By Matthew Bunson
During his installation in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI observed: “During those sad days of [Pope John Paul II’s] illness and death, it became wonderfully evident to us that the Church is alive. And the Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future.”
The pope’s description of the Church was very apt. The Catholic population is very much alive, and it is also very young. He might have added that the Church is also on the move ... to the Southern Hemisphere.
There are 1.14 billion Catholics in the world, making the Church the largest Christian community and the second-largest religion after Islam, which has 1.5 billion followers.
The Church in the last 50 years has doubled in size, from 527 million in 1959. The growth of Catholicism has also kept pace with the world’s population, so that Catholics have remained around 17 percent of the total population.
But the story of the Church is not purely one of numbers. Rather, it is where the Church is growing and what this might mean for the coming century.
The center of Catholic growth has shifted away from the long-standing Catholic population centers in Europe, heading southward to Africa and Latin America and eastward toward Asia.
Europe still claims a quarter of the world’s Catholic population (around 283 million). However, the Church there has only increased by 10 million in the last 25 years even as Europe’s general population has risen by a mere 23 million. This means the Church has expanded by just 1 percent in Europe. While this suggests that Catholicism on the Continent is holding steady, questions remain about Europe’s long-term sustainability as the population grows gray and struggles with the crises of negative birth rates, abortion and euthanasia, and anti-family secularism.
Europe’s sclerotic growth rates are mirrored by North America. Canada has the lowest birthrate in the Americas and one of the lowest attendance rates for Mass. At the same time, the United States is suffering from its lowest birthrate on record, and the same problems of a graying population will emerge in the next 30 years as the baby-boom generation moves into its twilight years. Still, the Church in the United States remains 22 percent of the total population.
The demographic situation in the West is cast in even starker relief by the progress of the Church elsewhere. A century ago, there were 2 million Catholics in Africa, and almost all of them had come from Europe. Fifty years ago, there were only 21 million Catholics in Africa. Today, there are about 165 million Catholics, or 17.4 percent of the total population.
Similar numbers are seen in Asia and Latin America. The Catholic population as a percentage of the overall population of Asia is still tiny, barely 3 percent, but the last decades have seen a huge growth in numbers. In India alone, the Catholic community has increased from 5 million 50 years ago to 18.5 million today. In South America, meanwhile, Catholics are under assault by the Pentecostal movement, anti-Catholic regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, and materialism and native religions in places like Argentina and Brazil. Still, the Church has more than kept pace with the growth of Latin America’s population.
Pope Benedict was also not exaggerating when he said that the Church is young. Indeed, the Church is growing fastest in places where the world is youngest. The median age for the world is 28, but in the first world, the median age is 39, while in the third world the average ages are 25 and 19 depending on the level of development. The median age of Africans is 19, Latin Americans 26, and Asians 27. The median age of North Americans is 36 and Europeans 39.
The expansion of the Church in Africa, Asia and Latin America is one of the great stories of evangelization and inculturation in the last century, the fruits both of the Second Vatican Council and the new evangelization that was a hallmark of Pope John Paul’s pontificate. These trends are expected to continue this century, with the developing world far outstripping the developed world in population growth, both because of increases in population and the aging of the first world.
Matthew Bunson is editor of the Catholic Almanac.
1. Brazil, 159,700,000
2. Mexico, 89,000,000
3. Philippines, 71,973,000
4. United States, 68,115,001
5. Italy, 56,933,000
6. France, 46,690,000
7. Spain, 41,790,000
8. Colombia, 41,121,000
9. Poland, 36,608,000
10. Argentina, 36,409,000
11. Congo, 33,036,000
12. Germany, 25,581,000
13. Peru, 25,175,000
14. Venezuela, 24,010,000
15. Nigeria, 21,579,000
16. India, 18,585,000
17. Canada, 12,974,000
18. Uganda, 12,616,000
19. Ecuador, 12,435,000
20. Chile, 12,292,000
21. Tanzania, 11,793,000
22. Guatemala, 10,838,000
23. Portugal, 9,357,000
24. Kenya, 9,334,000
25. Angola, 8,600,000
17. Iran, 19,000; tot. pop., 71,990,000.
16. Finland, 10,000; tot. pop., 5,290,000.
15. Djibouti, 7,000; tot. pop., 757,000.
14. Nepal, 6,000; tot. pop., 26,081,000.
13. Mauritania, 5,000; tot. pop., 3,210,000.
12. Mongolia, 4,000; tot. pop., 2,610,000.
11. Algeria, 4,000; tot. pop., 34,038,000.
10. Uzbekistan, 4,000; tot. pop. 26,670,000.
9. Tajikistan, 3,000; tot. pop. 7,164,000.
8. Brunei, 1,800; tot. pop., 375,000.
7. Bhutan, 1,000; tot. pop., 2,451,000.
6. Turkmenistan, 1,000; tot. pop., 5,000,000.
5. Kyrgyzstan, 1,000; tot. pop., 5,230,000.
4. Somalia, 100; tot. pop., 8,073,000.
3. Maldives Republic, 100 percent Muslim.
2. Korea, North, Christianity is illegal.
1. Saudi Arabia, Christianity is illegal.
Africa, 4,758 to 1
North America, 3,184 to 1
South America, 7,138 to 1
Asia, 2,285 to 1
Europe, 1,457 to 1
Oceania, 1,930 to 1
Totals, 2,810 to 1
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the highest percentages of weekly Mass attendance of Catholics in nations with large Catholic populations (1980-present) are found in:
Malta, 84 percent
Ireland, 71 percent
Poland, 60 percent
Mexico, 51 percent
El Salvador, 61 percent
Slovakia, 57 percent
Philippines, 56 percent
Bosnia and Herzegovina, 55 percent
Dominican Republic, 50 percent
Italy, 36 percent
Globally, 40 percent
U.S., 36 percent
* Countries with the most cardinals
United States, 16
* Countries with the most bishops
Italy, 483 (the majority of Italian prelates, 278, work in the Roman Curia)
United States, 476
* Country with the most Seminarians
1. Christianity, 2.1 billion (Catholic Church, 1.14 billion; Protestants, 630 million, Orthodox, 245-250 million)
2. Islam, 1.5 billion
3. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist, 1.1 billion
4. Hinduism, 900 million
5. Chinese traditional religion, 394 million
6. Buddhism, 376 million
7. Primal-indigenous, 300 million
8. African Traditional & Diasporic, 100 million
9. Sikhism, 23 million
10. Juche, 19 million
11. Spiritism, 15 million
12. Judaism, 14 million
13. Baha’i, 7 million
14. Jainism, 4.2 million
15. Shinto, 4 million
16. Cao Dai, 4 million
17. Zoroastrianism, 2.6 million
18. Tenrikyo, 2 million
19. Neo-Paganism, 1 million
20. Unitarian-Universalism, 800,000
21. Rastafarianism, 600,000
22. Scientology, 500,000
(As of 2007; (http://www.adherents.com/ReligionsByAdherents.html#Christianity.)
24.4% North America
84% Central America
86% South America
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