Overall, the number of Catholic religious sisters is in decline but rising in Africa and Asia. In 1975, there were 968,526 religious sisters globally. In 2019, there were 630,099 representing a decrease of 35%. Compared to 1975, North America has 70% fewer sisters, Europe 60% fewer, and Oceania 60% fewer. At the same time, the number of sisters in Africa and Asia have more than doubled increasing collectively by 139%.
The only other two areas where the number of sisters is increasing during the 1975 to 2019 period are in Central America (the Catholic Church includes the Caribbean and the countries from Mexico to Panama in this region). Yet the growth is slower here at 14%.
While one might assume the increasing numbers of women religious in Africa and Asia are signs of growing religious commitment among Catholics in these regions there is another factor to consider—population growth. As populations grow, increasing numbers of religious sisters doesn’t necessarily mean that the vocation rate is increasing. In fact, in most countries in these regions this has declined.
For example, in Tanzania in 1975 there were 3,033 Catholic religious sisters. In 2019 there were 12,242 representing an increase of 304%. Yet, the number of Catholics grew in this country during the 1975 to 2019 period by 476%. In 1975 there were 10.3 religious sisters per 10,000 Catholics and in 2019 there were 7.2.
One country in Asia has significantly boosted its vocation rate—Myanmar (this is also a country with a high vocation rate for clergy as well). In 1975, there were 570 religious sisters here among 320,000 Catholics (17.8 sisters per 10,000 Catholics). In 2019 there were 2,017 religious sisters among 687,000 Catholics (29.4 sisters per 10,000 Catholics). The Catholic population and the vocation rate for religious sisters is growing here.
One of the most interesting countries is India where there are more religious sisters than in any other country (16% of all the religious sisters in the world). The number of sisters in 1975 in India was 41,868 and this had grown to 99,282 in 2019. The number of sisters grew during this period by 137% as the number of Catholics increased by 145%. Thus, in 1975 there were 45.6 sisters per 10,000 Catholics in India and 44.2 in 2019. This represents a relatively stable vocation rate in a country with a lot of population growth.
Of all the countries the largest numbers of religious sister relative to Catholics has been in Japan. In 1975 there were 6,965 religious sisters and 370,000 Catholics resulting in 188.2 sisters per 10,000 Catholics. The number of sisters in Japan had declined to 4,743 in 2019 and the Catholic population had grown to 535,000. Thus, here the number of religious sisters per 10,000 Catholics in 2019 was 88.7—still among the highest ratios of sisters to Catholics in any country. Another way to think about this is that in 1975 there were 53 Catholics per sister and in 2019 there were 113.