Catholic Church shows stable and steady growth
1. The Annuarium StatisticumEcclesiae
2001, compiled by the Central Office for Statistics of
the Church and published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, was
recently presented to the press.
In comparison with the better known Annuario Pontificio
(Pontifical Year Book) that lists names and biographies, the
Statistical Year Book gives those who are interested a more or
less complete picture of the comparative data necessary for a
correct and detailed understanding of the Catholic Church's
numerical strength throughout the world.
As every year, the data are supported by captions in Latin,
English and French, and are completed by tables that show the
gradual and constant growth of the Church in the world.
The following points and notes are provided in order to
highlight certain quantitative aspects that concerned and marked
the Catholic Church from 1978 until 2001.
An analysis of the numbers of Catholic faithful worldwide
2. An examination of the data in Table 1 shows a
substantial increase in the number of Catholic faithful across
the world, which grew from 757 million in 1978 to 1.1 billion in
2001, an overall increase of 40.2 percent. This increase is only
slightly less than the increase in the world population (45.8
percent), and shows a substantially stable trend with regard to
the growth of the Catholic faithful. However, these increases
reflect the situation that can vary totally from continent to
Compared to the basically stable number of Catholics in
Europe (a 5.3 percent increase was shown over the 23-year period
considered here) and corresponding to the slight growth in the
European population (that increased by 6.8 percent), the African
statistics shed light on the extremely dynamic dissemination and
penetration of the Catholic Church: here there is an increase in
the number of Catholics of approximately 148 percent, that is,
more than twice the total number of Catholics in the world, and
it exceeds by far the remarkable demographic growth worldwide of
approximately 83 percent.
Other continents are also recording significant increases in
numbers, especially Asia, where in the 23 years under
examination, the relative increase was approximately 71.2
These trends, moreover, should also be seen in the context of
the effect Catholic groups have on the various continents: they
go from a relative decrease in the world of the number of
European faithful, whose numbers, despite the overall growth,
show a continuous downward trend (35 percent in 1978 to 26.5
percent in 2001), to a corresponding increase in the number of
African faithful, who increased in the two years mentioned from
7.2 percent to 12.8 percent.
With regard to the other continents, in Oceania the figures
are substantially stable, while a slight increase in growth for
America and Asia can be seen.
Table 1 - Catholics in 1978,1988 and 2001:
geographical distribution per 100 inhabitants - variations of the period
Catholic Faithful (Baptized)
Per 100 of the total
Per 100 inhabitants
The numbers of Catholic bishops worldwide
3. Table 2 shows that the number of bishops has been
rising overall at a more or less steady rate from 3,714 in 1978
to 4,126 in 1988, 4,541 in 2000 and 4,649 in 2001, with a
relative increase of 25.2 percent between the first and last
years. This increase has been fairly steady on the African
continent (42.6 percent), less but still noteworthy in Oceania
(33 percent), and gradual, with a smaller percentage (19.7
percent) in Asia, America and Europe.
These different growth rates have resulted in only slight
variations in the relative importance of the various statistics
per continent of the world total with the exception of Africa,
where the number of bishops, from 11.6 percent at the beginning
of the period, increased to 13.3 percent at the end; a slight
decrease was also seen in Europe.
It is also evident that in 2001 the number of Catholics per
bishop did not vary much from continent to continent (from
162,000 to 302,000 respectively for Asia and for America) with
the marked exception of Oceania, in which each bishop is
responsible for only 67,000 Catholics, which indicates in this
perspective that the percentage of bishops here is slightly
higher than on the other continents.
It may be helpful to estimate the number of both diocesan and
religious priests per bishop, since this simple relationship
gives us a basic if somewhat simplistic idea, at least at the
purely numerical level, of the pastoral tasks that on average
any diocesan bishop must undertake in each continent. The data
and statistics presented show that over time, a better and more
harmonious distribution of bishops in the continental situations
has been achieved: this includes a better numerical balance
between priests and bishops, from the beginning to the end of
the period under review.
- Bishops in 1978,1988 and 2001:
geographical distribution and numerical variations
Per 100 of the total
n. Priests / n. Bishops
Diocesan and religious priests worldwide
4. A glance at Table 3 shows the numerical changes in
diocesan and religious priests that have taken place on the
different continents. The number of priests overall has
decreased very slightly throughout the world (from 421,000 in
1978 to 405,000 in 2001). However, when the situations of
diocesan and religious priests are individually analyzed, it
becomes clear that while the number of the former is
fundamentally stable, the latter are experiencing a significant
decrease (of 12.5 percent over 23 years).
