As Church growth explodes,
parishes can't keep up
WASHINGTON — The global Catholic population is growing — so quickly, in fact, that priest and parish numbers cannot keep up, says a new study on trends in the worldwide Church.
And this poses a challenge: With an overall growth in the number of Catholics, especially in Africa and Asia, but not enough growth in the number of parishes and priests to supplement it, there are fewer opportunities for Catholics to receive the sacraments and participate in their parishes.
"The Church still faces a global 21st century problem of keeping Catholics engaged with parish and sacramental life," stated the study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.
The study "Global Catholicism" drew from Vatican statistics and other surveys since 1980 to detail where the Catholic Church has grown and shrunk at the parish level and to predict the demographics of the next few decades for the Church.
This growth was examined at the parish level because parish life is ultimately the "brick and mortar" of the Church where Catholics receive the sacraments, associate with fellow Catholics, and participate the most in their faith, the study explained.
It tallied the growth of Catholics, priests, religious, parishes, reception of sacraments, seminarians, and Catholic welfare institutions like hospitals and schools in five regions — Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and the Americas.
The overall finding of the report is that the Church is in the midst of a "dramatic realignment." It is waning in its historical center of Europe, its growth is slowing in the Americas and Oceania, and it is booming in Asia and Africa.
This forecasts a Catholic shift away from the traditional centers of Europe and the Americas and toward the "Global South," the mostly-developing parts of the world that include Central and South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Oceania, and much of the Far East.
Mark Gray, a senior research associate with CARA, explained the implications of this shift:
One problem highlighted by the study is that most of the world's parishes are still in Europe and the Americas, where the Church is declining or stagnating in population. The developing world is seeing more Catholics, but not nearly enough parishes to serve them.
"You've got all these beautiful parishes," Gray said of Europe. "You can't pick them up and send them from one part of the world to another very easily. So in one place the Church is going to have to close parishes, and in another place it's going to have to build a bunch more, and it's going to have to figure out how to manage its clergy."
Another finding of the report is that Catholics are participating less in the Church as they grow older, as seen in sacramental participation rates.
In every region, the number of infant baptisms per 1,000 Catholics is greater than the number of first Communions, which is greater than the number of confirmations, which is greater than the number of marriages conducted within the Church.
While this may not be surprising in regions like Europe, which is seeing an overall decline of priests and religious, it is also the case throughout other regions where Church numbers are growing.
The Americas have both a lower Mass attendance rate and fewer marriages per 1,000 Catholics than does Europe, despite the overall American Catholic population growing. Gray admitted that these findings have yet to be explained.
Furthermore, the number of religious priests, brothers and sisters all declined in the Americas since 1980, even though the number of Catholics and diocesan priests has risen there.
And even in Africa, where the Church is growing the most, there is a steep decline in sacramental participation from baptisms to marriages — the marriage rate is actually as low in Africa as it is in the Americas.
Asia, however, is setting the bar in sacramental participation. It leads all the other regions in rates of first communions, confirmations and marriages.
What are the consequences of having too few priests, religious, and parishes to keep up with the overall growth of Catholics around the world?
In some places, closings and consolidations will lead to "mega parishes." Especially in Europe and North America, where this is already happening, the result could be a crisis of community where many Catholics experience "anonymity" amidst so many fellow parishioners, Gray explained.
The African continent's Catholic moment is a consequence of its population boom, the report said, as fertility rates in any given region are directly connected with the vibrancy of the Church in that area.
Gray's explanation for this is simple. Fewer births "means fewer baptisms, fewer first communions, fewer marriages, smaller populations eventually."
back to top