“The dominant Catholic narrative of our time is not decline, but astronomic growth”

John Allen  is offering this week “three myths about the Church to give up for Lent,” and this one hit home for me:

The popular take on Catholicism these days tends to be that it’s a church in crisis. Rocked by sex scandals, bruising political fights and financial shortfalls, it seems to be hemorrhaging members — a recent Pew Forum study found there are now 22 million ex-Catholics in America, which would be the country’s second-largest religious body after what’s left of the Catholic church itself — as well as clustering parishes, closing institutions and struggling to hand on the faith to the next generation.

The overall perception is that this is an era of Catholic entropy — decline, contraction, things getting smaller.

Seen from global perspective, however, that’s just wildly wrong. The last half-century witnessed the greatest period of missionary expansion in the 2,000-year history of Catholicism, fueled by explosive growth in the southern hemisphere. Take sub-Saharan Africa as a case in point: The Catholic population at the dawn of the 20th century was 1.9 million, while by the end of the century it was more than 130 million, representing a staggering growth rate of 6,708 percent. Overall, the global Catholic footprint shot up from 266 million in 1900 to 1.1 billion in 2000, ahead of the overall rate of increase in world population, and is still rising today.

The dominant Catholic narrative of our time, in other words, is not decline but astronomic growth. (That’s not true everywhere, as there are significant losses in Europe, parts of North America and in some pockets of Latin America, but it is the global big picture.)

Running those numbers, one is reminded of a famous 2003 essay by David Brooks, poking fun at secular elites who like to believe that religion is in decline: “A great Niagara of religious fervor is cascading down around them,” he wrote, “while they stand obtuse and dry in the little cave of their own parochialism.”

Even in the United States, the Catholic church is actually holding its own. Yes, it’s lost a third of Americans born into the faith, but its retention rate of two-thirds is actually fairly healthy by the competitive standards of America’s wide-open religious marketplace. (It’s much higher than, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who retain only one-third of their members.) Further, the Catholic church is holding steady at roughly a quarter of the national population, thanks largely to Hispanic immigration and higher-than-average birth rates among Hispanic Catholics. In the words of Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, American Catholicism is “browning,” but it’s not contracting.

To be sure, statistics alone don’t settle disputes about the choices facing the church. Those 22 million ex-Catholics in America, for instance, don’t necessarily represent a “vote with your feet” referendum against the conservative drift of church leadership in the last quarter-century, especially when you consider that, according to the Pew data, a sizeable chunk defected to Evangelical Protestantism. Nor does the phenomenal growth of Catholicism in the global south necessarily amount to an endorsement of current Vatican policy, because quite honestly, the Vatican has had precious little to do with it.

In other words, you can’t draw a straight line from population data to who’s right or wrong in current Catholic debates. What can be said with empirical certainty, however, is that anybody who thinks this is an era of Catholic decline needs to get out more often.

Read what else he has to say here.


  1. Dominick Hankle says:

    I have heard this data before. I believe however, that it is not just the Catholic church experiencing this growth but also other Christian churches. For example, there is a great deal of growth in the Anglican churches from the south. They tend to be a more conservative group and that is why the break away groups from the episcopal church tend to join those communions. It would be interesting to compare the growth rate between say Catholics in these areas as well as evangelical and Anglican churches. That would tell us if there is significantly more growth in the Catholic world as compared to other communions.

  2. See both Pope Benedict and Anchoress are wrong about becoming a small, persecuted religion! I told her. :-P

  3. vox borealis says:

    I even find the “22 million ex-Catholics” an interesting datum to consider more deeply. My own anecdotal experience is that the Catholic Church for whatever reason tends to generate a stronger sense of identity, so that ex-Catholics identify themselves as that: ex-Catholics. My friends and colleagues who were ex-anything else never referred to themselves as ex-Lutheran or ex-Presbyterian or whatever. They might say that their family “goes to church” or “used to go to church” and that they are “not religious”…but they never identify with their former denomination. Yet ex-Catholics–and my former Catholic friends and colleagues would always say that they “used to be Catholic” or “raised Catholic” or, more snarkily, are “survivors” from Catholicism–tend still to self-identify in reference to the Catholic Church.

    Interesting, to me anyway.

  4. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    “Recovering Catholic” is a phrase I hear.

    And yes: Catholic identity is undeniably stronger than Lutheran or Methodist or whatever.

    Dcn. G.

  5. Katie Angel says:

    I hear “recovering Catholic”, “former Catholic” and “rescued Catholic” down here in the Deep South (Georgia). I remember writing a paper on this deep identificaion for one of my Christianity classes in college and it fascinated me back then as well.

