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.


An Ocean Apart: Brick, Mortar, and Clergy Needed in Latin America

The 2013 Conclave brought into focus the current regional disproportionality between the College of Cardinals and the Catholic population. With the election of Pope Francis a spotlight is now on Argentina and the rest of Latin America. Here many may find that the Church in Latin America also experiences disproportionality in many other ways. It would need a lot more than a few cardinals to "be like Europe."

The 20th Century brought dramatic changes to the distribution of the Catholic population globally. These were primarily driven by falling fertility rates in Europe and high fertility in the Global South along with increasing life expectancies. A common misconception is that the Church in Europe has experienced a decline in aggregate members. This is not the case. In fact there are more Catholics in Europe today than at any time in the past. It's just that the rest of the Catholic world has grown much more rapidly.

The Church has not kept up with this population growth in simple brick and mortar terms. While Latin America is home to 42% of the global Catholic population (...and 42% of its baptisms in 2010) it has only 16% of the world's parishes and 17% of the world's Catholic priests (diocesan and religious; active and retired). While many in America measure how Catholic someone is by how frequently they attend Mass this cannot be done in many areas of Latin America. For some, there simply is no neighborhood parish and priest. A weekly obligation to attend Mass only exists where this is possible (...keep that in mind when you hear Argentina's weekly Mass attendance rate is only 21%).

Will the Church build more parishes in the Global South under the leadership of Pope Francis? First, the Pope is not the person who makes these decisions. He doesn't open and close parishes like the CEO of Walmart opens and closes stores. The Church is much more decentralized and this is done within the diocesan framework. A bishop makes these decisions and these are built with local resources (CARA has looked at the challenges of this process in the U.S. here). The Vatican does not just send over a check for this and has a much smaller budget than many assume. 

Second, even if they have the resources available bishops are often reluctant to create new parishes if they do not have enough priests to staff them. In the figure below the priest per parish ratio is shown by region. This ranges from 2.61 priests per parish in Africa to 1.55 priests per parish in Europe. A "natural balance" here ranges from 1.5 to 2.5. There are much greater differences regionally in the ratios of Catholics per parish and per priest. In Europe, there are 2,319 Catholics per parish and 1,498 Catholics per priest. North America has ratios that are the most similar to Europe's. In both regions the concept of the local neighborhood parish where one could receive the Eucharist weekly and other sacraments virtually "on demand" is the norm. This type of Catholic parish life is not possible for many in other parts of the world (...especially in rural areas).

What would the Catholic Church need to "catch up" with the population growth of Catholics outside of Europe? What would it take to make the neighborhood parish model possible everywhere? A lot! The figure below shows the number of parishes and priests that would need to be added in each region to be "like Europe" (i.e., match Europe's Catholics per parish and priest numbers). Latin America could use an additional 180,600 parishes and more than 262,500 priests.

One could argue that adding the numbers in the figure above would be a bit much as Mass attendance rates are too low to warrant this investment. Yet Mass attendance rates were similarly low when many of Europe's parishes were built (See: Rodney Stark, "Secularization R.I.P." Sociology of Religion, 1999, 60:3 p.249-273). And if the Church really is embarking on an era of New Evangelization that not only calls Catholics to a more vibrant parish life but also others who are looking for spiritual fulfillment won't it need room to continue to grow?  Not adding more brick and mortar would seem fatalistic. New Evangelization and the existence of vibrant Catholic parish life around the globe will require much more than just getting on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Something tells me that the modest life Pope Francis led as Archbishop of Buenos Aires has made him keenly aware of these realities. He was known for opening parishes in this old role.

Photo above courtesy of Mrs. Gemstone from Flickr Commons.

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