Catholics in numbers

There were 1.16 billion baptised Catholics in the world in 2008, up 1.7% (19m) on the previous year, and making up 17.4% of the world's population,  according to the latest Annuario Pontificio

In the same period the world's population went from 6.6bn to 6.7bn. The Catholic share of that population increased slightly, from 17.3 to 17.4%.


The lion's share of that increase, of course, was in the developing world.

Other trends revealed in the annual Vatican statistical round-up of the latest figures (from 2008):

  • Bishops slightly up -- there are now more than 5,000 of them worldwide.
  • Priest numbers also up -- from 408,024 in 2007 to 409,166 in 2008, of whom 47.1% are in Europe, 30% in the Americas, 13.2% in Asia, 8.7% in Africa and just 1.2% in Oceania. But the European proportion is in decline (from 51.5% to 47.1% between 2000 and 2008) while the share of priests in Africa and Asia is increasing.
  • Women religious down -- now numbering 739,067, compared with 801,185 in 2000. The decline is most marked in Europe (-17,6%), America (-12,9%) and Oceania (-14,9%), while numbers of nuns in Africa (16,4%) and Asia (16,4%) are increasing.
  • Vocations to priesthood are also slightly up (1%) to 117,024 in 2008. 


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Eugene Pagano
8 years 11 months ago
If the percentage decline in the number of women religious is so great in Europe, why is there a visitation of American orders but not European ones?
Brad Roberts
8 years 11 months ago
I definitely disagree that this is a feel-good exercise. The facts apparently are that other parts of the world are gaining influence in the Church while we in the west are losing it.

Jesus came to the world, not Europe and the US, and Catholic Christianity, therefore, is a global religion. I think we demonstrate a level of arrogance when we act like our #s matter more than the overall totals.

It's a problem, yes, that there is so much falling away here in the west, but it has as much to do with *changes* in attitudes in the west as it does with Catholicism, which despite the dramatic practical changes of Vatican II really doesn't change a whole lot from age to age. I think that's a strength, as Jesus himself never told us to change the story to fit the times. He said "*this* is the story."

I think the summary of this is: "The bigger picture is a good one, but we have work to do here in the west."
Rick Malloy
8 years 11 months ago

Rather than citing that the number of priests are up 1%, the more important statistic is the priest per 1000 catholics ratio.  The decline is real and the lay led church is becoming more and more a reality.

In 2009, there were 40,666 priests for 65.2 million Catholics in the USA.  In 1995, there were 49,054 priests for 57.4 million Catholics (CARA

"Think about a priest in 1950 and think about one today. In 1950 there were 652 Catholics per priest, most of whom were in active ministry. By 2000, there were 1,257 Catholics per priest, and nearly a third of all priests are retired or over the age of 70.  ...  From 1970 to the present, the total number of priests fell by 20,000, or one-third of the total number of priests in 1970. Yet priests' dedication to their people has dramatically cushioned this remarkable reduction in numbers. As a result, almost all Catholics say they are aware that there are fewer priests, but only one in four report that this has affected them" (CARA Catholic Poll 2000).

"In 1966 the American Catholic Church had about 59,000 priests serving some 46 million Catholics, or an average of about one priest per every 780 parishioners. Since that time, there has been a significant decrease in the number of priests, and a corresponding increase in the number of U.S. Catholics. In 1990 there were approximately 53,000 priests to service 57 million U.S. Catholics, or an average of one priest for every 1,100 parishioners" (Zech, The Catholic Church and the priest shortage, Review of Social Economy, vol. 50, 1992);jsessionid=LBDLVdkgxmRfJlkDhMfC10GQhnG5hyyg3cJ3GwSQQqCXcqLNsxyY!1100738038!1274671113?docId=5000165710 

To paraphrase a political adage, Numbers are stubborn things. - Rick Malloy, S.J.
8 years 11 months ago
The real issue is bodies in the pews.  It's a feel good exercise to cite some of these statistics but the real issue is the deterioration of belief in developed countries.  The educated are abandoning the faith in droves and the Church has no answer.  Many that stay are doing so for cultural and social reasons not because they believe anything.
Rick Malloy
8 years 11 months ago
ADDITION / CORRECTION to previous post.  "The decline IN THE NUMBER OF priests is real and the lay led church is becoming more and more a reality.
Vince Killoran
8 years 11 months ago
Good observations here.  It would be interesting to note how this decline is experienced in generational terms, i.e, how does a 25 year-old Catholic think about this compared to say, a 75 year-old Catholic. I'm in the middle-50 years old and so I came of age as the effects of the decline set in but ounger Catholics by and large spend little time thinking about this and few actually know any clergy (versus families with priests, sisters, and brothers? hosting a parish priest for Sunday dinner? leaning on them for counseling? etc.).
The recent studies on the practice of the faith among young people are rich with data-do they say anything about their sense of the importance of religious and clergy in helping to influence and shape the faith? Maybe it's not a bad thing?
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 11 months ago
I'm surprised that the numbers are up.  Compared to when I was a child and when just about everyone I knew was Catholic and went to Church, now almost everyone I know is disillusioned and only a few continue to attend Mass regularly.  (Yet almost everyone I know is seeking a way to live in which they can grow and respond to God.)
But then, these numbers seem to be just about clergy.  Is it assumed that more bishops and priests means more Catholics?
Joseph Farrell
8 years 11 months ago
Yes, there are more Catholics in the world, not just more clergy.  However, it's great to see the uptick in vocations.  Just in the United States, after decades of huge declines in vocations, we've seen steady growth in the seminaries.  At St. Charles in Philadelphia, where I am, we're having to open up sections that haven't seen use in years.
8 years 11 months ago
Maybe the Church will start a comprehensive program to explain the Mass now that there will be changes in the Mass later this year.  They announced in Mass this morning that there will be a visiting priest in a few weeks at the local parish to go over all the new changes in the Mass.
Just knowing what the Mass is about in detail will help keep people interested and maybe get them there before it starts.  In my area nearly half arrive after Mass starts and I doubt more than a few could tell you what each section of the Mass is about and why it is there.  Catholics are poorly informed about what is the central part of their religion, especially now that few are going to Catholic schools.
Jim McCrea
8 years 11 months ago
"Catholics are poorly informed about what is the central part of their religion, especially now that few are going to Catholic schools."
I don't think that 50 years ago - having gone to Catholic schools or not - the average Catholic was better informed about their religion than they are now.  They may have been able to parrott the Baltimore catechism, but how much did they really understand, and about how much did they really care?
Stephen Murray
8 years 11 months ago
Dearest Austen, how have you managed to exclude the Permanent Deacons from your list. Are they no longer members of the Church, or no longer clergy?
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