Global Catholic population up, number of priests down since 1980

by Thomas Reese

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The Catholic population of the world increased by 57 percent, or 445 million souls, between 1980 and 2012, but the number of priests declined by 17 percent, or 20,547 priests, according to a study released June 1 by CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Granted the church's theology, which requires a priest for most sacraments, this presents a serious problem for the church. 

In 2012, there were 1,228,612,000 Catholics in the world and 393,053 priests.

The growth of the Catholic population has been uneven, with a small growth in Europe (just 6 percent) and huge growth in Africa (238 percent). But CARA concludes that the "differences between these two regions are largely attributable to differences in fertility rates over time."

Many European countries only grow their populations through immigration, often from non-Catholic countries.

The total fertility rate in Europe has been close to the replacement rate of 2.1, while in sub-Saharan Africa, the rate was 6.76 in 1980 and 5.15 in 2012. "Thus, strong growth in the number of Catholics in Africa relative to Europe is more a phenomenon of differential fertility than immigration or evangelization."

Likewise, the number of Asian Catholics has grown by 115 percent to 134 million.

The Americas have also grown by 56 percent during this period. CARA's analysis is based on numbers from the Vatican Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, which lumps North and South America together.

Again, the growth can be attributed to high fertility rates, although the total fertility rate for Latin America and the Caribbean has fallen from 4.2 in 1980 to 2.18 in 2012, which means that their populations may eventually plateau and perhaps fall.

What does this mean for the future?

CARA notes that the Catholic percent of the world's population has remained remarkably steady at 17.5 percent for the past 50 years. Demographers are projecting a continued decease in fertility rates, but longer lives will still mean more people, perhaps a world population of 10 billion by 2100, up from 7.3 billion today.

"If current trends continue, we can expect the global Catholic population to increase by about 372 million from 2015 to 2050," CARA predits. "This would represent 29 percent growth during this period and result in the 2050 Catholic population numbering 1.64 billion."

CARA points out that the growth in the number of parishes since 1980 (7 percent) has not kept up with the growth in the Catholic population (57 percent), even though the number of parishes in Asia and Africa has doubled since 1980.

The distribution of parishes is still uneven. With only 23 percent of the Catholic population, Europe still has more parishes than the rest of the world combined, even though the number of parishes in Europe has declined by 12 percent.

In 1980, there were 3,759 Catholics per parish in the world. This figure now stands at 5,491 Catholics per parish. To just stay even with the growth in population, by 2050, the church will need to increase its total number of parishes by about 75,000 to approximately 300,000.

As mentioned earlier, the church has 20,547 fewer priests, down 17 percent since 1980. Europe was especially hit hard with a decline of 32 percent, or 78,090 priests.

Luckily, the number of priests is growing where the number of Catholics is growing. The number of priests more than doubled in Africa (up 22,787 for a 131 percent increase) and Asia (up 32,906 for a 121 percent increase) between 1980 and 2012. But Europe continues to have 42 percent of all priests, despite having only 23 percent of all Catholics.

The uneven distribution of priests can be seen by comparing the number of Catholics per diocesan priest for the various continents: 2,597 Catholics per diocesan priest in Europe; 7,227 in the Americas; 7,223 in Africa; 3,877 in Asia; 3,554 in Oceania.

The uneven distribution of priests is exacerbated by the fact that the demand for the sacraments is higher in Africa than in Europe. Weekly Mass attendance rates in Europe are around 20 percent, while in Africa, it is around 70 percent.

The CARA report includes an in-depth analysis of Catholic trends in each continent. Here are some highlights:


  • In 2012, there were 1,717 diocesan ordinations in Europe, but since 3,034 diocesan priests died and another 222 defected, the net loss was 1,539.
  • The number of infant baptisms in Europe has dropped to 2 million from 3.6 million in 1980. Sacramental marriages have gone from 1.5 million in 1980 to 650,540 in 2012.
  • Between 2014 and 2050, the total population of Europe is expected to decline by 5 percent, losing 36 million. The Catholic share of this population is expected to decline as well, with immigration reducing the share of the population affiliating with the faith and secularizing trends creating more "Nones" (those who are unaffiliated with any religion) in the population.

The Americas

  • Catholics have consistently represented more than 60 percent of the population of the Americas, where their growth outpaces the average growth of the continent.
  • The average percentage of an American country's Catholics saying they attend Mass every week was 52 percent in the 1980s, 40 percent in the 1990s, 31 percent in the 2000s, and 29 percent since 2010.
  • Infant baptisms have also dropped in the Americas, down to 6.3 million in 2012 from 9.4 million in 1980. The number of marriages has been almost cut in half, from 2 million in 1980 to 1 million in 2012.
  • The number of diocesan priests continues to grow in the Americas, with ordinations (2,117) outpacing deaths (1,235) and defections (306) in 2012, although the number of religious priests and nuns has declined.


  • The percentage of the African population that is Catholic has increased from 12.5 percent in 1980 to 18.6 percent in 2012.
  • In Africa, high fertility rates and expanding life expectancies will dramatically increase the number of Catholics in Africa from 198.6 million now to 460.4 million in 2040.
  • The average percentage of an African country's Catholics saying they attend Mass every week was 76 percent in the 1990s, 64 percent in the 2000s, and 70 percent since 2010, but it can vary tremendously by country. In Nigeria, weekly Mass attendance in 2011 was estimated to be 92 percent. By comparison, in South Africa in the same year, it was estimated to 38 percent.
  • The ratio of African Catholics to diocesan priest has improved, declining from 9,695 per priest in 1980 to 7,223 in 2012.
  • The number of ordinations continue to outpace the number of deaths and defections among the diocesan clergy each year for a net gain of 1,252 priests in 2012.
  • Infant baptisms are up to 2.6 million in 2012 from 1.4 million in 1980. Marriages have almost doubled from 177,685 in 1980 to 332,705 in 2012.


  • Although the Asian Catholic population increased by 115 percent between 1980 and 2012, it is still only about 3.2 percent of the Asian population.
  • The average percentage of an Asian country's Catholics saying they attend Mass every week has remained fairly steady: 55 percent in the 1990s, 52 percent in the 2000s, and 53 percent since 2010.
  • The number of new priests (1,156 in 2012) continues to outnumber the number of deaths (301) and defections (91).
  • Likewise, infant baptisms continue to grow (1.8 million in 1980 to 2.1 million in 2012). Marriages have also grown to 626,380 in 2012 from 381,697 in 1980.


  • Trends in the church in Oceania tend to fall between those of Europe and the Americas. Relative stability is expected here in the coming decades.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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