August 4, 2020

So, How’s the Catholic Church Really Doing?

priest sunshine

The Vatican released information Monday from the 2013 Statistical Yearbook of the Church that challenges the perception many have (particularly in Europe and the U.S.) that the Roman Catholic Church is in a period of decline.

In March, Catholic Voices Comment proclaimed: “Viewed globally the Church experienced  a spectacular growth over the twentieth century which shows little sign of slowing.” In fact, the numbers they cite show that Catholics now make up about 17.5% of the world’s population, and that the church is steadily growing at a pace that is slightly ahead of general population growth. Monday’s statistics further confirm CVC’s points, among which are the following:

  • Latin America is now the “heartland” of Catholicism, with more than 40% of the world’s Catholics dwelling in South and Central America. And though it is true that Pentecostalism has made gains, there has been a remarkable increase in seminary enrollment by those wanting to become priests (over 400% in the past 25 years).
  • The most dramatic growth has occurred in Africa. There may be close to 200 million Roman Catholics on the continent, and this has been primarily an indigenous phenomenon, since the number of western missionaries has been declining since the 1960’s. Nigeria alone has 20 million Catholics, along with the world’s largest seminary. Africa ended 2010 with 765 more clergy than there were in 2009.
  • However, Asia did even better, producing almost 1700 more clergy (priests/deacons) that same year.

In summary: “It’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 Insofar as there’s any truth to it at all, that truth is increasingly out of date.”

The 1970’s-early 2000’s were certainly a low period, especially in Western Europe and the United States — and perhaps the dominant narrative of decline is due to the fact that these locations are where the media has the most influence. Since then, however, the situation has gradually stabilized, and in the past five years there has been a marked turnaround. Statistics from the U.S. and U.K. in particular suggest that the decline actually bottomed out in 2005.

A piece in the Guardian (England) observed that the Catholic Church and other denominations there are not, in fact, in desperate straits, as many imagine them to be:

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.

Another account of the Vatican statistics from Religious News Service summarizes the good news:

According to Vatican data, the Catholic population worldwide surpassed 1.2 billion in 2011.

But while growth in the Americas and Europe mirrored the growth of the general population, Catholic growth in Africa and Asia was almost double the regions’ population growth.

The world’s 413,418 priests at the end of 2011 showed a slight increase from the previous year, continuing a trend of slow growth that began in 2000 after decades of decline.

A rapid increase in vocations in Africa and Asia — to the tune of more than 3,000 new priests in a year — balanced the shrinking ranks of the priesthood in Europe. In the Americas, the number of priests remained stable.

Of course, the Church faces many serious challenges, but perhaps we are actually witnessing a season of renewal in global Catholicism.


  1. Here’s to hoping that a lot of those folks will hear the gospel, and be freed from the self-ascendancy religious project and be able to rest in the finished work of Christ. To some extent, anyway.

  2. They hear the Gospel every week. I can attest to two people in my life close to me that I’ve seen them grow deeper in their walk with Christ than they were before becoming Catholic. I’m Anglican myself, but this sort of claptrap insinuating that Catholics are somehow Christians in spite of their church rather than in part because of it needs to go.

    • What would you say the Gospel is? Usually Catholics and Protestants disagree…

      • Usually. However, I’m finding that Catholics and Lutherans tend to proclaim a very similar Kerygma, even if they differ on the Solas. Mainstream evangelicalism, historically the bastion of what HUG calls “No Popery! ™” has gotten so Arminian in its revivalism that it has negated many of the substantive differences (esp. monergism) from Catholicism, leaving only cultural and traditional differences.

    • Amen, Bryan

    • Josh in FW says


  3. Bryan,

    Not EVERYONE in every church, hears the gospel. Not in your church…nor in mine.

    And the gospel is not all that pronounced in EVERY church, either.

    I was raised a Catholic. Almost all of my extended family are Catholics. There are maybe a few of them who even know what the gospel is. But they ALL know that they “need to be good people” (which isn’t the gospel, at all)

  4. The local Catholic parishes in my area are the envy of many Evangelical churches as well as being the object of more than a little Orthodox jealousy. Masses are packed, Eucharistic Adoration is well attended where it is offered, there are numerous social outreach programs, and lots and lots of young people.

    The Catholic Bible study is better attended at my daughter’s high school than the one held by YFC.

  5. 1.2 billion Catholic population / 413,418 priests = 2900 people/priest

    That seems to be a very high ratio.

    • A Pentecostal friend of mine who consults for churches says that one staff can only effectively minister to about 60 people. You’d think with these kind of numbers the job security would be so high as to attract more potential church workers to Rome. Heck, with that many potential donors, you’d think they could afford to let all their priests marry. That alone could potentially result in a dramatic increase in seminary enrollment. I don’t want to sound like the liberal secular media who can’t say “Catholic” without “women priests” or “sex abuse scandal” in the same breath, but I genuinely can’t help but wonder if clerical celibacy may run its course in the remote future. I mean, it’s not like they’d be betraying their entire history on that one. The practice was introduced as a formal requirement rather late in the game.

      • Radagast says


        I hear the celebacy thing often… but all you need to do is look at the Lutherans and Episcopleans, who let their clerics marry, or allow women clerics, and yet no one is beating down their doors. From a business perspective, once you introduce married priests then the business model changes, the priest’s focus changes, and the next thing you know you have priests leaving for other careers because they can’t support their families on the meager salary the congregation is offering… it then becomes like a job instead of a vocation, maybe not by choice, but because now the cleric has to be concerned about supporting others in addition to his office duties….

