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.


Catholicism at the Poles: Births and Baptisms, North and South

At CARA we sit on a mountain of data about the Catholic Church (…including a new and ever expanding database of international figures). I can always count on one set of numbers to leave me scratching my head—baptismal data (1, 2). In the previous post we examined how birth rates are falling globally. Fewer babies means fewer baptisms right? But there is an odd “swirl” in the numbers the closer one gets to the North Pole. Forget the Francis Effect. Is there a St. Nicholas Effect?

Northern Europe not only leads the continent in baptisms per 1,000 Catholics, it also matches the Catholic crude baptism rates in many high fertility countries in Africa (“crude” rates measure something relative to the size of a population, often “per 1,000”). In 2012, on average, there were 13.9 baptisms per 1,000 Catholics in Northern European countries. Finland, Iceland, and Denmark rank just ahead of Ireland, which is closely followed by Sweden and Great Britain (Vatican statistics combine Ireland and Northern Ireland). Only Norway doesn’t seem to “fit in.”

There are more baptisms per 1,000 Catholics in this region (based on data from the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae), on average, than there are births per 1,000 of the population (based on data from the World Bank). In many areas of the world (including the U.S.), Catholics are no more or less likely to have children than people of other faiths. However, Northern Europe appears to be one place where perhaps Catholic fertility rates, as reflected in the crude baptism rate, are slightly higher than the general population.

It is the case that there are just 11 million Catholics in this area of the world and most reside in Ireland and Great Britain (97 percent). Only about 165,000 Catholics live in Finland, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden combined. That is about enough to fill the seats in two football stadiums in the United States. There are mega-parishes in the United States with more registered parishioners than the total Catholic population of Finland or Iceland. But these Northern European outliers are real and consistent year after year (i.e., this phenomenon is not limited to the 2012 data). There truly is something different and exceptional about the practice and transmission of the faith in this area of the world.

This region has been a destination for immigrants from other areas of Europe in recent decades. Polish immigration in particular is of interest (1, 2, 3, 4). Is there something different about the fertility and baptism decisions of Catholic parents depending on the social context where they live? Particularly, if you are a Catholic immigrant in a majority Protestant region does it make you even “more Catholic” than you would be in a majority Catholic country or a country with religious pluralism? Does religion become an even more salient aspect of one’s identity and their sense of nostalgia for their place of birth?

Kosovo has crude Catholic baptismal rates similar to Northern Europe and is also a country where the faith is small relative to a large majority (Islam). A few other Eastern European countries have relatively high baptismal rates (10 per 1,000 Catholics or higher) including Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland, and Croatia. In many other Eastern European countries the baptismal rate falls well behind birthrates—meaning that likely some Catholic parents are choosing to delay or not to baptize their children in the faith.

In Western Europe, where Catholicism has been historically strong, the baptismal numbers are perhaps most troubling for the Church. The average crude birth rate in this region is 10 per 1,000 of the population. Yet, the crude baptism rate is only 6 per 1,000 Catholics. Many of these countries have very low fertility rates and rely on immigration to maintain population stability (…some failing to do so). It could be the case that immigrants are driving crude birth rates higher than what these are among Catholics alone in the region. Yet the disparity between birth rates and baptism rates is still significant.

In all of the preceding tables we have shown the ratio of adult baptisms (ages 7 and older) to infant and child baptisms and the numbers of Catholics per parish. In Northern and Western Europe there is only about one adult baptism for every 25 infant or child baptisms and the number of Catholics per parish is typically about 2,500. This means no one is likely standing in line for a baptism and few who baptize children wait until after age six to do so. These indicators look much different in other parts of the world.

The table below shows the infant and child baptism data for African countries with relatively high crude baptism rates. Eight African countries have crude baptism rates higher than Finland. However, note that relative to the crude birth rates in these countries there are likely many Catholic parents with unbaptized children in these countries. In Uganda there are 44 births per 1,000 residents and only 28.5 infant or child baptisms per 1,000 Catholics. It is possible that Catholic fertility rates are lower than others in Uganda but this is unlikely. With 29,798 Catholics per parish in Uganda it could be that some parents are putting off baptism due to limited access to a parish and/or priest. It is the case that there are only four infant or child baptisms for every baptism of someone age 7 or older. So more baptisms are occurring later here than in Europe.

