Challenging the myth of Catholic ‘decline’

There can be few clichés that have marked commentary on Pope Benedict’s resignation and the coming conclave quite so much as observations that the Catholic Church is in decline, and that Benedict XVI’s successor will preside over a continually shrinking membership. This assumption is the justification for questions about celibacy, homosexuality, contraception, and the perennial challenge to the Church to ‘modernise’ or die. It is remarkable how many of the interviews Catholic Voices has done over these past two weeks start from this assumption.

Pointing out the short-sighted and locally-focussed assumptions of those who assert Catholic decline as a given, David Brooks, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 2003, wrote that “a great Niagara of religious fervor is cascading down around them, while they stand obtuse and dry in the little cave of their own parochialism.”

‘Parochialism’ is exactly the right word. The Church in Western Europe and the eastern seaboard of the United States is not representative. Viewed globally the Church experienced  a spectacular growth over the twentieth century which shows little sign of slowing.

Strong, sometimes spectacular, growth

In 1900 there were roughly 266 million Catholics in the world. This rose to 1,045 million by 2000. By 2010 there were 1,197 million, according to the 2012 edition of the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, the ‘Statistical Yearbook of the Church’. Over the last forty years, Catholics have consistently made up between 17 and 18pc of the world’s population; having been steadily about 17.3pc in recent years, they now are probably about 17.5pc. Current growth in the world’s Catholic population is slightly outpacing general population growthmap_world_religions1

Peter Seewald was right to say to Pope Benedict, when interviewing him for 2010’s Light of the World, that: “Never before has the Catholic Church had more believers, never before such extension, literally to the ends of the earth.”

Critics of the Church habitually dismiss evidence for global growth by saying such growth is “only in the south”. Aside from the racist undertones to such comments, which seem to imply that it’s only ‘the West’ that matters, they ignore the crucial fact that global growth in general over the twentieth century was highest in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. To say that the Church is only growing in ‘the South’ is to say only that the Church is growing where the population is growing.

Latin America

Latin America could fairly be described as the heartland of modern Catholicism, with more than 40 per cent of the world’s Catholic population coming from that continent — and that figure is even higher if we include the Latino populations of the US and Canada.

Even though the proportion of professing Catholics to the general population has dropped in recent decades, absolute growth has continued across the continent. Over the course of the twentieth century, the population of Latin America and the Caribbean rose from about 60 million to 561 million, while the number of Catholics there rose from 53 million to about 449 million.

Pentecostalism has made strong inroads, partly a consequence of the low numbers of priests to population (one priest per 8,000 Catholics). But seminary enrolment is on the rise, according to John Allen’s Future Church, increasing 440 per cent between 1984 and 2009. (The number of seminarians in Bolivia, for example, rose from 49 to 714 between 1972 and 2001, while the number in Honduras rose from 40 to 170 between 1989 and 2007.)



Catholicism has grown more dramatically in Africa than anywhere else in the world over the last century. In 1900, there were fewer than two million Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa, whereas by 2000, there were more than 130 million; this, as John Allen points out in The Future Church, represents a staggering growth rate of more than 6,000 per cent. Current estimates reckon that there are about 160 million Catholics in Africa, though even these estimates may be too low; the Church in Africa lacks the institutional framework to track growth accurately, and if the Gallup World Poll can be trusted, there may already be almost 200 million Africans claiming to be Catholic. Either way, growth in Africa’s Catholic population is far higher than among the general population.

This spectacular growth is a truly indigenous phenomenon. The number of Western missionaries active in Africa has been declining since the mid-1960s, while the African Church has produced vast numbers of priests. Interviewed by John Allen in 2005, the then Archbishop on Nairobi said that among his biggest problems was an excess of vocations, such that “seminaries built for one hundred now have almost two hundred.” In Nigeria, where there are about 20 million Catholics, one seminary alone has more than a thousand students. This may be the biggest seminary in the world, but even then the Nigerian Church is overstretched, as, in Allen’s words, “Africans are being baptized even more rapidly than they’re being ordained.”

As one would expect in this situation, local control has increasingly become the norm. Under a quarter of Tanzania’s bishops were native Africans in 1965, for instance, whereas by 1996 local men headed every diocese; there are currently 18 African cardinals, 11 of whom will be participating in the coming conclave.


If Africa ended 2010 with 765 more clergy than in 2009, Asia did even better; the latest edition of Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae records that Asia was the continent which saw the most growth in priest and deacon numbers during that period, resulting in 1,695 more clergy in Asia in 2010 than in 2009. In Asia overall, the proportion of Catholics more than doubled over the course of the twentieth century (just 1.2 per cent of Asians were Catholic in 1900, but three per cent of Asians were in 2000). This growth has taken place not only in traditional Catholic countries such as the Philippines — the third largest Catholic country in the world, where there were more Catholic baptisms in 2000 than in France, Spain, Italy, and Poland combined — but in mission countries such as South Korea, where the number of Catholics doubled to more than five million people between 1985 and 2005; as well as India, whose Catholic population rose from two million to more than 17 million over the course of the twentieth century._66109449_popereuters

The Chinese government says there are about six million Catholics in China, out of 25m  Christians of all denominations — a massive growth from the million or so Christians there in 1970. There is far more to the story than this, as most Chinese Christians – Catholic or otherwise – are not registered as such with the state, and worship clandestinely.  The World Christian Database estimates that there are more than 120m Christians in China; Philip Jenkins, author of 1999’s The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, thinks it more likely that there are about 65m. Either way, it seems unlikely that there are fewer than 15m Catholics in China, and there may be – and will be – far more.

