Catholicism's Surprising New Fan Club

Catholicism's Surprising New Fan Club

Catholic bishops attend the beatification ceremony on May 23, 2015 in Nairobi for a missionary nun sister Irene Stefani who died in 1930.

SourceSimon Maina/Getty

Why you should care

Because the geographical shift in Catholicism is making its mark on the church.

It’s a good time to be pope, at least if you’re Francis. He may not be quite as dreamy as, say, Justin Trudeau, but he’s almost certainly the first pope in history that people Facebook about to up their own social cachet. What’s more, Pope Cool Guy is part of a Catholic Church that may no longer be tanking, at least in one place.

In late November, Pope Francis wrapped up a visit to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, a first for his papal reign. And he didn’t go on safari, although he did go where the action is. According to a 2015 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University:

The number of Catholics in Africa has grown by 238 percent since 1980.

That’s compared with 6 percent in Europe. And the number of priests in Africa (and Asia) has grown too — it’s more than doubled in the same time period. That’s compared with a tiny sub-3-percent growth in the Americas and a whopping 23 percent decline of priests in Europe — a loss of 56,830 priests. Over the past 50 years, the global Catholic population has actually hovered at a surprisingly stable rate, proportionally. That image of stability may largely be due to Africa.

You might suspect evangelical Christian missionaries or immigration to be the bang behind the boom, but that’s not the case. The real culprit is high fertility and the resulting growth in population. Africa has the fastest-growing population in the world — expected to account for around 20 percent of the world’s population by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 report “The Future of World Religions.” In 2012 women in sub-Saharan Africa were still having more than five kids on average, a drop from around seven in 1980, according to CARA. That’s a lot of potential for so-called “cradle Catholics.” If current trends continue, by 2040 nearly a quarter of the African continent, about 460.4 million people, will be Catholic. That’s nearly equivalent to the Catholic populations of Brazil, Mexico, France, the U.S., Italy and the Philippines combined, using 2010 Pew data.

It’s not all kumbaya at the Vatican, though. Pope Francis’ move to give a greater voice to Catholics from the global south has “irked” some in the church, says Ntal Alimasi, president of the National Association of African Catholics in the U.S. And in the U.S. he finds it difficult for some parishes to even acknowledge their African members. “Visibility of African Catholics is still an issue,” he says.

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