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from issue no. 06/07 - 2006

Statisical Yearbook of the Catholic Church

The growth of Catholics in Africa

by Gianni Cardinale

Below we present excerpts from the data printed by L’Osservatore Romano of 30 April last (pp. 8 and 9) on the publication of the Annuarium statisticum Ecclesiae 2004 by Libreria Editrice Vaticana. The headings are ours.

Catholics are increasing but not too much
In the period from 1978 to 2004 Catholics in the world have undergone rapid growth, with a percentage increase of more than 45%. In that same span they increased overall from almost 757 millions to 1.098 billion, with an absolute increase of around 341 million faithful. The data, however, look very much less cheering if read in the light of the expansion of world population in the same period, going from 4.2 to 6.4 billion. It turns out, in fact, that the presence of Catholics at global level is in slight decrease, from almost 18% to little more than 17%.
In Europe the stationary situation is largely to be attributed to the demographic stasis of the Old Continent, whose population, currently in a phase of stabilization, is forecast to decline sharply over the next decades.
Decidedly more dynamic is the situation in Africa, where Catholics have almost tripled: in 1978 there were around 55 million and by 2004 had risen to almost 149 million. This growth, only in part attributable to purely demographic factors, reflects a real increase in the presence of baptized believers: in fact, Catholics, who made up 12.4% of the population of Africa in 1978, represented almost 17 % twenty-six years later.
Situations intermediary between the two described above are those in America and in Asia, where the increase in believers has certainly been vigorous (+ 49.7% and + 79.6% respectively), but altogether explicable in terms of the demographic development over the same period.
Aside from the differing demographic dynamics, however, there is clear confirmation of the increased weight of the African continent (whose believers rose from 7% to more than 13.5% of the global figure) and of the sharp decrease, instead, in Europe, where the percentage on the world total diminished from the 35% of 1978 to the 25.4% of 2004. The position of America as the continent to which almost half of the world’s believers belong is now consolidated.

The bishops instead are increasing everywhere
The number of bishops in the world increased between 1978 and 2004 by more than 28%, going from 3,714 to 4,784, with a very marked growth in Africa (+ 45.8%), in Oceania (+ 34%) and in Asia (+ 31.4%), while in America (+ 27.2%) and in Europe (+ 23.3%) the values are below average. As against such diversified dynamics, however, the distribution of the bishops by continent has remained substantially stable over the time-span considered, with a greater concentration out of the total in America and Europe. Also in Africa, where the body of bishops has been increasing in a more considerable way, the quota of bishops out of the world total has risen slowly from 11.6% of 1978 to the 13.2% of 2004.

The priests, a “rather disappointing” growth
Compared to the expansion in the number of bishops in the world in the period 1978-2004, the dynamics of the growth in priests has been globally rather disappointing, showing a shrinkage of 3.5% (from around 421,000 to less than 406,000), concentrated in the first part of the sample period. The number of priests, in fact, decreased overall by more than 15,000 in 1988, afterwards stabilizing and showing growth over the last decade. Tending against the world average, the increase in the number of priests in Africa and in Asia is rather comforting, with + 85% and + 74%, respectively (and with an increase of over 2,000 since 2003 alone), while America remains static, close to an average of around 120,000. Europe and Oceania, finally, responsible for the shrinkage observed at global level, show a decrease in 2004 of more than 20% and of almost 14%, respectively….
The percentage distribution of priests by continent shows notable changes in the 26 years considered. Europe, while possessing the highest quota, sees a considerable decrease over time in the number of priests out of the total: in 1978 the more than 250,000 priests represented almost 60% of the total of the ecclesiastical group, while twenty-six years later they had come down to less than half with a quota not above 50%. The chief reason for this was the large decrease in diocesan priests, relatively more reduced than the religious. Africa and Asia, on the contrary, have gained ground, reaching overall more than 19% of the world total from the 10.6% in 1978, thanks, in particular, to the increased presence of diocesans on the two continents. Over the period America kept to around 30% with a slight but continual increase in its percentage, while Oceania remains relatively stable around a quota of little more than 1%.

Female religious: “markedly decreasing dynamic” despite Africa and Asia
A markedly decreasing dynamic is to be observed in the group of female religious, with a shrinkage of more than 22% in the period considered. The aggregate number of female religious, in fact, has shrunk from more than 990,000 in 1978 to less than 770,000 twenty-six years later. The decline, also in this case, has involved three continents (Europe, America and Oceania), with negative changes of some consequence (-41% in Oceania, -39% in Europe and -27% in America). In Africa and in Asia, instead, the increase has been decidedly stable, higher than 60% for both continents. Consequently, the percentage of female religious in Africa and Asia out of the world total has gone from 13% to around 27%, so reducing the percentage of Europe and America overall from 87% to 73%.

The seminarians: “a pattern of growth”
but not in Europe
Looking at the annual evolution in the number of candidates for the priesthood, diocesans and religious, an overall pattern of growth can be seen for the period. The candidates in the world have gone from almost 64,000 in 1978 to more than 113,000 in 2004, with an increase of around 77%. The pattern has been very different on the various continents. While, in fact, Africa, America and Asia show an extremely lively developmental dynamic, Europe shows a shrinkage of around 2% in the same period. Consequently, a downscaling of the role of the European continent in the potential growth of renewal of the priestly structures is observable, with a quota going down from 37% to 20%, compared to an expansion in Africa (the scale of which has multiplied fourfold in the twenty-six years considered), America and Asia which in 2004 together represent around 78% of the world total (20%, 32% and 26%, respectively).
Also in terms relative to the number of Catholics, the greater dynamism of Asia and Africa is confirmed, with more than 150 candidates to the priesthood per million faithful in Africa in 2004 and around 257 in Asia. The European (84) and American (67) values, a great deal less significant and in diminution compared to 2003, suggest a potential for lessened coverage of the requirement of pastoral services.
Giving, finally, the number of upper seminarians per 100 priests, one gets an indication of the potential for generational replacement in actual pastoral work. Well, in this context also, Africa and Asia confirm their primacy with more than 72 and 60 candidates, respectively, while Europe numbered less than 12 candidates per 100 priests in 2004, confirming an enduring stagnation in the priestly vocations (increased by only 2 since 1978). Overall, however, the figure has gone from around 15 candidates to the priesthood per 100 in 1978 to little less than 28 in 2004, thanks largely to the contribution from Asia and Africa.

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