Number Crunching Print
Written by Sherry   
Saturday, 14 March 2009 08:09
Every once in a while, I go on a binge of number crunching - usually to try and shed some light on an issue that has been niggling at me for some time.

And I see new things: some of which are very cool and some of which are concerning.

First of all - the sheer growth of Catholicism since 1800 is mind-boggling.

Globally (from the Center for Global Christianity)

1800: 106.4 million
1900: 266.6 million
1970: 665.9 million
2000: 1,046.6 million
2009: 1,134.6 million
2025: 1,317 million (estimate)

Reminds me of St. Francis Xavier writing about how he was so tired from baptizing in India that he could no longer raise his hands. Talk about repetitive motion! 1.2 billion baptisms in 225 years.

And here's a stunner: The estimate for new Catholics every 24 hours? 28,000. Despite all this, Catholic growth (.9%) is currently slightly below that of the global population (1.0%).

There is a similar trajectory for the US Catholics: (

1790: 30,000
1830: 600,000
1850: 1,750,000 (nearly 1 million of which were Irish immigrants who flooded what had been an essentially Francophone church)

Interesting note: 700,000 Americans converted to Catholicism during the 19th century. In 1852, for instance, 50 Episcopalian parishes and one rector entered, influenced by the Oxford Movement.

By 1965, there were 46.5 million Catholics in the US (CARA)

The number of priests had also grown accordingly

1820: 150 priests in the country
1850 1,081
1880 6,000
1900 11,987 (Then came the really big leap in the 20th century)
1945 38,451
1965 58,632 (Note the staggering 20+k increase in 20 years. There are some indicators that some of this rise was precipitated by the trauma of world war and all that followed - the revelations about the extent of the holocaust, the cold war, etc. The sort of stuff that makes you rethink what you want your life to be about)

1975 58,909 (the actual high water mark)

The number of priests didn't plummet immediately after the Council. Nearly 1,000 men were ordained in 1965 and 771 ten years later. So the overall numbers continued to creep upwards despite the men who were leaving. The number of ordinations actually slowed fairly gradually. The big drop in the first ten years after the Council was in seminarians (36.6% drop) and religious women (24.9% drop). What I'm not sure about is to what extent the drop in seminarian numbers represents the disappearance of minor seminaries.

In 1965, the priest/Catholic ratio in the US was about 1:777. (Here I'm using the figures from CARA)

To grasp the significance of our US experience, it helps to compare our situation to the situation in global Catholicism around the same time:

In 1970: The global priest/Catholic ratio was 1:1,557, 20.6% of the parishes in the world were without a priest-pastor, and priests made up 0.064% of the Catholic population.

Clearly, our situation was not the norm even then.

Today, as we all know, the number of priests in the US has dropped significantly:

2008: 40,580 priests for a population of 64.1 million Catholics (1: 1,580 priest/lay ratio)

But we should also notice that the global situation has shown a similar trend:

2005: 406,411 priests for a global population of 1,115 million. That's 2,744 Catholics/priest. 24.1% of all parishes in the world (52,509 parishes) are without a resident priest-pastor. If you divide the 2005 Catholic population by the total number of parishes (217,616 - aren't these numbers astounding?), you get a theoretical average of 5,124 Catholics per parish.

52,509 parishes with an average of 5,124 Catholics per parish don't have resident pastors. That's about 270 million Catholics. If they were a country, they would be the fourth largest in the world, right after the US.

The really surprising good news (that I've almost never heard talked about) is that the numbers of graduate level seminarians really grew during Pope John Paul Ii's pontificate: from a low of 33,731 in 1980 to 58,538 in 2005. A 73.6% increase! (Again, this is from CARA)

And the number of diocesan priests ordained between 1980 and 2005 grew almost as fast! (from 3,860 in 1980 to 6,614 in 2005 for a 71.3% rise)

And finally, the overall priestly numbers in the world have begun to budge: from a low in 1990 of 403,173 to 406,411 in 2005. The large increase in seminarians would seem to indicate that this rise will continue.

But we need to understand that what many American Catholics had taken as permanently normative - our situation in 1965 - was an exception both in our own history and in the history of the world. And one of the biggest factors is not the changes in the liturgy or discipline or catechesis or ecumenism or any of the things that we tend to spend our time on around St Blogs. One of the biggest factors is sheer demographics.

The Catholic Church - indeed, no Christian body on the planet or in history - has ever experienced the weight of these kinds of numbers before. No Catholic dioceses were responsible for millions of Catholics before the 20th century.

Which is why I am hearing diocesan leaders frankly admit that they hope that most lapsed Catholics don't return home. Because the parish and diocesan structures can barely deal with the numbers who are already practicing. If the 60% who aren't practicing were to return, we couldn't even provide the basic sacraments for that many, much less catechesis, sacramental prep, RCIA, and the other sorts of supports that we now consider normative. Not as we are structured now.

The culprit is not doctrine or catechesis or liturgy. "The culprit" is success: better health care, better food, better water, the elimination of certain epidemics, lower infant mortality, and longer life spans.

The basics of our current ecclesiology and pastoral strategy was worked out in a Europe that hadn't yet recovered its numbers from the eruption of the plague 250 years previously. Paris, the largest and most glamorous city in Europe in 1600 (and one of the most intensely Catholic on earth) only had 200,000 - 250,000 inhabitants. Tops. 20% of the population had died in the siege of Paris in 1590.

To have the same proportion of priests in the world today as Americans enjoyed in 1965, we would need 1.4 million priests. A 350% increase. And to get a 350% increase in ordained priests, we would probably need a global increase in seminarians that was double that: 700%. Not 70%. And we aren't even remotely set up to facilitate the 1000+% increase in dealing with inquiries that a 700% rise in seminarians would entail. We couldn't even begin to return the phone calls.

This is the point where, with wearying regularity, some readers will be sure that my "agenda" is about to be revealed. I must have one: ordaining married men or women or elevating lay people into pastors or whatever. Because otherwise, why would I be focusing on these depressing statistics?

I couldn't just want to have a clearer sense of the real life situation we are facing, I couldn't actually think that the first step in solving any problem is being clear about what the problem actually is. I couldn't actually think the situation is really complex and that real solutions would be multi-faceted. I couldn't really believe that there is no one silver bullet, I couldn't be genuinely open to the possibility that God might have solutions for us that transcend our current culture war sound bites, categories, and recent experience. I could not just be wondering, praying, pondering.

Well, of course, I could. But what fun would that be?