Pope Francis is often portrayed as a radical reformer by the media voices in the developed world, but one of the most radical aspects of Francis’ papacy is the shift of attention away from the concerns of the United States and Europe to Latin America and the rest of the developing world.
Christian leaders in the global South look at the wealthy churches of the North and West. They hear calls for women to be ordained, for gays and lesbians to be “married” or for other radical reforms, and they point out that their concerns are whether their children will have a school to attend, their old people will have health care and whether their church can cope with the demands of unprecedented growth.
Demographics indicate that the Church is already going through a radical upheaval. When we look beyond the affluent countries of the North and West, we see that another Christian revolution, quite different from the one being called for in Western Catholic circles, is even now on the move.
The population center of world Christendom has shifted, and Christians in the developed world have hardly taken notice. In 1900, Africa had just 10 million Christians out of a continental population of 107 million. This made up about 9 percent of the population. Today, the Christian total stands at 46 percent, or 360 million. That percentage will continue to rise because Christian African countries have some of the world’s most dramatic rates of population growth. At the same time, the advanced industrial countries are experiencing a disastrous drop in birth rate.
Within the next 25 years, the number of Christians worldwide is expected to grow to 2.6 billion (making Christianity by far the world’s largest faith). By 2025, 50 percent of the Christian population will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent will be in Asia. Within 50 years only one-fifth of the world’s Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. The typical Christian will be a woman living in a Nigerian village or in a Brazilian shantytown. Already the annual baptism total for the Philippines is higher than the totals for Italy, France, Spain, and Poland combined. The number of Filipino Catholics could grow to 90 million by 2025, and perhaps to 130 million by 2050.
It is interesting that the future belongs to the young, hungry and zealous Christians of the South and East, but what is more interesting is their version of the Catholic faith. The Catholicism of the new majority tends to be theologically orthodox. They believe the old, old story of a God who sends his son to the world to redeem the world from sin. They believe in a supernatural religion, the efficacy of the sacraments, and the power of the Church. They prefer the older, sacramental, visually-based devotions and are far more respectful of the authority of priests and bishops.
Catholics who look back to a pre-Vatican II religion will also be disappointed by the Church of the South and the East, because this Church tends to be charismatic, lively and people-centered. It is a simple, missionary Church—not the lofty, baroque and distant Church of the radical traditionalists.
The radical reform of the Catholic Church in the 21st century will not be a reversal of age-old traditions and doctrines, but a groundswell of change brought about by an overwhelming shift in demographics, the clash of cultures and the rise of a young, and energetic Catholic Church from the developing world.
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