Global view of the Catholic Church over the past 25
The Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2003, compiled by the
Central Office for Statistics of the Church and published by the Vatican
Publishing House, has recently been presented.
In comparison with the better known Annuario Pontificio in which
names and biographies are given precedence, the Annuario Statistico
gives the principal statistics of the Catholic Church in the various
countries and individual continents.
The data are published annually and are complemented by captions in
Latin, English and French, as well as a table to show more clearly the
structural trend over a given period in order to illustrate certain
basic aspects of the Catholic Church.
The following is a brief quantitative analysis of phenomena that have
concerned the Church in the past 25 years.
In the period from 1978 to 2003, the total number of Catholics in the
world increased from almost 757 million to more than 1.085 billion, with
an overall increase of 329 million faithful, or 43.5 percent.
Comparing these data with the growth of the world population in the
same period from 4.2 to 6.3 billion, it can be noted that the incidence
of Catholics across the globe has decreased slightly, from almost 18
percent to a little more than 17 percent. However, these figures sum up
situations that differ widely from continent to continent.
In Europe, the situation is clearly stationary. In 2003 the baptized
faithful totalled almost 280 million, just over 13 million more than in
1978, and barely 300,000 more than in 1988. This can be ascribed almost
exclusively to Europe's well-known static demographic situation; indeed,
a sharp decline is forecast in the coming decades.
Even in relative terms, the total number of European Catholics per
100 inhabitants has remained virtually unchanged: it has fallen from
40.5 to 39.6.
The African situation, alive and dynamic, is quite the opposite. The
number of Catholics in Africa has almost tripled: in 1978 they numbered
55 million and in 2003 they had increased to almost 144 million.
This considerable increase can be ascribed only in part to
demographical factors: in fact, Catholics who in 1978 formed 12.4
percent of the African population, accounted for almost 17 percent of it
25 years later.
Intermediate situations between the two described above are recorded
in America and in Asia, where growth in the numbers of faithful has been
vigorous (respectively, +47.6 percent and +78.2 percent).
But this closely corresponds to the demographic development of both
Continents, as the relative analysis confirms: the American faithful
account for a stable 62 percent of the population, whereas in Asia,
although the percentage is on the increase, it was no more than 3
percent in 2003. In Oceania, the situation is also stationary, obviously
involving much lower figures.
The overall result of these different dynamics, regarding both the
demographic aspects and the relative distribution of the faithful,
confirms in the period under consideration the increase in their number
on the African Continent (which has risen from 7 percent to more than 13
percent of the number of Catholics in the world), and the sharp fall in
the number of those on the European Continent, whose percentage fell
from 35 in 1978 to less than 26 in 2003.
With regard to America, it is possible to speak of a positive
consolidation: henceforth, almost half the world's faithful belong to
Between 1978 and 2003, the number of Bishops increased overall almost
28 percent, rising from 3,714 to 4,742. The increase was very marked in
Africa (+46.3 percent), Oceania (+36.2 percent) and Asia (+30.8
percent), whereas in America (+24.9 percent) and Europe (+22.4 percent)
the percentages are less than average.
These different dynamics however, caused no substantial variations in
the distribution of Bishops per continent: even for the more dynamic
African Continent, the global total was limited to an increase of 11.5
percent in 1978 and to 13.3 percent in 2003.
As seen in the table, between 1978 and 2003, the number of faithful
per Bishop rose on average from 203,700 to 228,900. The distribution per
continent was slightly more balanced in 2003 than it had been 25 years
earlier: leaving Oceania aside (for the population's sparse distribution
over the territory, moreover, often fragmented in the numerous islands
and archipelagos, gives rise to very special situations), a trend
towards the average can be noted in Africa and Asia.
The statistics concerning diocesan and Religious priests can also be
examined. One immediately notices that the total number of priests, in
decline between 1978 and 1988 by more than 15,000, (421,000 to less than
405,000), seems to have stabilized, with a slight upward trend. This
applies throughout the globe since the dynamics differ considerably on
Compared with the substantial increases in Africa (+79 percent) and
Asia (+69 percent), and the stationary situation in America, Europe is
recording a decrease of more than 19 percent and Oceania, -12 percent.
