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Europe No Longer Catholic Church’s ‘Center’

Charts courtesy of CNS:
Countries with largest number of Catholics, 1910
Countries with the largest number of Catholics, 2010
Regional distribution of Catholics
Catholic share of the population

As priestly vocations and church attendance have plummeted across Europe, Catholic bastions such as Slovakia and Poland provide a third of all European ordinations and a clergy presence throughout the continent.

Still, the church is growing in Scandinavia and attracting vibrant devotions in the former Soviet Union. Germany and Austria remain theological powerhouses. Multiethnic assimilation is boosting the Catholic presence in France and Belgium.

At the same time, Pope Francis’s native Argentina is home to 31 million Catholics, the same number as Germany and Congo, according to the Pew Research Center.

Latin America as a whole was home to a quarter of the world’s Catholics a century ago, but now, combined with Caribbean nations, hosts 39 percent; sub-Saharan Africa claimed just 1 percent of worldwide Catholics in 1910 and now has 16 percent.

In Asia and the Pacific, Catholics have multiplied nearly tenfold, from 14 million to 131 million over the century.

Father Zulehner, the Austrian sociologist, said some of the statistics need interpreting.

Just as immigrants have boosted the U.S. Catholic Church, the European church also has seen an influx of Catholics from the developing world who have brought elements of their own religious culture and spirituality with them, leading to a more diverse church, Father Zulehner said.

“We’re witnessing pluralization rather than secularization, as members of all faiths and none live and work together,” he said.

“This process of opening up could revive the Christian faith in Europe by dispelling old stereotypes about our thousand-year Christian history,” the priest added.

Wilkins thinks the new pope’s ideals of poverty and simplicity could also instill a new dynamism that could lead Catholics to rethink their priorities. The image of “a pope of austerity for an age of austerity” could well prove attractive, he said.

“This emphasis on putting the poor first could echo right through the church here,” Wilkins said.

“When the church’s credibility has been badly damaged, he offers the kind of priestly authenticity we need. I think Europeans will see the gifts a pope from outside has to offer.”

Father Zulehner agreed.

If the church’s tarnished image could be changed, the Austrian priest said, Europeans searching for God could be brought into a new encounter with the Catholic faith.

“The arrival of a pope from another world, unconnected with the medieval background of European Catholicism, could create a modernizing drive,” he said.

“The demographic changes can’t be reversed, and the Eurocentric era is clearly over. But if this helps European Catholics think as part of the universal church, it’ll be a good sign for the future.”

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