Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Nine Million New Catholic Reverts in 2013?

Since 2000, the Catholic Church around the world has added about 15 million new Catholics each year. In 2013 it added 25 million, according to recently released Vatican statistics. This is interesting as it coincides with the year Pope Francis began leading the Church.

CARA recently released a report on global trends in the Church since 1980. After that report was released we got our 2013 copy (i.e., most recent) of the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (ASE). This book represents the Vatican’s awareness of the state of the Church on December 31, 2013. The table below updates key data from our recent global report. In the same year as the big jump in Catholics, the Church increased its number of parishes, priests (diocesan and religious), permanent deacons, secondary students in Catholic schools, and adults entering the faith.

At the same time, losses continued among religious brothers and sisters and numbers for many sacraments dropped below levels of the prior year. Some of these changes are related to changing patterns of fertility. Fewer children born to Catholic parents means fewer infant baptisms. Others require more explanation. Why the decline in enrollments in Catholic higher education? How to explain another year with fewer marriages in the Church?

There are some questions CARA does not have easy answers for. But the jump in the Catholic population can be well understood. It speaks to the very reason a place like CARA exists…

Because the totals are for the world population a jump in Catholics beyond new entries to the faith can only occur with former Catholics coming back. Immigration isn’t a factor on a global scale. In most years since 2000, the number of baptisms (adults and children combined) have been greater than the net growth of the Catholic population. Some people leave the faith every year. Others leave earthly existence (i.e., die).

CARA has always known that there are reverts in the population and in the pews. Former Catholics regularly become Catholic again at some point in their life and make up about one in ten Catholics in the United States according to CARA’s national surveys of self-identified Catholics and surveys of Catholics in in the pews at U.S. parishes. But did 9.2 million former Catholics rejoin the faith globally in the 12 months of 2013? Perhaps. After all this would really only represent 0.7% of the global Catholic population of 1.25 billion.

The ASE comes with the following caution, “the data have been obtained by an indirect survey, by sending a questionnaire to the chancery offices of ecclesiastical jurisdictions throughout the world, to be filled out with the results of surveys or calculations made by those offices. It must be remembered that a worldwide survey of this kind is bound to be influenced to some extent by the often considerable differences in the circumstances of the ecclesiastical jurisdictions in various countries. … [Data] must be considered as overall figures that are a little short of the reality and are therefore merely indicators of the phenomenon dealt with.”

Is the 9.2 million figure related to a typo? Not in a classical sense of a “fat finger” hitting the wrong keys and then being missed by editors. There truly are “considerable” differences in how dioceses and national conferences estimate the number of Catholics residing in their borders. It’s much easier to know the number of priests or number of baptisms in a given year. But how does the Church know how many Catholics reside where?

With polling widespread and many national censuses asking a religious affiliation question, good social science data is often available...but not always used. In some cases dioceses and national conferences appear to rely on rules of thumb. After closely examining the data for each country it is evident that one of these is Mexico—the second largest Catholic country in the world.

Starting with the 2006 ASE, respondents for the Church in Mexico began to assume that the total population of the country was growing by about 0.8% a year and that Catholics made up 92% of that population. These same assumptions were used year after year through the 2012 ASE. At that time, the ASE was reporting a total population in Mexico of 110,292,000 and a Catholic population of 101,350,000. Perhaps someone then pointed out to the respondent for Mexico that the total population for Mexico in 2012 had actually grown to more than 118 million people (annual population growth averaged 1.4% since 2006 rather than the assumed 0.8%).

The total size of Mexico’s population was corrected for the 2013 ASE but the assumption that 92% of this population is Catholic remained in place. Thus, in a single year the Catholic population of Mexico increased by nearly 7.5 million although only about 1.8 million new entries to the faith occurred in the country during that same year. This single “adjustment” results in much of the one year leap in the newly Catholic population that cannot be accounted for by new entries into the faith around the world. Other survey and census estimates indicate that the Catholic percentage of Mexico’s population is closer to about 85% rather than 92%.

The most populous Catholic country, Brazil, may also have contributed to the jump in the new Catholic population. Here, only 1.5 million new entries to the Church were registered in 2013 but the estimate for growth in the Catholic population in that country is nearly 3.8 million. It is possible that World Youth Day could have drawn some former Catholics back in Brazil. There were more than 3 million people on the beach for the final Mass. However, it may also be related to another rule of thumb. Church respondents in Brazil consistently assume that about 84% of the population is Catholic. However, this figure is likely 75% or even lower.

Overall, the higher than expected population totals for Mexico and Brazil are counter-weighted somewhat globally by the Church not reporting estimates for the size of the Catholic population in China. In 2010, Pew estimated this to be about 9 million. Many European and North American countries also underestimate the sizes of their Catholic population and more commonly report parish-affiliated totals, thus leaving out numerous self-identified Catholics who do not regularly attend Mass. On balance, the global total for Catholics reported in the ASE is likely quite accurate. However, the anomalies at the local and regional levels leave the Church with a slightly distorted view of where the world’s Catholics are. In 2013, the number of new Catholics added globally likely falls short of 25 million and is probably closer to the 15 million added in previous years (...including some unknown number of reverts).

So it is unlikely that many millions of reverts returned to the Church in 2013 but the increase in adult baptisms (a much more reliably measured figure) is still notable. The 2013 total, nearly 2.8 million, is the second highest since 2000 and is an exceptional year for the Church among non-Catholic adults deciding to join the faith (soon to be released data for the U.S. will also confirm this trend more locally). Perhaps Pope Francis attracted more non-Catholics to the Church than former Catholics in the first year of his papacy? Although many would have started their RCIA program well before his election so perhaps not...

Most of what is reported in the ASE is easily tallied. Dioceses and national conferences can know the exact numbers of childhood sacraments, ordinations, and annulment cases introduced. The one fuzzy number is always Catholic population. It is clear that many in the Church have turned to more reliable social scientific methods for estimating this. Hopefully, rules of thumb will be used even less often when reporting the 2014 population data.

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