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Catholicism: Northern No Longer PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Friday, 31 October 2008 13:31
John Allen's Friday piece is interesting, as always. (My question: how does he manage to do all those interviews, write all those articles and books, and prepare all those speeches? I'm tired just contemplating it.)

Although his article is mostly about the evolution of Liberation Theology, I want to focus right now on his observation about global Catholicism.

"There are now local churches in every part of the world, and the hierarchy is being transformed by members from Africa, Asia and Latin America," George said during a conference in Chicago sponsored by the Catholic Theological Union and DePaul University. "What was once known as the 'Third World' is now a source of life and renewal for the church elsewhere."

Catholic demography certainly bears George out. In 1900, just twenty-five percent of the 266 million Catholics in the world lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America; by 2000, sixty-six percent of 1.1 billion Catholics lived in the global South, and by 2050, the Southern share is projected to be seventy-five percent, or three-quarters of all the Catholics on the planet. That's perhaps the most rapid, most sweeping, transformation of the Catholic population in more than 2,000 years of history.

I posted this amazing graph a year ago. It deals with Christianity as a whole, not just Catholicism but you see exactly the same picture. And two things that particularly struck me:



One: The only other time that Christianity went through a global shift this dramatic was in the 1st century when the Church moved from 100% southern to 60% southern in a century as she expanded throughout the ancient world. Note that the majority of Christians in the world were in the global south until the 10th century.

Two: The absolute nadir of southern Christianity occurred during one of the most traumatic centuries for northern Christianity. The 16th century was the only time in history when 90+ of all Christians on the planet were European. The century of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Reformation and Trent and religious war between Catholics and Protestants. In historical terms, it was a blip because the Catholic missionary movement that arose from the Catholic Reformation began to change that - as the modest rise in southern Christianity that follows shows.

(By the way, the first 18 centuries of Christian missionary work was overwhelmingly Catholic (and Orthodox). Protestants didn't really start to engage in it in a major way till the late 19th century. HIstorically, Protestant missionary work is an anomaly.)

But the image of Catholicism as overwhelmingly, profoundly, and intrinsically northern and European in its very marrow that underlies so many of our current conversations is just wrong. It is, in the fullest sense, parochial.

Catholicism wasn't a northern faith in its first century. It is not a northern faith now. And all the indicators are that we have come full circle and that the 3rd millennium of Christian history is going to be once again dominated by the global south. None of us knows exactly what that will mean, of course. It will take centuries for the full impact to be felt just as it took centuries for medieval Christendom to rise from the ruins of the ancient world and the ravages of pagan invaders.

I am not saying that the European heritage of the Church will, much less, should be rejected or silenced. It will continue to inform and enrich a truly global Catholicism, as it should and must, but it will now be part of a global chorus as African, Asian, and Latin Catholicism take their rightful places. Before the rise of Islam, African Christianity was one of the the great glories of the Church. It is time it was restored.

So Allen's article about 2009 being the "Year of Africa".

"The explosion of Catholicism in sub-Saharan Africa during the 20th century ranks among the greatest missionary success stories in church history. From a Catholic population of 1.9 million in 1900, the total for sub-Saharan African mushroomed to 139 million in 2000, a staggering growth rate of 6,70 percent. Moreover, almost half of the adult baptisms in global Catholicism occur in Africa, meaning that the growth of the church has been driven not merely by overall demographic trends but also by success in attracting new converts.

By 2050, three African nations will rank among the ten largest Catholic countries on earth: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (97 million Catholics), Uganda (56 million) and Nigeria (47 million). The traditional Catholic powerhouses of Spain and Poland, meanwhile, are projected to drop off the list.

Vocations are also booming. Bigard Memorial Seminary in southeastern Nigeria, with an enrollment of over 1,100, is said to be the largest Catholic seminary in the world. Its student population by itself is roughly one-fifth the total number of seminarians currently preparing for the priesthood in the United States. Yet despite this phenomenal harvest, there is no priest surplus in Africa, in large part because Africans are being baptized even more rapidly than they’re being ordained.

The focus on Africa throughout 2009 should thus offer a striking contrast to Western perceptions of contraction and decline in the church, because that is not necessarily the global story."


42 years from now, only 25% of Catholics will probably be northern: European, North American.

But the reality is in our midst today.


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