This post includes the first section of a CARA report that presents a global overview of trends in the Catholic Church (download the full report with regional analyses including trends for the workforce of the Church, sacraments, education, lay ministries, and welfare institutions). Although the world is rapidly evolving in a digital age, it is still the case that Catholicism, more often than not, takes place in brick and mortar. The sacramental focus of Catholicism—especially the regular reception of the Eucharist—means that much of the faith “happens” among Catholics in parishes with priests. One cannot go to confession online or be married at the beach. Arguably, the three most important indicators of “vitality” for the Catholic Church are the number of Catholics, the number of parishes, and the number of priests.
Overall, the global Catholic population has grown by 57 percent since 1980. However, this growth differs by region, with Europe’s Catholic population growing by just 6 percent while the number of Catholics in Africa grew by 238 percent. Differences between these two regions are largely attributable to differences in fertility rates over time.
In 1980, the European total fertility rate (TFR or average births per woman over her lifetime) was 2.16. This is just above the replacement rate of 2.1 where two parents re replacing themselves in the population accounting for infant and maternal mortality. By 2012, the European TFR had dropped well below replacement rates to 1.72. In many countries, such as Germany and Italy, the number of deaths in a given year are greater than the number of births. Many European countries only grow their populations through immigration—often from non-Catholic countries.
By comparison, in Sub-Saharan Africa the TFR in 1980 was 6.76. Here too, as nearly everywhere else in recent decades, fertility rates have declined. The most recent estimate in 2012 for Sub-Saharan Africa was a TFR of 5.15—still well above replacement. Thus, strong growth in the number of Catholics in Africa relative to in Europe is more a phenomenon of differential fertility than immigration or evangelization.
Latin America and the Caribbean have historically also had higher levels of fertility than Europe and North America, leading to strong growth in the number of Catholics in this region. In 1980 the TFR for Latin America and the Caribbean was 4.2. By 2012, this had declined to 2.18—where Europe was in 1980. Population growth in Latin America and the Caribbean will also soon stall as its TFR will likely fall below the replacement rate in the coming decades.
Over the last 50 years the proportion of the global population who are Catholic has remained remarkably steady at about 17.5 percent. Most demographers anticipate a global population exceeding 10 billion by 2100, up from 7.3 billion now. The “engine” of population growth is no longer increasing numbers of children—it is extending life expectancies. The U.S. Census Bureau expects the global senior population (ages 65 and older) to increase from about 617,097,000 now to 1,565,844,000 in 2050. That is growth of 154 percent in just 35 years. The annual number of births worldwide is actually expected to decline during this period by 2 percent, numbering just over 130,000,000 each year. In 2000, the world reached an important milestone: “peak childhood.” From then to now and into the future we can expect there to be about 1.9 billion children (under age 15) around the world at any time.
Some demographers do not expect that the global population will ever reach 10 billion. As Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, has indicated, “The demographic patterns observed throughout Europe, East Asia and numerous other places during the past half century as well as the continuing decline in birth rates in other nations strongly points to one conclusion: The downward global trend in fertility may likely converge to below-replacement levels during this century. The implications of such a change in the assumptions regarding future fertility, affecting as it will consumption of food and energy, would be far reaching for climate change, biodiversity, the environment, water supplies and international migration. Most notably, the world population could peak sooner and begin declining well below the 10 billion currently projected for the close of the 21st century.”
If current trends continue, we can expect the global Catholic population to increase by about 372 million from 2015 to 2050. This would represent 29 percent growth during this period and result in the 2050 Catholic population numbering 1.64 billion.
Since 1980, the Church has had a net gain of more than 15,200 parishes representing 7 percent growth. However, with the population growing by 57 percent during this period there has been a lag in constructing the brick and mortar of the Church. In 1980 there were 3,759 Catholics per parish in the world. This figure now stands at 5,541 Catholics per parish.
Underlying the aggregate numbers, there are significant changes within regions. In Asia and Africa, where the fastest growth in the Catholic population has occurred, the number of parishes had doubled since 1980. In the Americas, the number of parishes has increased by 25 percent and in Oceania they have ticked up by 5 percent. In Europe, the number of parishes has declined by 12 percent with a net loss of 16,669 parishes since 1980.
