As economists like to say, when America sneezes, Europe catches a cold.
When it comes to culture, the equation often works the other way around, with European trends “infecting” America. If that’s the case, then American Catholic leaders must be doing the math after reading a sobering new study – “Global Catholicism: Trends & Forecasts” – by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.
“These are the Vatican numbers and nothing in here will surprise the bishops,” said Mark Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls and coauthor of the report. When it comes to church statistics, experts study life’s symbolic events: births, marriages and deaths. It also helps to note how often believers go to Mass and whether there are enough priests to perform all these rites. If so, the European numbers in the CARA report are serious business. While Vatican statistics claim Europe’s Catholic population rose 6 percent between 1980 and 2012, infant baptisms fell by 1.5 million and marriages between two Catholics collapsed from roughly 1.4 million to 585,000. The number of priests fell 23 percent and weekly Mass attendance kept declining, from 37 percent in the 1980s to 20 percent since 2010.
But the past lingers in brick and mortar. Even though European bishops closed 12 percent of their parishes during this study’s timeframe, Europe – with only 23 percent of the global Catholic population – still has more parishes than the rest of the world combined.
Is the United States the next Europe? It’s hard to compare numbers in the CARA study, since it placed North and South America in one region – with trends in other nations obscuring those here.
However, other statistics gathered during this era reveal that infant baptisms in U.S. churches fell from 950,000 in 1980 to about 710,000 in 2014, and Catholic marriages fell from 350,000 to roughly 150,000. The bottom line, stressed Gray, is that Catholicism is growing, in pews and at altars, in places – such as Africa and Asia – where Catholics are having more children.
Europe’s current fertility rate is 1.7 – well below the replacement rate – with much of the growth among immigrants. However, the Catholic population in Africa has risen 238 percent since 1980, in part because of a 5.1 fertility rate, in recent estimates, in sub-Saharan Africa. While the global distribution of priests and sanctuaries remains a complicated puzzle, it’s impossible to ignore one overarching reality. In 1980, there were 3,759 Catholics per parish in the world, while the current statistic is 5,541 per parish.
The pressure on priests will keep rising in these mega-parishes, noted Gray, creating a greater “social distance” between overworked priests and the rising number of parishioners. This could lead to further declines in the number of Catholics going to Confession, members financially supporting their parishes and parents who – with fewer children in their homes – encourage them to become priests and nuns.
• Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.