  6. Deacon Norb says:

    A new one I just heard seems to characterize many. They call themselves “Lazy Catholics.”

  7. Of course it all depends on the definition of what being a ‘Catholic’ means. I think what Cardinal Ratzinger was referring to was those who live a Catholic life and accept Church teaching or what is referred to as practicing Catholics versus those who are led by the culture that surrounds them. We should get a pretty good witness on this in November. The lines are even drawn more clearly this election.

  8. I think dissenting Catholics kind of bring together all of the above. The Catholic teaching are hard and when one dissents, they walk away sad. I wonder how long the rich young man who walked away with maybe the first dissent called himself a follower of Christ.

  9. Barbara P says:

    Mark Who are you in that story?

  10. This is good news. I’m an ex-Secularist and trust me, my yoke is much easier and my burden is much lighter. People who have bad things to say about Catholics literally do not know what they are talking about.

  11. I suspect that if the bad things happened to them or a loved one, they know exactly what they are talking about.

    The shame is that the bad things happened. The greater shame will be if they continue to happen.

    The hope is that those things will cease happening. Then and only then will people “literally not know what they are talking about”. The Catholic Church is not at that point.

  12. Deacon Norb, “Lazy Catholic” is a great term. When I ask my Confirmation kids why they don’t go to Mass, they always say that it’s because they don’t have time. I say, you have time to do whatever you do instead of Mass, so why not Mass? Crickets chirping. Their parents sent them to Confirmation, so they’re at least checking the boxes. “Lazy” seems right.

  13. ron chandonia says:

    This analysis is fleshed out in John Allen’s wonderful 2009 book, The Future Church. As we become a Church of the newly emergent nations, he says, Catholics will find that the “social justice” v. “personal morality” conflict that divides us here in America will no longer be relevant. In the economic and political spheres, the “new” Catholics will champion social justice; in the area of personal morality, they will stand firm against abortion and homosexual activism.

    Frankly, it seems to me just as well that we no longer run up the Catholic numbers by counting baptized secularists who find any and every obligation of the faith burdensome to their comfortable lives. The Americans most likely to respond to evangelization efforts today are not the privileged but the marginalized, the ones most like the Catholics of the South that Allen describes. Our Catholic paper here in Atlanta reports that of the 2,000 people who attended our recent Rite of Election ceremonies, over 200 came from a single parish: the Hispanic mission called Our Lady of the Americas. Even here in the US, that is the future Church.

  14. I think Mark is one of those who will be comforted.

  15. I think Allen is just totally wrong, at least as regards the United States and Europe. All the other data to date shows an enormous drop off in the practice of the faith, mass attendance, confessions, membership in religious orders, etc. Benedict XVI, it’s true, would also disagree with him.

  16. I meant to write Catholicism not Catholics. Duh, sorry for the confusion.

  17. I think Allen is just totally right.

  18. Barbara P says:

    go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

  19. Yeah, but fear and a persecution narrative is the best revenue and loyalty engine ever invented by humankind.

  20. Barbara, I am one trying to walk the walk and talk the talk and often failing. But moving the goal to make it easy doesn’t make much sense to me. In talking with some ministers coming from other Christian faiths to the Catholic faith last weenend, one common theme was that the Catholic Church has a truth and while some have decided to change change the rules and the truth, the constant message of the Pope and Magesterium in the Catholic Church has been consistent and strong. If faith are central to your life and heaven is the goal, we only fool ourselves if we say the teaching is too hard rather than trying to say yes and take up the cross.

    As to your comment about sell what you own and give the money to the poor, I would bet this is an area I would stack up well. We had a number of years we were audited because the IRS did not believe the amounts we had given of our time, talent, and treasure. Since we did not thing big government programs ever produce any real positive benefit, we have tried to stay off of whatever we can and at the same time, try to keep as much of our money as possible out of their hands and into programs with great track record helping people. We have also had over 50 girls who have stayed in our house while keeping their babies over the years and have given what they needed to get on their feet. If we are pro life, we have to walk the walk. I always say we because without my wife Greta, I would have been a miserable sod and on my way to damnation. I fear without her, I will never be strong enough to get through the day or be able to take my next breath. Greta would be mad at me for saying any of this, but since you challenged it, thought I should at least try to answer.