The Church is currently undergoing a dramatic realignment due largely to these differential growth patterns. The parishes that served the Church for hundreds and hundreds of years are no longer closely aligned with the world’s Catholic population and certainly not its most frequently Mass attending populations. However, there is no giant crane that can pick up a parish from Europe and relocate it to Africa. The process of realignment is slow given the autonomy of the Church’s diocesan and parish structures. Bishops and pastors do not always have the most current information globally on the changes in their population. Nor does closing parishes in one diocese present a “savings” to another diocese so that a new parish can be built. The Church does not function like a multinational corporation.
To maintain the current ratio for Catholics per parish in 2050, the Church will need to increase its total number of global parishes by about 75,000 to approximately 300,000.
One of the limitations on the construction of a new parish is the availability of priests to pastor these new communities. Globally, the Church had only 713 more priests, diocesan and religious combined, in 2012 than it did in 1980. The most serious decline was in Europe, which had a net loss of 56,830 priests during this period, representing a 23 percent decline in this population (Note: a previous version of the study incorrectly tallied the number of priests in Europe in 2012 at 165,229 when this was actually 186,489 as noted correctly below).
Where the Catholic population is growing, so are the numbers of priests. The number of priests more than doubled in Africa (adding 22,787 priest for a 131 percent increase) and Asia (adding 32,906 priests for a 121 percent increase) between 1980 and 2012. A growing phenomenon within the Church is the use of African and Asian priests in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere where there are too few native priests to staff parishes. Globally, the ratio of Catholics per priest worsened, as the number of Catholics per priest increased from 1,895 in 1980 to 2,965 in 2012.
Given the prevailing trends for population, parishes, and priests, the Church is likely to continue to realign in the coming decades. In 2012, Europe was home to less than one in four Catholics (23 percent). Yet this region still has 55 percent of all Catholic parishes and 45 percent of all Catholic priests. It is likely that Europe faces a future of fewer priests and more parish closures while growth in priests and parishes is likely to continue in Asia and Africa.
Other Major Findings
Some of the additional major findings from the report include:
- The Catholic population of Europe in 2050 is expected to be about 5 percent smaller than it is today, due to sub-replacement rate fertility and immigration adding few Catholics to the overall population. Even with fewer Catholics and relatively low levels of weekly Mass attendance, the Church in Europe will struggle in the future to provide access to Masses and sacraments in its many parishes given its rapidly declining population of priests. This will likely negatively impact levels of sacramental practice that have already been ebbing in recent years.
- Diocesan bishops, priests, and deacons are increasing in number in the Americas as the number of religious priests, brothers, and sisters decline. The Catholic population of this region is expected to grow from 598.8 million now to 690.1 million in 2040. This region is in need of many new parishes, with the ratio of Catholics per parish currently exceeding 10,000. Sacramental practice in the Americas has been waning and some of this may be related to issues of access to nearby parishes with available priests.
- In Africa, high fertility rates and expanding life expectancies will dramatically increase the number of Catholics from 198.6 million now to 460.4 million in 2040. Although the number of priests, religious sisters, and parishes are expanding quickly here, these will undoubtedly lag behind population growth. More parishes are needed as weekly Mass attendance levels among African Catholics averages 70 percent. The numbers of baptisms and first communions in Africa are rising annually but numbers of confirmations and marriages have recently leveled off.
- In Asia, the Catholic population is expected to grow from 134.6 million now to 192.6 million in 2040. Here, a slight majority of Catholics, on average, report attending Mass every week and there is no evidence of decline in Mass attendance rates in recent years. There is strong growth in Asia in the numbers of religious priests, brothers, and sisters, as well as diocesan priests. New parishes are also increasing in number. Unlike most other regions, the Church in Asia has experienced growing numbers of marriages in the Church. In 1980 there were about 381,700 marriages celebrated in Asian parishes. In 2012, 626,380 marriages were celebrated here.
- Trends in the Church in Oceania tend to fall between those of Europe and the Americas. Relative stability is expected here in the coming decades.
CARA transcribed Vatican data from the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae for 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, and the most recent year available, 2012. Additionally, CARA referenced statistics in the Vatican’s Annuario Pontifico when necessary. Where possible, CARA also provides projections for data into the future using statistical forecasting and the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base. CARA also references data from publicly available surveys including: The World Values Survey, The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, The International Social Survey Programme, the regional “barometer series” (e.g., Eurobarometer, Latinobarómetro), as well as recent research from the Pew Research Center on Global Christianity. In addition to managing surveys in the Americas for the first wave of the World Values Survey in the 1980s, CARA has previously explored global trends in the Catholic Church with Global Catholicism: Portrait of a World Church (2002). Global data are also always available on our Frequently Requested Church Statistics page.