A sharper change can be seen when a distinction is made between
diocesan and Religious priests.
The number of diocesan priests in the world, after falling to 257,000
in 1988 compared with 262,000 in 1978, rose to more than 268,000 in
2003, thus demonstrating a slight but
No. of faithful per bishop (per thousand)
significant recovery. But the number of religious priests appears to
be steadily falling: they numbered more than 158,000 in 1978, had fallen
10 years later to about 147,000 and fell to just over 137,000 in 2003.
Switching to an analysis per continent, it can be noted in the period
under examination that the slight increase in the number of diocesan
priests in the world can be exclusively ascribed to their vigorous
growth in Africa (where they have more than tripled from 1978 to 2003),
in Asia (where they have doubled) and in America.
The opposite is the case in Oceania and especially in Europe, where
their number has fallen sharply.
On the other hand, the number of religious priests in the 25 years
under consideration has fallen on almost all continents (-21.5 percent
in Oceania, -20 percent in Europe, -18 percent in America). Asia alone
is the exception: the number of religious priests in Asia has risen from
about 14,000 to almost 19,000, while in Africa, the almost 11,000
religious priests in 2003 are fewer than they were in 1978 but far more
than in 1988.
However, radical changes have taken place on the African Continent in
the composition of groups of priests overall: at the beginning of the
period, there were twice as many religious priests as diocesan priests,
whereas in 2003, there were only slightly more than half as many of
The percentage of the distribution of priests per continent shows, as
expected, considerable changes in the 25 years under examination.
In 1978, Africa and Asia contributed 10.6 percent of the world's
total. In 2003, this rose to over 19 percent. America too has slightly
increased its percentage.
Apart from the slight negative trend in Oceania, the only Continent
on which the number of priests has noticeably fallen is Europe. In 1978,
the more than 250,000 European priests represented almost 60 percent of
their total number, whereas 25 years later their numbers had fallen to
less than half, due to the sharp decline in the number of diocesan
priests which decreased from 174,000 to 140,000 (in this same period the
number of religious priests also decreased by about 15,000, falling to a
total of slightly more than 61,000).
Throughout the world, the number of inhabitants per priest, which was
about 10,000 in 1978, rose to over 15,000 in 2003. The highest numbers
were recorded in Africa and especially in Asia where the Catholic
percentage of the population is lower: almost 28,000 for Africa (the
situation showed little change over the period being examined) and over
82,000 inhabitants for Asia, although this Continent was the only one to
manifest an appreciable improvement in comparison with the 90,000 of
Europe is continuing to record the greatest ratio of priests in
relation to the population, but from slightly more than 2,600
inhabitants in 1978, in 2003 there were 3,500. America and Oceania are
somewhere in between, with about 7,000 inhabitants per priest.
In a related issue, the proportion of Catholics per priest appears
more balanced. It rose to almost 2,700 in 2003 from about 1,800 in 1978.
The lowest increase of this inverse indicator of the presence of
priests occurred in Asia (from about 2,300 to 2,400), while the
situation is less satisfactory in America and especially in Africa,
where the demographic increase in the number of the faithful has not
been matched by an adequate number of priests: their number has
increased from about 3,200 to 4,700.
A deterioration has also occurred in Oceania and in Europe, with the
latter showing the most satisfactory ratio, even if lower than it was in
Deacons and Religious
The following comments refer to other types of religious workers who
support the pastoral activity of Bishops and priests: permanent deacons,
non-ordained professed men religious, and professed women religious. The
numbers in these three pastoral groups are very different.
At the end of 2003, there were more than 31,000 deacons in the world,
almost 55,000 professed men religious and more than 770,000 women
religious. The dynamics of their development have very different
The number of permanent deacons, diocesan and religious, is rapidly
increasing: from about 5,500 in 1978, they were more than 31,000 overall
in 2003, six times as many.
Their increase in Europe has been especially great: in 25 years,
their number rocketed from little over 1,000 to more than 10,000.
