The geographical revolution, by the numbers

Some numbers from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, by way of Sandro Magister:

Catholics were and remain one sixth of the global population. They were and remain half of all Christians. But in absolute numbers they have quadrupled. In 1910 they were 291 million. In 2010 1.1 billion.

What is most arresting, however, is the geographical revolution. This has been presented by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in a recent survey:

A century ago, 70 percent of Catholics lived in Europe and North America. Today just 32 percent, less than one third of the total.

More than two thirds of Catholics today therefore live in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia and Oceania.

In Latin America, they have grown in one century from 70 million to 425 million.

In Asia and Oceania from 14 million to 131 million.

The most astonishing increase has been in sub-Saharan Africa. Catholics were just 1 million in 1910. A hundred years later 171 million. In one century they have gone from less than one percent to 16 percent of the population.

The ranking of the countries with the largest number of Catholics has also been revolutionized.

In 1910 the leaders of the pack were France and Italy, with 40 and 35 million Catholics respectively. Brazil followed with 21 million. There were more Catholics in Germany than in Mexico: 16 million versus 14 million.

In 2010 Brazil jumped into the lead with 126 million Catholics, followed by Mexico with 96 million and the Philippines with 75 million. And for the first time one of the top ten was an African country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 31 million Catholics.

Among the countries of Europe and North America, only the United States has seen over the past century a clear percentage increase of Catholics in the overall population. They were 14% in 1910, now they are 24%. In absolute numbers, with 75 million Catholics, the United States today is tied with the Philippines for third place in the general ranking.

In various countries of ancient Christian tradition, including those high in the rankings, Catholics no longer make up almost the whole of the population, as was the case a century ago. For example, in Brazil in 1910 Catholics were 95 percent of the population. Today 65 percent. This reduction has taken place above all in recent decades.

In the United States as well, where changing from one religion to another is very common, Catholics have undergone an erosion over the past century. Those who have left the Church turn out to be more numerous than those who have entered.

In compensation, however, a great number of immigrants to the United States, especially from Latin America, have come to increase the overall presence of Catholics. “Latinos” are today almost one third of Catholics in the United States and half of those under the age of 40.

The United States is in short a focal point of the new dislocation of Catholics in the world.

What will be the impact of these numbers on the conclave? It’s hard to tell, of course, but they surely must be part of the equation in the minds of many of the cardinals. 


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About Carl E. Olson 1121 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.