Is Catholicism in rude health? 2017 edition

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. In Australia, the royal commission has uncovered a lot of systematically covered-up child abuse in the Catholic Church. Dutch and German newspapers kept track for a while in 2012 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 and those aspects that seem its weakness (secrecy, cover-up, anti-gay message) are actually among its strongest assets.

According to the Catholic Church itself (which measures things partially on the basis of baptisms), its followers numbered 1.3 billion adherents by 2014 making Catholicism the largest religion on the planet and the largest branch on the tree of Christianity that holds about 2.2 billion adherents. Its strongholds in Latin America and Southern Africa are looking rock-solid, and conversion rates in the new centers of Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.) are looking very healthy indeed. 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 (most of) the popes before the current one came from, where many old cathedrals are, where many of 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”. The same is true in Australia.

It is of course precisely this retreat of the power of the Catholic church that allows all the skeletons to emerge from the cupboard, not the other way around. Those skeletons remained nicely buried the previous centuries and it is striking how few scandals come to the surface in places like Brazil and Nigeria compared to the almost massive ‘coming out’ that we have seen in Australia and Europe.

It is in the same 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 Australia and the rest of the West, but are now aimed at keeping and expanding the appeal of the church in Africa and Asia. And it is working! Whatever Germans, French, Italian, American, and Australian Catholics think about the appropriate meaning of Christianity, the barriers to a church wedding, and the celibacy rules for priests is simply not of great importance anymore because the international market for new souls is elsewhere.

Most commentators on the Australian situation following the Royal Commission into child abuse and the kerfuffle about gay marriage miss the most important drivers of these debates: Australia is secularising and that is why the scandals no longer get covered up (not the other way around); bishops and others in the church hierarchy are keeping to the story that fits its appeal around the world, not locally; and anti-gay and pro-cover-up policies are popular in the growth centres.

In stead of hence bemoaning clericalism as a thing of the past and the reason for the demise of the church, one should see clericalism (‘holding the line for internal career reasons’) as part of the great strength of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope might bemoan clericalism, but that same clericalism is what gives him his authority: it is because the insiders hold his line that the pope has power.

It is, speaking as a pure outsider to these religious games, very interesting to see how successful the Catholic\Christian message is amongst the Chinese in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and even in China itself. In Singapore, the proportion of Christians went up from 10% in 1990 to around 20% now, and a little under half of them are Roman Catholic.

Australian 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. 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 3% 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. The main competitor to Christianity, Islam, is not making any headway in the 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. Catholicism seems a bit old-school with the whole incense burning and elaborate robes, but then, people do enjoy a bit of pageantry and mumbo-jumbo. So we’ll see.

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9 Responses to Is Catholicism in rude health? 2017 edition

  1. Alan says:

    Before the Muslim conquest of the Middle East and North Africa a number of popes came from that area. Wikipedia lists 6 from Syria, 3 from Africa, and 3 from Judea. There were also a number from areas that are now Orthodox including 15 from Greece and 3 from Asia Minor.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      fair enough, I didnt look that far back. thx.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        A remarkable fact though – that the church was that … well … ecumenical!

        • Alan says:

          Bear in mind that what we think of as the Catholic and Orthodox churches emerged after, not before the 1054 schism. 1054 was no thought a very major event by anyone. Rome had sent hopeless legates to Constantinople before and Rome and Constantinople had excommunicated each other before.

          If you’d surveyed a random collection of prelates for their religion in 1000 they almost all have identified as both catholic and orthodox. (I am being very careful with capitalisation here).

          When Emperor Alexios II sent his famous appeal for military help, almost 40 years after the alleged great schism, he wrote to the pope with no sense at all that he and Urban II belonged to different churches and Urban answered in the same terms.

  2. conrad says:

    I don’t disagree with the numbers, but it would be interesting to look at the overall wealth of the church — basically the growth is largely in people with nothing, and thus their power as an organisation is probably dropping even if their membership is up.

  3. derrida derider says:

    I think you’re right that Catholicism is gaining market share in much of Asia, but it is from a pretty low base. And they are actually losing market share in the bulwark of Asian Catholicism – the Philippines – to both charismatic Protestantism (a religion that seems to best cater to the national love of colour and movement and histrionics) and, in the south, Islam. Earlier Presidents would never have dared defy the Church the way Duterte has. They’re not doing too well in Indonesia, either – Aceh is less distinctively Catholic than it was.

    And Latin America seems less Catholic than it was, too, despite having a Pope. In fact in Brazil they have lost the power to suppress scandal, too – they’ve had a string of them.

    Africa is of course their success story. But they have no power over the state there yet, and as it gets richer they may never get it.

    I don’t think you can draw much inference on the wider success of Asian Catholicism from our Chinese students – migratory groups are a traditional focus of any religion’s conversion efforts, such groups being the most accessible and least attached to their previous culture.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:


    I liked your list of all the topics this post touches on ;)

    • paul frijters says:

      thx, I hoped somebody would notice. You should check out the list I ticked for the Game of Thrones post I put in a week ago….

  5. Steve H says:

    Wow! Did you just refer to child rape as “philandering”?
    Or are you going to back track and say that you were only talking about priests in adult consensual relationships… like the ex pope?
    Ugly apologetics.

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