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Recently published documents out of the Vatican are painting a bleak picture for the growth of the Church, showing an overall decline in the number of seminarians, priests and women religious all over the world. The documents, known as the Pontifical Yearbook 2017 and the 2015 Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, were published by the Vatican’s Central Office of Church Statistics on April 6.
Globally, the Catholic Church lost 136 priests between 2014 and 2015. Localized trends by continent are negative for Europe, highly positive for Africa and Asia, and slightly positive for America and Oceania (what the Vatican calls Australia and other islands of the central Pacific Ocean). There has been an upward trend in priests globally since the year 2000, making this decline, though slight, the first reported global decline of the 21st century.
The report correctly identifies the places that are the hardest hit as the Americas and Europe, while Africa is a hot spot for future vocations: “The sole exception remains Africa, which does not yet seem to be affected by the crisis in vocations and is confirmed as the geographical area with the greatest potential.”
The number of seminarians reported by the Vatican, however, has been in decline since 2011, although the 2014–2015 difference of 96 fewer is shallow compared to the 2,000-a-year drop that has been the pattern from 2011 to 2014. Taking into account what the 2015 trends look like relative to previous years since the turn of the century, raw numbers of priests and seminarians from year to year show fewer and fewer priests available to serve Catholics.
The Vatican highlights this bigger picture: “Taking into consideration the relationship between the number of baptized Catholics present in the various continental areas and the number of priests, it can be seen that, while in 2010 an average of 2,900 Catholics were attributed to each priest, in 2015 this ratio rises to 3,091.”
The Vatican report goes on to point out what it calls a “clear decline” in the number of both men and women religious. The number of religious sisters in the world dropped by more than 50,000 from 2010 to 2015. Africa and Asia are observing increases in sisters, while every other continent is witnessing decline. The report describes the trends in Europe, North America and Oceania as “sharp declines.” In February, Church Militant reported on a six-year flatline of religious vocations in the United States.
Focusing on the United States, Church Militant has published a series of pieces highlighting how the priest shortage and attendant decline in sacramental participation is coming home to roost in dioceses across the country. Dioceses are hurting, including Pittsburgh, Sioux City and, most recently, the diocese of Hartford, which announced a round of parish closings on May 7. On May 16, the diocese of Scranton announced its plans to sell its seminary facility to the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.
While the number of baptized Catholics has grown, the number of priests being ordained out of that growing pool of baptized Catholic men has not only stagnated, but dropped. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown, while the number of Catholics connected to a parish has grown to almost 70 million, the number of diocesan priests has dropped by 10,000, from approximately 35,000 nationally to approximately 25,000.