Clergy numbers

ga1211guadalupe diamant RaineyIt’s clear that the popular narrative of Catholic decline isn’t supported by the facts: the global story of modern Catholicism is one of growth. Insofar as there’s any truth to it at all, that truth is increasingly out of date.

It is undeniable, for instance, that the number of priests worldwide declined dramatically in the 1970s: there were almost 420,000 priests in 1970, which had dropped to 403,000 by 1985. Since 1985, however, the number of priests has grown, slowly reaching 406,000 in 2005, and then leaping to more than 412,000 in 2010. If there’s a real vocations story in the Church, it’s not a story of decline, but of recovery.

Worldwide, the annual number of new diocesan priestly ordinations increased spectacularly under Pope John Paul II: 1975 saw just 4,150 men being ordained to the diocesan priesthood, but ordinations have been consistently in the region of 6,500 a year since the mid-nineties, with the number of graduate-level seminarians having steadily risen between 1985 to 2005 from more than 43,000 to about 58,500.

Western Europe & the US: crisis & recovery

It has been a very different story in Western Europe and North America, home to most of the media — which is why the western experience has shaped the standard media narrative of Catholic decline.

Between 1975 and 2000, the annual number of priestly ordinations in the United States dropped from 771 to 442, while the number of graduate-level seminarians dropped from 8,325 in 1965 to 3,172 in 1995. This sharp drop, especially in the 1970s-80s, corresponds to the period of most clerical sex abuse of minors, sexual laxity in seminaries, and the departure of very large numbers of  priests to marry. Most church historians and commentators would regard this period as a time of crisis, both institutionally and of faith. (The claims about Cardinal O’Brien’s behaviour, for example, date from this period.)

Since then, however, things have stabilised and begun to turn. In the U.S. while there were 442 ordinations in 2000, there were 454 in 2005 and 480 in 2010; over the same period, the number of graduate-level seminarians rose to 3,723. Pope Benedict’s papacy saw a surge of applications to American seminaries, such that the dioceses aren’t afraid to turn unsuitable applicants away.

A similar story can be seen in the UK. A general decline in ordinations to the diocesan priesthood set in during the 1980s, although it was offset and even disguised to some degree by an influx of formerly Anglican clergy in the 1990s. Numbers collapsed from 84 in 1999 to 33 in 2000, continuing to drop until 2008, when only 15 men were ordained to the diocesan priesthood.


Since 2008, however, numbers have steadily risen: about 30 diocesan priests were ordained last year, and almost 40 are expected to be ordained this year. The UK — especially dioceses such as Westminster and Southwark — boast priest:people ratios that would be the envy of the vibrant Catholic communities of Africa and South America.

Likewise, seminary entry figures show that a mere 22 men entered seminary in 2001, but 40 or so did so during each year of Benedict’s papacy, 49 doing so in 2011. This growth has continued, with the number of seminarians in the archdiocese of Southwark alone rising from 11 in 2011 to 26 in 2012. Seminarians are not only increasing in number, but are getting younger, reversing a trend in previous decades.

These figures understate the reality in other ways too. They do not include, for example, the 84 priests and seminarians who are members of the newly-formed Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham; nor do they include members of religious orders, amongst which there are also clear signs of growth: only 13 men entered formation in religious congregations in 2004, but twice as many did so in 2009.

Although ordinations in England and Wales are on the rise as a result of the so-called ‘Benedict Bounce’ that followed the 2010 papal visit, it cannot honestly be said that the Church here is in rude health. Neither, however, should we exaggerate the Church’s problems. Baptisms of children under the age of seven may have dropped by 0.1pc from 2009 to 2010, but over the same period the number of adults entering into full communion in the Church rose by 10.7pc.

Even with Mass attendance having declined over the past two decades, it seems that somewhere in the region of a million Catholics attend Mass in Britain every week, more than any other religious congregation. Given that Catholicism in the UK has evolved from a faith shaped by convention — not least through association with the Irish diaspora — to a faith of conviction, this is a significant figure. People are at Mass out of choice.

Indeed, it looks as though the decline bottomed out in 2005, and may have started to reverse – 915,556 attended Mass on a weekly basis in 2007, with 918,844 doing so in 2008. To put this into context, roughly 700,000 people attend a Premier League, Championship, or League football match every week.

As Benita Hewitt put it in the Guardian:

“It’s time to believe that the church in this country is no longer in decline. The latest statistics coming from various denominations are clearly showing stability in church attendance and even signs of growth. This news may come as a surprise to many people who believe that the church is a dying institution.”

Why the conclave will not be troubled by numbers

Of course what matters are not numbers but the strength and authenticity of faith — the quality, not the quantity. Where numbers are low or declining, there may be evidence of a Church that is smaller, but purer, emerging. And where numbers are high, and the institution strong, trouble may be brewing, for success can disguise a lack of fidelity.

But one thing is  clear. The Catholic Church is not in crisis, and it is not declining. There may be many reasons why the cardinals gathering in Rome may want to see reform and renewal; but it will not be because they are troubled by numbers.

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