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.
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