out the Gospel message or the Church is not proclaiming her message clearly enough. I think it is fairly safe to predict that this percentage of self-identifying Catholics in Italy will continue to decrease, despite Pope Francis’ popularity. Pope Benedict XVI envisioned this future Church when he wrote:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity … In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. (Ratzinger, 116)

Benedict recognized that being “Catholic by birth” will increasingly become a phenomenon of the past—as generations of Catholics become further disassociated from their faith, they will cease to baptize their children at all. Instead of a large Church filled with unquestioning cradle Catholics, Benedict envisions a smaller Church filled with a community of disciples who have firmly committed to Christ.

The Lens of the “Community of Believers”

Benedict’s vision brings me to a second lens: the Church as a Community of believers—the family of God to which all men and women are called. In this poll, only forty-six percent of the Italian respondents reported that they felt connected to any sort of faith community. Is it a surprise, then, that so few identify as Christian (although another explanation may be that some Italian Catholics think that “Christian” means “Protestant”)? While there are some strong Catholic communities that emerged in Italy, such as Communion and Liberation and Parish Cell Groups, there is clearly a lot of work to do. My initial sense is that the Church will dwindle into these smaller intentional communities that Benedict speaks of, and that only then will the Catholic Church in Italy become vibrant enough to draw secularized Italians back into an inviting Catholic communal experience. Without a sense of Christian community, the Church cannot succeed in any meaningful way in its mission as a Herald.


NOTE: In our examination of the Church as Herald, we will continue tracking places where the Church is growing and where it is shrinking, one indicator that reveals how well the Church is fulfilling her mission as proclaimer of the Gospel message.

While this article focuses on Italy, this trend of secularization is an obvious one throughout the Western world. This said, some good things are happening in China.