In America, the dynamic was also particularly steady: in 1978, this
Continent accounted for more than 4,000 permanent deacons (more than
three quarters of the world total), whereas in 2003 their number had
risen to more than 20,000.
On the other hand, the sparse distribution of deacons in Africa and
Asia should be emphasized. Together, these two Continents account for
barely 1.5 percent of the number of deacons in the world. Furthermore,
the number of non-ordained professed religious has clearly decreased. In
1978 there were about 75,000 of them worldwide, fewer than 65,000 in
1988, and only slightly more than 54,000 in 2003.
It should be noted that this decrease is concentrated on three
Continents: Europe (-44 percent), America (-30 percent) and Oceania,
where the group in 2003 is half of what it was 25 years ago.
On the contrary, in Africa and Asia there has been steady growth,
with a positive trend of about 40 percent on the former Continent and 30
percent on the latter.
The growth in the number of professed religious who are not priests is
somewhat similar to that of professed women religious. The latter is a
more uniform group but the basic dynamics are comparable.
Professed women religious, who numbered just under 1 million in 1978,
were less than 770,000 in 2003. The decline again concerns three
Continents (Europe, America and Oceania) and also has important negative
In Africa and Asia, however, the increase has been decidedly
sustained at around 60 percent for both Continents.
As the final result of these statistics shows, the proportion of
women religious in Africa and in Asia out of the world total increased
from 13 percent to 26 percent, whereas in Europe and America, their
numbers decreased overall from 85 percent to 72 percent.
A global view of the dynamics of the pastoral categories examined so
far shows at the world and continental levels that out of these five
categories, only Bishops and permanent deacons show a consistent
The other three categories are decreasing: diocesan priests less so,
but in a far more accentuated way as regards non-ordained men religious
and professed women religious.
The vitality of Africa and Asia stands out among the continents. They
are the only two Continents on which all the categories of pastoral
workers show very marked signs of growth.
In Europe there is a marked fall it the number of non-ordained
religious, of professed women religious and also of diocesan priests. A
similar trend to that in Europe has been observed in Oceania and
America, which have nonetheless managed to guarantee a slight increase
in the number of priests.
Vocations across the world
The potential for renewal in pastoral activity is connected above all
with priestly vocations, those candidates to the priesthood who come
from among the philosophy and theology students at the diocesan and
Annual statistics show a marked upward trend: throughout the world,
the number of 64,000 candidates for the priesthood in 1978 increased to
more than 112,000 in 2001-2003, a three-year period in which, however,
the development seems to have halted.
Growth varies considerably on the various continents. In 1978, Europe
contributed 37 percent to the world total, America 34 percent, Asia 18
percent, and Africa less than 9 percent.
Twenty-five years later the European contribution had fallen to less
than 22 percent, the American contribution was more or less stable at 33
percent, whereas in Asia it had risen to about 25 percent and in Africa,
to almost 20 percent.
The European dynamic can be divided into three different periods: in
growth (from 24,000 to 30,000) from 1978 to 1985; a subsequent period of
stability until 1994-95; and lastly, a clear decrease, which brought the
figures of 2003 almost to what they had been 25 years earlier.
America experienced a fairly regular growth in the number of
candidates to the priesthood until 1998: it was then consolidated at
around 36,000 to 37,000.
In Africa and Asia their number is constantly rising, even if in
recent years the growth rate has considerably slackened.
With regard to the number of Catholics, the rate of growth in Asia
and Africa is confirmed with, in 2003, about 150 candidates to the
priesthood per million faithful in Africa and 250 in Asia. The European
figures (87) and American (69) are quite a bit lower.
In relation to each 100 active priests, Africa and Asia confirm their
primacy with 72 and 60 candidates respectively, whereas the European
situation is particularly worrying: the number of priestly vocations
there is very low: only 12 candidates per every 100 priests in
2003(although in 1978 they were even less, not even 10). At a global
level, however, thanks to the contributions of Asia and Africa, from
about 15 they have risen to just short of 28.