Muslims outnumbering Catholics?
Religion & Liberty Online

Muslims outnumbering Catholics?

The Roman Catholic Church’s authoritative reference source, the Annuario Pontificio (Papal Yearbook), is published in March of every year. It is a weighty book in more ways than one: It comprises of over 2,500 pages, has a very limited print production of 10,000 copies, and contains just about every bit of information you would want to know about the make-up of the Church.

The publication of the 2008 Annuario made news earlier this week when, in an interview with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the editor announced that for the first time in history there are now more Muslims than Catholics in the world. Read Acton’s translation of the article below.

According to Msgr. Vittorio Formenti, in 2006 the Muslim population became the single largest segment among world religions, surpassing Roman Catholicism by 1.8 percentage points: 19.2 percent compared to 17.4 percent.

It should be noted, however, that the Church is only sure of its own numbers; the Muslim statistics come from the United Nations. Comparing two sets of numbers gathered with different methodologies does not necessarily result in an accurate picture.

It is not, however, all that surprising to those who are aware of current demographic studies. The Church has also issued widely-documented warnings on diminishing family size among Catholics as the result of widespread use of contraception, public advocacy of non-procreative and delayed marital unions, and unfriendly fiscal policies on the family. These negative trends are particularly evident in Catholic Western nations such as Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal.

It would be a mistake to read Msgr. Formenti’s interview as alarmist, however. He notes that when Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants are also taken into account, Christians remains a much larger segment of the world’s religious population, totaling about 33 percent, nearly double that of all Muslims.

Catholicism has also experienced a modest upward growth trend in three areas: the total number of faithful (+1.4 percent); ordained diocesan priests (+0.023 percent); and seminarians (+0.9 percent). These percentages are small but demonstrate growth in areas that had been in decline in the last few decades.

And finally, despite what the statistics say, Catholics are prohibited from giving in to the sin of despair. “The gates of hell shall not prevail….” (Matthew 16.18-19)
The Church’s “Red Book”

Monsignor Formenti reveals the latest and interesting facts about the Annuario Pontificio
by Mario Ponzi

For some it is “the book of dreams”. Not a few, in fact, dream that their own name will figure among its pages. For more, it is an absolute must-have in order to know the Church’s organizational bodies and structure. For the Church, it is the quickest means to know herself in her universality. With its 2,511 pages of information, the Annuario Pontificio is without a doubt the most representative book of catholicity. Distributed in 10,000 copies, all strictly in Italian, the Annuaprio is sent to every corner of the earth. From 2009 on, its distribution will probably be even more widespread, as it may also be available on-line.

Msgr. Vittorio Formenti, who has edited the Annuario since 1996 together with a small troop of collaborators, is himself a real wealth of information.

Here’s one curious fact, as Msgr. Formenti tells us: Who would have thought, for example, that among the most assiduous and numerous buyers of the Annuario are found among the military ranks. “Don’t ask me why,” says Msgr. Formenti raising his hands. “It is difficult to understand even for me. But it is a given fact”.

There are others facts to ponder. For example, Muslims have replaced Catholics as the single most populous religion in the world for the first time (19,2% compared to 17,4%, according to data collected in 2006). Nonetheless, there has been a significant rise in priestly vocations and ordinations throughout the world. “It is the first time this trend has been positive at such a level”, Msgr. Formenti said. For female religious, the figures are negative.

It is tempting to keep uncovering facts, all of them interesting. But our meeting with Msgr. Formenti proposes to deepen knowledge of this text, beyond mere numbers, because the Annuario is “a one of kind”, as the prelate believes.

How long does it take to gather all the information found in the Annuario Pontificio?

Pretty much an entire year. Just think that when we turned in the drafts for the Annuario this year, we were already working on the 2009 edition. Just to give you an idea, I’ve already filled twelve pages stuffed full of new facts compared to the one that was just distributed.

Popular Roman tradition hands down a little joke to about the great number of religious orders and congregations. “Not even the Pope knows how many orders of nuns there are in the world; Only the Holy Spirit knows”.

On the contrary, we know just how many there are, right down to the last nun. And there is no possibility for error. Unfortunately, I must say, because if we note, as we have noted and emphasized in reference to the year 2006, there has been notable decrease among female religious. And this decrease is significant.