The dynamics on the different continents appear to be in
strong contrast: Europe and Asia, but partly also Africa, show
opposing trends. In fact, in Europe the number of both diocesan
and religious priests has dropped considerably —
the total in 1978 of 174,000 and 76,000 priests, diocesan and
religious respectively, had fallen by 2001 to 144,000 and
62,000. The same phenomenon is taking place in Oceania, yet on
this continent the relative shortage of priests is felt less.
On the other hand, there are more and more diocesan and
religious priests in Asia. And in Africa, the total of diocesan
priests has rocketed, with their number jumping from 5,500 to
17,600, with a relative increase of 219.3 percent, whereas the
number of religious priests has diminished slightly during the
23 years considered here.
This movement has altered the incidence of diocesan priests
in relation to religious priests, yet an appreciable change
occurred in Africa alone: here, at the beginning of the period
there were about twice as many religious as diocesan priests,
whereas in 2001, the
former had become far fewer than the latter; and in Asia,
where they were equal in number at the outset, as time has
passed the number of diocesan priests has grown considerably.
The changes described have subsequently affected the number
of priests on the various continents in general, and of
religious and diocesan priests specifically.
The combination of demographic variations and changes in the
overall number of priests is responsible for the variations in
the ratio between the number of inhabitants and the number of
priests, as well as of the number of Catholics per priest. Over
time, both categories have grown and across the globe have
increased from 10,000 inhabitants per priest in 1978 to a little
more than 15,000 in 2001; of greater interest, however, is the
information concerning the number of Catholics per priest
resulting from ecumenical effectiveness and the direct
relationship between pastoral workers and the faithful. This
figure has also increased worldwide from 1978 to 2001, and the
number of Catholics per priest has jumped overall from 1,797 to
2,619. However, only slight differences in the proportion are
observable from continent to continent; in 2001, for example, in
comparison with the average of 1,357 Catholics to each priest in
Europe, there were about 4,847 in Africa and 4,359 in America.
These statistics take into account the different aspects, at
least at the macrosocial level, of religious relations and
Table 3 - Diocesan or
religious priests in 1978, 1988, and 2001 per continent and numerical
Permanent deacons, religious men and women worldwide
5. Bishops and priests are flanked in their pastoral
activities by other religious workers, as we see in the
For an idea of the relative size of the various religious
categories, note that in 2001, permanent diocesan and religious
deacons taken together constituted little over half the
professed religious who were not priests (55,000 in 2001), and
that the latter were far fewer than professed women religious
(792,000 in the same year).
In the course of time and at a global level, the three
categories of pastoral workers mentioned above have taken very
different directions: if there has been a marked expansion in
the number of permanent deacons, there has been a very visible
reduction in the numbers of professed religious brothers and
professed women religious.
The number of permanent deacons has more than quintupled
throughout the world, rising from 5,500 to 29,200 between 1978
and 2001 (with a relative increase of 425 percent; see Table
4).This increase has occurred everywhere, but the
growth rate differs substantially from continent to continent:
Europe showed a major increase (732 percent), so that from just
topping 1,000 in 1978, by 2001 the number of permanent deacons
had climbed to 9,400; Africa, America and Oceania showed a
parallel but far more contained growth rate in comparison with
that of Europe (around 320 percent), while in Asia, where they
were rather few at the beginning of the period, the growth rate
was less pronounced (121 percent).
This very different development in the varied situations on
the respective continents has brought about a radical change in
the percentage of permanent deacons in the 23-year period: for
example, in Europe, at the beginning of this period, they
accounted for 20 percent of the world total, 24 percent in 1988
and 32 percent at the end of the period. At the same time in
America, where there is another large group of permanent
deacons, their relative total number has declined.
Table 4 – Permanent deacons in 1978, 1988, and 2001:
Their geographical distribution and variations over the period
deacons (diocesan and religious)
Per 100 of
The second group examined, professed religious who are not
priests, as has been mentioned, is experiencing a decline: from
76,000 at the beginning of the period to 55,000 by the end of it
(cf. Table 5). The continental incidence of the various
categories of professed religious was highly concentrated in
Europe, with 49 percent in 1978, and in America, with 31
It is precisely these two continents, along with Oceania,
which nonetheless have a small quota of professed religious and
which are experiencing the largest decline —
43 percent in Europe and 30 percent in America. Thus, the
overall decrease in number of these male religious worldwide can
primarily be ascribed to the decline on these two continents.
