According to the World Christian Database, the proportion of the planet's population professing one or other of its four biggest faiths (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) rose steeply in the mid-1970s and has been climbing rapidly ever since. By 2005, the figure was 73%.Andrea Tonielli, a respected Vatican-watching Italian journalist, author of Attaco a Ratzinger, is quoted:
Strong in the developing world where birth rates are high, Catholicism has done well out of the contemporary "faith boom". Whatever problems Benedict may have, numbers are not yet among them. His church's statisticians estimate that the number of baptised Catholics reached 1,166 million at the end of 2008, a rise of 1.7% on a year earlier. Over the intervening 12 months, the Catholic population as a share of the global total edge up too.
The once-a-Catholic-always-a-Catholic method used for the Vatican's count is debatable: it takes no account of those who "lapse". But even by a more rigorous measure of belief and conviction, Benedict's religion is growing. The number of Catholic priests continues to rise, and in 2008 it reached almost 410,000. But while the number of aspirants to the priesthood grew that year in Africa, Asia and Oceania (and remained broadly stable in the Americas), it shrank – and at a striking rate of more than 4% – in Europe.
That points to Catholicism's outstanding challenge – the secularisation of its traditional heartland. This was the issue that weighed most heavily on the minds of the cardinals who gathered in Rome five years ago to elect a successor to John Paul II. They decided that the best man to tackle it would be the late pope's long-time collaborator, Joseph Ratzinger. And to make the point that he too saw the re-evangelisation of Europe as his top priority, the new pope took the name of the continent's patron saint.
Some of Benedict's supporters believe he wants a smaller, but theologically more homogenous (and reactionary) group of true believers who can hunker down and wait for more propitious times. Tornielli thinks that is a misinterpretation. "The idea of a 'hard core' is essentially military and defensive. I think the pope simply believes that the only way to get the people of our times to encounter God is by bearing Christian witness, living Christian values. It is, after all, not so unlike what happened 2,000 years ago."