The global Catholic population is growing – so quickly, in fact, that priest and parish numbers cannot keep up, says a new study on trends in the worldwide Church.
And this poses a challenge: With an overall growth in the number of Catholics, especially in Africa and Asia, but not enough growth in the number of parishes and priests to supplement it, there are fewer opportunities for Catholics to receive the sacraments and participate in their parishes.
“The Church still faces a global 21st century problem of keeping Catholics engaged with parish and sacramental life,” stated the study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.
The study “Global Catholicism” drew from Vatican statistics and other surveys since 1980 to detail where the Catholic Church has grown and shrunk at the parish level and to predict the demographics of the next few decades for the Church.
This growth was examined at the parish level because parish life is ultimately the “brick and mortar” of the Church where Catholics receive the sacraments, associate with fellow Catholics, and participate the most in their faith, the study explained.
It tallied the growth of Catholics, priests, religious, parishes, reception of sacraments, seminarians, and Catholic welfare institutions like hospitals and schools in five regions — Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas.
The overall finding of the report is that the Church is in the midst of a “dramatic realignment.” It is waning in its historical center of Europe, its growth is slowing in the Americas and Oceania, and it is booming in Asia and Africa.
This forecasts a Catholic shift away from the traditional centers of Europe and the Americas and toward the “Global South,” the mostly-developing parts of the world that include Central and South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Oceania, and much of the Far East.
Dr. Mark Gray, a senior research associate with CARA, explained the implications of this shift to CNA in an interview.
One problem highlighted by the study is that most of the world’s parishes are still in Europe and the Americas, where the Church is declining or stagnating in population. The developing world is seeing more Catholics, but not nearly enough parishes to serve them.
“You’ve got all these beautiful parishes,” Gray said of Europe. “You can’t pick them up and send them from one part of the world to another very easily. So in one place the Church is going to have to close parishes, and in another place it’s going to have to build a bunch more, and it’s going to have to figure out how to manage its clergy.”
Another finding of the report is that Catholics are participating less in the Church as they grow older, as seen in sacramental participation rates.
In every region, the number of infant baptisms per 1,000 Catholics is greater than the number of first Communions, which is greater than the number of confirmations, which is greater than the number of marriages conducted within the Church.
While this may not be surprising in regions like Europe, which is seeing an overall decline of priests and religious, it is also the case throughout other regions where Church numbers are growing.
The Americas have both a lower Mass attendance rate and fewer marriages per 1,000 Catholics than does Europe, despite the overall American Catholic population growing. Gray admitted that these findings have yet to be explained.
Furthermore, the number of religious priests, brothers, and sisters all declined in the Americas since 1980, even though the number of Catholics and diocesan priests has risen there.
And even in Africa, where the Church is growing the most, there is a steep decline in sacramental participation from baptisms to marriages – the marriage rate is actually as low in Africa as it is in the Americas.
This might have to do with Africa’s population boom fast outpacing the growth of its parishes. The continent leads the world with more than 13,000 Catholics per parish.
“In Africa, more than elsewhere, the Church needs to explore the possibility that some forego or delay sacramental activity due to a lack of access to a nearby parish,” the CARA report states.
Asia, however, is setting the bar in sacramental participation. It leads all the other regions in rates of first communions, confirmations, and marriages.
“Something’s happening in Asia that is remarkable. It’s bucking the trend of everywhere else,” Gray said. Catholic leaders should be paying attention to what’s happening there, he added.
Excluding mainland China, for which the Vatican did not provide data, the Catholic population rose in Asia by 63 percent since 1980. Overall Mass attendance did not significantly decline, either, although some Asian countries reported a higher Mass attendance than others.
The number of diocesan priests more than doubled on the continent since 1980, and the number of religious priests, brothers, and sisters each almost doubled in that time frame.
What are the consequences of having too few priests, religious, and parishes to keep up with the overall growth of Catholics around the world?
In some places, closings and consolidations will lead to “mega parishes.” Especially in Europe and North America, where this is already happening, the result could be a crisis of community where many Catholics experience “anonymity” amidst so many fellow parishioners, Gray explained.
And these “anonymous” Catholics may be less inclined to participate in the life of their parish – donating less, participating in sacraments less and bringing fewer children to Church.
This is particularly difficult for Europe and North America, Gray noted, because historically these regions were well-staffed with parishes and priests, and were used to having smaller local parishes rather than larger mission parishes.
Now, not only might the parishes be larger, but priests could be serving multiple parishes, leaving Catholics with fewer opportunities to associate with their parish priest.
“People for the longest time expected they could go to their neighborhood parish whenever, knock on the door, and there would be a priest there. Especially when someone was really sick,” Gray said. Now this may not be the case.
Europe will see a five percent decline in its Catholic population by 2050, the report predicted, but far more alarming is that the number of diocesan priests and vowed religious has already fallen by 40 percent there since 1980. The overall number of parishes has declined as well.
Consequently, priests from other continents like Africa have already had to come minister to European and American Catholics. This puts a further strain on the African Church, where the significant growth in parishes, priests, and religious has still not kept up with the major Catholic population boom there.
“While some African priests serve internationally in parishes throughout the world this may become more challenging in the coming decades with more pressing needs at home,” the report states.
Of the regions covered in the report, Africa saw the largest increase of Catholics per parish since 1980, jumping from 8,193 Catholics per parish in 1980 to 13,050 in 2012.
Although the number of priests and parishes in Africa have jumped by well over 100 percent in that time frame, the number of Catholics has skyrocketed by 238 percent, thereby increasing the gap between the numbers of Catholics and the number of priests and religious.
The continent’s Catholic moment is a consequence of its population boom, the report said, as fertility rates in any given region are directly connected with the vibrancy of the Church in that area.
Where the fertility rate is below the replacement level of 2.1 children per couple – such as in most of Europe – the Church is struggling.
Where the fertility rate is highest above replacement rate – like in Sub-Saharan Africa where it is 5.15 – the Church is growing rapidly.
And where the fertility rate is approaching replacement rate level – like in Latin America and the Caribbean where it fell from 4.2 in 1980 to 2.18 in 2012 – the Church’s growth is slowing down.
Gray’s explanation for this is simple. Fewer births “means fewer baptisms, fewer first communions, fewer marriages, smaller populations eventually.”