By Terry Mattingly – Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette
The European numbers in the report are serious business. While Vatican statistics claim Europe's Catholic population rose 6 percent between 1980 and 2012, infant baptisms fell by 1.5 million and marriages between two Catholics collapsed from roughly 1.4 million to 585,000. The number of priests fell 32 percent and weekly Mass attendance kept declining, from 37 percent in the 1980s to 20 percent since 2010.
But the past lingers in brick and mortar. Even though European bishops closed 12 percent of their parishes during this study's time frame, Europe -- with only 23 percent of the global Catholic population -- still has more parishes than the rest of the world combined.
"These are the Vatican numbers and nothing in here will surprise the bishops," said Mark Gray, director of the center's Catholic Polls and co-author of the report. "They are aware of their sacramental numbers and their Mass attendance numbers. ... They know that they face issues right now, and in the future, that are very serious."
When it comes to church statistics, experts study life's symbolic events -- births, marriages and deaths. It also helps to note how often believers go to Mass and whether there are enough priests to perform these rites.
Is the United States the next Europe? It's hard to compare numbers in the study, since it placed North America and South America in one region -- with trends in other nations obscuring those here.