Is Catholicism in rude health?

Looking at the newspapers you’d think Catholicism is having a hard time with philandering priests and cover-ups of their doings being found out on a weekly basis. Dutch and German newspapers kept track for a while of the regional frequencies of new cases of sexual misconduct allegations. You might think Catholicism is getting its long-awaited come-uppance. Nothing is further from the truth however: Catholicism is in rude health.

There are now around 1.3 billion adherents making Catholicism the largest religion on the planet and the largest branch on the tree of Christianity that appears to hold about 2.1 billion adherents. Its strongholds in Latin America and Southern Africa are looking rock-solid, and conversion rates in the new centres of Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.) are looking very healthy indeed. The Christian World Database hence proudly announced Christianity was the world’s fastest growing religion in 2006 and in terms of numbers, Catholicism is by far the biggest and probably fastest growing of the Christian faiths.

What is interesting about Catholicism is that it seems to have lost its footing in its traditional stronghold, Southern and Western Europe. The area where all the popes came from, where all the old cathedrals are, where nearly all the alternative branches of Christianity originated, is now more secular than ever. Europe now has to import monks from Latin America and Africa to fill up its most prestigious and old monasteries (such as the one in Poblet, Spain). Things are so bad for Catholicism in Europe that in April 2009, the Archbishop of Vienna proclaimed that “The time of Christianity in Europe is coming to an end”. It is of course partially this retreat of the power of the Catholic church that allows all the skeletons to emerge from the cupboard. It is striking how few scandals come to the surface in places like Brazil and Nigeria compared to the almost massive ‘coming out’ currently seen in Europe.

It is this light that one should see the choices of the Roman Catholic church regarding the marriage of priests, the use of condoms, the rights of gays, etc.: policy choices in those realms are simply no longer aimed at pleasing or controlling the faithful in Europe (including Australia), but are now aimed at keeping and expanding the appeal of the church in Africa and Asia. And it is apparently working. Whatever Germans, French, Italian, American, and Australian Catholics think about the appropriate meaning of Christianity and the celibacy rules for priests is simply not of great importance anymore because the international market for new souls is elsewhere.

It is, speaking as a pure outsider to these religious games, very interesting to see how successful the CatholicChristian message is amongst the Chinese in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and even in China itself. Universities witness a lot of action in this regard: you can see young Chinese female converters lining up to peddle the Catholic message amongst the recent student migrants in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Reportedly, almost 40% of university graduates in Singapore are now Christian. Statistics for conversions in China are hard to get in that estimates of the current stock range from about 15 million self-identified Christians in the latest Census to 40 million in the CIA-factbook to 140 million in unsubstantiated estimates by particular Christian organisations (see Wikipedia). Yet, even the mid-stream estimate of 4% is quite a bit up from 50 years ago so it does appear that the Chinese are ripe for the taking in terms of religiosity. It certainly looks that way amongst Chinese students in Australia. And Christianity seems to be the religion-du-jour amongst that immense market. The main competitor to Christianity, Islam, seems to me to have no chance at all with the Chinese, partially because almost zero Chinese students study in Islamic countries, partially because the West is far richer and hence far more appealing than the Middle East, and finally because Christianity starts from a far stronger base within China (except with particular minorities but not amongst the main Han-Chinese population).

I personally expect China to become more Christian, as the control of the state becomes less and the uncertainty of capitalist life makes the urban middle classes receptive to the Christian promise of a loving god and an eternal life. Whether the Chinese go for Catholicism or one of the alternatives amongst the Christian pantheon is harder to know.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

One thought on “Is Catholicism in rude health?”

  1. During Britain’s industrialisation in the 19th C there was also a religious revival. One hypothesis is that sharing a religion, and by that I mean actively going to church and participating not just being born “catholic” or “jewish” or whatever, creates trust amongst people. Trust that is particularly useful for doing business in industrialising economies with poorly developed financial markets. I guess that most loans and most financing in these economies is done through the church network (or the synagogue). You are just more likely to trust people if they share your belief that betraying a co-believer means eternal pain in the afterlife. People might join churches hoping to access these “credit networks” and then find themselves actually believing in the faith, or at least spending a lot of their time thinking about questions of faith. That implies we should also observe a growth in the number of religious groups and splinter groups during early development phases, and that with either stagnation or efficient capital markets people will give up their religion. An empirical question! But arguably we see in Europe at the moment. The US would see more churchgoing amongst illegal immigrants (no credit access) and those without full health insurance (another market with failures due to information asymmetries) I imagine.


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