New Catholic Church statistics reveal cultural shift away from ordination

The number of Catholics around the world is growing but the number of ordained priests is not keeping up, new statistics show.

Figures from the 'Church's Book of Statistics' and published by Fides News Service show that more people around the world are opting for Catholicism as their religion.

The statistics, released to mark World Mission Day yesterday, show that the number of Catholics across the world grew by over 25 million last year at a rate of more than two per cent.

The percentage of the world's population declaring themselves Catholic increased by nearly one per cent from the year before with Catholicism now being the chosen religion of 17.6 per cent of people.

Thousands gather to wave at Pope Francis in Philadelphia, whose influence has raised the Church's popularity around the worldReuters

However this growth did not translate into parishioners deciding to take up the cloth. The number of Catholic priests only rose by 0.24 per cent and in Europe and Oceania the total number of priests actually fell.

This disparity was further highlighted as the number of Catholics per priest across the world grew. There is now an average of 3,019 Catholics for every one Catholic priest. In particular, there were substantial increases in the number of Catholics per priest in America, Europe and Oceania.

Claire Ward, a spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said the figures showed an exciting shift towards the role of the laity.

"Since the Second Vatican Council there has been a renewed emphasis in the Church on those who chose not to be ordained," Ward told Christian Today.

"I think that is an incredibly exciting development in terms of harnessing the skills and talents of the laity.

"The growth of the Church is not just work for the ordained but of ordinary Catholics. All the states of life have a role in that work."

As Ward pointed out, the number of lay missionaries has grown at a faster rate than the number of priests. This, she suggested, pointed to a shift in culture in the Catholic Church.

"Catholics are now able to give expression to their Catholic identity in a broader number of ways," she said.

"I don't see these statistics as a big negative in any way. It is exciting to see people flourishing in other ways [than becoming ordained]."