More Catholics, fewer receiving sacraments: A new report maps a changing church

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The number of Catholic priests world wide dropped 17 percent between 1980 and 2012, a new report finds. Photo courtesy Gregory Dean via Shutterstock

The number of Catholic priests world wide dropped 17 percent between 1980 and 2012, a new report finds. Photo courtesy Gregory Dean via Shutterstock

A new report issued Monday (June 1) mapping the Catholic Church of more than 1.2 billion souls – on track to reach 1.64 billion by 2050 – holds some surprises.

And not all bode well for the church’s future as it faces major demographic and social shifts.

Global Catholicism Trends & Forecasts,” created by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, looks at seven regions of the world, wrapping the United States, Mexico and Canada in with Central and South America as simply the Americas.

The focus is on “the three most important indicators of ‘vitality’ for the Catholic Church…the number of Catholics, the number of parishes, and the number of priests.”

Among the key findings:

  • The global Catholic population has grown by 57 percent since 1980.
Growth in the Catholic Church varies steeply by region,  according to a report issued June 1 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Graphic courtesy of CARA.

Growth in the Catholic Church varies steeply by region, according to a report issued June 1 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Graphic courtesy of CARA.

It’s up from 7.83 million in 1980 to 1.2 billion. However, this growth varies steeply by region.

Europeans are rapidly shedding the continent’s historic Catholic identity while the Global South, particularly Africa and Asia, booms with Catholics.

Europe saw only a 6 percent increase – from 271 million to nearly 284 million.  Meanwhile, growth in Africa was 238 percent as the number of Catholics climbed from 58.6 million in 1980 and to 198 million in 2012.

But that growth is primarily due to a higher birth rate, “not to conversion or evangelization,” observed the Rev. Thomas Reese, a social scientist and columnist for the National Catholic Reporter who has seen the report.

When that birth rate levels off with economic development, Reese wondered, then what? “Some like to say the Global South is the future of the church but I’m not convinced,” said Reese.

  • More people than ever before are receiving the core sacraments of Catholicism including baptism, first communion, confirmation, and marriage in the church.

But the growth in absolute numbers disguises more telling numbers.

Worldwide, there has only been a 7 percent growth in parishes, the brick-and-mortar churches where these rites are held.  And the overall rate per 1,000 Catholics receiving the sacraments “is in uninterrupted decline world wide. It’s not keeping up with population growth,” said Mark Gray, senior research associate for CARA and a co-author of the report.

Even in Africa, where the number of Catholics and of priests is soaring, fewer Catholic choose to receive the sacraments. Graphic courtesy of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA)

Even in Africa, where the number of Catholics and of priests is soaring, fewer Catholic choose to receive the sacraments. Graphic courtesy of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA)

The reasons vary from a lack of interest in the West to a lack of access to parishes and priests in developing countries to simple demographics.

If birthrates fall, there are fewer babies to baptize. As life expectancy increases and the average age of Catholics rises, those areas with older Catholics have lower baptism rates: “You only get baptized once in your life,” said Gray.

In raw numbers, marriages are increasing. But measured by the rate per 1000 Catholics, marriage in the church, said Gray “is one of the hardest hit sacraments around the globe.”

  • There’s been a groundswell of new priests in Africa.

The church in Africa more than doubled in the number of priests between 1980 and 2012, going from 17,346 priests to 40,133.

But ”I was surprised to see they are not enough to balance the steep losses worldwide,” said Reese.

The number of Catholic priests world wide dropped 17 percent between 1980 and 2012, a new report finds. Photo courtesy Gregory Dean via Shutterstock

The number of Catholic priests world wide dropped 17 percent between 1980 and 2012, a new report finds. Photo courtesy Gregory Dean via Shutterstock

Not by half. There’s been a 17 percent drop in the number of priests world wide. It’s driven by a 32 percent plunge in Europe, for the same period, in which the number of priest dove from 243,319 to 165,229.

