Parsing good news in the numbers of the world’s Catholics

How about some good news for a change? 

According to the Vatican’s recently released yearbook (with numbers through the end of 2008), the Catholic Church is growing slowly but surely: the number of Catholics (and their proportion to the world population) is on the rise, and the number of priests and seminarians are up. 

The only shadow in the report is that the number of Religious women worldwide is continuing a steady decline despite an explosion of new nuns in Africa and Asia. 

So settle back, and let’s look at some of the numbers: 

  •  The number of Catholics around the globe reached 1.166 billion, an increase of 19 million, or 1.7 percent, since the end of the previous year. 

As a percentage of the world population, Catholics have increased, barely, from 17.33 percent to 17.4 percent. 

  •  The number of bishops increased 1.13 percent, reaching a record of 5,002. The largest increases in their numbers took place on the African and American continents. 
  •  The number of diocesan and Religious priests showed “positive but moderate” growth, in the Vatican’s words, reaching 409,166 at the end of 2008. That’s 1,142 priests more than at the end of the previous year, and about 1 percent more than in 2000. 

Although a lot of the Church’s growth is happening in Africa and Asia, distribution of the world’s priests is still heavily weighted in Europe (with 47 percent of priests) and America (with 30 percent). But that is gradually changing; in 2000, Europe had 51.5 percent of the world’s priests. 

  • The number of seminarians grew to 117,024 at the end of 2008, an increase of 1,105 — or about 1 percent — over the year before. 

The Americas saw virtually no change. Europe was down 4.3 percent, but increases were registered in Oceania (6.5 percent), Asia (4.4 percent) and Africa (3.6 percent). 

  • The number of women Religious — though still by far the single largest category of Church workers — continues to show a precipitous decline, to 739,067 at the end of 2008, down nearly 8 percent from their number in 2000. (For comparison’s sake, in 1970 there were 1,004,304 sisters worldwide.) 

As with priests, the worldwide distribution of women Religious is weighted toward Europe (40.9 percent) and the Americas (27.5 percent). That’s also where there’s been the steepest declines; 17.6 percent and 12.9 percent, respectively, since 2000. 

But the number of African sisters has grown by 21.2 percent, and Asian sisters by 16.4 percent. 

Of course, numbers never tell the whole story, especially where the Holy Spirit is involved. But they can be helpful indicators of important trends. 

Did anything here jump out at you as significant? Let me know, and leave other comments, at