  21. Ron, lot of truth in what you are saying. One thing I think will change and impact this story and that is a broke USA and many who see the godless state as not really able to deal effectively with problems. I think many are seeing that getting caught up in a system that manages every aspect of your life while at the same time driving religious liberty and God from their public lives is not a friend. This is one reason why there has been such a major push back by all the Bishops, even those who believe in the most liberal view of social justice. I have a friend who is a good Catholic and works in the social justice commission of a major dioceses and we often debate the issues left and right, liberal and conservative. Obama has changed his mind on a lot of things because he has exposed the godless state programs as the true enemy of faith and religious liberty. He has been involved in many of the discussions between the various dioceses and he is seeing zero support for Obama on this HHS move, but even more, it has given them new perspective on the goals of Obamacare that are in no way positive. What many like him believe and have worked for is better cooperation between government and faith based programs which people like him have developed over the years and are very effective. He belived Government funding partnered with faith based organizations that brought faith and personal responsibility wich would allow independence and upward growth away from government was the plan. With the increasing attacks on faith based organizations forcing the removal the faith and personal responsibility essentials, he sees only generational slavery rather than independence and hope in the future for the poor. “Government progams spend 10$ to 1$ and have far worse long term results for those involved. This was shown in congressional hearings and independent studies years ago,” he told me. “This became the plan after Clinton declared the era of big government was over when he started to set up faith based initiatives which W. Bush expanded. When Obama was running, his staff met with many religious organizations and assured them of his full support and in fact plans to expand. When in office it has been the opposite and many in Obama administration are very upset feeling they were used.”

    I was kind of shocked by this conversation, but it was certainly enlightening. He is attending a panel discussion on both Obamacare and the impact of the HHS mandate and plans to add his support to seeing Obamacare go away. That is a major change for this person. He has joined those who believe big government has plans for greater control and view religion as something to be put in a box. He is writing an article with 7 other social justice diocese leaders from around the country and coordinating it with that department in the USCCB office for release this summer. I think what has been the lefts social justice resource is about to change radically.

  22. I suppose that refers to the fear and persecution narrative you atheists spread. You guys do it remarkably well.

  23. Barbara P says:

    But you object to every government program to help the poor.

  24. Thank you for this.

  25. I object to the end results that can clearly be seen by anyone who has an open mind and is not sold that government is god.
    Every measure that one looks at pre war on poverty started by LBJ and today show that the poor have not been truly helped by the avalance of government money and control and regulations.
    Education for the poor – horrible
    explosion of single moms – horrible
    54 million abortions – horrible
    poverty rates – horrible
    broken homes among the poor – horrible
    juvenile crime – horrible
    teen suicides – horrible

    Nothing has improved. Care to guess how much money has been thrown at this war on poverty? Government does not have the tools to win a war on poverty. If instead of spending all this money, we had chosen to allow not grow government to its size today and kept the money from flowing to Washington, we could have collectively come up with better solutions and ideas. Polls now show the vast majority of Americans do not beleive big government programs work. They, by their nature, as the founders predicted all have the same end goals and that is gaining more power and more taxes and less freedom.

    Isn’t it time we admit they have failed and try to come up with new ideas and new ways to help the poor that start by saying giving the government more power does not work. I am not in any way against helping the poor up, but the success of that help is most successful when it comes with faith and love and is designed not to trap them into needing the helper forever, but in wanting them to become what God intended for all of us. Many in this country have become stuck with their mind having a permanent connection between helping the poor and big government. No matter how much evidence of failure is laid out for them to see, they seem stuck as if this is the only possible solution.

    Clinton started to see this when he signed welfare reform and said the era of big government is over to the utter shock of the left. He started to see that a better way was faith based programs. W. Bush had seen this as well and expanded those programs. It is bringing the tool Christ gave us with faith back into the work of helping the poor. They are designed in a way not to keep the people coming back for a government check and to keep votes, but to allow the person to learn that only with personal responsibility and effort can one truly be free and escape poverty. The faith based program can use tough love when needed to help jolt the person to reality. Government programs treat everyone like a number and because they gain more power with more people on them, they do not want escapees. why do you think the people who favor big government also fight options for the failed schools? they produce more customers that will never escape from big government programs.

    How about we make every government program have to face an evaluation every year and fund only if an indpendent study shows their true value in actually doing what the original purpose was which should be to help the poor escape or to reduce teen pregnancies and abortions and teen suicides or whatever else they were created to do. How about we fund the department of energy only if they provide America with affordable solutions. Care to guess who is getting killed the most his high gas prices? rich or poor? Obama has massive money being spent in his administration on energy issues and we have no plan. Even his green program is filled with huge amounts of money going to firms with not much to show.

