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Africa’s Catholic population has grown by 238 per cent since 1980

The faithful great Pope Benedict's 2009 visit to Cameroon. The future for the Church is African (PA)

The highest growth rates for Catholicism are in Africa and Asia, according to a new study released by the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

The newly-issued report, called “Global Catholicism: Trends & Forecasts”, states that the Catholic population has grown by 57 percent since 1980. “However, this growth differs by region, with Europe’s Catholic population growing by just 6 percent while the number of Catholics in Africa grew by 238 percent. Differences between these two regions are largely attributable to differences in fertility rates over time.”

“Over the last 50 years, the proportion of the global population who are Catholic has remained remarkably steady at about 17.5 percent. Most demographers anticipate a global population exceeding 10 billion by 2100, up from 7.3 billion now. The ‘engine’ of population growth is no longer increasing numbers of children — it is extending life expectancies,” said the report by CARA, which is based at Georgetown University.

“If current trends continue, we can expect the global Catholic population to increase by about 372 million from 2015 to 2050. This would represent 29 percent growth during this period and result in the 2050 Catholic population numbering 1.64 billion.”

CARA looked at five specific regions: Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and Oceania. “Arguably, the three most important indicators of ‘vitality’ for the Catholic Church are the number of Catholics, the number of parishes and the number of priests,” the study said.

“Since 1980, the church has had a net gain of nearly 15,300 parishes representing 7 percent growth. However, with the population growing by 57 percent during this period, there has been a lag in constructing the brick and mortar of the church. In 1980 there were 3,759 Catholics per parish in the world. This figure now stands at 5,491 Catholics per parish.”

The study added: “In Asia and Africa, where the fastest growth in the Catholic population has occurred, the number of parishes had doubled since 1980. In the Americas, the number of parishes has increased by 25 percent and in Oceania they have ticked up by 5 percent. In Europe, the number of parishes has declined by 12 percent.”

The Church had about 20,000 fewer priests in 2012 than it did in 1980, a drop of 17 percent. While the number of priests in Africa and Asia doubled, the Americas netted an increase of less than 2 percent, and Europe’s priest population fell by 78,090, or 32 percent.

“In 2012, Europe was home to less than one in four Catholics,” or 23 percent, the study said. “Yet this region still has 55 percent of all Catholic parishes and 42 percent of all Catholic priests.”

The report also stated that the average percentage of an American country’s Catholics saying they attended Mass dropped from 52 per cent in the 1980s to just 29 per cent today.

The Catholic population in Africa has grown by 238 percent since 1980 and is approaching 200 million, CARA said, outstripping the growth in the number of priests, up 131 percent, and of parishes, up 112 percent. “If current trends in affiliation and differential fertility among religious groups continue, in 2040, 24 percent of Africans will be Catholic. This would result in a Catholic population of 460,350,000 in Africa,” the study said.

Asia’s numbers are less solid, it said, because of varying accounts of the number of Catholics in China, which has been put at anywhere from 9 million to 143 million. Still, with a doubling in Asia’s Catholic population from 62 million to 134 million, “the percentage of Asia’s population that is Catholic is growing slowly from 2.4 percent in 1980 to 3.2 percent in 2012,” the study said.