A recent report from the Vatican has exciting news: From 2005 to 2014, the number of Catholics worldwide increased more than the world's population.
In the last decade, says the Holy See Press Office, Catholics have come to comprise a slightly greater percentage of the world. In 2014, Catholics were reportedly 17.8 percent of the world population, whereas in 2005 they were 17.3 percent of the world.
This should, of course, be welcome news. Any Catholic ought to desire growth in the Church established by Jesus Christ to bring salvation to the world. But how excited should we be? Is it perhaps too early to pop the champagne bottles and post triumphant messages on social media to counter the "doom and gloom" naysayers who suggest the Church is in a uniquely severe crisis?
First, note that this is only one set of data. If we look at another set of data, namely that of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), and compare it to the World Bank's estimations of world population, we get a different picture.
According to this assessment, from 2005 to 2014, the Church has actually seen a lower rate of growth compared to the world's population. The World Bank's data show the world's population growing by 11.5 percent in that time frame, from 6.5146 billion to 7.2607 billion. The CARA numbers show the Church's population growing by 10.2 percent in that same time, from 1.115 billion to 1.229 billion. So, based on these statistics, Catholics comprised 17.12 percent of the world in 2005, but only 16.93 percent in 2014.
Further, if we don't cherrypick the time frame, the numbers look even worse.
Let's compare Church growth to world growth over a longer period. From 1990 to 2014, the world's population increased by 37 percent (5.2827 billion to 7.2607 billion), but the Church only grew by 32.3 percent (928.5 million to 1.229 billion). Overall, in 1990, Catholics were 17.58 percent of the world, and in 2014, they were 16.93 percent.
If we look at the total time for which CARA has data, 1970 to 2014, we see that the Church grew by 88 percent (653.6 million to 1.229 billion). However, the world's population increased by 97 percent (3.6848 billion to 7.2607 billion) over that same period. According to CARA and the World Bank's data, Catholics made up 17.74 percent of the world in 1970, but only 16.93 percent today.
So, whether the Church is growing more or less than the world seems uncertain. There's at least reason to doubt the Vatican's report. The determination largely depends on which statistics you look at.
Then again, looking purely at these reports neglects an important factor: the faith, or lack thereof, of the self-identified Catholics included in these reports. If professing all that the Church teaches on faith and morality is an essential mark of a Catholic, then, outside of Europe and the United States (where we could discount more than half of "Catholics"), we don't have much on the level of exact, reliable numbers.
Of course, if the number of priests and infant baptisms is indicative of the state of the Faith, things aren't looking good, because according to CARA, not only has the percentage of those dropped, the total has fallen. In 1970, when there were 653.6 million Catholics in the world, there were 419,728 priests and 14.795 million infant baptisms. But fast-forward 44 years to 2014, and with 1.229 billion Catholics worldwide, the Church had just 414,313 priests and 13.713 million infant baptisms.
Ultimately, quality has to be taken into account alongside quantity. Therefore, while gleefully citing debatable reports about Church growth may feel good, it's not quite the cause for celebration that many Catholics have been insisting it is.