What the Vatican calls the "Workforce for the Church's Apostolate" grew tremendously between 1978 and 2008. The "force" grew from 1.6 million to 4.386 million (174%) while the Catholic population grew 55% in the same time period from 752.5 million to 1,165.7 million.
Ten years ago, I would tell groups that bishops and priests made up .04% or 4/100th of 1% of the entire Catholic population. In 2011, I have to say that bishops and priests only comprise .0355% of all Catholics. In 20 years, that figure will probably to fall under .03% of the Catholic population.
It isn't because the number of priests and seminarians aren't growing. Although the number of the ordained (bishops, priests, deacons) grew from 413,169 to 451,371 during these 30 years, this increase was dwarfed by the demand created by relentless growth of the human race and the Catholic population. The immense number of the baptized has called forth a major new "workforce" for the apostolate: the laity.
In 1978, the clergy made up 26% of the 1.6 million member "workforce" recognized by the Vatican. The largest group was religious women (nearly 60%) and lay people only constituted 10.8%.
But by 2008, everything had changed. In this greatly expanded workforce of 4.386 million (which includes graduate seminarians and deacons), clergy now made up only 10.29%, religious women 16.85%, religious brothers 1.25%, graduate seminarians 1.34%, and lay men and women are the overwhelming majority at 70.2%.
In 30 years, clergy and religious have diminished from nearly 90% of the Church's acknowledged "workforce" to less than 30% and the lay "workforce" has grown 700%. (The graph below shows the figures for 2005 which are almost identical to those of 2008.)
This is, I think, an example of what Pope Benedict called in his audience of March 10, 2010, a "novelty of God". The Pope talked about a series of new movements in Christian history. In the 19th century, God called forth a new missionary wave of active women religious who transformed the landscape of Catholicism. The small armies of habited sisters in every parish that we think of as exceedingly traditional (ala The Bells of St. Mary's) are only about 130 years old.
The determination to create a new kind of Catholic by catechizing all children - which was produced by the crisis of the Reformation - demanded a whole new labor force. It came first in the form of informal groups of devout lay women who lived in community but didn’t take religious vows. This was because the Church had insisted since the late 13th century that women formally recognized as religious had to live in cloisters. But educating millions of children all over the world and paying for the cost of such a staggering new initiative, required that sisters be able to work outside the cloister .
When, in 1749, the Vatican quietly changed its 500 year old insistence that women religious had to be enclosed, the stage was set for a transformation of the Church's life. The emergency of the French Revolution and the need to resurrect the Church’s life in France in the early 19th century was the catalyst. By the late 19th century, the number of women religious outnumbered priests and male religious for the first time in history and utterly transformed the Catholic landscape.
In Ireland, for instance, there were only 120 women religious in 1800. If you think of the total number of priests and sisters together as the Catholic "workforce", sisters only made up 6% of the total at the beginning of the 19th century. By 1851, women religious made up 38% of the combined body of priests/nuns. And by 1901, women religious were 70%. In the US, there were 4 sisters for every priest by 1900.
In the 21st century, God seems to be doing something new again to meet the needs of our time and the Vatican has formally recognized it. Millions of lay men and women are answering God's call to evangelize, form, and nurture the tens of millions of new Catholics that God is sending us every year. Lay apostles seem to be one of the “novelties of God’ that the Holy Spirit is raising up in our midst.