OXFORD, England (CNS) — The election of Pope Francis, an Argentine, to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics confirms what observers have long known: Vast demographic shifts in the Catholic population are reconfiguring the face of the church and shifting the institution’s center from its historic European heartland.
What that means for the church remains unknown, but Europeans who have long viewed themselves as Catholicism’s traditional guardians are likely to find they will have to share that role with others.
“Although the bishop of Rome is its head, the church’s center is no longer in Europe, and the presence of an Argentine pontiff expresses the new situation,” said Jesuit Father Paul Zulehner, retired professor of pastoral theology at the University of Vienna and one of Austria’s leading social scientists.
“With many Catholics already coming here from other parts of the world, it looks as if we’ll be learning from the church’s peripheries in the future, as much as from its center,” the priest told Catholic News Service.
Europeans made up more than half of the 115 cardinals who elected Pope Francis, with 28 from Italy alone. European cardinals were prominent among those mentioned as top papal candidates.
However, the church’s relative strength in Europe has declined sharply as the Catholic population worldwide quadrupled over the past century to nearly 1.2 billion, according to the Vatican’s statistical yearbook for 2013.
Catholics make up about 16 percent of the world’s population, about the same percentage as a century ago. A closer look at where Catholics live illustrates the changing body of the church.
Whereas two-thirds of the world’s Catholics lived in Europe in 1910, fewer than a quarter do today, reported the U.S.-based Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. In Manila, Philippines, there are more baptized Catholics than in traditionally Catholic Netherlands.
France and Germany each boasted twice as many baptized Catholics as Brazil in 1910. Today Brazil, with 126 million Catholics, has more than three times as many as France or Spain; Mexico, with 96 million Catholics, has 2.5 times as many as France.
Overall, Catholics in Europe have declined from 38.5 percent to 23.7 percent of the population since 1970, according to the World Christian Database compiled by the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary of South Hamilton, Mass.
John Wilkins, former editor of The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly, said the demographic shifts have deep implications for Europe at a time when confidence has been eroded by high-profile sex abuse scandals and many Catholics believe deliberate attempts are being made to marginalize Europe’s Christian traditions.
“Europe’s view of itself as the traditional center (of the church) has long been an anomaly, given the church’s steady decline here, so this is bound to change,” Wilkins told CNS.
“The perspectives and priorities will be different in the future, and the questions which preoccupy many Europeans, from contraception to women’s ordination, may well seem less pressing than the universal issues of poverty and social justice which preoccupy the new pope,” Wilkins said.
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 the U.S. Catholic Church has been boosted by immigrants, 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.”