The report of my death was an exaggeration. – Mark Twain
I hope never to read my own obituary. On the one hand, if it were accurate, I would be dead. On the other hand, if it were inaccurate I might not like it. On still another hand (oops, that’s three), it might be accurate and I like it even less.
From where I sit in Chicago, the death of the Church might not seem all that exaggerated. This isn’t to say there are not great things happening, people getting involved, souls saved and all sorts of great things. It is an obituary I do no enjoy.
But if you pick out some obvious statistics, well, it can be sobering. For example, from 1975 to 2015, the number of diocesan priests in Chicago fell from 1,261 to 776. Ordinations totaled 37 in 1975 and only 14 in 2015. In 1975, Chicago had 6,497 women religious; in 2015 the number was 1,536. (See all the Chicago data here.)
I could go on with various other statistics that would indicate a decline in Chicago, and I bet I would find similar uninspiring statistics in other major American cities. Most have or will have significant parish consolidations. We’re getting ready for major parish closings in Chicago and it will be emotional, painful – and necessary.
If you look at the statistics for the Church in the United States as a whole, you get a similar impression. We have 20,000 few priests than in 1975. We lost nearly 90,000 women religious over the same period. And you can get all sorts of detailed statistics at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The American statistics won’t make you feel like dancing, unless you are a closet member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
On still another hand, if you look at the global statistics, you might feel like a waltz. You use the same link as the US stats, but have to click on the “global” data.
Spoiler alert: If you look at global numbers, the Catholic Church is growing…a lot. The number of priests is fairly stable: 404,783 in 1975; 415,656 in 2015. The number of women religious is down. But in other areas…
Priestly ordination: 4,140 in 1975; 5,947 in 2015.
Graduate-level seminarians: 24,183 in 1975; 55,988 in 2015.
Permanent deacons: 2,686 in 1975; 44,627 in 2015. (Yes, that is a 16-fold increase.)
Catholic elementary schools: 79,424 in 1975; 95,644 in 2015.
Catholic secondary schools: 27,542 in 1975; 47,415 in 2015.
World Catholic population: 709.6 million in 1975; 1.285 billion in 2015.
I could go on with many more statistics that show the growth of the Church. And there are some troubling trends with the Catholic population: fewer marriages of Catholics to Catholics, fewer baptisms of babies, fewer Catholic hospitals. But the trend clearly is toward a bigger, broader, more global Catholic Church.
So what do I learn from this as a resident of a big American diocese that is struggling to stop the bleeding? It tells me if I want to have a Church as vibrant as it should be I better start evangelizing. And I probably should expect that my future priestly role model may look and sound less like Bing Crosby in Going My Way and more like Cardinal Peter Turkson.
As a convert, I’m deeply grateful to have found the Catholic Church, mostly through the love and patience of a wonderful wife. And it is rather thrilling to know the rest of the world is finding the faith, too.