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The Shifting Geography of the Catholic Church

The Demographic Transition and Globalization - Geographic Impacts


Vatican City

Domes of San Carlo al Corso Church and St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City.

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The election of Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio) of Argentina is a signal of the growing significance of Latin America to the Catholic Church. In recent decades the church, much like everything else, has experienced the effects of globalization. Historically, the center of the Catholic world was in Rome, Italy; today that is changing. But, the election of the first pope from outside Europe in 1200 years does not signify trouble for a matured institution. Rather it is the crowning realization of its historic, global trajectory.

The word Catholic comes from the Greek word "katholikos" meaning universal. The name is commonly attributed to Saint Ignatius of Antioch in the second century positioning the church as an institution tied not to the earth, but existing whenever and wherever people, bishops, or Jesus appeared. Today, the administrative seat is still located at the Vatican in Rome, but geography has effectively diffused the Catholic Church to the rest of the world.

Geographical Hearth and Diffusion of Catholicism

Catholicism, at least initially, was Christianity, and according to the New Testament, was a movement started by a young Jew, Jesus, who lived in Nazareth in modern-day Israel. It was in this region, near the Sea of Galilee, that he began his ministry. Upon departing the earthly world, Jesus left the keys to heaven with the apostle Peter, stating, "On this rock I will build my church." Christianity then spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region, encompassing many of the lands in what is today North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeastern Europe.

Initially Christians were persecuted for their beliefs which hindered, but did not stop, their mission to spread their beliefs. Peter moved to Rome near the end of his life to labor on behalf of the young church. It was there that he was eventually martyred, hung upside down on a cross. In 313 the Roman Emperor, Constantine, issued the Edict of Milan granting religious freedom which enabled Christianity to safely expand even further. Constantine, at the end of his life, formally converted to Christianity catalyzing the faith to spread quickly across the whole Roman Empire; the church has been tied to Rome ever since.

In 1054 Catholicism split in what became known as the Great Schism. This separation, mostly along cultural/political lines as opposed to religious ones, created two main churches: the Roman Catholic Church centered in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church centered in Constantinople (this article focuses on the Roman Catholic Church). Through the years the administrative center of the Roman church was mobile, following popes wherever they went, notably to Avignon, France in the mid-14th Century. Near the end of the 14th Century, the popes started residing permanently in what is today Vatican City at Saint Peter's burial site.

A Church in Transition

The administrative seat of Catholicism is in Vatican City, in Rome. At 109 acres in size it is the smallest sovereign nation in existence. Through the course of its history, the church has experienced demographic transitions that have dispersed some of this concentration of power out of Rome. These developments weren't mere whims of the day; in fact they were a result of geography and the demographic transition model explains why.

Stage 1 (Pre-Modern): The church's headquarters was first established in Rome and its environs after the death of Peter. At that time, and throughout most of the last 2,000 years, Europe had the highest population in the Western World (but it was still sparsely populated). Because people lived agrarian lifestyles with labor-dependent, folk-style economies, the crude birth rate (CBR) was high. But due to harsh living conditions, the crude death rate (CDR) was also high, resulting in a small, but stable, natural rate of increase. Catholicism stayed mostly within the European world until the Age of Exploration when missionaries took religion with to new lands. Latin America became Catholic because of Spanish and Portuguese colonization and both Protestants and Catholics settled North America, Africa, and Asia.

Stage 2 (Industrializing): Europe and then North America entered the Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) and people traded folk economies and agrarian lifestyles for cash economies and urban lifestyles. The European death rate decreased because of better medicine and sanitation but the birth rate stayed the same, dramatically increasing the population. More people catalyzed the processes of exploration and colonization as nations sought resources and bolstered trade networks. Booming industries also increased incomes.

Stage 3 (Mature Industrial): Due to higher incomes and better health in Europe and North America, people started living longer and the birth and death rates leveled off (or in some cases switched causing some countries to lose population). Europe and North America, having reached Stage 3 sooner than other regions (and even entering Stage 4-Post Industrial), were the first to experience this trend, causing their natural rates of increase to plummet. Currently the U.S. population increases because of immigration, primarily from Catholic countries in Latin America.

Research shows that advanced societies with high levels of income, such as Europe and North America, often identify as secular. In secular societies, some people claim to be religious/Catholic, fewer attend weekly services, and even fewer become priests. But, because of high levels of income in these more secular societies (due to a head start industrializing), the church still relies on them for financial support. Today approximately 60% of the Catholic Church's income is from the U.S. alone according to The Economist. Other regions, notably Latin America, are still considered developing and in Stage 2. Thus they have growing populations and relatively lower incomes, which equates to more people identifying as religious /Catholic. Thus, according to the Washington Post, almost half the world's Catholic population is now located in Latin America. Two other regions still in Stage 2, Africa and India, also have growing populations and people there are starting to identify as Catholic as well, especially in Africa.

Because research shows low incomes equate to more religious societies (and more men becoming priests) it stands to reason that high incomes equate to secular societies (and fewer men becoming priests). Global statistics show this as well; young men in Africa and India are entering into the priesthood in numbers that outpace their local need, leading many to migrate elsewhere, namely the U.S. According to an article by Dean Hoge of Catholic University, the U.S. has brought in priests for some time and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.


Much of the historical heritage of Catholicism is tied to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Throughout history, world regions entered into demographic transitions that caused the Catholic Church's support to be first consolidated in Europe, before diffusing across the world. Today, the administrative seat is still in Europe, but the population stronghold is in Latin America, most of the finances come from North America, and many the priests are starting to come from Africa and India. Because of geography, the Catholic Church today is more universal than ever.
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