A separate bank of statistics researched by CARA tracking the U.S. church shows a 35 percent drop in priests between 1980 and 2014. That likely explains why the new global report shows barely a blip of growth for the Americas region as a whole,

Reese, a Jesuit priest, political scientist and author, who is 70 years old, was ordained in 1962, the era before Vatican II reforms, when U.S. seminaries were packed. That world is not coming back, he said.

The report acknowledges, “The parishes that served the Church for hundreds and hundreds of years are no longer closely aligned with the world’s Catholic population and certainly not its most frequently Mass attending populations. However, there is no giant crane that can pick up a parish from Europe and relocate it to Africa.”

Reese is skeptical even such magic would matter.

“Clearly the Catholic Church is becoming a southern church. But I am not convinced it’s the future. I think it is simply a repeat of the past,” he said.

“Catholicism is very attractive to people coming into a literate world, a more modern world. We see that happening in Africa as they transition to the developing world. But what happens next?

“The decline of Christianity and religion in the West is simply going to come a generation later in Africa and Asia. Going to Church on Sunday will no longer be the biggest thing in the village that week once people have all the ‘First World’ distractions of the Northern Hemisphere – soccer matches, and TV and the mall and the Internet.”

The global statistics map out the issues but don’t solve them. Said Reese, “If we don’t figure out how to save Catholicism in the USA and Europe, the same thing is going to happen in Africa in two or three generations.”

  • “Going to Church on Sunday will no longer be the biggest thing in the village that week once people have all the ‘First World’ distractions of the Northern Hemisphere – soccer matches, and TV and the mall and the Internet.”

    As a former Catholic, I no longer see the slightest benefit
    in growing up with the Catholic philosophy. The claims about Saints and Sacraments disintegrate and one is left wondering what on earth all the fuss and bother was about.

    The perceived ‘goodness’ also disintegrates as one reads the divisiveness: “Execute them”- Jesus (Luke 19:27).

    If the claims about Gods are real, there should be some way to demonstrate it – otherwise the energy and investment is entirely baseless.

  • Greg1

    Yes the Church is experiencing declining numbers, but then again, it has experienced declining numbers before. It is the cycle of life. And before long, it will be back on the upswing. If people could see how the soul is filled with the Life of God, and joined to the Body of Christ during Baptism (1Cor 6:11, Col 2:12-13), or how the soul is cleansed clean of sin during Confession (John 20:22-23), or how our souls are nourished by Our Lord when receiving the Eucharist (John 6:53), or how the Dying are given a clean slate during the Anointing of the Sick (James 5:14-15). Ah, people would be running to the Church daily for the sacraments to receive them from a validly ordained priest (2Tim 1:6). If people only knew how much harder it is to get to heaven without the sacraments, they’d be moving next door to a priest. At some point the people will awaken.

  • Betty Clermont

    Thank you for an important article. Just another indication that the movement now is increasingly one of people leaving Christian denominations and finding God in smaller communities or none at all.

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  • bqrq

    The Word of God will endure forever. Those who hate God and His Church are spiritually dead and soon their flesh will be dead and forgotten, but the People of God will live forever. Praise the Lord.

  • JR

    After Vatican II, the Council that was good but interpreted badly to Catholics, the decline in Catholic participation in the Church began. The general impression was that we could all relax a little more, drop all of our pious practices, and go to Mass/Confession/Communion only when we felt like it………like Protestants. Priests and nuns left in droves, hymns became folk music, hand
    clapping and “themed Masses” were indulged in.
    It’s taken years to straighten out the misinformation about the Council, but a whole generation has generally been raised to believe that the Church teaches something it does not. I find plenty of family’s who have not had their children baptized out of laziness more than an act of defiance. Many do not realize that Mass is required every Sunday and Holy Day, prayers are limited to the Our Father and Hail Mary…….and no more. It is sad, and in a way, this misinformation is the fault of a liberal group of bishops from the Council who propagated…

  • JR

    Regardless, the Catholic Church will always retaiin its primacy over any other religion on earth.