Only on the island of Mauritius does the Catholic crude baptism rate exceed the crude birth rate. In a handful of countries there is near parity between the number of infant and child baptisms and the number of adult baptisms celebrated (e.g., Rwanda, Mozambique, Ghana, Mali, Togo).

There are other African countries in this region where baptism rates look a bit more like Western or Eastern Europe. These are shown below. Notice the massive differences between the crude birth rates and the crude baptism rates. Either Catholics in these countries are disproportionately unlikely to have children or they are delaying or forgoing baptism altogether for their children. There is considerable evidence of delays with the average ratio of adult baptisms to child baptisms for the region reaching 1.9. For every baptism of someone under age 7 there are nearly two baptisms of someone age 7 or older. There are more baptisms of older Catholics than younger in the Central African Republic, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Congo, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivorie, Chad, Guinea, and Liberia. Is this a case of waiting lines? Too few priests available? Parishes too far for regular travel? On average, there are 16,426 Catholics per parish in these countries. That means there are more Catholics per parish in these countries, on average, than in all of Finland (…where there are seven Catholic parishes).

The “swirls” in Catholic baptismal rates are not limited to the North Pole. As one moves further south we see again relatively high rates in Oceania. On average, in this region, there are 20 infant or child baptisms per 1,000 Catholics which is consistent with the region’s birth rate of 20.1 babies per 1,000 in the population. There are also relatively few baptisms of older Catholics and low numbers of Catholics per parish. These conditions, similar to Northern Europe, mean that there is unlikely issues of access to a parish or a priest that may delay baptism. In fact, the four countries with the highest crude baptismal rates in the world are in Oceania: Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands (try that as a trivia question!). Similar to Scandinavia, there is not a large Catholic population here. In these four countries combined the total number of Catholics is just about 218,000.

If Catholics are following the teachings of the Church they should be baptizing their babies within a year of their birth. Unless you are a martyr seeking to be a Christian (and dying because of this before baptism) your salvation, according to the Church, is in question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cautions, “as regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God” (1261).

Throughout history, parents typically had their infants baptized quickly out of a concern that they faced very real risks of death. Between 20% and 30% of infants did not survive historically and in some periods and places this rate reached 50%. Still today, the Church allows a lay person to baptize someone wishing to be Catholic who is facing death or severe illness if no clergy are available. The Catechism states “In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize” (1256).

Around the world today there are about 20 infant deaths per 1,000 live births (2% mortality rate). There is a high of 31 infant deaths per 1,000 in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to 6 infant deaths per 1,000 births in Europe. All things considered, the risk of an infant dying young is considerably lower today than in the past. But it is also the case that these risks are still higher in Sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe. We might expect that Catholics in Africa might be more motivated to baptize their infants than those in Europe. However, we must also consider the relative access to parishes and priests those two populations face. If the Church is to keep up with the population growth in Africa it will likely need to invest in more brick, mortar, and priest collars. In Western Europe it must attempt to reinstall the culture and habits of infant baptism.

Some of the exceptional baptism rate countries highlighted in this post are also relatively small. The table below shows the top ten countries for total infant or child baptisms. These are the countries supplying the world with the most new Catholics each year. In total, these nations accounted for 7.7 million of infant and child baptisms in 2012. This represents a majority of the world’s celebrations that year (56 percent). Notice that even where the numbers of infant/child entries is largest, only in Poland does the crude baptism rate at least match the crude birth rate.

So I will continue to scratch my head... Are Catholic parents in many areas of the world deciding not to baptize their infants? Are they delaying baptism? Letting the child choose their own faith at a later age? So many data points, so many anomalies. At least the latest news from the North Pole is good... Merry Christmas!

Image courtesy of Visit Finland.

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