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Soul-searching needed by Roman Catholics

Published:Sunday | December 30, 2012 | 12:00 AM

THE RESULTS of the 2011 Population Census of Jamaica, released by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) on October 17, 2012, show that the Christian denominations which are members of the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC) declined in absolute numbers between 2001 and 2011. The largest declines were among Anglicans (about 19,000), and Roman Catholics and the United church (each about 9,000). These churches are not known for their evangelical approach, and they are paying the ultimate price.

Only four groups increased in numbers during the ten years: the Church of God (73,000), the Pentecostals (48,000), the Adventists (40,000), and the Jehovah's Witnesses (7,000). All of these denominations practise some form of outreach evangelisation.

At the same time, the number of persons claiming no religious affiliation increased from 544,000 to 572,000 - an increase of 21 per cent. If "no religious affiliation" were a denomination it would be the second-largest in Jamaica. Large numbers of Jamaicans are turned off all religion, and these represent a ripe mission field for a Church with the right evangelisation strategy.

What has happened over the last 100 years? The Adventist church had just arrived in Jamaica (1893), as had the Church of God (1907); the Pentecostals and the Jehovah's Witnesses had not yet arrived. In a century, these four groups have made remarkable progress.

In absolute numbers, the Anglicans declined dramatically (from 267,000 to 75,000), as did the Methodists (from 93,000 to 43,000) and Moravians (from 36,000 to 18,000). The decline in the Baptists and the United church was real but much smaller.

The only denomination which increased in numbers over the 100 years was the Catholic church, which more than doubled from 25,000 to 58,000. This needs to be explained. What were we doing right? And can we do it again?

The Catholic Church since Independence

While other Christian denominations were in decline in Jamaica, the Catholic church continued to grow up to the 1970 census. Since then, there has been a constant decline. This decline is surprising, considering the following factors which should have promoted further growth:

The Second Vatican Council brought the Catholic church into the modern world, and provided the impetus for local adaptation;

The first Jamaican bishop, who was at the Council, was just made Archbishop, and had begun to implement some of the reforms;

We had 123 priests, more clergy than any other mainstream denomination, of whom twelve (12) were Jamaican diocesans and ten (10) were Jamaican Jesuits; we also had 285 nuns; together they formed an unequalled workforce of over 400 full-time workers, having an impact in both churches and schools;

We had recently divided Jamaica into two dioceses, each with its own bishop, to be able to focus on neglected parts of the island.

Yet, decline there definitely was, instead of increased growth. Despite having grown on average 2.4 per cent per annum during the 1960s, in the decade of the 1970s we declined by an average of 2.1 per cent per annum - an accumulated annual decline of 4.5 per cent. This phenomenon needs to be adequately explained.

Since then the decline has continued - sometimes faster and sometimes slower - down to the present day, as indicated by the 2011 Population Census, despite the fact that the Jamaican population has continued to increase. Below are some of the causative factors some have proposed:

Some blame migration of Catholics during the 1970s and afterwards for the Catholic decline. Persons of all religious backgrounds migrated, but for this to be a major factor in the Catholic decline it would mean that Catholics migrated much faster than other denominations. Why should this be so? Did the church fail to communicate a spirit of nationalism to her members?

Conversion to other denominations, especially the Pentecostals, the Evangelicals and the Adventists. This indicates inadequate Catholic formation of our members.

Many Catholics lapsed in the aftermath of Vatican II as the reforms required more maturity and personal responsibility. This exposed the large number of lukewarm Catholics that had previously occupied church benches.

Lack of an evangelical thrust. Even though evangelisation became a major subject of conversation in official Catholic circles, it simply has rarely been tried. We do not have a culture of evangelisation in the Catholic church while other churches do; and they benefit, while we suffer.

The 1991 census revealed decline in all three ecclesiastical divisions in the Catholic church since the previous census in 1982. The 2001 census showed a marginal increase in the number of Catholics in the Diocese of Mandeville since 1991, but up from a dramatic decline in the previous period, suggesting that there was a benefit from the increased attention from having its own bishop. Both Kingston and Montego Bay declined by about 20 per cent over the same period.

Between 2001 and 2012 the numbers in all three dioceses declined, with Kingston showing the greatest atrophy (16.4 per cent). The decline in the Diocese of Montego Bay was quite small (1.8 per cent), suggesting that they were doing something right. In summary, it may be said that although the numbers in all three dioceses declined, the rate of decline was lower, in general, than in previous years.

Between 1991 and 2001, the only civil parishes to show growth in Catholics were Manchester and St Elizabeth - both in the Vicariate/Diocese of Mandeville, again reflecting the benefits having its own bishop. Clarendon, formerly in the Archdiocese of Kingston, clearly needed special attention.

Between 2001 and 2012, the only civil parishes to show growth in Catholics were St Elizabeth (again), and St James and Hanover (with its new bishop); Trelawny was stable. St James, Hanover and Trelawny fall within the Diocese of Montego Bay, with Charles H. Dufour as its bishop. The decline in Westmoreland is surprising, considering the new missions opened there (Little London, Darliston, Grange Hill) and the evangelisation efforts in Bethel Town.

A more careful analysis needs to be conducted on what exactly happened in the three dioceses over these periods, to propose explanations for the observed shifts. Account must be taken of local population shifts, especially into the new mega-housing schemes in St Catherine.

These census data can assist the Church to plan its way forward.

Let us hope that the Year of Faith will spur us on to better days.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon.