Latest statistics: seminarians down in the USA and the world, priests worldwide in decline, catastrophic decline in women religious
Will vocations survive the new Bergoglian priestly formation document?

I. World Statistics 

Last month, the Vatican website published a report on the Pontifical Yearbook 2016 and Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2015, with a detailed summary of the statistics contained in the latter. Compared to the Vatican's summaries of the information in the Annuarium Statisticum published in previous years (see this for 2014, published in 2016; read here for 2013, published in 2015), last month's summary has much more detail, and for this we are very grateful.

The summary notes that "In 2015 there is decline in the number of priests from the previous year, thus reversing the upward trend that characterized the years from 2000 to 2014." To be exact, there were 415,656 priests in 2015, compared to 415,792 in 2014. (Looking into reports from previous years we find that there were 405,178 priests in 2000 -- when the upward trend began again -- 406,411 in 2005, 408,024 in 2007, 412,236 in 2010, and 414,313 in 2012.) Tellingly the decline from 2014 to 2015, while slight, is attributed to the decrease in the number of priests in Europe (less 2,502) outweighing the increases in the rest of the world (up by 2,366). Although the Vatican report does not mention it, it is no secret that very large numbers of European and North American clergy are in the age range of late 70's to 90's, which explains why the official statistics for priests in Europe and North America have little to do with the actual (and much reduced) number of priests available for, or capable of, pastoral duties on the ground. As these priests -- the last of those ordained in the period between 1945 and 1965 --continue to die off in even greater numbers due to illness and extreme old age within the next decade or so, we expect that the negative effect on worldwide priesthood numbers will become even more pronounced. (According to the summary, priests in Europe account for 43% of priests worldwide.)

As for major seminarians, the downward trend is confirmed: there are "in 2015 there was a total of 116,843 major seminarians, up (sic) from 116,939 in 2014; 118,251 in 2013; 120,051 in 2012; 120,616 in 2011 and 118,990 in 2010". We already noted the beginnings of this decline in a post last year. This trend towards decline seems set to continue, with the number of major seminarians now declining continuously in Europe, "in all areas of America" (which would include Latin America), in the Middle East, and in South East Asia, where, it is noted, "the initial growth ended in 2012 (+ 4.5% compared to 2010), and was followed by a marked decline which brought the number of major seminarians in 2015 at a level 1.6% less than the maximum of 2012". The same phenomenon is noted regarding Oceania: "the highest figure was recorded in 2012, followed by continuous decline – the number of seminarians in 2015 was 6.9% lower than in 2012". Only Africa is bucking the trend with an increase of 7.7% for major seminarians between 2010 and 2015.

For the record, the Centurio blog published a short study in 2014 which already forecast that there will be 323,000 priests worldwide by 2050, based on the trends of 2012 (when there were 414,313 priests) continuing. 

In December of last year, the Congregation for the Clergy released a new document on priestly formation that, among other things, lays down (in p. 21) that seminarians should be "helped to recognise and correct 'spiritual worldiness': obsession with personal appearances, a presumed theological or disciplinary certainty, narcissism and authoritarianism, the attempt to dominate others, a merely external and ostentatious preoccupation with the liturgy, vainglory, individualism, the inability to listen to others, and every form of careerism". With "theological and disciplinary certainty" now considered a defect that must be eradicated from seminarians, only God knows what kind of priests we'll be getting (and how many) in the future. Some might argue that we need not worry about this little passage and that most of the document is sound, but the past year has shown us how brief passages and even footnotes in an official document can cause immense chaos in the Church.

Combined with Pope Francis' well-known penchant for expressing skepticism over conservative institutes that have abundant vocations, for the selective persecution of tradition-friendly dioceses and religious institutes that also have many vocations, and for effectively justifying the lack of vocations in "mainstream" congregations, we are not optimistic that vocations will experience any sort of increase under the current papacy.

The situation is far more catastrophic with regards to the number of women religious: 670,320 worldwide in 2015, down from 705,529 in 2012 and 721,935 in 2010 - a decline of 51,615 in just 5 years. While women religious have continued to increase in Africa and South East Asia, they have dropped precipitously in the Americas (North, Central and South), Europe and Oceania. With women religious the situation is similar to that of priests in Europe and North America: large numbers of European and North American sisters are very aged, and as they pass away in the coming years the collapse in the overall numbers of women religious will likely become even more dramatic.

II. US seminarians

This month, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate published its annual statistical overview of "Catholic ministry formation enrollment", including seminary statistics. At present the PDF can be downloaded on the main page of their website.

CARA itself is calling seminary enrollments "steady" since 1996. Naturally there have been ups and downs. The last time that there were more than 4,000 seminarians in theology was in the academic year 1986-1987. Since the academic year 1988-1989 their numbers have fluctuated between the highs of 3,788 (in that same year) and 3,723 (2011-2012) to the lows of 3,114 (1997-1998) and 3,285 (2003-2004). Statistics for college and high school ("minor") seminarians are similarly "steady", although high school seminarians have been in marked decline since the 1990's and as of 2016 are down to 351 -- the lowest in CARA's seminary enrollment records (which goes back to 1967).

However, since 2011-2012, the overall figures show a declining trend for seminarians in the U.S. once more, a trend that has become more pronounced in the last two years. (The following figures have been assembled by Rorate from CARA's more detailed study):

Naturally, these numbers do not tell the whole story; but they are indispensable to understanding where the Church in the US is really headed in terms of vocations.

Catholic blogs and websites tend to focus on the increase in vocations and ordinations in selected dioceses, and indeed it is necessary to extol the link between doctrine and liturgy on one hand and vocations on the other hand. Nevertheless the stark reality is that the Church continues to have a serious crisis when it comes to vocations and no amount of wishful thinking and selective reporting can obscure it.