ANNUARIUM STATISTICUM ECCLESIAE2001
Catholic Church shows stable and steady growth worldwide
1. The Annuarium StatisticumEcclesiae 2001, compiled by the Central Office for Statistics of the Church and published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, was recently presented to the press.
In comparison with the better known Annuario Pontificio (Pontifical Year Book) that lists names and biographies, the Statistical Year Book gives those who are interested a more or less complete picture of the comparative data necessary for a correct and detailed understanding of the Catholic Church's numerical strength throughout the world.
As every year, the data are supported by captions in Latin, English and French, and are completed by tables that show the gradual and constant growth of the Church in the world.
The following points and notes are provided in order to highlight certain quantitative aspects that concerned and marked the Catholic Church from 1978 until 2001.
An analysis of the numbers of Catholic faithful worldwide
2. An examination of the data in Table 1 shows a substantial increase in the number of Catholic faithful across the world, which grew from 757 million in 1978 to 1.1 billion in 2001, an overall increase of 40.2 percent. This increase is only slightly less than the increase in the world population (45.8 percent), and shows a substantially stable trend with regard to the growth of the Catholic faithful. However, these increases reflect the situation that can vary totally from continent to continent.
Compared to the basically stable number of Catholics in Europe (a 5.3 percent increase was shown over the 23-year period considered here) and corresponding to the slight growth in the European population (that increased by 6.8 percent), the African statistics shed light on the extremely dynamic dissemination and penetration of the Catholic Church: here there is an increase in the number of Catholics of approximately 148 percent, that is, more than twice the total number of Catholics in the world, and it exceeds by far the remarkable demographic growth worldwide of approximately 83 percent.
Other continents are also recording significant increases in numbers, especially Asia, where in the 23 years under examination, the relative increase was approximately 71.2 percent.
These trends, moreover, should also be seen in the context of the effect Catholic groups have on the various continents: they go from a relative decrease in the world of the number of European faithful, whose numbers, despite the overall growth, show a continuous downward trend (35 percent in 1978 to 26.5 percent in 2001), to a corresponding increase in the number of African faithful, who increased in the two years mentioned from 7.2 percent to 12.8 percent.
With regard to the other continents, in Oceania the figures are substantially stable, while a slight increase in growth for America and Asia can be seen.
Table 1 - Catholics in 1978,1988 and 2001:
geographical distribution per 100 inhabitants - variations of the period
Catholic Faithful (Baptized)
Per 100 of the total
Per 100 inhabitants
The numbers of Catholic bishops worldwide
3. Table 2 shows that the number of bishops has been rising overall at a more or less steady rate from 3,714 in 1978 to 4,126 in 1988, 4,541 in 2000 and 4,649 in 2001, with a relative increase of 25.2 percent between the first and last years. This increase has been fairly steady on the African continent (42.6 percent), less but still noteworthy in Oceania (33 percent), and gradual, with a smaller percentage (19.7 percent) in Asia, America and Europe.
These different growth rates have resulted in only slight variations in the relative importance of the various statistics per continent of the world total with the exception of Africa, where the number of bishops, from 11.6 percent at the beginning of the period, increased to 13.3 percent at the end; a slight decrease was also seen in Europe.
It is also evident that in 2001 the number of Catholics per bishop did not vary much from continent to continent (from 162,000 to 302,000 respectively for Asia and for America) with the marked exception of Oceania, in which each bishop is responsible for only 67,000 Catholics, which indicates in this perspective that the percentage of bishops here is slightly higher than on the other continents.
It may be helpful to estimate the number of both diocesan and religious priests per bishop, since this simple relationship gives us a basic if somewhat simplistic idea, at least at the purely numerical level, of the pastoral tasks that on average any diocesan bishop must undertake in each continent. The data and statistics presented show that over time, a better and more harmonious distribution of bishops in the continental situations has been achieved: this includes a better numerical balance between priests and bishops, from the beginning to the end of the period under review.
Table 2 - Bishops in 1978,1988 and 2001:
geographical distribution and numerical variations
Per 100 of the total
n. Priests / n. Bishops
Diocesan and religious priests worldwide
4. A glance at Table 3 shows the numerical changes in diocesan and religious priests that have taken place on the different continents. The number of priests overall has decreased very slightly throughout the world (from 421,000 in 1978 to 405,000 in 2001). However, when the situations of diocesan and religious priests are individually analyzed, it becomes clear that while the number of the former is fundamentally stable, the latter are experiencing a significant decrease (of 12.5 percent over 23 years).
