Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
May 7, 2001
Church population shifts from Europe to Third World
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican unveiled its new yearbook in April, and with it came a sampling of the latest Church statistics around the world.
At first glance, the numbers seem to tell a familiar story: The Church is adding members at about the same rate as global population growth. The number of priests around the world is up slightly, while seminarians continue to increase at an even faster pace.
On the surface, it's a "steady as she goes" statistical report. But look a little deeper and the numbers confirm some long-term shifts in the universal Church.
The continental breakdown of the Catholic population reveals that Church membership is increasingly tilting toward the Americas, Africa and Asia, and away from Europe.
A quarter-century ago, for example, more than 37 per cent of the world's Catholics lived in Europe. That ratio has now shrunk to 27 per cent. What's more, Europe is the only continent where the Catholic population is actually going down in real numbers, showing a drop of about six million over the last five years.
In contrast, the number of Catholics in the Americas - which is considered a single continent by the Vatican - has now reached just under 50 per cent of the total Catholic population in the world.
The most dramatic internal shift in the Church's regional makeup has come in Africa. Today, African Catholics represent 12 per cent of the Church's total membership, compared to six per cent 25 years ago. Asian Catholics are now 10.4 per cent of the Church, up from 7.6 per cent 25 years ago.
Similar changes in the Church hierarchy have not come as rapidly. In 1974, for example, Europeans represented one-third of the world total of bishops, and that has remained unchanged. In the College of Cardinals, Europeans represent 54 per cent, while cardinals from the Americas are 26 per cent of the total.
In releasing the latest numbers, the Vatican made a point of underscoring that Europeans still dominate the world's priest population, with 52 per cent of the total. But the European percentage has been slipping for decades, and will continue to decline in the future.
One big reason is that Europe has by far the highest death rate among priests, an indication of its aging clergy. Places like Africa and Asia, however, have low death rates and a boom in ordinations.
The latest Vatican statistics show a net gain of 383 priests in the world - good news, relatively speaking. But the gain has not been uniform across the globe.
The number of diocesan priests, for example, has increased over the last six years by 27 per cent in Africa, by 16 per cent in Asia and by four per cent in the Americas. During the same period, the number of diocesan priests declined in Europe by nearly four per cent and held steady in Oceania.
For many at the Vatican, the best piece of statistical news in the recent report was that the number of seminarians increased 0.7 per cent over the previous year, from 109,230 to 110,021. That's a dramatic increase from the depths of the vocations crisis 25 years ago, when seminarians numbered 63,000.
But again, the increase has not held across the map. More complete statistics show that, over the last 25 years, the number of seminarians increased by more than 300 per cent in Africa, by 125 per cent in Asia and by 75 per cent in the Americas.
Europe registered only a small increase of six per cent during the same period, and over the last six years the number of European seminarians has gone down - the only continent in the world where this is true.
Like a landscape, the statistical portrait of the Church has highlights and shadows. Two highlights that risk being overlooked are the growing numbers of lay missionaries and catechists. Lay missionaries at the end of 1999 numbered 80,662, up a dramatic 43 per cent over the previous year. The number of catechists increased seven per cent to 2,449,659.
These newer ministries also illustrate a continental shift: The vast majority of lay missionaries and more than one-third of the catechists work in South and Central America, where the ratio of Catholics to priests is the highest in the world.
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