The Demographics of a Changing Church: The First Pope from the Americas


In his most recent column, Pat Buchanan reflects on the recent conclave and what has happened in Europe to usher in the first pontiff from the Americas. (He is not, as Max Fisher of the Washington Post points out, the first “non-European pope.”) Buchanan writes:

“The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith,” wrote Hilaire Belloc after that bloodbath we call World War I. “Either Europe will return to the Faith or she will perish.”

By 1938, Belloc concluded Christian Europe was done:

“The bad work begun at the Reformation is bearing its final fruit in the dissolution of our ancient doctrines — the very structure of society is dissolving.” He was right. Europe is the dying continent.

And looking back at the history of the Old Continent, we see the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s insight: When men cease to believe in God, they do not then believe in nothing, they will believe in anything.

Consider the idols to which European Man has burnt incense since losing his faith: Darwinism, Marxism, Bolshevism, fascism, Nazism, now globalism — the idea of a secular paradise where mankind’s needs are met by the state and people spend their lives consuming cultural and material goods until the time comes for the painless exit.

Wednesday, even as Europe has said goodbye to Rome, Rome began to say goodbye to Europe, where the fastest growing faith is manifest in the mosques rising from Moscow to Madrid.

The College of Cardinals, for the first time ever, chose a pope from the New World: Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina.

But there is more at work here than just Europe’s abandonment of the Faith. The Catholicism that Europe itself exported – through missionaries like the Jesuits – is growing exponentially in places like Africa and the New World. Even the Philippines now has a larger Catholic population than Italy. National Geographic took a look at the shifting demographics of the Catholic Church, and what they reported is impressive.

In 1900, clearly a reflection of its historical roots, nearly seven-in-10 Catholics (67 percent) across the globe resided in Europe. At the time, France, with 40 million followers, was the largest Catholic country. As National Geographic notes, 98 percent of its population were believers at the time. Additionally, nearly all of Spain’s and Italy’s adherents were Catholics.

See the graphic showing the church’s distribution in 1900:


Photo Credit: National Geographic/Alexander Stegmail, Maggie Smith, NGM Staff

The century that followed showed massive changes in the population centers of the world, not just the Church. As developing nations increased their populations, the percentage of Catholics in Central and South America as well as Africa increased too. By 2010, the map of the world’s Catholics looked very different:


Photo Credit: National Geographic/Alexander Stegmail, Maggie Smith, NGM Staff

At the dawn of the 21st century, Latin America now accounts for 41% of Catholics worldwide with the largest concentration found in Brazil at 13%. Add the 6% of Catholics found in the United States, and roughly half the world’s Catholics now live in the Americas.

Latin America, in particular, presents challenges that the Church will have to confront. In addition to the still-alive-and-kicking problem of liberation theology which finds its origins in the region, Latin American Catholicism is straining to remain the religion of choice in an area of the world that is still plagued with poverty but also experiencing modernization and, in some sectors, massive economic growth. Reuters reports that:

Though Latin America is still home to more Catholics than any other region worldwide, the percentage of people in the region who call themselves Catholic fell from about 90 percent in 1910 to 72 percent in 2010, according to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

And the trend appears to be accelerating.

In Brazil, the world’s biggest Catholic country, the number of people who called themselves Catholic tumbled from 74 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2010, according to government data. In Mexico, the world’s second-biggest concentration of faithful, census figures show the number there fell from 88 percent to below 83 percent during the same decade.

Pope Benedict himself recognized the size of the problem.

“We must be better believers, more pious, affable and welcoming in our parishes and communities, so that no one feels distant or excluded,” he said in remarks to Colombian bishops last June.

Latin American Catholics are being drawn to the more energetic manifestations of Evangelicalism, either because it offers a more appealing aesthetic, a different take on Christian doctrine, or simply because it provides some with a stronger sense of belonging. As Latin America grows more prosperous, people there find that they are more willing to break with tradition and chart a different course.

And Latin America, like the rest of the world, faces an ongoing assault against marriage, family, and traditional sexual morals. The erosion of the two-parent family has, in some instances, created such an obstacle to baptism that when Pope Francis was the archbishop of Buenos Aires he wrote passionately about the problem:

“In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptise the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage. These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalise the church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptised!”

It will be interesting to see how the concerns of the Catholic Church in the developing world will influence the focus of Francis’ papacy. At the time he wrote Europe and the Faith, Belloc had it right: “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith.” But this statement has long since ceased to ring true. Thus, the European hold on the papacy is, I think, irrevocably broken.

In 2013, there is no longer any region in the world that is synonymous with Catholicism. But there is a region in which the greatest number of Catholics live, and our pope is from among their people. It is a new world facing new challenges, but the Faith is always the Faith. The holy father himself made this clear in his first homily:

We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we are not walking, we stop moving. When we are not building on the stones, what happens? The same thing that happens to children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away, there is no solidity. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: ‘Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.’ When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.

How Pope Francis will govern this vastly different Church remains to be seen. One thing is certain: for Catholics these are interesting times.

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