The dynamics on the different continents appear to be in strong contrast: Europe and Asia, but partly also Africa, show opposing trends. In fact, in Europe the number of both diocesan and religious priests has dropped considerably — the total in 1978 of 174,000 and 76,000 priests, diocesan and religious respectively, had fallen by 2001 to 144,000 and 62,000. The same phenomenon is taking place in Oceania, yet on this continent the relative shortage of priests is felt less.
On the other hand, there are more and more diocesan and religious priests in Asia. And in Africa, the total of diocesan priests has rocketed, with their number jumping from 5,500 to 17,600, with a relative increase of 219.3 percent, whereas the number of religious priests has diminished slightly during the 23 years considered here.
This movement has altered the incidence of diocesan priests in relation to religious priests, yet an appreciable change occurred in Africa alone: here, at the beginning of the period there were about twice as many religious as diocesan priests, whereas in 2001, the
former had become far fewer than the latter; and in Asia, where they were equal in number at the outset, as time has passed the number of diocesan priests has grown considerably.
The changes described have subsequently affected the number of priests on the various continents in general, and of religious and diocesan priests specifically.
The combination of demographic variations and changes in the overall number of priests is responsible for the variations in the ratio between the number of inhabitants and the number of priests, as well as of the number of Catholics per priest. Over time, both categories have grown and across the globe have increased from 10,000 inhabitants per priest in 1978 to a little more than 15,000 in 2001; of greater interest, however, is the information concerning the number of Catholics per priest resulting from ecumenical effectiveness and the direct relationship between pastoral workers and the faithful. This figure has also increased worldwide from 1978 to 2001, and the number of Catholics per priest has jumped overall from 1,797 to 2,619. However, only slight differences in the proportion are observable from continent to continent; in 2001, for example, in comparison with the average of 1,357 Catholics to each priest in Europe, there were about 4,847 in Africa and 4,359 in America. These statistics take into account the different aspects, at least at the macrosocial level, of religious relations and connections.
Table 3 - Diocesan or religious priests in 1978, 1988, and 2001 per continent and numerical variations
Percent variation 1978-2001
Permanent deacons, religious men and women worldwide
5. Bishops and priests are flanked in their pastoral activities by other religious workers, as we see in the following:
For an idea of the relative size of the various religious categories, note that in 2001, permanent diocesan and religious deacons taken together constituted little over half the professed religious who were not priests (55,000 in 2001), and that the latter were far fewer than professed women religious (792,000 in the same year).
In the course of time and at a global level, the three categories of pastoral workers mentioned above have taken very different directions: if there has been a marked expansion in the number of permanent deacons, there has been a very visible reduction in the numbers of professed religious brothers and professed women religious.
The number of permanent deacons has more than quintupled throughout the world, rising from 5,500 to 29,200 between 1978 and 2001 (with a relative increase of 425 percent; see Table 4).This increase has occurred everywhere, but the growth rate differs substantially from continent to continent: Europe showed a major increase (732 percent), so that from just topping 1,000 in 1978, by 2001 the number of permanent deacons had climbed to 9,400; Africa, America and Oceania showed a parallel but far more contained growth rate in comparison with that of Europe (around 320 percent), while in Asia, where they were rather few at the beginning of the period, the growth rate was less pronounced (121 percent).
This very different development in the varied situations on the respective continents has brought about a radical change in the percentage of permanent deacons in the 23-year period: for example, in Europe, at the beginning of this period, they accounted for 20 percent of the world total, 24 percent in 1988 and 32 percent at the end of the period. At the same time in America, where there is another large group of permanent deacons, their relative total number has declined.
Table 4 – Permanent deacons in 1978, 1988, and 2001:
Their geographical distribution and variations over the period
Permanent deacons (diocesan and religious)
Per 100 of the total
The second group examined, professed religious who are not priests, as has been mentioned, is experiencing a decline: from 76,000 at the beginning of the period to 55,000 by the end of it (cf. Table 5). The continental incidence of the various categories of professed religious was highly concentrated in Europe, with 49 percent in 1978, and in America, with 31 percent.
It is precisely these two continents, along with Oceania, which nonetheless have a small quota of professed religious and which are experiencing the largest decline — 43 percent in Europe and 30 percent in America. Thus, the overall decrease in number of these male religious worldwide can primarily be ascribed to the decline on these two continents.
