Acts of the Apostasy Takes Reasonable Exception

to Stephen Prothero’s list of the 12 most influential US Catholics.

I agree with LarryD. For one thing, I would argue that Mother Angelica, incapacitated though she is, remains a massive influence, since her network is, after all, seen all over the globe.

When I was in Denver, I had the privilege of hearing John Allen speak (and getting to chat with him briefly). His talk was fascinating (as you’d expect) and one of the points he made was that Evangelical Catholicism is here to stay, both as a grass roots movement in the Church and as the driving agenda from Rome as well. He noted that American and First World Catholics tend to view everything through the lens of their local experience and so their narrative tends to be one of decline since the council. But he said that in the developing world and the global south, the Church has witnessed explosive growth (as in nearly 7000% percent growth–and no I did not accidently include an extra zero) since 1900:

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.

In other words, you are living in the middle of the greatest period of missionary success in the history of the Church. Are there setbacks and persecutions? Of course, the hostility you are seeing is due, not to the fact that the Church is a thing of the past, but to the fact that the Dragon is furious, for he knows his time is short.

This has everything to do with our call to bear witness to the faith as Americans. Why? Because the American Catholic Church remains a powerhouse of evangelical creativity, ferment and enterprise. We see all the infighting and struggle here in the States and elsewhere in the West (and that struggle is real and must be faced, as quislings like Sebelius or Catholics for a Free Choice demonstrate). But we should also count our blessings that organizations like, say, Catholic Answers have a global reach and their materials are copied and imitated by ardent evangelists in Africa (a shout out to Godwin Delali Adadzie is in order here).

In short, far beyond the influence of the people Prothero lists are the ordinary unheralded evangelists (like LarryD and countless other lay Catholics and priests and religious toiling in their spheres) who are helping evangelists abroad toiling in their spheres to make this the single most explosive period of growth in the Church’s entire history. Outfits like EWTN and Catholic Answers and other lay apostolates play a huge and largely unheralded role in that which goes unnoticed by people who think everything is in NY, DC, and LA. It’s rather like Christians who focused all their attention on Jerusalem in the first century and paid no notice to the work being done by some Johnny come lately named Saul of Tarsus. It would eventually prove that people from the woods of Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula and the British Isles would have some important gifts to give the Church. Here too we see that grace is dark matter and that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor 1:27-29)

When the real history of our time is written in some future age, the people we think important now will vanish in significance compared to some unknown and unsung schlub who may be, for all we know, toiling in a soup kitchen in Uganda at this hour and downloading a copy of Pillar Fire, Pillar of Truth to read aloud at his Bible study tonight.

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  • Mike the Analyst

    Interesting point about the John Allen discussion regarding the growth of the church – if anyone says there’s a Priest shortage – I correct them and note that there are more priests today than there were 10 years ago. What we have is a UNITED STATES Priest shortage – troubling, to be sure, but nothing that would cause the Universal church to change.

  • Sherry Weddell

    I just put this up on my FB page since the 2012 Vatican Yearbook was just released but it seems most relevant to this discussion.

    Since I never hear this reality spoken of in our debates and leaders get that surprised look in their eyes when I point this out (and it will be in the book!) I will chance boring you with what may already seem obvious.

    Catholicism in 2010: A window on the dilemmas of success:

    Another year – another 15 million Catholics! 1.196 billion brothers and sister on this planet as of December 31, 2010.

    Another year – 1,643 additional priests. 412,236 to be exact.

    But here’s the true dynamic that we know at some level but don’t talk about: there were an additional 9,129 additional Catholics in 2010 for every additional priest. Because it only takes 9 months and no education to make a baby and 5 minutes to baptize her or him but at least 25 years and 6 years of graduate education to train a priest. That’s why the percentage of the Body Catholic that is ordained drops every year. At the end of 2010, priests and bishops comprised 0.0348% of the Body Catholic.

    The global Catholic population quadrupled in the 20th century. Liturgical changes for a mere 18% of the world’s population two thirds of the way through that century didn’t cause the world wide population explosion. Things like improved food, health care, and clean water did. Vatican II occurred during this world-wide growth but didn’t cause it. The primary cause of the priest shortage was a universal, not uniquely Catholic dynamic.

    (You could argue that different outcomes of Vatican II played significant roles in the staggering growth of Catholicism in Africa and Asia and the rapid collapse in Europe but the population growth was a tide floating all boats.)

    Short of a catastrophic global population fall or a dramatic change in how we form priests, there is no way to reverse this dynamic for the foreseeable future. If this trend does not change significantly, by 2050, bishops and priests will make up less than 3/100ths of 1% of Catholics.

    This why lay Catholics only made up 10% of the Vatican acknowledged “Workforce” in 1978 and make up just over 71% today.

    • Mark Shea


      Allen lives in Colorado. You should really make his acquaintance. I think you’d have a lot to talk about.

    • Ted Seeber

      The same John Allen claims we’re headed for (with the death from old age of the boomers and the serious lack of first world GenXers to procreate) a major population implosion sometime between 2060 and 2100 (with 2/3rds of the current population of the planet dying- of old age).

  • I also think it is worth noting what seems to me to be a real monastic revival or renaissance, many new religious communities are literally springing up around the U.S. and Europe – much different from the groups which emerged in the recent modern past – these seem to be decidedly more stable, frequently founded by stable priests and religious from established foundations. I attribute much of it to the Benedict XVI influence.

  • Dave Pawlak

    For one thing, I would argue that Mother Angelica, incapacitated though she is, remains a massive influence, since her network is, after all, seen all over the globe.

