Catholic World Population Center Shifts to South

The next pope, whether he represents church “growth zones” like Latin America or Africa or “legacy” regions where secularity and skepticism reign, will have a Catholic world in transformation to shepherd. Over the past century, the number of Catholics around the globe more than tripled, from an estimated 291 million in 1910 to nearly 1.1 billion in 2010, according to a comprehensive demographic study of the global church by the Pew Research Center.

Pew reports that Catholics have made up a remarkably stable share of all people on earth during that time frame. In 1910 Catholics comprised about half (48 percent) of all Christians and 17 percent of the world’s total population. A century later, the Pew study found, Catholics still comprise about half (50 percent) of Christians worldwide and 16 percent of the total global population.

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What has changed substantially over the past century is the geographic distribution of the world’s Catholics. In 1910 Europe was home to about two-thirds of all Catholics, and nearly nine in ten lived either in Europe (65 percent) or Latin America (24 percent). But by 2010 only 24 percent of world Catholics were in Europe, and the largest share—39 percent—are now located in Latin America and the Caribbean.

As a percentage of regional population, the largest growth occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, which went from about 1 percent Catholic in 1910 to 21 percent Catholic in 2010. The Catholic share of the population in the Asia-Pacific region grew from 1 percent to 3 percent during this period. Meanwhile, the Catholic share of North America’s population grew from 16 percent to 26 percent.

In several countries with large Catholic populations, the share of the populace self-identifying as Catholic has declined over the last decade. Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, but the share of self-identified Catholics in Brazil dropped from approximately three-quarters (74 percent) in 2000 to about two-thirds (65 percent) in 2010. Mexico, the country with the second-largest Catholic population in the world, went from about 89 percent Catholic in 2000 to 85 percent Catholic in 2010.

The United States is home to about 7 percent of all Catholics in the world. As of 2010, an estimated 23 percent of U.S. adults and 24 percent of the total U.S. population are Catholic. The U.S. Catholic population has lost more members than it has gained from denominational switching. In fact, one in 10 adults in the United States is a former Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2009 report “Faith in Flux.” 

In addition, the Catholic population in the United States has been heavily shaped by immigration and includes a rising share of Latinos. More than half (52 percent) of all migrants to the United States are Catholic. Of the estimated 75.4 million Catholics in the United States in 2010, according to Pew, just over 22 million were born outside the United States (30 percent). By comparison, slightly more than 13 percent of the overall U.S. population is foreign-born.

Three-quarters (76 percent) of Catholic immigrants living in the United States are from Latin America and the Caribbean, while about 10 percent each have come from Asia-Pacific and Europe. A Pew survey of adult U.S. Catholics finds that 60 percent are non-Hispanic whites, 33 percent are Hispanic and 7 percent are other minorities, including Asians.

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