1970 - 2007: Boom time for the Catholic Church? Print
Written by Sherry   
Sunday, 14 February 2010 15:17
Bet you hadn't thought of our era as a boom time for priestly vocations. . .

Neither did I till I came across these exciting figures yesterday. (Via Providence College, CARA, Fides, and the Vatican's 2007 statistical report.)

Seminarian and priest numbers are booming in the global south. Which is very good news since Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians now make up 60% of the Catholics in the world.

Seminarian numbers have mushroomed in every single South and Central American and Caribbean county since 1972. The average growth is 371% between 1972 and 2008. But five countries have seen growth rates in that 36 year period that stagger the imagination.

El Salvador: 1,406%
Bolivia: 1,353%
Dominican Republic: 1,339%
Venzuela: 1,064%
Peru: 1,004%

Overall, Latin seminarians have grown from 5,334 to 25,108 since 1972.

(If the US had enjoyed a comparable rate of growth, the 5,279 seminarians we had in 1975 would have grown to nearly 25,000 today and there would be no talk about a "vocations crisis".)

Which explains why the Vatican figures show that the numbers of priestly vocations for "America" (The Vatican regards North, Central, and South America as a single unit) are essentially "stable" even though we know that the numbers have dropped significantly in the US and Canada.

The growth in Latin and Central America has offset the decline in the North.

PS: Another stunning note for those of us immersed in the North American scene: In South & Central America, even the numbers of women religious have grown a bit since 1972 (just over 3%)! Women religious in Africa and Asia have also grown steadily year after year. The "collapse" in women religious is apparently a western phenomenon.

Here's more encouraging news:

Priestly vocations have risen 27.6% in Africa between 2000 and 2007.
2000: 27,165 priests
2007: 34,663 priests

And the number of priests has grown 21.2% in Asia between 2000 and 2007
2000: 43,566
2007: 52,802

It is this really significant growth in the global south that is outpacing the losses in Europe (a decline of 6.8% in the same 7 year period or 14,189) and the decline in North America. It is because of the uptick in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia, that the global total of Catholic priests has risen from 405,178 in 2000 to 408,024 in 2007.

When you look at the fine print, it is a boom of diocesan priests. Globally, diocesan ordinations have grown 44% between 1970 and 2007 while graduate level seminarians have grown 35.6% since 1985 (I couldn't find figures for 1970 or 1975).

The biggest leap for both diocesan ordinations and graduate seminarians occurred between 1985 and 1995.

It is religious priests whose numbers have declined 9.7% since 1985 (their high point) which has significantly reduced the overall global gain.

Which raises some questions, I think:

If growth is in the global south and decline in the global north, does this mean that diocesan priesthood is more attractive to candidates from the global south? Is religious priesthood less available there? Less visible? Less supported? Local bishops pushing for and financing diocesan priests (naturally) while religious communities have fewer resources to do so? Or ??????

By the way, Catholic schools are enjoying their share of the boom as well.

Between 1970 and 2007, the number of Catholic elementary schools has grown slightly (3%) but the number of students in those schools has grown 46%. Meanwhile, the number of Catholic secondary schools has grown 61.3% and students in those schools have grown 119% in 37 years.

The bottom line globally: diocesan priests, seminarians, lay Catholics, the number of parishes, students in Catholic elementary schools, secondary schools and students in Catholic secondary schools have all grown significantly and sometimes spectacularly since 1970.

Gains in the global south are exceeding the losses in Europe and North America.

As John Allen responded to the assertion: "The Catholic Church is Shrinking"" in this 2008 piece for Foreign Policy Magazine:

"In fact, the church is in the midst of the greatest period of growth in its 2,000-year history. The world's Catholic population grew from 266 million in 1900 to 1.1 billion in 2000, an increase of 314 percent. By comparison, the world population last century grew by 263 percent. The church didn't just hitch a ride on the baby boom; it successfully attracted new converts.

Yes, Catholicism is getting smaller in Europe, and it would be losing ground in the United States, too, were it not for immigration, especially among Hispanics. A recent Pew Forum study found that fully 10 percent of Americans are ex-Catholics. These declines, however, have been more than offset by growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the number of Catholics grew a staggering 6,700 percent in the past century, from 1.9 million to 130 million. The Democratic Republic of the Congo today has the same number of Catholics as Austria and Germany put together. India has more Catholics than Canada and Ireland combined.

What's happening is not that Catholicism is shrinking, but rather, its demographic center of gravity is shifting. What was once a largely homogenous religion, concentrated in Europe and North America, is now a truly universal faith. In 1900, just 25 percent of Catholics lived in the developing world; today that figure is 66 percent and climbing. In a few decades, the new centers of theological thought will no longer be Paris and Milan, but Nairobi and Manila."

The late 20th and early 21st century - the time after the Second Vatican Council - has turned out to be a time of tremendous growth for the faith as well as a time of decline in the west.

We need to remember that as we seek to discern what God is doing in our generation.