These trends also determine a different numerical deployment over time between the continents: in 2001, Europe and America were still the continents with the highest number of professed religious who were not priests, but their relative number was far lower than at the beginning of the period.
Table 5 - Professed Religious (non-priests) in 1978, 1988, and 2001:
their geographical distribution and numerical variations
Professed Religious non-priests
Percentage of the total
Let us now consider the third group mentioned above, professed women religious. This is the largest group which, on noting its variations over time and geography, can be seen to be dwindling (cf. Table 6). The number of professed women religious in the world, which was 991,000 in 1978, had fallen to 792,000 by 2001 (a decrease of 20 percent). Once again, it is important to note the great difference in the trends on the various continents that have the characteristics already described for professed religious who are not priests, and are associated with the geographical data.
It must be pointed out that the most consistent groups of professed women religious are in Europe (55 percent) and in America (30 percent), and that it is in these very groups that the greatest decrease has occurred (34 percent in Europe, 23 percent in America) as well as in Oceania (37 percent), whereas in Africa and Asia the visible increases offset the decline mentioned but are not sufficient to compensate for it.
Table 6 - Professed religious in 1978, 1988 and 2001:
their geographical distribution and numerical variations
Professed women religious
Percentage of the total
All candidates to the priesthood worldwide
6. Table 7 shows the number of philosophy and theology students at diocesan and religious seminaries and notes the size of certain indicators of vocations to the priesthood.
Across the globe, their number increased constantly during the period under analysis: from 64,000 in 1978 they increased to 112,000 in 2001 (a 76 percent increase), with a trend of continuous, practically uninterrupted growth.
As mentioned above, there are strong geographic differences in this case, too. While in Asia and especially in Africa there have been impressive increases — so impressive in Africa as to be outstanding — in Europe and in Oceania, the trends, if not negative overall, show steadier growth with slight variation.
In America a trend of expansion is also certainly present, and the results for the period on the two sub-continents of North America and Central and South America differ.
As shown above, the relative number of candidates to the priesthood on the various continents has substantially changed. While in Africa they accounted in 1978 for 9 percent, in 2001 they had risen to 19 percent; in Europe over the same period they dropped from 37 percent to 23 percent.
A key to establishing the number of candidates to the priesthood in relation to the geographic area is by comparing the number of candidates with that of Catholics, continent by continent.
In accordance with the trend of expansion referred to, it is clear not only that these figures are increasing worldwide — from 84 to 105 to 106 priests per 1 million Catholics respectively in 1978, 1988 and 2001 — but that the type of expansion to be found on the different continents is reflected in these indicators.
While in Africa and Asia, therefore, the indicator shows a strong growth at a high level in 2001, Europe and Oceania show a varied and even downward trend; whereas in America there is an upward trend, with a minimum value among those of the various continents being registered in 2001.
The purpose of the last indicator shown in Table 7 is to find out the number of candidates to the priesthood for every 100 priests and to calculate the average rate of renewal. Once again and as a result of the trends over a span of time in the number of candidates to the priesthood, the indicator at the global level shows a decisively upward trend.
It can be said that the replacement of the quota of priests is guaranteed when the relationship between seminarians and priests (per 100) is not less than 12.5 percent. This threshold value has been largely supplanted across the world, although geographical differences, as always, are rather marked and deserve a brief comment.
If in Africa, Asia and Central and South America the renewal of the quota of priests is by and large adequate, North America, with the indicator at 9.7, is below the threshold of replacement. The same is occurring in certain parts of Europe.
Let us take two examples of particular importance and not only from the numerical viewpoint: Italy (11.3 percent) is below the threshold, whereas in Poland (24.5 percent) renewal is largely guaranteed. The average situation in Europe (12.5 percent), which coincides with the threshold of renewal, would be such as to guarantee the renewal of the number of priests. But as the previous example demonstrates, the situation appears rather different in the various areas and the various European countries.
It is therefore foreseeable that in such an unstable situation, serious difficulties may arise in the near future in maintaining the necessary number of priests, due to the constant phenomenon of aging which affects the clergy.
Table 7 - Candidates to the priesthood in 1978, 1988 and 2001: their geographical distribution,
variations, over the period, indication of priestly vocations
Candidates to the priesthood
Per 100 of the total
Per one million Catholics
Per 100 priests
Weekly Edition in English
30 July 2003, page 5
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