The Vatican released information Monday from the 2013 Statistical Yearbook of the Church that challenges the perception many have (particularly in Europe and the U.S.) that the Roman Catholic Church is in a period of decline.
In March, Catholic Voices Comment proclaimed: “Viewed globally the Church experienced a spectacular growth over the twentieth century which shows little sign of slowing.” In fact, the numbers they cite show that Catholics now make up about 17.5% of the world’s population, and that the church is steadily growing at a pace that is slightly ahead of general population growth. Monday’s statistics further confirm CVC’s points, among which are the following:
- Latin America is now the “heartland” of Catholicism, with more than 40% of the world’s Catholics dwelling in South and Central America. And though it is true that Pentecostalism has made gains, there has been a remarkable increase in seminary enrollment by those wanting to become priests (over 400% in the past 25 years).
- The most dramatic growth has occurred in Africa. There may be close to 200 million Roman Catholics on the continent, and this has been primarily an indigenous phenomenon, since the number of western missionaries has been declining since the 1960′s. Nigeria alone has 20 million Catholics, along with the world’s largest seminary. Africa ended 2010 with 765 more clergy than there were in 2009.
- However, Asia did even better, producing almost 1700 more clergy (priests/deacons) that same year.
In summary: “It’s clear that the popular narrative of Catholic decline isn’t supported by the facts: the global story of modern Catholicism is one of growth. Insofar as there’s any truth to it at all, that truth is increasingly out of date.”
The 1970′s-early 2000′s were certainly a low period, especially in Western Europe and the United States — and perhaps the dominant narrative of decline is due to the fact that these locations are where the media has the most influence. Since then, however, the situation has gradually stabilized, and in the past five years there has been a marked turnaround. Statistics from the U.S. and U.K. in particular suggest that the decline actually bottomed out in 2005.
A piece in the Guardian (England) observed that the Catholic Church and other denominations there are not, in fact, in desperate straits, as many imagine them to be:
It’s time to believe that the church in this country is no longer in decline. The latest statistics coming from various denominations are clearly showing stability in church attendance and even signs of growth. This news may come as a surprise to many people who believe that the church is a dying institution.
Another account of the Vatican statistics from Religious News Service summarizes the good news:
According to Vatican data, the Catholic population worldwide surpassed 1.2 billion in 2011.
But while growth in the Americas and Europe mirrored the growth of the general population, Catholic growth in Africa and Asia was almost double the regions’ population growth.
The world’s 413,418 priests at the end of 2011 showed a slight increase from the previous year, continuing a trend of slow growth that began in 2000 after decades of decline.
A rapid increase in vocations in Africa and Asia — to the tune of more than 3,000 new priests in a year — balanced the shrinking ranks of the priesthood in Europe. In the Americas, the number of priests remained stable.
Of course, the Church faces many serious challenges, but perhaps we are actually witnessing a season of renewal in global Catholicism.