  • John

    Atheist Max, you claim that saints and sacraments disintegrate and then apparently expect readers to simply accept it. How silly. If you had stuck with Catholicism a little longer, you probably would have learned something.

    Luke 19:27 comes from the Parable of the Ten Gold Coins. Context is everything in the Bible. Jesus told the story, but it was the nobleman in the story said what you quoted. Perhaps you should stop misrepresenting Jesus and take an honest look at the entire chapter.

    And Max, since you’re not actually demonstrating much of anything in your post, perhaps it is you who should contemplate a little more the concept of baselessness.

  • @John,

    “if you had stuck with Catholicism a little longer…”

    I think 50 years is enough. Don’t you?

    Part of what Cathy Grossman’s article points to is the way in which cultures use Catholicism and then abandon it. I’m recommending that people simply skip it altogether.

    The Church teaches the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:27) is about the Parousia – so context only reinforces the evil in the message: “I’m coming back to demand executions” – Jesus (as the Nobleman in the story) (Luke 19:27).

    Context only reinforces the message. It does not make it gentler.

  • Tanyat

    The missionary spirit coming out of Africa and Asia will play a big part in the evangelisation of the west. The bad Catechisis(or lack of) for the past 50 years has been detrimental for the Church. Plus children that have parents that haven’t any interest to pass the faith on to their offspring(if they have any), or the bad examples from those who are supposed to be the pillars of faith. Everyone will have a lot to answer for when our lives come to a close. Prayer, charity, sacraments, and the willingness to suffer to help others back can change the landscape.—Hope and pray and entrust it to the mercy of God.

  • John McGrath

    The American megachurch, which is really a community center with a certain type of Bible preaching (large parts of the Bible being ignored) has a really good chance to spread in Europe. For various reasons, including the entertainment value that it offers. Another would be renewing a sense of community among populations that miss it and another because it will glorify and welcome large families. Another would be the fear of Islam, leading many to want a firm Christian identity but not wanting the boredom of Catholic and most Protestant traditional worship.And also people like utter certainty.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The Catholic Church has been around for 2,000 years (far more than any other institution or government.) Spain was conquered and became Moslem for centuries– at the high point of the Protestant Reformation the Catholic Church was almost extinct in areas that are virtually all Catholic today.
    The secret is that God raises up saints to save His Church when things appear their worst. He also provides new ways for the Church to grow. Un mentioned in this article and most media articles on Catholic clergy is the- beneath the radar- explosive growth in the number of Catholic married, ordained clergy known as deacons who can serve the Church and Her people in almost as many ways as priests or vowed religious can.

  • Jesus Christ and His message is as important and as lifegiving as ever. Rome abandoned Christ for Constantine in 4th century. The rape and abuse of Children and others was a pre Vatican 11 scandal. Lovely lace albs hiding tragedy. We need to return to the Christianity of Jesus and Apostolic times and look to the Word of God and not man made dogmas.Rome is a multinational corporation. Thank God we in Ireland are shaking off our Roman colonisers and slave masters. The rot is in the Hierarchy not the people of God with their million dollar palaces. Its another FIFA run by tired old men with no real faith and spirituality. The young clergy coming out now are Ratzinger clones with neither faith nor shepherds hearts. The Roman Empire MK 11 has had its day. The Holt Spirit is sweeping it all away and creating a new church.

  • John

    Sorry Deacon, we need Priests. Deacons have an appropriately limited role.

  • Deacon,
    only Priests can turn crackers into muscle tissue and wine into real human blood (O negative). Though these talents would be very useful in hospitals where body parts and blood are desperately needed, only certain magical incantations, propitiations and priestly bling will work – nobody else can make it happen.

  • Greg1

    Actually, the Deacon’s role is fairly broad: he can Baptize, Marry, perform communion services, give blessings, say homilies at mass, perform funeral rites, etc. And in a time of priestly shortages, we are very grateful for our Deacons. I, however, am all for the Latin Rite embracing the married priesthood as the Eastern Rites always have. That would eliminate the need to accept potentially gay men into the priesthood–who’ve caused so much damage with the pedophilia scandal–and allow married priests to be pastoral assistants, doing a great service for the Church. I really don’t think that reality is very far off.

