Italy is the country most closely associated with Catholicism. It is the home of the Vatican and, for two millennia, the heirs of the first pope, St. Peter.
It also has one of the lowest church attendance records in the 1.1-billion-strong Catholic world. Italian churches are becoming echo chambers, with pretty decorations, and Italy isn't alone. Attendance is plummeting throughout Europe, along with the proportion of citizens who describe themselves as Catholic.
The church's waning power will not come as a surprise to the Catholics and others who have been shocked by the sexual-abuse scandals and their cover-ups, last year's "VatiLeaks" incident (when purloined documents alleged Vatican financial corruption), and the church's unbending stances against gay marriage, contraception and women priests – the sense among many of the formerly faithful that the Vatican is centuries out of date.
So how what can the church do reverse the trend? What can restore the church's popularity and relevance? These are questions that the College of Cardinals will no doubt consider when they weigh the pros and cons of the leading candidates (among them Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet) to replace Pope Benedict XVI, who will become the first pope to resign in six centuries when he leaves the Vatican on Feb. 28.
George Weigel, the American author of the best-selling biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope , says the church is "dying" in its European heartland. "In that way, Europe is similar to Quebec," he says in Rome, where he is watching the papal transition. "The church withered away in both places in two generations."
To be sure, not all parishes are perishing. The church is seeing remarkable growth in sub-Saharan Africa, where the Catholic population reached 21 per cent in 2010, up from 1 per cent a century earlier, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It is expanding in China and other parts of Asia, and the free fall in the United States may be slowing.
Still, the church is nowhere near the force is used to be, and critics argue that it has to modernize rapidly to stay in the game: Bring on women priests, contraceptives and more realism about sex and reproduction over all.
Some think the time has come for a new ecumenical council, where the bishops gather to discuss, and typically overhaul, church doctrine and practice. The last one, known as Vatican II, wound up 50 years ago and dragged the church somewhat reluctantly into the 20th century (among other changes, it approved the use of vernacular languages in celebrating mass; Latin had been its lingua franca until then).
But usually a century or two passes between councils. No one is expecting Vatican III any time soon.
Mr. Weigel, however, argues that "Catholic lite" is not the way to save the religion from oblivion. He believes that stripping away the hard edges backfires: The church is thriving best in the regions "where the gospel in full is preached and Catholics are challenged to embrace the full symphony of the Catholic faith," he says.
Catholicism's efforts to modernize itself have a pretty sorry record, in his view. "Look at the devastation of the orders of religious sisters," he says. "In the U.S., they embraced the zeitgeist in full. So why bother going to a religious community when life there is not much different from the rest of the world? What's the point?"
In The Telegraph of London this week, American historian Tim Stanley expressed a similar view: It's wrong to assume that the "church needs to reform to survive. … [The] Catholic Church doesn't do change. It can shift the altar a few feet or revise its opinion on the movements of the stars, but it cannot rewrite essential doctrine."
Michael Rosinski, a Jesuit priest and doctoral candidate in canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, says he doesn't think that the salvation of the church lies in allowing female or married priests (though married priests were once common) or in delivering the message that Catholicism is a social and development network: "Our greatest strength is the faith itself."
However, he does think that Christian ethics in general could use more attention and reflection, including Christianity's relationship with science, especially modern medicine such as reproductive technologies. What needs to be examined, he says, "is how do Christians live in the modern world – how do we approach the new ethical questions that were impossible to imagine 100 years ago?"
What seems certain is that the day is long gone where the Catholic Church could take its global status as an institution for granted. Religions compete: About 10 per cent of adult American Catholics have dropped out through "religion-switching," according to Pew. Some Catholics lose interest because they think that the religion is too rigid, others because it is not rigid enough, and still others because they find the masses boring and irrelevant.
Mr. Weigel thinks that the church, to succeed, also needs a dynamic pope and bishops who are charming, media-savvy and engaging. The pope should act like a missionary-pastor, he says, inviting new Catholics to Rome and reaching out to them in their own countries.
To stem the decline, it appears the next pope will have to be a superb evangelist – a marketing man of the top order, in other words – as well as a man of faith. And perhaps one whose idea of modernization does not mean rewriting doctrine.
The next heir to St. Peter will succeed, Mr. Weigel says, if he can learn to make Christian orthodoxy more "exciting."