March 5, 2010


More Catholics in our future

It is always wise to plan for the future, and one of the things that the Catholic Church in the United States must plan for in its future is more members—many more members.

A new book titled The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, by Joel Kotkin, forecasts that we will have 400 million people in 2050. That is tremendous growth since we reached 300 million people in 2006. He also predicts that we will not suffer the effects of a graying population to the same extent as Europe, East Asia and the Middle East because of our relatively high birthrate and continued attractiveness to immigrants.

Kotkin isn’t the only one to make that forecast. Indeed, what he calls “the new demography” is one of the 10 trends that journalist John L. Allen Jr. sees in his book The Future Church.

Since Catholics comprise about 22 percent of the U.S. population, and that percentage is likely to either grow or remain the same, we are going to see many more Catholics in the years ahead. Our churches will be packed. One columnist comically wrote that it’s a good thing that only about 36 percent of Catholics go to Mass on weekends or we wouldn’t have room for all of us today, much less in the future.

In his book, Kotkin writes that America’s growth won’t occur in the large cities on the coasts which are overbuilt and over-expensive, but rather in the interior of the country where property prices are low enough that young families can afford them. He also sees the growth occurring mainly in suburbs because modern forms of communication make it possible for people to work from or near their homes.

While our population is not expected to gray as much as in other parts of the world, it will age to some extent. Allen’s book reported that the median age in the United States was 30 in 1950, and it is expected to reach 41 by 2050. But in Europe it will be 47.1, and in Japan 52.3. Because of its one-child-per-couple policy, China will age the most rapidly.

The birthrate in the United States has been declining at least since 1971, the last year in which white, non-Hispanic women had enough children to replace themselves. Today, white Americans have a fertility rate of 1.8; the replacement rate is 2.1. The fertility rate for Hispanic women in the United States is 2.3, but it, too, will probably decline.

Presently, Hispanics are 15 percent of the population and it is expected that they will be 21 percent by 2030. Hispanics’ median age is 27 compared to 40 for whites. Their growth will be fueled not only by their birthrate, but also because of immigration.

Emigration from Mexico and the rest of Latin America will probably decline in future years because those countries are experiencing lower birthrates and hence older populations. Mexico, the second largest Catholic country in the world, used to have a fertility rate of 7.0, but today it is 2.0. Brazil, the largest Catholic country, saw a drop from 6.15 in 1960 to 2.1 today.

As those countries age, and if they become more economically prosperous, the waves of Hispanic immigrants in the United States will decline sometime in the 21st century.

All this means that the Church must find some way to handle this growing, and aging, population—and do it in the face of declining numbers of priests and religious. Furthermore, it will have to expand the already existing facilities and services for Hispanic Catholics.

In The Future Church, Allen gives emphasis to growth in elder ministry that will have to take place. Noting that the United States will have 6.8 million additional members over the age of 65 by 2030, he says that the Church will be pressed to invest an increasing share of its resources in ministry to the elderly.

Such ministry will include chaplains in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospitals; ministry to

shut-ins, including increasing the number of lay people who take Communion to them; demand for funerals and anointing of the sick; programs to help people deal with bereavement and loss; and additional Catholic nursing homes, hospitals and day care centers.

—John F. Fink

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