Observations: Catholicism in the World

Even as the Catholic Church in America suffers the greatest crisis of its short life, even as rebellious Dutch priests proclaim their independence, elsewhere in the world, little noticed, something remarkable has been happening. Catholicism, in our time, and to a degree never before equaled, is becoming a worldwide religion.

At the beginning of Vatican II in 1962, about 51 percent of all Roman Catholics — who constituted 18 percent of the world’s population — lived in Europe and the United States. By 1978, when John Paul II commenced his papacy, booming population growth in South and Central America and dynamic growth in the Church in black Africa (mostly through conversions), had shifted the balance markedly in the direction of the developing world. Of the seventeen countries with the largest Catholic populations, nine are in the Third World. In his classic Modern Times, Paul Johnson notes that by the year 2,000, some 70 percent of Catholics will live in developing countries. Many of the world’s largest cities — for example, Sao Paulo (projected population, 26 million) and Mexico City (projected population, 31 million) — will be predominantly Catholic.

At the Spring 1986 world synod in Rome, 60 percent of the bishops who attended were from Third World countries. Thus it should come as no surprise that the fourth most powerful man in the Vatican, and the one second closest to John Paul II, is an African whose grandfather was a tribal chieftain.

A quick tour of the world’s regions confirms Catholicism’s claim to a new universality.

Over 85 percent of the nearly 400 million inhabitants of Central and South America are Roman Catholic. Brazil has more Catholics than any other nation in the world, more than 100 million, and more bishops (there are over 300) than any other country.

Much has been written in recent years about “liberation theology,” whose seed was imported from European universities (Tubingen, Utrecht, and Louvain) in the 1960s, as was a penchant for “sociological analysis” so strong as to sound — at twenty years and subsequent experience removed — as if it had been considered a form of gnosis. What is mentioned too rarely is that most South American priests, like most of the lay people of the continent, practice their religion in traditional ways. Indeed, historian Johnson insists that when it comes to innovation, the most dynamic of the last two decades has been not liberation theology, but a popular explosion of cults of saints, relics, and shrines.

In  1900, 29 years after Stanley found Dr. Livingstone, about 9 percent of Africa’s population was Christian. At the beginning of this decade, over 44 percent of Africa’s half billion people were Christian, about 70 million of them Roman Catholics.

Nor can this increase be disparaged as a product of colonialism. The explosion in Christian conversions has been a post-World War II phenomenon. In other words, it has occurred contemporaneously with decolonization and African independence. By a wide margin, more Africans have converted to Roman Catholicism than to any other single Christian denomination.

Of the estimated 100 million people in Nigeria, 15 million are Roman Catholics. Twenty-eight of 31 Nigerian diocese are headed by native Nigerian bishops. Each year the number of Nigerian nuns grows by 500. (The aged cadre of U.S. nuns thins by about 1,500 per year.)

Half of Zaire’s roughly 35 million inhabitants are Roman Catholics, as are half of little Burundi’s population, and about 10 percent of Zimbabwe’s.

Full of hope and promise, the Roman Catholic Church in Africa also has more than its share of problems. Evangelization remains a key priority. There is a stiff, indeed a breakneck, competition with Islam for converts on a continent where animism and traditional ancestor worship remain. In addition, there are more than a thousand Christian denominations — hundreds of them splinter churches founded by local charismatics and “prophets.”

Churchmen devote much attention to “inculturation” in Africa, as in Asia — that is, to adapting liturgy and rites to local customs and traditions. Not surprisingly, there is often considerable debate about where to “draw the line.” One chronic problem, mentioned by John Paul II on his African trips, is instilling the ideal of clerical chastity in lands where celibacy is strange and polygamy is commonplace.

Fewer than 3 percent of Asia’s nearly three billion people are Roman Catholics, and just over a quarter of Oceania’s 24.4 million. Nevertheless, that’s some 77 million faithful. (By comparison, there are 64 million Catholics in the U.S. and Canada combined.) Primarily Catholic, the Philippines is the only majority Christian country in Asia. Five thousand priests and 8,000 nuns serve its 44 million Catholics. The Church maintains 1,200 schools, including 17 universities and 240 colleges.

There were 2 million Roman Catholics in China in 1949. After decades of brutal repression following the Communist takeover and during the Cultural Revolution, the number of believers is anyone’s guess. The China Christian Council, an affiliate of the official government-approved Protestant Church, estimates there are now 2 million Chinese Protestants and 3 million Catholics. According to the reference work Christianity in Today’s World (Eerdmans,1985), however, these figures are probably low, perhaps many-fold.

The Chinese government began opening up long- closed churches in 1979, but only government-approved congregations may worship with some degree of freedom. (The government-approved Catholic Church is allowed no ties to the Vatican.) Some Roman Catholic priests remain in prison, where they have been for more than thirty years. [For a moving description of the plight of the Church in China, see Richard Bernstein’s From the Center of the Earth: The Search for the Truth About China (Little, Brown 1982).]

Vastly outnumbered in a nation of Hindus, there are some 13 million Roman Catholics in India. Concerned for its safety, and fearful of interference, the Church sought to institutionalize its presence in the decades after Indian independence in 1947.

According to Jesuit scholar Thomas M. Gannon, the Catholic Church establishment in India now includes 110 diocese, 5,100 parishes, and 17,000 mission stations. There are 12,000 Indian priests, and over four times as many sisters. Catholic colleges enroll 142,000 students; there are 3,000 high schools teaching 1.6 million young people. Two million students attend the 6,200 Catholic primary schools. There are 600 Catholic hospitals, and over 1,500 orphanages, leprosariums, and other charitable institutions.

It was to India that a young Yugoslavian woman, born Agnes Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents, travelled in 1931, beginning an odyssey that would make her the most inspiring woman on earth. Thirty-five years after she founded the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Theresa’s order has numerous houses for the dying throughout India and hundreds of other charitable institutions across India and in all six inhabited continents.

Recently, sisters of her order began caring for dying AIDS patients in New York City. In other words, the “less-developed” world now sends missionaries to the United States! We will see evermore missionaries, including at the parish level, ministering to America’s Catholics in the decades ahead.

Will the message that instructed our own civilization return, from the teeming cities of the Third World, to remind and reinspire the West?

It would take a miracle, maybe.


  • Michael A. Scully

    Michael A. Scully's articles and reviews have appeared in Harper's Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, and The American Spectator.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...