Women and lay ministers now make up the majority in the Church in Belgium, but both groups are still barred from real power, a Church study has found.

Driving the news

The Belgian Bishops’ Conference released its second annual report December 3 that found that of the more than 7,000 employees of the Church in Belgium, 55% are women.

However, the official responsibilities and tasks that Belgian Catholic women carry out are limited to those of inspectors in the education sector (women take up 56% of these roles) or of pastoral workers in hospitals and nursing homes (68% of volunteers are female), or the like.

Belgian Catholic women continue to be totally absent from the liturgy, make up just 22% of Church councils, and comprise just 37% of the staff of official Church bodies.

Go deeper

With regard to laypeople, on the other hand, the Belgian episcopate’s report said that the number of rank-and-file faithful licenced by their bishops to serve in parishes has now exceeded the number of serving priests.

In total, the Belgian Church has 2,038 lay ministers of this type, compared to 1,940 diocesan priests (of whom 51% are over 75).

The transition from an ordained to lay Church continues in the sphere of formation, the Belgian Bishops’ report also said.

Currently in the country there are 64 seminarians and 36 permanent deacons in formation, as opposed to the 297 men and women being trained to work in pastoral care.

Why it matters

Other interesting pieces of data from the Belgian Bishops’ report include the fact that there are 155 foreign Catholic communities in the country, and the reality that 20% of the Church’s 2,260 total priests were born overseas.

But it’s the shift to relying on laypeople – and especially women – that’s shaping up as the Belgian Church’s biggest challenge, especially given the decline in baptisms (-11% from 2016), confirmations (-4%), marriages (-14%) and Mass attendance (-17%).

“The figures confirm that women play an irreplaceable role for the future of the Church and the life of faith”, Belgian Bishops’ website Kerknet said.

But that “irreplaceable role” that women Catholics might play in the future in the Church is yet to be worked out, judging by comments on the report by Malines-Brussels Archbishop Cardinal Jozef De Kesel.

In his first reactions, De Kesel focused on the decline in numbers of the faithful and the apparent shift to an optional Christianity in the country.

“There is nothing that says the Church can grow only in a culture in which it is dominant”, De Kesel said.

“[The Church] does not necessarily need to represent the entire population. We remain relevant in many aspects of society”, the cardinal insisted.

Next on Novena:

Why is this new Belgian bishop giving thanks for beer?

Belgian laypeople push Pope for married priests

Cardinal De Kesel decries reduction of Europe to “soulless economic and financial project”