These trends also determine a different numerical deployment
over time between the continents: in 2001, Europe and America
were still the continents with the highest number of professed
religious who were not priests, but their relative number was
far lower than at the beginning of the period.
Table 5 - Professed Religious (non-priests) in
1978, 1988, and 2001:
their geographical distribution and numerical variations
of the total
Let us now consider the third group mentioned above, professed
women religious. This is the largest group which, on noting its
variations over time and geography, can be seen to be dwindling
(cf. Table 6). The number of professed women religious in
the world, which was 991,000 in 1978, had fallen to 792,000 by
2001 (a decrease of 20 percent). Once again, it is important to
note the great difference in the trends on the various
continents that have the characteristics already described for
professed religious who are not priests, and are associated with
the geographical data.
It must be pointed out that the most consistent groups of
professed women religious are in Europe (55 percent) and in
America (30 percent), and that it is in these very groups that
the greatest decrease has occurred (34 percent in Europe, 23
percent in America) as well as in Oceania (37 percent), whereas
in Africa and Asia the visible increases offset the decline
mentioned but are not sufficient to compensate for it.
Table 6 - Professed religious in 1978, 1988 and 2001:
their geographical distribution and numerical variations
Percentage of the total
All candidates to the priesthood worldwide
6. Table 7 shows the number of philosophy and theology
students at diocesan and religious seminaries and notes the size
of certain indicators of vocations to the priesthood.
Across the globe, their number increased constantly during
the period under analysis: from 64,000 in 1978 they increased to
112,000 in 2001 (a 76 percent increase), with a trend of
continuous, practically uninterrupted growth.
As mentioned above, there are strong geographic differences
in this case, too. While in Asia and especially in Africa there
have been impressive increases —
so impressive in Africa as to be outstanding —
in Europe and in Oceania, the trends, if not negative
overall, show steadier growth with slight variation.
In America a trend of expansion is also certainly present,
and the results for the period on the two sub-continents of
North America and Central and South America differ.
As shown above, the relative number of candidates to the
priesthood on the various continents has substantially changed.
While in Africa they accounted in 1978 for 9 percent, in 2001
they had risen to 19 percent; in Europe over the same period
they dropped from 37 percent to 23 percent.
A key to establishing the number of candidates to the
priesthood in relation to the geographic area is by comparing
the number of candidates with that of Catholics, continent by
In accordance with the trend of expansion referred to, it is
clear not only that these figures are increasing worldwide —
from 84 to 105 to 106 priests per 1 million Catholics
respectively in 1978, 1988 and 2001 —
but that the type of expansion to be found on the different
continents is reflected in these indicators.
While in Africa and Asia, therefore, the indicator shows a
strong growth at a high level in 2001, Europe and Oceania show a
varied and even downward trend; whereas in America there is an
upward trend, with a minimum value among those of the various
continents being registered in 2001.
The purpose of the last indicator shown in Table 7 is
to find out the number of candidates to the priesthood for every
100 priests and to calculate the average rate of renewal. Once
again and as a result of the trends over a span of time in the
number of candidates to the priesthood, the indicator at the
global level shows a decisively upward trend.
It can be said that the replacement of the quota of priests
is guaranteed when the relationship between seminarians and
priests (per 100) is not less than 12.5 percent. This threshold
value has been largely supplanted across the world, although
geographical differences, as always, are rather marked and
deserve a brief comment.
If in Africa, Asia and Central and South America the renewal
of the quota of priests is by and large adequate, North America,
with the indicator at 9.7, is below the threshold of
replacement. The same is occurring in certain parts of Europe.
Let us take two examples of particular importance and not
only from the numerical viewpoint: Italy (11.3 percent) is below
the threshold, whereas in Poland (24.5 percent) renewal is
largely guaranteed. The average situation in Europe (12.5
percent), which coincides with the threshold of renewal, would
be such as to guarantee the renewal of the number of priests.
But as the previous example demonstrates, the situation appears
rather different in the various areas and the various European
It is therefore foreseeable that in such an unstable
situation, serious difficulties may arise in the near future in
maintaining the necessary number of priests, due to the constant
phenomenon of aging which affects the clergy.
Table 7 - Candidates to the priesthood in 1978, 1988 and 2001: their
variations, over the period, indication of priestly
to the priesthood
Per 100 of the total
Per one million Catholics
Per 100 priests
Weekly Edition in English
30 July 2003, page 5
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