Crux’s John Allen has been unpacking the recently published numbers of the Vatican’s Annuario Pontificio, and he has some eye-opening conclusions:
The Annuario notes that Catholicism added 16 million new members in 2020, the latest year for which statistics are available. Granted, that meant the church did no more than keep pace with overall global population growth, but it’s still significant at a time when most western perceptions are that the church is shrinking due to the fallout from the sexual abuse crisis, various scandals at senior levels, bitter political infighting, increasing irrelevance to younger generations, and any number of other alleged failures.
The dominant Catholic story today is not decline, it’s breakneck growth…
… It’s notable that the vast majority of this growth is outside the western sphere. The Catholic population grew in Africa and Asia in 2020, by 2.1 percent and 1.8 percent respectively. The share of the world’s Catholics who live in Africa has been climbing steadily over recent decades. Africa alone shot up from 1.9 million in 1900 to 130 million in 2000 and an estimated 236 million today, representing almost twenty percent of the global total.
Catholicism, in other words, is already a non-western religion, at least at the grassroots, and it will be increasingly more so as time wears on. By the middle of this century, three-quarters of every Catholic man, woman and child will live outside the west. Trying to understand the church exclusively through the prism of western preoccupations and priorities, therefore, is a fool’s errand, yet it continues to be how most of us in the press cover the church.
The data also reveal a serious mismatch in how Catholic personnel are allocated around the world, one that’s been clear for years but continues to grow steadily worse, either by conscious choice at the leadership level or a simple lack of imagination about how to fix it.
In 2020, there were 410,219 Catholic priests in the world, with 40 percent living in Europe and just about 13 percent in North America and Australia/New Zealand, meaning that over half the world’s priests live and minister in the west at a time when more than two-thirds of its population is someplace else.