A new report mapping the Catholic Church’s 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,” released by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, looks at seven regions of the world.
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.
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 more than 289 million. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in Africa was up 238 percent, from 58.6 million in 1980 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.
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 been just 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 worldwide. It’s not keeping up with population growth,” said Mark Gray, senior research associate for CARA and a co-author of the report.
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 birth rates 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 1,000 Catholics, marriage in the church, said Gray “is one of the hardest-hit sacraments around the globe.”