        My thoughts…

        • Radagast, the ratio in Lutheran and Anglican circles ain’t nearly so bad as 1 clergy per 2900 faithful. Not even close. Our doors may not be getting beat down, but our clergy shortage ain’t nearly so severe either. I’m just saying, if married priests works for the Orthodox, it could work for the Roman Catholics. Heck, there’s Anglican priests who would gladly convert if they could bring their wife and kids.

  6. Radagast says

    Yes… in areas like Pittsburgh there are still many cultural catholics, catholics in name only, cafeteria catholics…

    But there is a growing number of Catholics who are reading and studying scripture and for those who are, the Mass, with its many scriptural references plus old testament/psalms/new testament/Gosel readings is coming alive for them in ways they could not perceive before.

    Still, in areas such as mine with lots of cultural Catholics, the number of priests continue to decline, the grass looks greener at the local Pentacostal/Baptist church (where they exprience their spiritual awakening), or they move onto the more liberal churches because there they can believe and support what they want without hearing the occasional rant from the priest (rant is too strong a word). And then there are those who stay and hide or are invisible and others who just satisfy a monthly or yearly visit and perscribe to the “but I’m a good person” theology.

    But all in all I think more are gettin’ it….

    • “And then there are those who stay and hide or are invisible and others who just satisfy a monthly or yearly visit and perscribe to the ‘but I’m a good person’ theology.

      Thank God for those people. You wouldn’t like the alternative.

    • I couldn’t resist some edits..

      “Yes… in areas like Alabama there are still many cultural baptists, baptists in name only, barbecue baptists…

      But there is a shrinking number of Baptists who are reading and studying scripture and for those who are, the Evangelical circus, with its lack of scriptural references and old testament/psalms/new testament/Gospel readings is dead to them in ways they could not perceive before.

      Still, in areas such as mine with lots of cultural baptists, the number of ‘pastors’ continue to increase, the grass looks greener as they start another yet another baptist-lite or calvinista church…”


  7. James the Mad says

    Fascinating. Any time an RCC issue comes up the fist reaction is to try to claim that “they” are not real Christians. As if there was no Christianity for 1,500/1800/1950 years until “we” (however we define that) rediscovered/reinvented it 500/200/50/10 years ago.

    “The more things change the more . . . “

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      As if there was no Christianity for 1,500/1800/1950 years until “we” (however we define that) rediscovered/reinvented it 500/200/50/10 years ago.

      Exactly the same version of church history you get from the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  8. I also grew up Catholic. When I was young and going to Catholic school, we did NOT read the Bible. We were not encouraged to read the Bible. Mostly it was ‘do what Father _____ or Sister ______ says.’ Some of it was just fine; but a lot was not. It seems the RCC is undergoing (or has undergone) it’s own little ‘Re-formation’ with regard to ‘let the people of God read the scriptures for themselves.’ Funny, I heard about this happening some 500 years back…. perhaps I would not now be a Lutheran pastor had it been this way when I was growing up.

    • Christiane says

      The readings from the Bible during mass were always there when I was growing up.
      We even stood up for the reading of the Holy Gospel. Same as today.

      Just for Example: here are the Scriptures that were read in last Sunday’s Mass:

      ACTS 1:1-11
      PSALMS 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
      EPHESIANS 1:17-23
      LUKE 24:46-53

      • Christiane – I am not saying the readings were not there – of course they were. And yes, we always stood for the gospel, as we do in the Lutheran church. My point is that we were never encouraged to read the Bible personally; there were no ‘Bible study’ groups, at least where I was. I believe those practices have become much more common, which is good.

  9. Thanks for pointing out that North America and western Europe are NOT “the world”. Within Catholic circles over the last decade or so, we have been recognizing that the sheer number of western Catholics will shrink, and that is not neccessarily a bad thing. The Sunday-morning cafeteria Catholics are going to find no real need to buck western trends, and will slip away due to apathy….or because they find the Church’s total culture of life and all its tenants to be too much counterculture for them.

    This will leave a remnant that really beleive what the Church teaches, who are willing to be unpopular or worse for holding to those beleifs. Many think the RCC “should” change, without noting that no one CAN change the essentials of the Gospel. Most of these people call themselves Catholic.

    I get more support for my faith from devout Jews and serious Christians of other denominations than from the nominal “Catholics” who are drifting away. Better hot or cold than lukewarm….

  10. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    I’ve been going to the 7:30 am Mass at our local parish, and if you don’t get there early – you don’t get a seat I know the 9:00 Mass is the same. I’m told the 10:30 has the largest attendance (I would have guessed noon).

    The parish is a big parish, and there is only one resident priest. His older brother who is also a priest comes from 3 hours away every weekend to help out with the Mass schedule.

  11. In 1900, there were some 266 million Catholics in the world, two-thirds of them in Europe. This represents about one -sixth of the then-total world population of 1,6 billion, which is essentially the same percentage as today. The biggest shift is that the Church has been growing in what we now call third-world countries, and shrinking in Europe.

    • MelissatheRagamuffin says

      Actuallly, according to that article the numbers in Europe are now holding steady. Maybe the so-called shrinkage was just the chaff being separated from the wheat.

  12. Christiane says

    well the Catholics have got some international street cred . . . when the Jews come to Pope Francis and ask him to help broker peace in the Middle East, I think that says something about ‘trust’.
    It happened after Francis washed feet in a prison during Holy Week, including the feet of a Muslim prisoner.

    How’s the Church doing? Well, it’s still there. It will be there tomorrow, and the day after, and next week, and likely next century . . . that constancy is somewhat reassuring to the world in a way, I think.