There Are More Catholics In The World, But Fewer Priests: Report

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.”


12 thoughts on “There Are More Catholics In The World, But Fewer Priests: Report

  1. I wonder if the stats include those who have fallen out of the church? I know there was no membership annulment form i filled out as i left.


  2. More people but fewer priests equals a growing problem. Anyone know what they are doing about this into the long term?



    Factional divide

    There are two Catholic Churches in the Western World today. One is the hierarchy; the other is the rank and file laity, together with their local priests.

    The hierarchy, in this context, refers to the pope and the Vatican bureaucracy in Rome, plus the bishops of the world’s dioceses and their bureaucracies. The rank and file priests and laity include the parishes, schools, hospitals and charity organizations working at local level. The priests are all professionally trained. But also many of the laity working with them are equally professionally educated in theology, scripture, organizational systems and social sciences.

    The recent book by Chris McGillion and John O’Carroll, Our Fathers: What Australian Catholic Priests Really Think about their Lives and their Church, gives us a directly personal insight into today’s troubles and the way Catholic priests see the problems and are responding to them.

    In interviews with fifty priests and an insightful survey, we find priests caught between the laity they serve and the opinions and attitudes of their own bishops and the Vatican. They throw light on a divided and troubled Church.

    These two Churches today are running on separate and ever more diverging tracks, as Our Fathers demonstrates. Many of the priests and many of their people are critical of the leadership of the bishops and do not agree with many of the policies and moral stands that they take. They see them as irrelevant to today’s world.

    This outlook seems to be a majority view amongst practicing Catholics. But even this hard core is starting to give up. The hierarchy have their lay supporters; although active and noisy, they are very few in number.


  4. In South America we have some of the largest growth patterns of “born again” Christians. Many coming from Catholic backgrounds.
    Ibelieve some evagelicals and carholics have signed a treaty not to evangelise each other.


  5. The Catholic church woukd allow female priests before allowing priests to marry to encourage more numbers. It may seem cynical but allowing marriage would mean a potential loss of money if there was a divorce and the ex wife claimed her legal share.


    • Googhle ‘married Catholic priests’ and see how prevalent it is. The reason priests marrying was not acceptable was so that the man could commit his life to the church, instead of having a family to cater for and care for. That, I am told, wasn’t meant to imply celibacy. And often a married man could become a priest after his children had become adult. Married Anglican priests who converted retained their priesthood. And so on.


      • Hi Strewth, It’s an interesting fact that the words Celibate and Celibacy do not originally or literally mean anything to do with chastity. The dictionary will tell you that what is referred to is purely the state or intention of not being married.

        It is a loose but practical usage that has extended its meaning to restraint from sexual activity. Certain of the ‘Fathers’ actually considered marriage for priests to be a far worse sin than engaging in sex. When the Church clamped down several centuries back upon married clergy, the poor discarded wives were just cast onto the scrap heap and left to fend for themselves.

        A bit like good old Henry VIII, who when he dissolved the Monasteries in England, a great proportion of the Monks involved were able to simply take over priestly duties in the Parishes. However the Nuns got a bad trot out of it. They had simply no place or support to go to, if they had no families. I seem to recall as well, that they were not permitted to marry. Either starve or become Prostitutes I fear.

        At times the ‘hierarchy’ of Sins was most peculiar and for us perhaps very hard to envisage. To this day for example in pure Catholic doctrine, it is a worse sin to engage in contraception than it is to commit Incest. These sorts of conventions perhaps make it easier for us to comprehend why molestation of children by Priests was not regarded as being so terrible by many of the clergy. There were just far worse sins they could commit, – like getting married!

        Cheers, Rian. (no cheer for those poor people I guess.)


    • Surprisingly I agree with Rian. Marriage is a big no no. Looking at the popes historically you will be hard pressed to find many who did not have a mistress and children. None were married.



    Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration” (p. 6).
    “…the Catholic share of the U.S. adult population has held fairly steady in recent decades, at around 25%. What this apparent stability obscures, however, is the large number of people who have left the Catholic Church. Approximately one-third of the survey respondents who say they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. This means that roughly 10% of all Americans are former Catholics. These losses, however, have been partly offset by the number of people who have changed their affiliation to Catholicism (2.6% of the adult population) but more importantly by the disproportionately high number of Catholics among immigrants to the U.S.” (p. 7).


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