Even so, over the past few years it is less sharp decline than between 1970 and 2000. Instead, the positive side is that priestly vocations have increased since the year 2000. And with notable growth. Consider, for example, that in the ‘70s seminarians studying philosophy and theology numbered around 69,000, while the latest figure is 115,000.

But has the overall number of Catholics in the world increased or is it true that it has been surpassed by Muslims?

The number of Catholics in the world has increased because the population of the world has increased. Let’s say that considering the increase in population and the increase in Catholics we are stabile. However, for the first time in history, we are no longer at the top: the Muslims have overtaken us. This is clearly the result of censuses taken in the relevant countries and sent to the United Nations.

These figures come to us only second hand. We can only guarantee our own statistical research, because it is based on a scientific method. The information coming from the Muslim world is based on estimates that take into consideration, above all, the growth of Muslim populations.

It is also true, however, that while Islamic families, as it is noted, continue to have many children, Christian families tend to fewer children. Currently, while Catholics have remained steady at 17.4% of the population, Muslims are now at 19.2%. The statistics refer to 2006. But if we consider all Christians together – Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Protestants – then we amount to 33% of the world population.

In what country are the Catholics most numerous?

The great stronghold of Catholic population is and remains Latin America. As a continent, [North and South] America is certainly the one with the most Catholics, with 49.8% of the world’s Catholic population.

Your work is certainly painstaking. How do you gather data from the entire world?

Starting in January about 9,000 questionnaires leave our office. They are sent all over the world. We send our questionnaires about dioceses to the nunciatures [Embassies of the Holy See]. The dioceses gather information from parishes and other institutions found within their territory. They return the collected information to the nunciature and the nunicature sends it to us. We also send out questionnaires to all religious orders dispersed throughout the world. They respond by sending us all the data regarding their numbers, activities, and any updates. So we obtain a comprehensive picture. The information then gets read in a particularly critical way, which means it is compared with the data from the two previous years, so as to verify that there are no large or evident discrepancies, which would raise suspicion of reporting or collection errors.

So we can say the data you publish is reliable?

Look, from 1978 until today I can assure you that our data is very reliable, because, I repeat, they have been acquired from various sources and evaluated according to a scientific method. Perhaps we could not say the same thing about the previous decade. The further we go back in time, one might say the data we gathered was much more of an approximate. Consider also the fact that we used to work only on paper. Then the computer arrived.

To whom is the Annuario distributed nowadays?

Of the 10,000 copies we distribute, 1,500 are given to the Holy See, which distributes copies to its various offices and employees. We give free copies to all the heads of state, to Prime Ministers and to the Ambassadors of countries accredited to the Holy See. The remaining copies are sold.

But who buys the Annuario Pontificio and, in your opinion, why?

The first people to buy the Annuario are bishops. Complimentary copies are only reserved for cardinals. Then, and you will hardly believe this, a large number of buyers come from the military, whose leaders value having it and buy it. Furthermore, others buy it for their own work purposes. For example, diocesan administrators buy it. But to a considerable extent it is also bought by people who are interested in knowing what is happening inside the Church. Above all, this is the Church’s official book as a reference source. For instance, it counts with regard to the exact names of the places, offices, first and last names, and addresses, which are now also available on-line.

Do you think it is sufficient to be familiar with the Annuario in order to say that one also knows the Church?

Obviously not. The Church has a dimension which goes far beyond numbers. Then, if we want to limit ourselves to numbers, there are some which we will never be able to collect. Here’s an example: How is it possible to count the number of [Catholic] volunteers in the world? There are so many who give witness to their faith through service to the poor, the sick, the elderly, and children, but they are not in the spotlight nor are they, shall we say, officially categorized. Following the suggestion of Msgr. Filoni [The Vatican’s sostituto, or chief of staff] this year, for example, we improved the statistics on the number of catechists and we discovered that there were millions more around the world. It is still true that the Church is much vaster than what is shown by the numbers.

Then maybe we can say that those who know the Annuario well know the Church a bit better?

Look, when I was sent here I was convinced that I would have to do a very dry job consisting just of sums and numbers. In reality, I discovered an awesome and wonderful dimension of the Church. And I found it right in the numbers. Therefore, I owe my thanks to the numbers, which have an language which indeed is a bit dry. But when you learn to read and interpret them, the true image of the Church appears, an image animated by an unlimited and extraordinary dynamism at play. I am strongly convinced no one in the world can surpass us in this sense. When estimating that there are 1.3 billion Catholics in the world connected to the Church, we understand how many things we have say about them and let others know about.

