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A major new study of the Catholic Church in Latin America has highlighted a decline in the number of baptisms and other sacraments.

The 286-page report, issued by the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopal Council (CELAM), said that the number of annual baptisms had fallen from 8,197,000 in 2000 to 5,135,000 in 2020. Confirmations and Catholic marriages also decreased steadily in the same period.

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The trends highlighted in the document “The Church’s mission in Latin American countries” are significant for the universal Church, as 41% of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America and the Caribbean. The number of baptized Catholics in the region is roughly double that of both Europe and Africa, four times that of Asia, and six times that of North America. The Church is also being led for the first time by a pope from Latin America.

Writing in the foreword, CELAM’s secretary general Archbishop Jorge Eduardo Lozano said: “The decline in the number of baptisms and other sacraments, such as confirmations and marriages, also raises questions about sacramentality in the region. The Church faces the need to take into account the changing cultural and social realities of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

In the report’s conclusion, the authors wrote: “It is possible to conjecture that the number of Catholics in the region, approximated based on the number of baptisms administered per year, will fall in the near future due to the conjunction of two trends: the slowdown in population growth, and the drop in the number of baptisms administered annually.” 

“If the trend that seems to have taken hold in the four regions of Latin America continues, especially since the beginning of the new millennium — joining the trend that has been registered in Europe and North America since the 1970s — the fall in the number of Catholics is a not-too-distant scenario, and their relative weight in relation to the population will progressively decline even more than the absolute numbers.”

The authors noted that alongside the decline in sacraments administered, there was also a widespread weakening of Catholic affiliation, which seemed “to indicate a loss of weight of the Catholic Church in the Latin American population, a distancing from the institution.” 

“Perhaps it is a different bond, less mediated by the sacramental; a conjecture that should be investigated in subsequent studies,” they wrote.

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The report was not devoid of good news. It noted that the number of priests in the Central America and Mexico region doubled from 10,957 to 22,016 in 2020.

The study also said that the number of seminarians in Latin America grew between 1970 and 2005, but then began to decline, returning in 2020 to a similar level to that in 1990.

Archbishop Lozano, who leads Argentina’s San Juan de Cuyo archdiocese, said that “the decrease in the number of seminarians poses challenges for the future regarding the number of priests and the pastoral care of communities.”

The report also highlighted a downward trend in the number of female religious, seen first in CELAM’s Southern Cone region, and then followed in 2005 to 2010 by the Central America and Mexico region, the Caribbean and Antilles region, and the Andean region.

“Consecrated life, both male and female, has been an important pillar of the Church in Latin America, providing a constant missionary presence and a valuable social service through its works,” wrote Archbishop Lozano, who has served as CELAM’s secretary general since April.

“However, there has been a decline in female religious life, which raises questions about the future of these works and their impact on the most vulnerable communities.”

As well as breaking down trends by region, the report examined developments within CELAM’s 22 member bishops’ conferences.

Lozano said that the study offered “a complete and detailed vision of the presence and action of the Catholic Church in Latin America.” 

“Through the data and analysis presented, we are invited to reflect and search for pastoral strategies that will enable the Church to face future challenges,” he wrote. “The Church's evangelizing mission in this culturally and spiritually diverse region remains vital, and we must be ready to adapt and respond to the changing needs of our faithful.”

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