Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Yes Virginia, there are still Christians (including Catholics) in Europe

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a report this week on the size and distribution of the world’s Christian population entitled, Global Christianity. For religion researchers there is not much that is new or surprising in this report. Similar estimates are widely available and used in the field (e.g., ARDA, World Christian DatabaseWorld Values Survey, regional barometer surveys, and even the CIA World Factbook). But for the media and the public this report provides a well-done, fresh look at how Christianity has changed in the last century.

The finding that seemed to catch the most attention among religion reporters was the following from the Pew researchers’ executive summary: “In 1910, about two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, where the bulk of Christians had been for a millennium, according to historical estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Today, only about a quarter of all Christians live in Europe (26%).”

Here is how this statement often got translated in the news (emphasis added):

Nadia Gilani of the Daily Mail (UK):
“Christians remain the largest religious group in the world despite their population migrating from Europe to Africa, Asia and the Americas according to a new study.”

G. Jeffrey Macdonald of Religion News Service:
“With 2.18 billion adherents, Christianity has become a truly global religion during the past century as rapid growth in developing nations offset declines in traditional strongholds, according to a report released Monday.”

Christianity Today:
“A hundred years ago, the centre of Christianity was Europe. Today, Christianity is declining across its former heartland as the church rises in Africa, Asia and the Americas.”

Finally, here is one of the better stories on the study:

Raja Abdulrahim of The Los Angeles Times:
“In 1910, about two-thirds of Christians lived in Europe, where the majority had resided for a millennium. But as Christianity has grown in other parts of the world, the population has seen a shift.”

Have Christians migrated in mass from Europe? Are there fewer Christians in Europe? No to both.

There are more Christians (and Catholics) in Europe now than there have ever been at any time in history. There are growing numbers of individuals without a religious affiliation (i.e., the Nones) and globalization has brought many non-Christians to the continent from other areas of the world. This has altered the percentage of Europeans who identify themselves as a Christian. But population is not a zero-sum game! A smaller population percentage does not equate a smaller number of that population when the overall population is growing.

Vatican statistics have long documented the global shift among Catholics that is noted in the report. For example, below is a figure including Vatican estimates for the global proportions of Catholics by region. In 1900, 68% of the world’s Catholics resided in Europe. In 2009 (most recent data available), this had fallen to just 24%. Crisis? Not quite.

The pie has gotten much bigger. There are more Catholics in the world and Europe’s slice makes up a smaller share of the whole pie but it’s still a heck of a lot bigger piece than it was in 1900. The figure below shows the total population numbers by region.

Europe’s Catholic population has grown by 57% since 1900 from 180 million to 284 million today. There has been no decline in the number of Catholic Europeans. Mass attendance has certainly declined (more in some European countries than others) but the total population affiliated with the faith has continued to grow on the continent.

There was also no great “migration” as the Daily Mail suggests. Africa and Asia do not have more Christians because they moved from Europe. Evangelization has clearly been important but so has another factor that is not mentioned prominently in the study or the news reports about it—fertility.

In many European countries the fertility rate dropped below what is needed for growth (2.1 or above) in the last century. Immigration has filled the gap somewhat—often bringing non-Christians to Europe. At the same time, in many areas of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, population growth has quickened with declines in infant and maternal mortality rates.

As a simple example think of two women: one lives in a country with a fertility rate of 2 and the other lives in a country with a fertility rate of 5. Then assume they live out these fertility rates as do their offspring. The first woman will eventually have 8 great grandchildren. The second woman will have 125 (and 625 great great grandchildren). That is the difference between a low fertility and high fertility nation/region. The growth in the proportion of Christians in what Pew calls the Global South (and smaller proportions in Europe) is largely a function of effective Christian evangelization and differences in fertility rates (sprinkled with a bit of globalization and secularization).

In the figure below (World Bank data via Google Public Data Explorer), you can see the differences in fertility rates over time around the world. Just hit the arrow button to play out the changes that have occurred in the last 50 years. Note, fertility rates have dropped around the globe but the key is the number and regional distribution of countries falling below 2.0 on the y-axis. You'll find most of Europe in this part of the graph.

How to explain the regional differences in fertility? Strangely enough a lot of it is economics. You can see the same fertility trends (this rate is on the y-axis) play out in the figure below with the addition of GDP per capita on the x-axis and the size of the bubbles representing total population (pause the player and place your cursor over a bubble to identify country). Although countries like China and India have the largest populations (including sizable numbers of Catholics), for the future keep an eye on the number of Christians in Nigeria which is expected to grow substantially in the 21st century (currently the home to 20 million Catholics and nearly 60 million Protestants).

Buon Natale!

Above photo courtesy of dalbera at Flickr Creative Commons. 

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