In many parts of the world, it’s difficult to feel optimistic about the future of the Catholic Church. Some years ago, the American Physical Society heard an alarming paper that predicted the countries in the world that would have no religion whatever by 2100, and high on the list were such former Catholic heartlands as Austria and Ireland – Ireland! For over a decade now, we have heard so many appalling stories of sexual abuse and scandal that we might even be tempted to ask if the Church can really survive.
It is strange then to realise that this Church – which is already, by far, the largest religious institution on the planet – is in fact enjoying global growth on an unprecedented scale. In 1950, the world’s Catholic population was 437 million, a figure that grew to 650 million by 1970, and to around 1.2 billion today. Put another way, Catholic numbers have doubled since 1970, and that change has occurred during all the recent controversies and crises within the Church, all the debates following Vatican II and all the claims about the rise of secularism.
Nor does the rate of growth show any sign of diminishing. By 2050, a conservative estimate suggests there should be at least 1.6 billion Catholics.
I spoke about global growth, and that “global” element demands emphasis. The Church has an excellent claim to have invented globalisation, and that goes far towards explaining just why its numbers are actually booming. Throughout history there had been so many so-called “world empires” which in reality were mainly confined to Eurasia. Only in the 16th century did the Spanish and Portuguese empires truly span the globe. For me, true globalisation began in 1578, when the Catholic Church established its diocese at Manila, in the Philippines – as a suffragan see of Mexico City, on the other side of the immense Pacific Ocean.
Those once mighty empires are long departed, but their ghosts remain in the thriving Catholic populations of Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines, which today constitute the Church’s three largest population centres. Mexico’s overall population has swelled from 50 million in 1970 to 121 million today, so of course there are lots more Catholics in that country. The Philippines, meanwhile, today claims 80 million Catholics, a number that will likely increase to well over 100 million by 2050. Last year, there were more Catholic baptisms in that country than in France, Spain, Italy and Poland combined.
A cynical observer might object that Church growth is solely the result of surging populations in particular regions where Catholicism happens to be the default religion. Certainly, as always, demographics plays its part in religious change, but this is by no means the whole story, and the clearest proof of this is found in Africa. Back in 1900, Africa had perhaps 10 million Christians of all denominations, constituting some 10 per cent of the whole population. Today, there are half a billion African Christians, accounting for half the continental population, and that number should exceed a billion by the 2040s.
This phenomenal growth – which is, incidentally, by far the largest quantitative change that has ever occurred in any religion, anywhere – is in part the result of the continent’s overall population growth.
In 1900, there were three Europeans for every African. By 2050, there will be three Africans for every European. But this expansion is also, clearly, the result of mass conversions. During the 20th century, some 40 per cent of Africa’s people shifted their allegiance from older primal faiths to Christianity.
Although Catholics do not represent the whole of this African story, they are a very significant part of it. In 1900, the whole of Africa had just a couple of million Catholics, but that number grew to 130 million by the end of the century, and today it approaches 200 million. If current trends continue, as they show every sign of doing, then by the 2040s there will be some 460 million African Catholics. Incredibly, that number would be greater than the total world population of Catholics as it stood in 1950.
Already by about 2030, we will cross a historic milestone when the number of Catholics in Africa will exceed the number for Europe. A few years after that, Africa will overtake Latin America to claim the title of the most Catholic continent. Within just a generation from now, a list of the 10 nations with the largest Catholic populations will include several names where Catholicism was virtually new in 1900: African lands such as Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic
Now, there are some problems with these numbers. I have been citing official Church figures, but those counts of the faithful are actually quite flawed. If you look at survey evidence of religious belief, you’ll find a major disparity between the number of people claiming to be Catholic versus the totals reported by Church authorities. But that gap is not what we might intuitively suspect. Far from optimistically over-counting the faithful, the African Church is systematically under-counting, and by a whopping 20 per cent. They might be too busy baptising people to keep very good records.
Nor is this just an African story. Just since 1980, the total number of African Catholics grew by 238 per cent, while the equivalent rate in Asia was 115 per cent, and 56 per cent in the Americas.
Of course, if you want to see Catholic growth in action, you don’t have to make the effort to travel to Africa or Asia, as booming Catholic Africa and Asia are coming to you. In recent decades, many millions of migrants from the global South have travelled northwards, and a great many of those are Catholic. We see plenty of evidence of this in British churches, and especially in the country’s old and revived pilgrimage sites, but similar patterns can be seen across Europe. Look at the number of parishes in historically Catholic Europe – in Ireland or France, say – which are now graced by priests from Nigeria or Vietnam.
This reality was brought home to me when I visited Denmark, which is historically one of the continent’s least Catholic nations. But go to a small city like Aarhus and watch the floods of people surrounding the small Catholic church, where Masses are offered in languages as diverse as Vietnamese, English, Chaldean and Tagalog (the last being the main tongue of the Philippines). The global Church comes home; or perhaps we should say, the empires strike back.
When we consider those African statistics alone, any suggestion of the Catholic Church “dying” or even stagnating is so wildly inaccurate as to be comical. Strangely, though, this is not the first time that at least some observers have felt that prospects for the Church were so dismal. Back in the 1890s, Mark Twain sagely observed that: “In this world we have seen the Roman Catholic power dying … for many centuries. Many a time we have gotten all ready for the funeral and found it postponed again, on account of the weather or something … Apparently one of the most uncertain things in the world is the funeral of a religion.”
See you at the graveside?
This article first appeared in the September 9 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.