    How about listing those agencies of government which have matched original promises around funding and purpose which are effective and user friendly? How about listing those government programs which have not expanded in both size and ever growing control.

    Can’t we honestly do better than these failed big government solutions?

  26. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    Barbara and “Mark” …

    Stop baiting each other. Stick to the topic, which is John Allen’s observation on the growth of the Catholic Church. Don’t turn this into yet another negative and angry political squabble, which doesn’t do anybody any good and, in fact, leads to resentment, bitterness, hostility and sin. I posted this piece because I found it refreshing and optimistic. It’s not exactly uplifting to see to how some people can turn it into yet another screeching, spittle-filled screed against the government.

    And “Mark,” I’ll thank you to keep your comments short. You’re monopolizing the conversation. Again.

    No wonder people are giving up reading the comments for Lent. Around these parts, even good news gets twisted beyond recognition into something ugly.

    Dcn. G.

  27. Deacon Greg — Thank you for that comment.

  28. Barbara P says:

    I’m sorry Deacon. You are right. Mark I apologize to you and all the readers of the comments.

  29. While it is important to counter the belief in the global decline of the Church, it must not be at the expense of other certain facts, namely that the condition of the Church in Europe is beyond catastrophic. In Austria, there is a group of renegade priests known as the “Pfarrer-Initiative” (priest initiative) where some 400 or so have signed a public document attacking the Church and publicly promising to disobey. I would conservatively estimate that they have the support of 70% of all priests and “pastoral assistants” in the county, and that probably reflects a European wide level of support as a whole. This may be the reason Cardinal Schönborn has very conspicuously not made a move against them and their proclamation of “The Call to Disobedience” against him and against Rome. It is also possible, perhaps even probable based on the many, many, things he himself has said personally, that while he was taken aback by such a public revolt against his authority, he is not in principle opposed to much of the agenda of the renegade priests.
    I think probably the best way to communicate just how dire is the situation, is to remember that it was Cardinal Schönborn who authorized the works of Alfred Hrdlicka be shown in the museum of his Cathedral. While it is true that Schönborn ordered the removal of Hrdlicka’s paintings which depicted the Last Supper as a homosexual orgy, and another which depicted our Lord and a Roman guard (and that is all the detail I will give), from the exhibit, saying he was not aware these works would also be shown, he was nevertheless aware that this “artist” who boasted of being an atheist Stalinist communist, had in fact painted them. As if in compensation for taking down 2 of Hrdlicka’s more disgusting works, Cardinal Schönborn then actually commissions him to do a sculpture of Sr. Mary Restituta Kafka for the Cathedral, where the offensive monstrosity hangs to this day. Why brings these details up? Because he is the “conservative European Bishop”. Many if not most are far, far to the left of him. It is just that bad.

  30. stefanie says:

    There is good news from Los Angeles, too. Many parishes are having their largest RCIA baptism classes in years. At our Rite of Elect at the Cathedral on the 26th, more than 1500 catechumen presented themselves for participation in the Sacraments of Initiation at Easter Vigil. And not all could actually make it to the Cathedral (it’s a geographically-large archdiocese). At the Rite of Calling to Continuing Conversion last weekend, there were undoubtedly an equal number of previously-baptized candidates who are ready to make a profession of faith to the Church’s teachings or baptized Catholics who are choosing to be confirmed and receive their First Reconciliation/First Holy Communion.

    Yes, it’s always true that others will flow out the back door while others are fleeing into the front door. But these who are running towards our front doors KNOW the value of our Catholic faith and traditions,while the ones slipping out the back doors never really valued it or were never taught to value the Church’s precepts.

    Our Cathedral reminded me of this when I was there for the Rite of Elect for our parish’s 12 Elect. The front doors are impressively thick — fortress-like — yet contain the symbols — on the lower panels — of many belief systems…of ‘little gods’, if you will. If you advance through those open doors, you will find the One God Who is Eternal and Bigger than any other gods. If you enter with humilty like Mary (who stands above the door with her arms outstretched to all), you will ‘get’ the Who and the Why of God inside via the saints, the crucifix, the Eucharist.
    But for all the impressiveness of the front door, the exit doors are simple and made of clear glass. The world outside of the Catholic Church is not hidden and we Catholics always operate within the world, not out of it.
    God is not going to force anyone to stay in the Catholic Church. One is free to slip in and out anytime…as I did for more than 25 years until finally staying put for these last 16 years.

  31. The Catholic religion is the religion that one should trust since our founder i.e. JESUS CHRIST is still alive and his teaching is the correct way how one should live. Remember JESUS CHRIST is the SON OF GOD.


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