Can you tell us a bit more about your experiences in the first twelve years you’ve held this post, which in so many ways is really a unique job?

The greatest experience for me is tied to my discovering the Church’s dynamism. Something which I have understood as linked to the great creativity of Christians in the world. For instance, I am fascinated to observe just how many religious congregations are heading toward decline, and then just as many spring up spontaneously in other parts of the world. I’ll give you an example. From 1970 to 1990, the Church lived through an enormous crisis in vocations. But it was during this very time that there was a rebirth of the permanent diaconate, and it was beautiful to discover that more than 32,000 deacons took on extra duties of priestly assistance, so as to lessen greatly the burden of a shortage of priests on the faithful.

Even today, I repeat, there is a decline in some congregations, but then others are born in their place and with other types of charisms in response to new kinds of poverty appearing on the world stage. It’s as if the Church responded time and again to challenges appearing along its journey, but always capable of offering a new kinds of Good Samaritans to meet the new kinds of evil in the world.

Another thing that surprised me and still does is the Church’s ever new ability to advance culture. For example, in some Asian countries where the Catholic community is a really small minority, high-level cultural institutions are found there. I am talking about schools, universities and other educational institutions.

Can you tell us the main news for this year?

Apart for the new cardinals, the real news is that that has been an increase in numbers of priests by a total of 700 units. The news has especially pleased the Pope, because the last recorded increase dated back to 1998 when we registered an increase by 18 units. In the year 2000, we went from 400 and slowly arrived at today’s figure of 700. This means that are now heading along a steady upward path and moving forward.

Where does this positive growth come from?

Certainly not from Europe. Even less so from North America. I must say the continent demonstrating the greatest rate of growth is Asia. Catholics are few in this region, but they are animated by a fervent spirit and they are a great hope for the growth of the Church , especially in the Philippines, India, Korea, Vietnam, Japan. Then there is Africa: it is a great resource for the Church. Latin America is growing in pockets

Which dioceses produce the most vocations? And which ones are produce the least number?

In 2006, the diocese registering the greatest number of vocations was Guadalajara, Mexico: there are two seminaries which are full to the brim with students and they have no more room for other candidates The regions producing the least number of vocations are the European countries of France, Holland and Belgium. They are experiencing quite an accentuated crisis in terms of vocations. In Italy we have witnessed a small, very small increase. Among this year’s data, we can point out that while diocesan priests are increasing in number, priests of religious orders are decreasing. This is a very significant statistic.

It remains to give some details on the situation of female religious. This is quite the opposite scenario compared to vocations to the priesthood, even if one is speculating. If it is true that the is an increase in male vocations corresponding to a dramatic decrease in female vocations, it is also true that female religious orders have increased the level of formation compared to male religious formation. The reason for this is the lack of formatters in their dioceses, as, for example, in some regions of Africa and Asia. In Latin America, the Legionaries of Christ do quite a good job. For sisters, however, it is a different. Congregations tend to make them specialize. There is no longer such a thing as a “Sister Porter” or a “Sister Cook”; nowadays, nuns have advanced degrees, and are even competing for public service positions, are going to medical school, and working as directors in hospital departments. In the evening, they return to their convents and live in community.

You read about all this in the Annuario. It costs 68 euro. And whoever wants to purchase one, better hurry. Usually it sells out very quickly. There are not even back copies available of past editions in our warehouse. This is really satisfying for those of us who work with a lot of passion.

©L’Osservatore Romano – 30 March 2008

English translation by Istituto Acton

Michael Severance

Michael Severance earned his B.A. in philosophy and humane letters from the University of San Francisco, where he also studied at the university's St. Ignatius Institute, a great books program. He then pursued his linguistic studies in Salamanca, Spain where he obtained his Advanced Diploma in Spanish from Spain's Ministry of Education before obtaining his M.A. in Philosophy and Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. While living in Italy, Michael has worked in various professional capacities in religious journalism, public relations, marketing, fundraising, as well as property redevelopment and management. As Istituto Acton's Operations Manager, Michael is responsible for helping to organize international conferences, increase private funding, as well as expand networking opportunities and relations among European businesses, media and religious communities, while managing the day-to-day operations of the Rome office.