An Imbalanced Approach
The good news is the worldwide Catholic Church gained sixteen million new members in 2020, says the latest data from the Vatican’s Central Office of Church Statistics. At 1.36 billion, Catholics comprise just under 18 percent of the earth’s population. The vast majority of the millions of new Catholics are from Africa and Asia.
When the Vatican reported these statistics in February, it noted an “obvious imbalance” in the ratio of Catholics per priest in different regions. Almost 19 percent of the world’s Catholics live in Africa and are served by a little over 12 percent of the world’s priests. Eleven percent of Catholics live in Asia, served by just over 17 percent of the world’s priests. However, just over 20 percent of the world’s Catholics who live in Europe are served by 40 percent of the world’s priests, while 48 percent of the world’s Catholics living in the Americas are served by 29 percent of the world’s priests.
African and Asian seminarians are coming to minister in the West, where the pastoral need is great, despite the disproportionate growth of Catholicism in their continents of origin, where the priest-to-Catholic ratio is greater—one priest for every 5,089 Catholics in Africa compared to one priest for every 2,086 Catholics in the Americas. Longtime Vatican observer John Allen, Jr., reports, “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…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” (cruxnow.com).
Thus, with Africa and Asia now providing 60 percent of seminarians worldwide, the US and other Western nations are largely spared from facing the not-so-good news about the severity of their own vocation shortage. Plus, the growing number of Catholics in Africa and Asia are not being served adequately. Allen notes the demographic data gives the Catholic Church cause for celebration along with “an urgent need to get its act together to ensure a more deeply global perspective and a fairer distribution of personnel.”
Among nonordained ministers, such as women religious, the number of professed women in 2020 was 619,546. While the number of women religious in Africa and Asia grew, the total wasn’t enough to offset the declines in Europe, the Americas, and Oceania (south Pacific area). About 300 of the 420 institutes of women religious in the US are in their final decades of existence, says the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 2019. A third of all women’s congregations in the US have fewer than fifty members. Most have enough members for leadership and chapters through 2025, but that number is expected to plummet. Several men’s orders in the US face a similar predicament.
Since our Church is universal and catholic, shouldn’t vocations in regions where “the harvest is plenty” serve the parts of the world where the “laborers are few”? Is it fair for the West to depend heavily on priests and religious from other lands while the Catholic majority elsewhere is being underserved? Without their tremendous service, of course, the US Church would be underserved even more. But “robbing Peter to pay Paul” is neither a long-term solution, nor a just one.