Catholicism — failing or thriving? It depends where you look.

St Peter's Rome

St Peter's Rome

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.
— Mark Twain, 1890

Catholicism may be out of favour in parts of the Western world, but it's thriving where it counts among the exploding populations of the global south.

The Catholic church is by far, the largest religious institution on the planet – and it's growing at an unprecedenteded rate. 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. Catholic numbers have doubled since 1970. By 2050, there should be at least 1.6 billion Catholics.

Back in 1900, Africa had perhaps 10 million Christians of all denominations. About 10% of the population. Today, there are half a billion African Christians, — half of all Africans. By 2040, the number will reach one billion.

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 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.

In 1900, the whole of Africa had just a couple of million Catholics. Today it approaches 200 million. By the 2040s there will be around 460 million African Catholics. Greater than the total world population of Catholics in 1950.

Around 2030 the number of Catholics in Africa will exceed the number for Europe. A few years after that, Africa will overtake Latin America as the most Catholic continent. 

Meanwhile in Europe, immigrants from around the world are revitalising declining Catholic churches. Visit a Catholic church in Ireland or France and you may find the priest is from Nigeria or Vietnam.

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