How has the Catholic Church changed in the 10 years Pope Francis has led the Catholic Church? It is difficult to say.
The first issue is that we always have lags in data. The Official Catholic Directory (OCD), which provides statistics for the United States is published each year in the Fall and represents the Church on January 1st of that same year. But the sacraments data in that volume represent the year prior. The current edition for 2022 gives a view of sacraments celebrated in 2021. The Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (ASE) provides global data from the Vatican and this has an even longer lag. The current edition is for 2020. So we can compare the data measuring 2013 to the current volumes for the U.S. and the world but then we run into the second and I might say bigger problem...
Remember this time three years ago in 2020? Yeah. The world changed and has not yet returned to the “normal” of 2019. Any impact, positive or negative, Pope Francis may have had will be overshadowed by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic when our most current data represents 2020 and 2021. We know looking at Church data for these years we are going to see lower levels of Mass attendance and sacramental practice with the impact of lockdowns, restrictions, and hesitancy for people to gather in crowds in enclosed spaces during those two years.
Globally, if we compare 2013 to 2020, the Catholic population grew by 8.4% from 1.254 billion to 1.360 billion. The number of diocesan priests is virtually unchanged (11 fewer in the world). The number of permanent deacons has increased by 13% to 48,259 in 2020. On the negative side the number of religious sisters and brothers continue a long decline (-11% and -9%, respectively). There were 74,029 fewer sisters and 4,684 fewer brothers in 2020 than in 2013. The number of parishes increased by 1,480 to a world total of 224,376 (for context there are 280,521 diocesan priests).
Now for the really bad news with that COVID-19 asterisk and another longer term surprise. The number of annual baptisms declined by 2,021,627 (-13%) in 2020 compared to 2013. The number of marriages declined by 702,246 (-27%). Confirmations and first communions also dropped (-12% and -13%, respectively). Yet, there is something more than a pandemic affecting these numbers. They’ve been in decline for some time even as the Catholic population grows. How does that math work?
In the last 60 years, we have seen a dramatic demographic transformation of the world’s population. According the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (WDI), life expectancies at birth have been increasing globally from 51 years in 1960 to 72 years in 2020. At the same time, the birth rate (per 1,000 people) has fallen from 32 in 1960 to 17 in 2020 (we've covered this before). Our population “pyramid” is losing its base and evolving into more of a “pole.” According to the United Nations Population Division, in 2013, there were an estimated 143 million births around the world. There were 138 million in 2019 and 135 million in 2020. The number of births is expected to decline annually into the foreseeable future eventually being outnumbered by deaths in 2085 according to U.N. projections. The population will grow in the decades ahead as life expectancies continue to increase but at the same time births will decline and that will result in fewer baptisms, fewer first communions, fewer students, and yes even fewer marriages annually just by the numbers of the demographic shift we are experiencing.
As far as we can tell, Mass attendance has remained fairly stable absent the interruptions of the pandemic and lockdowns. We can compare the sixth and seventh wave of the World Values Survey (WVS). The sixth wave was conducted from 2010 to 2014 and the seventh from 2017 to 2022. There are thirteen countries surveyed in both waves allowing for comparison. These countries were home to 516 million Catholics in 2020 representing 41% of the global Catholic population. Looking at the responses to the survey by the Catholics surveyed in the WVS and applying this to those countries Catholic populations we can estimate that Mass attendance was unchanged from the 2010-2014 surveys and the 2017-2022 surveys (at 45% for weekly attendance in the aggregated sampled countries, ranging from 14% in Germany to 94% in Nigeria). Yet the number of Catholics in these countries increased during the time between the sixth and seventh waves resulting in a 7% increase in weekly attenders. For more on global Mass attendance see our previous post.
Now turning to the United States, it is important to put in context that only 5% of the world’s Catholics live in this country. If one were to evaluate changes in the Catholic Church, a more global lens would always be recommended. With that said, things are not going as well in the United States as they have globally.
According to the General Social Survey (GSS), weekly Mass attendance among Catholics in the U.S. declined from 25% in 2012 to 17% in 2020-21. We have seen similar trends in our own tracking but are also seeing a rebound to 2019 levels in more recent polls and measurements. Daily prayer declined from 59% to 51% from 2012 to 2020-21. Unlike Mass attendance, one can pray at home and this should not have been affected by the pandemic. If anything, one might think Catholics would be praying more often during that time.
Looking at statistics from the OCD, there is a consistent pattern of declines across nearly every available measure in the United States when comparing the 2013 and 2022 volumes. The number of diocesan priests is down 8%. There are 27% fewer sisters (-13,581), 19% fewer brothers (-802), and 15% fewer religious priests (-1,775). The one positive measure is an increase in permanent deacons from 17,473 to 18,043 (up 3%).
With fewer clergy there are also fewer parishes. These have declined from 17,472 to 16,429, a 6% drop. Although the number of missions grew by 3% adding 60 sites. There are declines in Catholic schools and the numbers enrolled in them with the exception of one outlier. The number of private Catholic elementary schools increased by 8% and the number of students enrolled in them by 14%.
The analysis of U.S. sacramental data mirrors the global trend. As the Catholic population remains essentially stable, 66.6 million in 2013 compared to 66.5 million in 2022, the number of baptisms (-299,975), first communions (-220,540), confirmations (-67,683), and marriages (-55,239) fell during the same period. It is important to note again that the 2022 OCD is reporting sacramental data from earlier during the pandemic. Even with the aforementioned demographic shifts occurring we would expect the numbers for that year to be dismal. Although it should be noted that the 2022 OCD figures are improvements of the what was reported in the 2021 OCD.
In sum, no one should be giving Pope Francis a 10-year report card based on the most current data available and when more comparable post-COVID-19 data are available, any “grades” given for changes in the number of sacraments celebrated should be considered within the context of what is happening demographically across the globe.
 These countries include: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Germany, New Zealand, Nigeria, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Slovenia, Spain