    I agree. I credit EWTN with bringing authentic Catholic teaching to a larger audience, after the insanity of the 60’s and 70’s.

  • B.E. Ward

    Did anyone ask him why he still works for the Reporter?

    On another note.. One thing that warmed me up to EWTN (and thus the Church) was the fact that they gave so much airtime to octogenarians with their maladies and all. It’s the anti-entertainment in the best way. Go Mother Angelica!

  • I’ve never seen green sweat, though it’s theoretically possible. Deo gratias, he’s pulling through though! Prayers on the way!

  • Arnold

    I calculate that the growth of Catholics in 2010 outpaced the overall worldwide growth, accounting for about 21% or 22% of the total while Catholics comprise around 17.3% of total world population. It also used to be true that the Vatican’s statistics for a given year do not include all of the growth since some countries lag a year or two behind the others in reporting their stats. The actual total at 12/31/2010 could have actually been higher. The total by this year-end could be in the 1,230,000,000 range. The number of priests must rise by over 5,000 p.a. to keep pace. That I think is doable in the near future as the number of new ordinations rises reflecting the increase in major seminarians.

  • Clare Krishan

    Prothero makes the error of unattributed subjective value. Its his definition of influential, with no polarity to the exertion of force: is the influence for the common good or agin’ it? Newsflash: you can be Catholic and a bad influence!

    That’s what our conscience is for – to reflect on our exertions and the influence they have on others, for transcendent eternity, not merely a secular utility constrained in time and place.

    All human acts are of eternal consequence.



  • Sherry Weddell


    You are right, of course, we’ve been at 1.2 billion for while There are just the official figures.

    Re: “all we have to do is ordained 5,000 new priests a year to keep up”. Meaning all we have to do is quadruple the number ordinations each year. Since roughly twice as many guys inquire as enter seminary and 1/3 drop out somewhere along the way – we are talking creating and funding a vastly larger network of vocational workers, seminaries, and formators that we have at present to make this work. But I know that we are struggling at present to take care of those in the seminary right now because the shortage of priests also means there is a shortage of formators. How would we fund all this in an era where diocese after diocese is cutting back because they can’t fund the institutions they have? By 2018, half the active diocesan priests in the US will retire.

    But the biggest issue in the US is that only 10 – 15% of the under 50 crowd of Catholics attend Mass on a regular basis. And by western standards, that’s actually good compared to large parts of Europe and Oceania. So trying to quadruple the numbers of priests while being able to draw only upon 10 – 15% of two generations of Catholics to begin with (and then you eliminate half the practicing population (women) and you’ve got to find the guys who can do graduate work in philosophy, are emotionally healthy and have no impediments, can be happy celibates, have the call, etc. which leaves you with a very, very small percentage of the overall practicing Catholic population as potential candidates. The majority of US Catholics will soon be Hispanics but the educational level of many Hispanics is lower and fewer Hispanic men practice so the number who can and want to become priests is and historically, has always been much smaller than in the Anglo Catholic world. There are so many factors involved.

    If we don’t start by going out and evangelizing our own at the grassroots level, we will never be able to dramatically increase the number of priests. Because the pool from which they come will continue to be too small. We might by a herculean effort at every level of the Church’s life, double the number of priests being ordained in say, 20 years. But unless some really dramatic changes occur at the lived level in the Church’s life, I cannot see any way we could quadruple the numbers.

  • Jane Hartman

    There are lots of ministers from other denominations entering the Catholic church. Maybe we could ease the entrance requirements for them to serve as priests? They can’t be any worse than the bunch of hippy-dippy priests we’ve seen in the 1970’s and 80’s, and probably they have real zeal because they’ve had considerable suffering in leaving their respective churches to get the One, True, Catholic and Apostolic church. Just a thought……

  • Marthe Lépine

    Why worry so much about the number of priests? Instead we could pray more for the Father to send more workers to the harvest. And we might be surprised by where they will be coming from! What seems to be happening now, for example, is that African priests are being sent to do missionary work in North America – for example our own parish priest here, near Ottawa, Canada. That is exactly how our new parish priest has been introduced: as a missionary from Nigeria who was sent to us by his bishop. Maybe it will be a humbling experience for some, particularly among conservative US Catholics, to admit that our respective countries are now considered as being in need of missionaries…

  • richard

    Enlightening post.

  • Arnold

    Sherry, what I had in mind was the worldwide church rather than the United States. The number of major seminarians worldwide is 118,000. Assuming that the dropout rate is one-third, that leaves approx. 78,000 to be ordained. I estimated that those major seminary years number seven at most, so that comes to 11,000 ordinations per year eventually on average. I do not know the number of resignations and deaths per year but assume they are less than 6,000 p.a. A 5,000 p.a. net growth rate is feasible in a few years.

  • Sherry Weddell


    I presumed that you were talking about the global figure. But the structures and manpower simply aren’t there to make it happen. Obviously not in the west. So you would have to hope for a global 4-fold increase occurring almost entirely in Africa (where the rate is already falling) and Asia (which is where the real priestly increases are occurring).

    In 2010, the decline in priests in Europe (-905) more than offset the increase in Africa (+765), the Americas (+42) and Oceania (+52) combined. Basically the increase in Asia was the increase in the entire world.

    To quadruple the annual growth, you do have eliminate the losses in the west and massively increase the number of seminarians in Africa and Asia. But seminarians are down -10% in Europe and down -1% in the Americas.

    We’d need 400% increases in seminarians in Africa and Asia to offset this and quadruple our numbers but what we have is 12 – 14% increases. Good, steady slow increase, not massive, miraculous increase is what is underway right now.