  • The best and most infallible way to demonstrate the reality of God is to die, and since, as they say, no one is getting out of this life alive, you may receive a demonstration as soon as tonight.

  • Greg1

    Atheist, what are you going to do when you meet Jesus??? I don’t think you realize how horrible hell really is.

  • JR

    If you truly are a Catholic Bishop, you are more degenerate than a cleric child abuser. You are implicit in Ireland’s sin of nodding to gay marriage and Hell is your end life reward.

  • Jamie Breyer

    “The best and most infallible way to demonstrate the reality of God is to die”
    If your God thinks it is important to play hide and seek while you are alive, what makes you think he pops out of hiding when you die? Plus, nobody has ever come back to confirm or deny.

  • Ralphie

    Greg1 –
    Suppose someone said “Hey Greg, what are you going to do when you meet Allah when you die” …?
    As in, suppose you have been wrong about Jesus all these years. Allah won’t forgive any more than Jesus would. So you will go to Islamic Hell instead of Christian Hell.

    And by the way, Islamic Hell is much worse than the Xtian version. Please google it and find out what you have in store for yourself.

  • josep

    Catholic dont need estadistics to know how well are doing many of them.
    At the final point , will triumph over all lies and sins , whith pacience and obedience to Rome.
    Muslim had no future , because of it barbarie.
    Reese is very human , to analize these results.
    I´m happy with its, because is an effort of many anonimus people.
    We have to pray nowing God is waiting these to do many things.

  • Justin

    Greg 1,
    Pedophilia and homosexuality are not the same thing. Please educate yourself before making those kind of statements. The vast majority of pedophiles identify as heterosexual.

  • Ralphie

    Bishop – “sweeping it all away and creating a new church.”

    God no, not again. Every time this happens innocent people get hurt.

    How about we all put down the holy beads and try living together as atheist humans for a change? There is no sign that this Xtian philosophy has ever worked out very well in 2000 years: witch burnings, pedophiles and so on… Let’s follow Scandinavia and Denmark for a change and just abandon these old silly god fables… eh?

    Atheism is working great for the atheist countries. Look into it for yourself.
    I want what they’re having – Atheism works.

  • Greg1

    “…where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:41-42). But, no, Ralphie, I to the best of my ability I am seeking God, and have found his Truth in Christ and his Church. Should I be wrong, then God will acknowledge my earnest desire for Him, and love me just the same. However, Atheism is something very very bad. That is taking the position that God DOES NOT Exist! And there is no hope for those who profess atheism.

  • Greg1

    Justin: In the Catholic Church 81% of the so called pedophilia incidents were dirty priests who were abusing teenage boys. There is a reason the victims were male. The issue at hand is that for years many many gay men entered the priesthood to hide; the seminaries were flop houses for gay activity. However, once these “priests” were assigned to parishes, they found it very difficult to hide their sexuality, and of course to control themselves. So the parish essentially became their playground.

  • Ralphie

    Greg,
    Atheism is not a claim. I did not state to you that god does not exist. As an atheist I am not saying god does not exist. Atheism only means I don’t believe in your god. If gods don’t give us reasons to believe in them they cannot be upset if we don’t believe. The Loch Ness Monster either exists or doesn’t. I see no reason to believe in Loch Ness Monsters and no reason to believe in gods.

  • MikeF

    Don’t try to save Catholicism. Catholicism, as described by this article, is made out to be a cultural artifact. And that may, in fact be all that it is. The Body of Christ embodied in His Church is something else. Christ promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church, so reports of Her demise will always be premature. Our concern is to save Catholics and those who should be Catholics (Matt 28:19).

  • “the Council that was good but interpreted badly to Catholics”

    This one line right here shows why Roman Catholic arguments against Sola Scriptura are bad ones. Who interpets the interpreter?

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