What do the latest statistics tell us about the Catholic Church around the world?
THE RELIGIOUS GUY’S RESPONSE:
The Vatican Church‘s Central Statistics Office released a summary report in February that states that as of December 31, 2020, Catholicism had 1.36 billion adherents worldwide. This equates to an impressive 17.7% of the world’s population and keeps pace with global population growth. The church’s gain of 16 million members in 2019 exceeds the combined populations of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The Guy will note, however, that the church counts among its members all baptized children who, once adults, will not necessarily be active parishioners.
John L. Allen Jr., editor of cruxnow.com and expert on Catholic trends, writes that these numbers run counter to Western perceptions that the “church is shrinking” following sex abuse scandals and other issues.
But Catholic expansion is centered on Africa and Asia, not Western countries, and the church faces a personnel problem. The Vatican office admits there is once again a “clear imbalance” in the geographical distribution of priestly ranks which are slowly dwindling, currently totaling 410,219 worldwide. There is also a drop in seminary enrollment, which now totals just under 112,000, with only Africa showing an increase. Remarkably, Africa and Asia produce 60% of the world’s seminary students.
Let’s break down the numbers.
From 2019 to 2020, membership grew by just 0.3% in Europe compared to 1.8% in Asia and 2.1% in Africa. Africa has 18.9% of the world’s Catholics, or 236 million, but only 12.3% of priests. In comparison, Europe has just over 20% of the Catholic population, but 40% of the world’s priests minister there. North and South America has 48% of the Catholic population but only 29.3% of priests. But Asia, with 11% Catholics, is served by 17.3% priests.
In other words, there is one priest for every 3,314 Catholics overall, but one for every 1,746 in Europe, one for every 2,086 in the Americas, and a severe shortage in Africa with 5,089 members per priest.
Allen comments that “if the Catholic Church was a well-run business, it would reallocate staff to serve the fastest growing area of the market. . . . It doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to figure out that something’s wrong with this photo. Not only are the church authorities doing nothing to correct the situation, they are actually making it worse by allowing transfers of personnel from the south to the north rather than the other way around.
In this regard, Allen points out that if “all Mexican, Colombian, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Nigerian, Ugandan, and Congolese priests serving in American dioceses” returned to their home countries, the American church “could just as well post a ‘Going Sign Out of Business’ in most cathedrals.
A distinctive aspect of Catholicism is the “professed women” or “sisters” in religious orders, often referred to as “nuns”, although many do not fit this label, signifying strict traditional disciplines or cloistered lives. Again, the current total of 619,546, significantly higher than the total for priests, results from increases in Africa and Asia that contrast with a decline elsewhere.
Last week, an article for theconversation.com was titled “Why the future of the world’s largest religion is female – and African”. The author is Gina Zurlo, co-editor of the precious World Christian Encyclopedia (with its statistics and information for all religions in all nations). This Boston University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary demographer studies the role of women in religion.
The “largest religion” in the title is, of course, Christianity, and Catholicism is by far its largest branch. Zurlo says women make up a 52% majority of the world’s Christians and very often exceed that percentage of active participants. They are “the majority of the Church almost everywhere in the world” and “the future is about to be shaped by African women in particular”. Africa as a whole has 27% of the world’s Christians, and the projected figure for 2050 is expected to reach 39%. In Africa south of the Sahara Desert, the median age of Christians is a decidedly young 19 years. In Catholicism, she notes, sisters outnumber male priests in Africa and on all other continents.
Spurred in part by the shortage of priests, the Vatican is engaged in another long-running round of discussions over whether women could be ordained deacons, who fulfill many of the functions associated with the priesthood. Women priests, however, are a long way off, if ever.
This then brings us to the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Francis Evangelium Predicate published on March 19, that from June 5 will define an overhaul of the Roman Curia. This document took nine years to produce and follows an earlier restructuring proclaimed in 1588, 1908, 1967, and most recently by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
One of the most notable changes is that lay members will be eligible to hold many administrative leadership positions in the Vatican bureaucracy. This includes lay sisters and women as well as lay people, who would have a major influence in the governance of global Catholicism. Jesuit journalist Thomas Reese argues that “the Vatican Curia will never be truly reformed as long as the highest positions must be filled by cardinals and bishops” who are, of course, all men. .