January 15, 2010


Where today’s Catholics are

The beginning of a new year seems like a good time to take stock of the status of the Catholic Church—at least numerically.

For that, we are indebted to Matthew Bunson, editor of the Catholic Almanac. The numbers in this editorial come from an article by him in the Dec. 13 issue of Our Sunday Visitor.

There are 1.14 billion Catholics in the world. That puts us behind the combined Sunni and Shiite divisions of Islam, which number 1.5 billion. (There are also 880,000 Protestants and Orthodox.) The Church has doubled in size in the last 50 years, but it has only kept pace with the growth in the world’s population. So we remain around 17 percent of the total population.

But the real story is where the Church has grown and where it has declined. Africa, Latin America and Asia are seeing the greatest increases, while Europe is declining. Catholics in Europe still comprise a quarter of the world’s Catholic population, but Europe’s population is declining because of low birth rates, abortion and euthanasia.

By contrast, today there are about 165 million Catholics in Africa, 17.4 percent of its population; a century ago, there were only 2 million. In India, there are 18.5 million Catholics today compared to only 5 million 50 years ago. Catholics in Latin America have more than kept pace with population growth, despite some highly successful efforts by Pentecostal groups and anti-Catholic regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.

As for the United States, while we are 22 percent of our total population, we comprise only 5.9 percent of the universal Church—68.1 million members. We have the lowest birthrate on record, and our population is getting older as the baby-boomers age. Immigration keeps us at 22 percent of the population since a high percentage of immigrants are Catholics.

About that aging population: The median age of North Americans today is 36 and that of Europeans is 39. But where the Catholic Church is growing, the median age of Africans is 19, Latin Americans 26, and Asians 27. When Pope Benedict XVI was installed, he observed, “The Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future.” The figures bear him out.

Brazil is the country with the most Catholics—159.7 million, 14 percent of the world’s Catholic population and almost 2½ times the number in the United States. It is followed by Mexico with 89 million, and The Philippines with 72 million. The United States is in fourth place.

There are some glaring discrepancies in Church governance compared to populations. Italy, in fifth place in the number of Catholics with 56.9 million, still has the largest number of cardinals—39—while Brazil has only four. The United States has 16, of whom 13 are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave.

Italy also has the largest number of bishops—483—followed by the United States with 476 and Brazil with 428. Of Italy’s 483 bishops, 278 of them work in the Roman Curia.

We admit that we were surprised to learn the country with the most seminarians—India—with 14,120.

South America is the continent that needs priests the most. It has a ratio of Catholics to priests of 7,138 to 1. In Africa the ratio is 4,758 to 1 and in North America it is 3,184 to 1. It’s 2,285 to 1 in Asia, and 1,457 to 1 in Europe.

Of course, numbers by themselves don’t tell us how healthy the Church is. How fervent are those Catholics? Do they actually practice their faith or are they Catholics in name only? The article in Our Sunday Visitor tried to answer those questions with figures from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University about weekly Mass attendance in nations with large Catholic populations.

The top 10 and the percent of Catholics who attended Mass weekly from 1980 to the present are: Malta, 84 percent; Ireland, 71 percent; El Salvador, 61 percent; Poland, 60 percent; Slovakia, 57 percent; The Philippines, 56 percent; Bosnia & Herzogovina, 55 percent; Mexico, 51 percent; the Dominican Republic, 50 percent, and the United States, 36 percent.

Globally, the percentage was 40 percent.

—John F. Fink

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