Comment Opinion & Features

More Catholics, fewer priests

Newly ordained priests lie on the floor of Saint Peter's Basilica during their ordination mass (Getty)

The comedian Vic Reeves once remarked that “88.2 per cent of statistics are made up on the spot”. That might not be too far off the mark when it comes to Catholicism. The Church rightly prioritises the salvation of souls over the gathering of statistics. Nevertheless, the Vatican does release an annual compendium of figures that offers some insight into changes in the worldwide Church. Known as the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, it is compiled by the Central Office of Church Statistics in Rome. The 2019 edition, published last week, presents the figures for 2017 – the most recent year available.

The headline news is that the number of Catholics has risen to its highest level in history. There are now 1.3 billion baptised faithful, comprising 17.7 per cent of the global population of 7.4 billion people. But that is not surprising: the number of Catholics is rising largely as a result of broader population growth, rather than because of spectacular successes in the mission field. So the number of Catholics has risen by 1.5 per cent in Asia and 2.5 per cent in Africa. But in Europe and America the increase is below the average annual world population growth rate of 1.1 per cent. While the headcount of Catholics is rising each year, that is a crude measure of the Church’s overall health.

The other big takeaway from the new statistics is that the number of priests worldwide has declined for the first time since 2010. In 2017, there were 414,582 priests, compared with 414,969 the year before. Admittedly, this is only a fall of 387, but the Vatican itself has described the change as “conspicuous”, given that the number has increased throughout this decade. We do not yet know if this is just a blip or whether it is the start of a steady decline. But we should be concerned as there is also a fall in the number of seminarians worldwide. There were 115,328 candidates for the priesthood in 2017, compared with 116,160 in 2016, a decrease of 832.

One of the worst mistakes we can make is to believe that such changes are irreversible. They are not. They can be countered through our actions and, above all, through God’s grace. Given the drop in priests, Pope Francis may consider declaring another Year for Priests. The last one, in 2009/2010, was fruitful and was followed by a boost in priestly numbers (whether it caused the rise is hard to establish). A Year for Priests might also raise the morale of clergy which, at least in the West, has declined as a result of the abuse crisis.

As part of the Year, the Vatican could encourage parishes worldwide to have a weekly hour of Adoration to pray for priestly vocations. We might also study dioceses where vocations are abundant. One example is the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, which has the highest number of seminarians per Catholic in the United States. According to its current Bishop, James Conley, these vocations are the result of wise episcopal leadership over the past 40 years, a good system of Catholic education and a commitment to excellence in worship. Surely the Lincoln model could be replicated elsewhere.

The Vatican might also consider hosting regional synods of bishops for Europe and the Americas. The Church is clearly struggling to spread the faith in these continents. In Europe, for example, the number of Catholics is growing by a meagre 0.1 per cent. In the Americas, the figure is hardly better at 0.96 per cent.

The last synod for Europe took place in 1999 and resulted in the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, which called for a new evangelisation of the continent. Perhaps, 20 years on, the bishops could meet again to discuss what has – and hasn’t – worked.

In 2007, the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean issued the Aparecida document – described as a “master plan for the new evangelisation in Latin America” by the theologian George Weigel. If Pope Francis called a synod for the Americas, the bishops could return to this landmark text and consider how well it has been implemented. A synod could also strengthen the ties between bishops in North and South America, who last met together in Rome in 1997.

Synods, special years and Adoration are not, of course, the only way for the Church to address its weaknesses. But they can help us to tackle problems before they turn into full-blown crises.